Thursday, April 10

Failing Forward: Clark County Schools

In 1996, I accepted $50,000 in stock in lieu of cash to help the startup of an amusement park invention. I still have the original stock certificate. It’s worth nothing, except as a reminder that failures are seldom free. I paid for it.

It’s a valuable lesson, but one our school district does not teach.

Last week, I mentioned a Las Vegas Review-Journal story how Clark County School District (which includes Las Vegas) students were failing Algebra I, Geometry, and Algebra II — approximately 88 percent of all students — according to tests administered in January.

This week, the Clark County School District sent a letter to parents, assuring them that these test results will not be a “deciding factor in awarding or withholding a diploma or promoting or retaining individual students in math classes.” In other words, there is no need for concern.

No need for concern. Students will be moving forward regardless.

The letter goes on to stress that the exams were not mandated by the state or federal government. So, these tests will not be used to determine school status under the No Child Left Behind Act and affect federal school funding.

On the contrary, the school sees these tests as an opportunity to convene a committee of experts — as opposed to the experts supposedly entrusted to teach students — to evaluate “the concerns that have been raised about the exams.”

Parents are also advised to visit their Web site to become acquainted with curriculum overviews. It includes bulleted curriculum items like this:

• Problem Solving: Students will develop their ability to solve problems by engaging in developmentally appropriate opportunities where there is a need to use various approaches to investigate and understand mathematical concepts, (sic)

In reviewing the document, I found less comfort in the ability of our school district, not more. The above sentence, ending with a comma as opposed to a period, not withstanding. In fact, the curriculum overview seems to provide an indication why Nevada scored among the worst in the eighth-grade NAEP writing exam, slightly above New Mexico and Mississippi.

No need for concern. Students will be moving forward regardless.

Two years ago, my cousin arranged a meeting with administrators after his stepson brought home a report card with all Ds and Fs. He was concerned.

“No need for concern. He will be moving forward regardless,” he was told.

“You don’t understand. I want you to hold him back.”

“Oh no, we can’t do that. It would be bad for his self-esteem and we really don’t have room anyway.”

No need for concern. Students will be moving forward regardless.

The message is clear, but it’s not the right message. Parents do need to be concerned for the very reason the school district tells them not to be.

The measure of academic success in a school district is not federal funding, number of expert committees, the percentage of correct sentences in a poorly written curriculum overview, how many students are failed forward, or how many receive diplomas. On the contrary, the only measure is whether these students will master certain subjects or not, which will no doubt determine how well they perform as they move forward.

So while there is a perception that “trying” is good enough to move ahead, the reality is that “trying” is not good enough. The truth is that “trying and failing but moving forward anyway” is delusional and detrimental because it deprives students of learning from their mistakes and sets them up for more failures.

Worse, if teachers are continually required to present material suitable for the lowest performing students, it eventually results in entire classrooms receiving a deficient education. That means the paper with the words “diploma” has as much value as the stock I accepted in 1996, except without even providing students the benefit of learning from any of their failures along the way.

Ergo, if there are some faulty math skills, it’s not just students. The school district is operating under a formula that suggests it continually needs more funding while continually producing less educated students, which demonstrates a need for more funding. At the same time, it continually claims to be making progress, with the only proof being the growing number of students who are failed forward.

Right. It doesn’t add up.



Your PR Guy on 4/10/08, 1:36 PM said...

About 7 years ago, I worked for a company that graded standardized tests. What's interesting is that if the rubric we were using was not producing the passing rates a school district or state wanted, they'd change the rubric mid-stream. In mid-stream, can you imagine that!!

When the averages of students passing the test rose to acceptable standards, we finished the batch with the new rubric. Sounds like Navada could have avoided this public embarrassment by having CTB McGraw-Hill do the grading, at least then they could fuzzy the math as much as they wanted to -- I'm being glib, of course.

That's a tragic story and the kids are getting the shaft and don't know it yet.

Unknown on 4/10/08, 6:44 PM said...

I agree, it is tragic. You might find these figures interesting:

Today, China is the largest producer of engineering graduates in the world, with some 600,000 coming out of its colleges and universities in 2005. India follows with over 450,000 engineering graduates in 2005, of which almost 30 per cent were computer engineers. Both India and China have over 2,000 colleges and Universities. Compared to India and China, the United States produces only 70,000 engineering graduates every year. All of Western Europe produces just over 100,000.

What else can I say?

Rich on 4/11/08, 1:29 PM said...

@Rodger, You're very right. I too have compiled research only to have the client say they intended to skew it to meet the 'political' sensitivities of the group they were working for. I cannot imagine having an such an ego that I would want someone to doctor outcomes, but you know, it happens.

It is tragic because the kids won't know it until they they graduate or move to a different school system. We augment our kids' education, but many parents do not. (I don't recall having as much as involvement back when schools took responsibility for educating kids.

@Remi I think about statistics like these a lot. I'm often told its borderline unpatriotic. It's very much the opposite. The value of education seems to be diminished.


Anonymous said...

When I was in school, everyone knew the LA school system was producing students who could not read, but the old story of holding them back would "harm" them was in operation. When I was in college I tutored history but most of the time it was English that was the problem...students with A's who did not know what a sentence or a paragraph was.

It appears the problem continues. The local community college has more English classes that teach pre-highschool level material (and before) than that teach college level. And that is just one subject. Not all schools are producing students who learn nothing, but enough.

We hear about the dumming down of America and this is a prime example. And its not only the kids who will pay for it, but everyone when we as a nation fail to hold our own in a very competative world.

Rich on 4/14/08, 2:27 PM said...


There is a lot of truth to your statement. In the quest to be equal is the risk to squander excellence.


Unknown on 4/16/08, 5:42 PM said...

This is a shame, I call it the Shame of America on my own blog. Our school system, while not as low as the last three on the list, might as well be.

Our teachers do not give out bad grades and allow them to stand. They allow the student to bring in their homework late, later and later still. This is so that the class average does not fall below a certain percentage.

Then, the benchmark test that determines the funding from the federal government is taught to the students all year before they take it. That test is being administered this week, in fact. But the kids have been learning HOW to take the test from the first day of school last fall.

This is a shame because our children are not learning much of anything if they are not also homeschooled. And that makes a kid wish they hadn't bothered because they find themselves in school and not out playing. But that will be the only way they can actually graduate and go to a good college.

Anonymous said...

In my neighborhood, I see the kids playing from the time they get home from school until 10 p.m. (sometimes later even on school nights). And it's pretty much non-stop on weekends. Don't teachers assign homework, required reading, etc. these days?

Is it any wonder why Bill Gates is pushing for changes in our immigration/guest worker policies? How can our country stay competitive in this global economy without an educated citizenry?

Thank you, Rich, for bringing this ignorant policy to light.

Rich on 4/21/08, 4:02 PM said...

@Jaz, I augment my son's public education and he has a great teacher this year (last year, he drew the short straw). The most important lesson is learning a love for learning, I think.

@Bonnie, Amazing. Yes, I see some of that in our neighborhood too, but I do know some get homework. My son gets enough homework that he is full up through 5 p.m. with reading time slotted for later in the evening.

There is certainly a need to place education in the forefront of our values again. It is one of the few things that no one can take from you once you have it. That and character, I Imagine.



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