Reflecting on Another Year of ‘Education’

Commencement exercises are over and the ceremonial Mylar balloons are as deflated as the NFL’s footballs. Perhaps it is a safe time to re-examine the adage, "Education remains the greatest single roadblock to graduation."

Is education really a roadblock, a speed bump, or maybe just a sparse array of rumble buttons?

Bay Area journalists Eloy Oakley and Pamela Burdman recently reported that "too many community college students are getting a raw deal" because "the vast majority of students" are being directed "to remedial math courses" not actual college credit math classes.

The assumption propping up their "raw deal" assertion is that California high schools are actually providing a quality education and it is being systematically dismissed by community colleges.As a high school math teacher, 20-plus years of math teaching experience tells me that Oakley and Burdman are using a false hypothesis as the first plank in the scaffolding of their specious "raw deal" argument.

The fact that 80 percent of all community college students are directed, via multiple measure assessments, "to remedial math courses" is compelling evidence that California is blithely overestimating the value of a high school math education.

At a California State University, a four-year state school, 60 percent of entering students must take remedial math before enrolling in a bona fide college math course. Standardized test scores correlate very poorly with math grades appearing on high school transcripts.

Few people realize that a score of "basic" on a standardized test is a failing grade and a good indication that — without remediation — a student has hit the ceiling in his or her math education.Few teachers have the temerity to assign grades that accurately reflect a student’s demonstrated math ability or potential in subsequent math courses.

Why risk involuntary relocation, probation (PAR) or a defined benefit retirement plan on no-win confrontations with enabling parents, entitled students and obsequious, knee-jerking administrators — who serve at the pleasure of the community — when a grade of "C" will neutralize parents, their progeny and administrators eager to retreat to a polite meetings at district headquarters where snacks are provided?

We, as a district, brag that our graduation rates continue to climb; but remember, students don’t fail to graduate because high school is too easy, they fail to graduate because districts hold high standards and possibly demand a modicum of rigor.

As schools transition from rigorous schools to quality adolescent day care facilities, the graduation rate will inevitably approach 100 percent. Oakley and Burdman claim community colleges are wrongfully dismissive of a grade of "C" in a high school math course, and wrongfully demand "C" math students take remedial math courses before embarking on designated college math courses.

At my school, Encinal High School, an administrator denied "C" students access to the next high school math course. She claimed that students with "C’s in their last math classes … will run … if the class gets difficult."

While community colleges might argue that a "C" in a prerequisite math course is not high enough for a college math course, this high school administrator is openly acknowledging that a "C" is not high enough for even sequential high school math course.

Rarely do you get such candor from public school administrators. The "’C’ is not good enough" ruse, served not only to deprive "C" students of the opportunity to take a statistics course, it denied all students at Encinal the opportunity to take Statistics.

After deleting the "C" students from the roster, statistics was dropped from next year’s schedule ostensibly for lack of interest.

Many of my most motivated students were not even given the opportunity to express interest or to enroll in statistics; the course was deleted from their list of options. Is this paternalism of the state protecting Encinal students from "difficult" courses, administrative overreach or actively promoting under-achievement?

To its credit, Alameda High will have two or three sections of statistics. Nearly every college student will take some form of statistics; the majority may find it their greatest academic challenge; wouldn’t a little college prep on the subject of statistics be useful?

Having taught statistics for 18 years, the demographics of statistics classes are typically reflective of the entire school’s demographics — so it should be. Without playing the race card, denying "C" students an opportunity to take statistics because "if it gets difficult they will run" could be — in the minds of objective observers — an example of what President George W. Bush called the "soft bigotry of lower expectations."

Two, possibly three, sections of statistics at Alameda High, but none at Encinal. Does this arrogance run contrary to the spirit, or the letter of Brown versus Board of Education? What does "if it gets difficult they will run" actually signify? Students physically "run" out of the class room?

Truthfully, "run" is a euphemism; an administrative dodge or subterfuge; students don’t have to "run" to escape a rigorous or "difficult" math class; they need only ask their counselor to switch them to a non-academic, credit earning activity: like being a teacher’s assistant.

Attrition rates in rigorous math courses are allowed to ascend to nearly 20 percent. Course drop rules prove to be a fuzzy suggested guide line. Educrats or administrators rarely earn math degrees or math credentials; most are political animals.

Administrators I encounter tacitly assure me that they were not math savants; some have confided they barely passed Algebra II, that they cheated, or were forced to repeat math courses.

Should administrators — with liberal arts degrees and dodgy math educations — be able to alter the academic trajectories of motivated students who want to get a leg up on college math, particularly statistics? Should administrators — with math anxieties — have the authority to cancel an AP course without consulting the head of the AP department?

Should administrators — who put power groping and administrative convenience ahead of expressed student interests — have the authority to cancel an AP math course with consulting the head of the math department? One administrator actually suggested that I could alleviate the copying of math assignments by not assigning math homework. Learn math without doing math? Incredible!

All students within the Alameda district are entitled to Equal Educational Opportunities and not have overweening administrators dismiss their math aspirations by saying "if it gets difficult, they will run." This is but one of the processes by which schools seem to deliberately creep toward mediocrity.

Last year Encinal swapped out its Teacher of the Year, with 20 years of experience, for a first year teacher — a teacher who ultimately dropped out of public education after a two-year stint. The swapped-out teacher typically put 60 or more students over the Avanced Placement (AP) hurdle. He was therefore saving West-End families more than $120,000 a year in college tuition costs. Due to political machinations, he is now sidelined entirely from AP teaching.

Meaningful education for non-college bound students evaporated when Wood Shop and Auto Shop disappeared because the district would not purchase liability insurance; $30,000 in rent for a district headquarters but not a cent for insurance. Spin doctors are back on the payroll while shop teachers are off the payroll.

Were a public school education as effective in math, or college preparation, as Oakley and Burdman want to believe, would teacher unions work overtime to close off the escape routes — buying influence in state capitals to scotch voucher plans and working at the local level to curtail charter schools?

You do the math — if you can.

Jeffrey R Smith is a mathematics teacher at Encinal High School, among other things.