Rising Expectations are Destroying our Students

The Effect of Rising Expectations on our Elementary School Students

This is an open letter to the Troy school district, Troy MI, regarding the advanced curriculum at our elementary schools, which is driven (in part) by the standardized tests in our state known as the MEAPs.  (MEAP is an acronym for Michigan Educational Assessment Program.)  Although standardized testing may be necessary at some level and in certain contexts, we need to realize that it is incompatible with the diverse nature of our children's minds.  They are allowed to be specialists in the workplace, yet they are required to be expert generalists, good at everything, from K through 12.  Failure in even one area is frowned upon, and failure in a suite of subjects is obviously a "learning disability", held up for all to see by the merciless testing methodology that is gaining popularity in our country.  Please read A Mind at a Time, by Mel Levine.  Some say we can't afford to teach/treat our children as individuals, tailoring academic programs to their specific needs; but in reality, we can't afford not to.


Dear Faculty and Staff:

When I was young, a double axel, in Olympic figure skating, was a difficult move, sure to impress the judges.  But competition in this beautiful, subjective sport was fierce, and soon everyone was doing double axels.  To win the gold you needed to do something better, something nobody else could do.  Thus, in 1978, the triple axel was born.  The judges were in awe, and so was the crowd.  Anyone who could pull off a triple axel was destined for bronze, silver or gold - probably gold.

Now fast forward 20 years.  Everyone can do a triple axel, or they don't even make the cut; and some are even doing quadruple axels, and other near-impossible jump combinations.  The same thing has happened in gymnastics, and many other Olympic sports.  Competition inevitably provides a ratchet that extracts more and more from its competitors.

Unfortunately competition, the mantra of the American capitalist philosophy, is applied everywhere, like a magic bullet.  Elementary students and elementary schools are routinely pitted against each other, sometimes with fiscal repercussions.  Do well on the MEAPs and your school receives financial rewards and public accolades - perform poorly, and you'd better start organizing fund-raisers, even though you need the money most of all.  All this looks good from the distant halls of Lansing or Washington, as it "encourages" schools to do better, but it is a disaster in our classrooms and in our homes.  Competition ratchets up expectations, and our children must perform, and perform, and perform.  As parents, we deal with these rising expectations every day.

Let me introduce you to my daughter Jane.  According to standardized tests, Jane is one of the brightest students in her school.  Her advanced placement teacher says she is the best reader in her class, reading at least two grades above level.  I love listening to her read, and I'm almost jealous.  She reads better than I do, today, period!  So why did she come home in tears, saying she wasn't a good reader?  Why was she sobbing about an E on a reading comprehension test?  And how was the rest of the class fairing under this aggressive regimen?

"Show me the assignment." I asked.  My distraught daughter handed me a reading comprehension quiz, a story followed by 8 questions.  I read the story and looked at the questions.  They didn't ask for the color of the protagonist's hair, they were asking about intent and meaning.  "Why do you think this character said this?"  and "What was the best explanation for that?"  One of the questions was ambiguous; I couldn't even answer it!

Actually, I've seen similar material before - when I took the SAT.  My daughter, age 9, is being asked to do high school work, and the amazing thing is, she could almost do it.  But almost isn't good enough, and her fragile self esteem was crushed like a beautiful flower under foot.

I wish this were an isolated incident; it is not.  Jane brings home mathematics that is easily 7th or 8th grade level, and she can barely keep up.  Turning to social studies, her class is exploring "separation of powers", "checks and balances", and "core democratic values".  These are easily 9th grade topics, well beyond Jane's comprehension.  She memorizes the facts and regurgitates them back onto her test paper, often garnering an A, but she doesn't grasp the concepts.  How can she understand "the common good", or "federal vs. state legislation?"  Give me a break!  When I was her age we were making maps of South America.  What's wrong with that?

Outside of the classroom, the steady increase in homework continues to erode Jane's childhood.  When I was in the fourth grade we had virtually no homework at all.  We were assigned a few projects throughout the year, such as making maps etc, which we did with the help of our parents.  We did not have hours of homework every night.  Despite this "tragic deficiency" we grew up to be responsible adults with good jobs and stable families.  We run the most powerful nation on Earth, with the strongest economy, and to top it off, most of us look back on a childhood filled with fun and play.  We came home from school, grabbed a quick snack, and ran outside.  My daughter can't imagine a world like that.  She comes in the door and I have to ask how much homework she has before I send her down the street to play with her friend.  I hate it.  She deserves better.  She deserves to have fun, just like I did.

I don't know if these unrealistic academic demands are specific to our elementary school, or if they apply to our school district, or if they spread across the entire state.  I do know that our school won the "Golden Apple" award for superior scores on the MEAPs.  Our principal takes great pride in this accomplishment, but I cannot.  My daughter is forced to perform triple axels to make the school look good.  This feeds numerous egos, and (perhaps) keeps the school flushed with cash, but it is harming my daughter, and I want it stopped.  I don't know how an average student could possibly keep up!

Our fourth graders should be given fourth grade work, with just a smattering of homework here and there.  Jane does not need to develop "academic responsibility", and she does not need to hone her "work ethic".  She should not receive a failing grade because an assignment was turned in late.  That is a disproportionate burden for a pre-teen.  This isn't Walden II - stop trying to make miniature adults out of our kids.  They cannot comprehend high school material, nor can they develop adult responsibilities at age 9.  Jane needs to be a child, and play, and have fun!  That formula worked for our generation; it will work for hers.

Teachers are also railing against the MEAPS, albeit quietly, in dark corners of the lounge.  They must teach to the MEAPs, and there is no room for variation.  Let me illustrate with one example.

In a world of bigotry and prejudice, I suggested a "Culture Day" at our school.  I saw this implemented in a private school down the street and it was wonderful.  Kids dress in the costumes of their ancestors and learn about each others' cultures and traditions.  What better way to promote tolerance in a heterogeneous nation such as ours?

"Surely we can spare a couple days for this." I pleaded.  "Surely this is every bit as important as reading and writing."  But it was simply impossible.  Each day diverted is a day that cannot be spent preparing for the MEAPs.  The teachers were sympathetic, but their hands were tied.  They cannot stray from their curriculum, even if they disagree with it.

"New recruits use to start by teaching kindergarten."  one teacher told me in confidence.  "Not any more.  Now we make them teach fifth grade, because nobody wants to teach to the MEAPs."  What a sorry statement this is.

Driven in part by the MEAPs, ratcheting expectations are building an impossible, inflexible curriculum that stifles creativity in our teachers, and tramples the self esteem of our youngsters, as they are consistently given work that is far too difficult.  At the same time, the escalating homework, in difficulty and quantity, makes it impossible to "just be a kid".  I am, quite frankly, ready to boycott the entire system.  My kids may be mysteriously ill on the day of the MEAPs, and I'm putting a half hour cap on homework.  What ever isn't done in a half hour ain't gonna get done.  "It's a beautiful day outside, go out and play!"

I encourage teachers to keep course work at a level that is age appropriate, with only a modest amount of homework.  And I hope principals can resist the artificial prestige that is offered by high scores on standardized tests.  If your students are happy at school, and if they are learning something, that is the measure of success.

I realize that our government still needs to measure scholastic aptitude objectively, and I am not suggesting we abandon all standardized tests.  After all, there are some schools, a small minority, that are truly substandard.  But competition for high test scores will not solve anything.

I would like to see a series of age appropriate standardized tests that are graded on a straight scale.  Don't ask a fourth grader to do sixth grade work, on the MEAPs or in the classroom, and don't decide arbitrarily that the top 10% of schools are fantastic and the bottom 10% are horrible.  We long for a country where all schools, and all students, are performing well, and our standardized tests should allow for that possibility.

When the results of the tests are in, don't do anything with the schools that are performing satisfactorally.  Don't hand them financial or material rewards (they're already doing well).  Don't even release their scores.  This will prevent the competition at the top and the triple axels in the classroom.  Conversely, if a school is introuble we need to offer assistance, in the form of guidance, funding, and in very rare cases, a hostile take over.  But bear in mind, most of this "assistance" should be directed at the local community, where the family, as an institution, is disfunctional, or perhaps nonexistent.  A school, no matter how great, cannot teach a child who is not ready to learn.  We need to stop blaming the schools for society's ills.  Schools are rarely the problem, and making them compete for high schores on standardized tests will not solve anything; it only creates new problems where there were none before.

Sincerely,

Karl Dahlke


I wrote the above letter when my kids were in elementary school; now they are in high school, and the `rising expectations' will prevent my son (learning disabled and emotionally impaired) from graduating, while the fate of my daughter (with a touch of dyslexia) remains uncertain.  When I was young you needed 19 credits to graduate; today you need 22.5.  There is no room for "study hall", and no coming home early in your senior year because you only need 3 classes to graduate.  Also no room to fail or repeat a class; the schedule is fully packed.  When I was young you needed 1 year of math; today you need 4!  I'm a math major, and I think this is ridiculous.  When I was young there was plenty of room for electives, and electives are the "fun" classes that make high school tolerable.  Today there are so many core requirements that the district has sent letters to parents asking if they want a seventh hour in the day, or summer classes, just so our kids can take music, or theater, or shop, or any of the things we use to enjoy.  We are turning high school into four years of drudgery.  Ask any teen ager today if they enjoy high school; just ask, and see what they say.

I am eternally grateful to our principal, who can see through this nonsense.  He explain the "certificate of graduation" to me, as opposed to a diploma.  Did you know anything about this program?  I didn't.  It is, I think, a local reaction to rules that have been handed down to us from the district and the state.  The certificate allows a disabled student to realize some level of success in high school, and then in life.  There are no core requirements, but the student came for four years, and did his best, and did indeed learn in a broad range of subjects.  He walks across the stage like everyone else, and he can get into several community colleges.  So we aren't slamming the door on these kids for life.  They may yet be able to get a job doing something besides flipping burgers.  If rising expectations are crushing your LD child, write letters, and make your voice heard; but also ask your school about a certificate of graduation.

Having dealt with this issue for ten years, let me make a suggestion - hopefully a constructive suggestion.  I would like to establish standard "levels" of high school graduation, beginning with the certificate of completion, as described above.  Then there is the diploma, which would have the core requirements of the 70's.  Beyond this, an advanced student can earn a diploma-NS, which emphasizes the natural sciences.  Now we are back up to 22.5 credits, with four years of math, and four years of science, and two years of English and social studies, and room for a few electives like choir and German, which I very much enjoyed so many decades ago.  This is the flavor of diploma I would have earned, if my system was in place 30 years ago.  Similarly, there is a diploma-LA, which emphasizes language arts.  This requires four years of English, three years of social studies, three years of a foreign language, one year of math, and two years of science.  Your particular diploma, combined with GPA and SAT, will tell a college or potential employer a lot about your high school career.  And perhaps some of these ideas can trickle down to middle and elementary school.  Let's put every student on the right track, so that anyone who is willing to work hard is indeed "not left behind".

Read an account of my son, and the many challenges we have faced as a family.  This blog is still being written - a work in progress.

to the author.

How has Chicago Math affected my daughters?