I really don’t mean to turn the whole blog over to all algebra, all the time, but Richard Cohen’s idiocy has proved to be a good jumping-off point for a lot of interesting discussions (and a surprising number of comments, links, and TrackBacks…). The other ScienceBlogs comment on the whole thing that I’d like to address comes from Janet Stemwedel at Adventures in Ethics and Science, who asks about the student whose plight started this whole thing:
Were there just so many kids to get through, and so little in the way of support (on the extra-help/shifting to a different course/evaluating for learning disabilities axis) that even the most conscientious teacher couldn’t have done more than recognize that Gabriela was in trouble and be sad for her?
‘Cause, people? We can’t keep calling these places “schools” if there’s not some sort of mechanism for helping the kids who are going under. Even if Gabriela was a willing accomplice in her own failure the first time through algebra — hardly ever coming to class or doing homework — there should have been a mechanism for dealing with that.
It’s a tough question, and something that everybody in the education business has to struggle with sooner or later. Whenever I teach a class in which some of the students are struggling (which is pretty much whenever I teach a class, given my discipline), I wind up wrestling with the question of how much effort I should go to to keep them from going under. It’s always a tough call, because ultimately, it’s not in my control.
(More after the cut.)
In the end, the student has to want to succeed. You can stage some sort of intervention, if you like (“Gabriela, we’re worried about your inability to solve for x…”), and you can make extra help available, but you can’t force anyone to use the extra help, or to do the work needed to succeed. You don’t have any leverage (“If you don’t stop failing, we’ll, um… fail you.”), and attempts to force a student to do extra work or attend extra sessions are likely to backfire– they’ll end up resenting the whole process.
(I’m assuming here that the real problem isn’t an undiagnosed learning disability, and that there isn’t another class available that satisfies the requirements for graduation. Failure to test for disabilities would be inexcusable, and if there were a different class available, I find it hard to believe that it wouldn’t've been recommended after the third or fourth try at passing algebra.)
In the specific case of science and math classes, we’re not helped by the fact that students are constantly being told (explicitly or implicitly) that math and science are really hard, and only total nerds do well in them. National columnists writing articles extolling the virtues of ignorance are an extreme example, but they’re not alone. Students who struggle in math and science classes have a built-in excuse: “Math is hard.” Failure isn’t really their fault, it’s just that the subject matter is alien and difficult.
The problem isn’t just that people like Richard Cohen are telling students “You’ll never need that…” The deeper problem is that Richard Cohen can cheerfully say in a column that he can’t even deal with percentages, and not be laughed right the hell out of his job.
Ultimately, the responsibility for passing the class lies with the students themselves. I can and do try to make an effort to keep on top of the students who are struggling in my classes, but I very rarely end up failing people because they honestly can’t understand the material (there are a few who get very bad grades, but if they’ve been doing the work and handing things in, they usually have enough points to get them a C-)– the students who fail my classes do so because they don’t do the work, even when I email them to say “You need to hand in the homework,” and don’t come to see me, even when I write “Please come see me if you have questions” on their papers, and don’t seek out the student tutors, even when I mention to them after class that it might be a good idea to talk to the student tutors. There’s only so much I can do for them– I can’t drag them into my office and force them to do the homework.
Now, the situations aren’t identical– I’m teaching at a fairly elite private college, not a public high school in Los Angeles. But the differences are of degree, not kind– their students are somewhat less adult than mine, and they might have slightly more power to compel attendance, if not work. In the end, though, it’s always up to the students– if they don’t want to put in the work, they won’t put in the work, and there’s very little we can do to force them.
(If you’re really good, you can convince them that they want to do the work, but there aren’t many real-world teachers with that kind of charisma…)