The other day Mercedes and I went to see the documentary Waiting for Superman, which discusses some failing schools and follows several families who are trying to get into successful charter schools. It got me thinking about some of the problems with education. As you may know, I am teaching some math classes at East High so I have also been getting some first hand perspective on the issue.
After watching the movie I talked with one of my classes about why they think that some kids don't graduate from high school. The students did not blame teachers or schools. They said the reason was that some kids are lazy, unmotivated, or have some kind of challenge that prevents them from graduating. Most of them were thinking of particular friends or relatives, so there is probably some truth to it. Still, reformers tend to believe that schools are failing children, not the other way around.
I don't have all the answers right now (I know, surprise) but one issue that I have been thinking about is how schools track student progress. Currently, teachers are responsible for coming up with a grading system, choosing homework, writing tests, and keeping track of student progress. If they think a student has done well enough based on the criteria the set they give the student a passing grade. If the student doesn't pass, a counselor will recommend some method of making up credit. One thing the students in my class mentioned was summer make up packets. They said that they can get credit towards graduation for doing packets, but that the work is very elementary and doesn't really prepare them for the next level. Again, many of them know this from personal experience.
Under our current system, credit is used as a proxy for knowledge to determine whether a student has sufficient knowledge to progress and eventually get a diploma. Teachers are primarily responsible for deciding what the standards are for giving credit, but if a student doesn't meet this standard they can do remedial work that doesn't really give them the core knowledge that they would get if they had done well in class.
So, is there a better way to measure knowledge than using credit? The first thing that comes to mind is standardized tests. Should graduation be based on testing rather than class credit? Should teachers be responsible for setting the bar, or should the measures be standardized? What kind of remediation should there be if a student falls behind and doesn't pass the test?