Educational reality: You harvest what you plant

Posted on Mar 05 2014

I’m writing in response to the Jan. 24, 2014, article: “90 pct. of incoming NMC students at remedial level.” The focus of the mentioned NMC assessments is the math and English skills of incoming students, and there seems to be some level of surprise concerning student shortcomings. There really is no mystery as to the reasons for these low scores and any honest, reasonably intelligent, qualified teacher who has been teaching for PSS for any time at all knows why the scores are so low. Supplying realistic, on-grade-level instruction in elementary and junior high schools has never been the priority of the majority of those schools. I must state, however, that in that grouping of schools, San Vicente Elementary School stands (pretty much) alone as far as high quality, on-grade-level instruction. In the other elementary and junior high schools it is quite another story. Their priorities are: don’t make waves, don’t upset parents and students, and move students through the schools by any means possible. If teachers give on-grade-level instruction, supply a reasonable amount of assistance to struggling students, and some students still do not perform well enough to earn passing grades, it causes many problems for the involved teachers. It is a very, very common practice for teachers to be harassed and/or threatened if they assign failing grades to students who earn them, especially if parents or guardians complain to principals. Administrators frequently make the lives of those teachers miserable by (for example) threatening to give poor teacher evaluations and even threatening teachers with contract “non-renewal.” Just as a matter of survival and so as to not have a hostile work environment, many teachers teach below grade level or just plain give students unearned grades. Documentation clearly shows the poor student outcomes due to this practice. For example, you will see language arts students passing their classes with average or higher grades that the SAT 10 (standardized test) shows are in the 20 or 30 percentile in language skills (as compared to mainland American students) and have reading scores that show that they are multiple grade levels behind. Parents and students alike know that if a student does earn a failing grade, all parents have to do is complain to the principal and pressure will be applied on the teacher to change the grade. But more commonly, since the teachers already know that giving failing grades to students who earn them will cause them (the teachers) so many problems, teachers just automatically give unearned passing grades. That is why 20 to 30 percent (or higher) of incoming high school freshmen read at elementary school level and the great majority of the rest are at low junior high level (I’m focusing on English language skills here, but this type of thing happens in math also; ask any high school math teacher). Why would students pay attention in class, do their schoolwork, or even regularly come to class when they can get passing grades for doing little or nothing! So what causes this situation?

There has been a push to make sure all PSS teachers are highly qualified (HQT), and that has been helpful and must continue; however, the push to mandate that all school administrators be HQ has fallen flat. Too many elementary and junior high administrators have not passed the required Praxis tests (and followed through with other HQ related tasks); thus, they are not qualified, and some who have passed the test (and taken the other needed steps to be HQ) are just plain not enlightened enough and/or ethical enough to foster in their schools legitimate, on-grade-level instruction. Those administrators are more interested in pleasing parents and students than in legitimate education. An example of this can be seen at Hopwood. I have been off island for a while, but the last I heard the long time principal there had not passed the appropriate Praxis (and followed the other steps) to be considered highly qualified for his position; thus, he is not qualified to hold that position. He is also known for sending students to MHS who can’t read and who haven’t even passed the needed classes to move to high school. It would be interesting to see which other school administrators are not HQ. I request that this esteemed newspaper acquire and print a list of both HQ and non-HQ PSS school administrators (principals and vice principals). How can we expect high quality students if we do not have high quality administrators? Also, in the future no one should be placed in a school administrator position until they have taken all the steps to show they are highly qualified. Yes, all school administrators need to be HQ, but shouldn’t all PSS central office top administrators also be highly qualified? Of course they should. As I understand it, there are also Praxis tests for central administrators. A reliable source has told me that the commissioner of education has exempted herself and other top administrators from taking the tests. Again, how can we expect positive student outcomes and HQ school administrators if the top PSS administrators will not take the appropriate steps to show that they are highly qualified? What do we do about this? There are answers:

First, mandate all PSS central office and school administrators to take the appropriate Praxis tests (and follow the other steps) to show they are HQ and hire only new administrators who have already shown they are HQ. Next, administer yearly, anonymous schoolwide surveys to ensure that teachers are not being bullied into giving unearned grades or into teaching below-grade-level material. Finally, as is done in the U.S. mainland, at the start of each school year supply all teachers with a document showing the grades they gave each student the previous year, student standardized test scores pertaining to instruction in the classes that year, and include student reading levels taken at the end of that year. There should be a fair correlation between these indicators and the grades given. If there isn’t, a comment by PSS central should accompany the document stating that there is a problem with student grades. After warnings and/or interventions, if a teacher persists with the practice of giving grades that are not reflected in student skills/knowledge, the teacher should be dismissed from their position (non-renewed and no rehired). I will use the example of freshman language arts to show this type of situation: the yearly grade (or term grade if not a yearlong class) average for a student in a language arts class is 3.0 (“B” average), the standardized test score covering language is at the 32 percentile (meaning 68 percent of American students taking the evaluation performed better), and the reading level of the student is fifth grade. The “B” grade is obviously not legitimate. How could a student in a freshman language arts class, with very low language skills, and a fifth grade reading level honestly earn that grade? Short answer: he or she could not. The class is either not on grade level or the grade was just given as a gift and not earned. Unfortunately, in CNMI schools this type of thing happens all too often.

This is not a complicated issue. Teachers simply have to teach on-grade-level material (as all PSS standards and benchmarks demand), give appropriate evaluations, and assign the grades students honestly earn. As for school administrators, other than requesting explanations as to why students do poorly in (or fail) classes, they need to stay out of the grading process and not harass teachers. Finally, parents must motivate their children to get to class, do their work, and act in a non-disruptive fashion. Parents do have the right to ask teachers why their children are doing poorly; however, they should never cause teachers problems to try to get students unearned grades. I will make this as clear and as simple as I can: Giving or pushing teachers to give students unearned grades harms the students! This practice hurts the very students everyone wants to help and diminishes their futures. Stop harming students!

Timothy Wilson
San Jose, Saipan

Jun Dayao Dayao
This post is published under the Contributing Author. He/she does not normally work for Saipan Tribune but contributes for a specific topic or series.

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