High School 2 College

February 12, 2011

“The Race To Nowhere”: Here’s Why I Agree – and Disagree

Several parents have asked me lately if I’ve seen the film “The Race To Nowhere” and what I think of it.  The short answer is, “No, I haven’t seen it.”  You know me, though.  Why should not having seen the movie prevent me from having an opinion?

So, here it is:  Boy, do I agree with this movement to reform education!

And boy, do I disagree with this movement to reform education!

You can see the trailers and clips from the documentary online, but from those videos and the petitions the website has available,  I can tell you a bit about what the “movement” is saying and where and why I agree and disagree so strongly. (I have a feeling this is going to be more than one blog post.  I have a LOT to say!  And thank you for giving me an audience to say it.  I look forward to hearing your opinions on the comment section below.)

1.  Volume of homework

The documentary discusses the amount of time students —  high school students taking several AP classes in particular but all students in all grades in general — spend doing homework.  I completely agree. From kindergarten on, homework is so voluminous that there is little time in a kid’s life for playing outside or making robots from cardboard boxes or even (gasp) reading comic books.  I completely disagree, however, that the answer is to limit or eliminate homework as their petition urges.  I think teachers have to be smarter about the kind of homework assigned.  I remember my son doing pages of math questions.  Why?  After he did one or two easy ones, one or two medium ones, and one or two hard questions, where was the added value in having him do hours of problems — especially when he already knew the material?

I’m a huge fan of pretests.  If the teacher pretests the students in math, for example, and a few kids score above a 90%, why are they sitting through the lesson and even worse required to do the assignments?  Those students should receive different materials, enriched materials.  For example, when my son was in kindergarten, his wonderful, creative, insightful teacher (bless you, Judy Giannelli!)  realized he already knew how to tell time, so she designed work for him on time zones.  Throughout the year, when she knew my son already knew the material, she challenged him with alternate assignments.  These may have taken even more time than the original homework, but he enjoyed them and learned from them.  That kind of homework is seldom a burden.

Likewise, if you pretest a class on a certain aspect of grammar and some kids score very well, allow them to bring in a book of their own choosing and read in class instead of participating in the lesson and homework.  That would show all the students that reading can be a pleasure and a reward, not merely something to get through so you can do well on the chapter quizzes.

Yes, the volume of homework most kids get is overwhelming and burdensome, but you don’t fix it by eliminating homework. If you eliminate homework, kids are not going to be inventing new instruments or writing novels; kids will be watching TV and playing video games.  You fix it by assigning targeted homework to kids who need reinforcement and create other learning opportunities for those who have already mastered that skill.

2.  Emphasis on AP classes

Students are often encouraged to take as many AP classes as will fit into their schedules.  I have answered countless parents who ask if the colleges prefer an A in a regular class or a B in an AP class that they’d prefer an A in an AP class.  In fact, colleges do weigh the rigor of a student’s course load about as heavily as they weigh the grade itself.  So way back in middle school, parents who believe that their children are headed for a competitive college (notice I didn’t say an Ivy-league college, but one in which many kids with good grades are competing for a very few slots) should encourage their students to try advanced math or advanced science early so they can continue on that track throughout high school.

I completely disagree with the Race To Nowhere’s conclusion that because students are asked to work too hard in AP classes they should refrain from taking several. The necessity of working hard is a poor reason indeed for declining to take a challenging class.  If your student thinks easy, low-homework classes are going to be enough to get into a good school, he or she is mistaken.

But I completely agree that taking too many AP classes can be a poor choice.

First of all, high schools lie about AP classes. They’re not just like college classes.  I repeat:  No AP class is like the equivalent college class.  I’ve spoken to hundreds of kids who have taken AP classes in high school and they’ve all agreed that the high school version isn’t as in-depth as the college course.  High schools tell you that if you take an AP class, you can get college credit for it.  That’s mostly a lie.  More and more colleges are only using AP classes for placement, not for credit.  (That’s because of what I said — an AP class is NOT like a college class!)  Even if they do allow you to use it for credit, colleges have requirements within your major so you have to take a set number of classes there.  It’s rare for someone to graduate in less than four years.  Many kids take 5 years to graduate.  What’s another class or two?  Even if you take fewer classes per semester in college because you’ve taken AP classes in college, your parents will still have to pay the same tuition per semester.

When colleges use a student’s AP classes for placement, students often find themselves in an intermediate level class without having taken the introductory class in that subject in college.  Students often find they’re way behind the kids in the class who have taken the first level of a subject.  Just ask anyone who took AP Macro or Micro Economics in high school and started one level up in college.  Every kid I know who tried that was lost.  Freshman year is difficult socially and academically.  Why start off scrambling to keep up?

Here’s a trend I really dislike:  Some kids take the AP test without taking the class. Some study on their own, and some take expensive private prep classes to take the test.  That’s the worst of all situations.  Colleges like kids to take AP classes not so their students can skip classes in college, but so the college can see how the student does in an advanced class.  If the student doesn’t even take the advanced class, the AP score is nearly worthless to them.

I completely agree that AP classes should be eliminated entirely. Teachers of AP classes need to focus entirely and solely on making sure their students get a good score on the test. For that reason, many high schools are very selective about the number of students who can enroll in an AP class, and the competition to get in can get unnecessarily stressful and contentious.  Because there’s a standardized test at the end of the class, if a teacher finds that the class needs more review on a certain topic, he can’t stop.  If he finds that the class is fascinated by a particular aspect of the topic, he can’t stop.  If the teacher would like to add a project or two or allow kids to discover the answers themselves, he can’t stop.  That’s poor pedagogy.  And because the AP tests are in the beginning of May, most AP classes do nothing useful for the last two months of school.  My sons took plenty of AP classes (and declined to try for others with my approval because they just weren’t very interested in the subject or because the teachers were better in the honors level in our school), and after the first week in May, they played board games, watched movies, and slept.  What a waste.

In place of AP classes, I would encourage schools (if anyone asked for my opinion) to offer honors classes. Honors classes can accept any number of students.  Honors classes are designed by the teacher or by the department within a school and don’t have to teach what the College Board (who writes the AP tests) thinks they should teach.  Teachers of honors classes have the luxury and freedom to teach what they have a passion for.  And if those honors classes weren’t given an extra weighting in calculating GPAs, only students who were interested in the subject or who liked challenging work would take them.  The colleges could still judge whether the student was willing to take a rigorous class load without all the petty number crunching that goes on to jockey for an artificially high GPA that weighted AP courses generate.


I have plenty more to say about resume-building (or resume-stuffing) activities, the value of SAT prep, later start times for schools, and too much schoolwork, but I’m eager to hear what you have to say about these topics before I address more of the issues that “Race to Nowhere” discusses.

Look for part 2 in a week or so!

Wendy Segal

October 20, 2010

What’s Up With Psychology?

Okay, I give up.  What’s up with psychology?

About 15 years ago, nearly every student I had, especially the guys, wanted to go into “business.” When I asked them what business meant or what they liked about business, they shrugged.  As long as they got to carry a briefcase and make lots of money, they were going to major in business in college.

Then it became Elementary Education.  Every girl student and half of the boys wanted to go into elementary education.  “Does that include fifth grade?” I asked.  “Oh, no, I’d only want to teach kindergarten or first grade because those kids are so cute!”  I had a feeling that these students felt fairly sure they knew at least as much as a first grader but weren’t at all sure they knew as much as a fifth grader.  And that was well before the quiz show!

Then it was Sports Management.  Everyone, male and female, wanted to go into Sports Management.  If all my students who wanted to major in sports management actually became sports managers, there would be more sports managers than athletes.

And it’s that way now with psychology. If all the students I have who are interested in majoring in psychology become psychologists, there will be WAY more psychologists than crazy people.  I recently met an old neighborhood friend I hadn’t seen in 30 years.  He told me he had a daughter who was going into her senior year of high school.  I couldn’t resist saying, “What does she want to major in — is it perhaps PSYCHOLOGY?”  Yup, it was.  In the same day, I had a two new students start working with me on SAT tutoring.  One was an A student taking mostly AP and honors classes.  The other was a B student (when she tried hard) with no honors classes.  Guess what BOTH of them wanted to major in?

Do you guys know that to do anything in the field of psychology you need at least a master’s degree — and that’s only to do the most grueling work.  To psychoanalyze anyone, you need a doctorate degree.  Are you ready to go to school for the next eight years?  Can you afford to?

Did you know that you’ll be studying the brain and the eye for at least a year or two before you ever get to find out why your mother treats you like a baby or why your roommate is nuts?  Were you especially good in biology in high school?

And did you know that psychologists don’t particularly like what they do?  Check out this article that lists professions by how satisfied the practitioners of that field actually are.

To pick a major, start off by considering which high school classes you liked.  Now think about which ones you did well in.  Ask your guidance counselor and some adults you trust which careers would make best use of your academic strengths.

Now think about what you like to do with your free time.  Do you prefer to be alone?  Do you have a million best friends?   Do you dread group projects?  Do you feel most comfortable with a small group of old friends or do you like to meet new people?  Do you like to talk more than write?  Would you rather read than play sports (yes, some people do!)?  Do you love to shop?  Do you have notebooks full of magazine articles or hairdos?  Do you want to be in a competitive field or do you only want to work hard enough to provide a roof, a car, and some beer?

Ask people about what they do, what they like about it, how they got their first jobs, how they got the job they’re in now.  Ask your parents, their friends, your relatives, your guidance counselors, your friends’ older brothers and sisters.  Ask me.  Ask people about what careers they thought they’d like when they were in school and why they did or didn’t pursue those careers.  Poke around websites like www.princetonreview.com – they have a little quiz about your interests and what careers might fit and they have descriptions of tons of careers you never even heard of.

Whatever you decide, please rethink majoring in psychology. If you insist that you were born to major in psychology, consider applying “undecided” so you’re not just one of the crowd.

Wendy Segal

November 28, 2009

First Rant: What’s the Matter with Kids Today

Usually, I write carefully worded advice for high school and occasionally middle school or college kids on some topic having to do with succeeding in high school or college.  When I work with kids each week, I am usually the model of patience and optimism.

Inside, I am often seething.

Kids can’t write.  Kids can’t read.  Kids have no idea how to construct a sentence and often aren’t quite sure what a complete sentence consists of.  Kids have an alarmingly truncated vocabulary.  (Yeah, like they would even know what “truncated” means.) When I talk to kids, I modify my speech so I don’t appear threatening by using big words.  And these are kids who have grown up with educated parents in a middle-to-upper-middle-class suburb with a highly-regarded school system who are headed for college and professional careers.

I’ve been tutoring high school kids in my town for about 22 years now. I’ve decided it’s not all the kids’ fault.

Sure, they could read more than the two books assigned for summer reading in their spare time. Of course they could read the whole assigned book rather than read Spark Notes for the chapter summaries. But if the teachers are going to gauge student compliance with the reading assignments by giving quizzes which ask the kids to regurgitate those summaries, the students would be foolish not to give up reading and go to the Spark Notes when time is tight.  I’ve asked nearly every student I’ve had over the past five years or so why their teachers are assigning literature to read, and not one of them has been able to articulate a reason.

So my first rant is about English teachers. Not all English teachers, mind you, deserve censure. Some are good (I like to think I’m pretty good).  Some are GREAT (thank you, Mrs. Joyce Garvin of River Dell Regional High School, the best English teacher in the world, as far as I’m concerned).

But I know an English teacher whose assignments so regularly contained grammar errors that my students had a find-the-error competition going on.  I know an English teacher who was surprised to hear me say that most Elizabethans didn’t speak in iambic pentameter.  I know an English teacher who told a student that “between you and I” was correct.

I’ve never heard of an English teacher who said, “Everyone should clear his desk.”  Or “Did each student bring his assignment pad?”  It only sounds odd because you’re not used to hearing it.

Even worse, most of the students I know can’t imagine reading for pleasure because they’ve never been given anything pleasurable to read.  Reading comes with chapter quizzes, outlines, skits, posters, but not with a purpose.  Books like A Tale of Two Cities and The Good Earth were taken out of the curriculum, I suppose because the teachers weren’t able to help the students understand them.  Instead, they were replaced by books written in the first person.  Even good books written in the first person, like Catcher in the Rye or To Kill A Mockingbird or The Great Gatsby don’t have complex vocabulary or sentence structure because they are trying to use colloquial speech to sound natural and realistic.

Where I’m from, English teachers generally don’t assign plays unless they were written by Shakespeare or Arthur Miller.  English teachers don’t assign novels or short stories written by authors from any country other than America or England. English teachers (with one notable exception in a nearby town) don’t assign essays or speeches. And English teachers never, ever assign anything humorous.

I know kids who’ve gone through high school taking Regents English classes who NEVER had a take-home essay to do. Well, I shouldn’t say never.  Perhaps they had one in four years, but they couldn’t remember it.  That’s shameful.  All the essays are in-class so the students can practice for the Regents exam.

My son got to college and had to take a freshman writing class.  After his first assignment, on which he got a less than stellar grade, he called me to say that he couldn’t imagine why his college writing teacher hadn’t asked them to do a poster or a presentation or a skit since he had become so proficient at them in high school.  Why, he even learned how to write in bubble letters and how to use a glitter pen!

So maybe the problem isn’t with kids after all.

I’m sure I’ll have to duck some harsh criticism about this rant, reminding me how television and computers have made it all but impossible for English teachers to teach reading and writing to kids today, but I can’t hold it in any longer.

What can parents and school districts and English teachers do to improve the situation?  Here’s what I’d love to see:

  • Introduce students to works of literature from different periods of time and from different cultures.  How about a Russian short story or a play from the 1920’s?
  • Offer students reading that’s slightly above their comfort level.  That’s how they’ll grow.  A juicy Agatha Christie is fun and challenging for most students.
  • Try humor.  Have you ever read P.G. Wodehouse or James Thurber and kept a straight face?  How about Dave Barry or Ephraim Kishon?
  • Tell students about why the work is considered worthwhile before you read it, not afterward. Maybe then they’ll start the book with a sense of purpose.
  • Read for pleasure.  Have your kids read for pleasure.  No tests, no papers, no essays, no posters, no bubble letters.  Just pleasure.  Have “reading time” in school just like they do in second grade. Let the kids sit on the floor and eat a snack while they read.
  • Don’t be afraid of a little controversy.  Read and discuss TIME or Newsweek’s back page essays with kids.  Read the letters to the editor of those magazines, too, and figure out why the writer is really writing.
  • Ask kids to share their favorite authors with each other.  Some kids do read because they want to, and other kids should see that.

There.  I feel better now.

Do you have something to rant about when it comes to education and kids?

Wendy Segal

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