Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Strong Kids v. Weak Kids

Me first:

Some people agree:




But, tons of folks disagreed:






Can someone explain what's going on here?

Can anyone explain how there's a disagreement this wide across the profession? Why does it seem straightforward to me that teaching students of low ability is harder, more challenging than teaching students of high ability? Why does it seem straightforward to others that this is a pernicious belief that ought to be challenged?

21 comments:

  1. The naysayers are not so much saying that low ability kids are easier as they are saying that teaching advanced math is not simply a matter of presenting the lesson and shazam, they get it. I don't disagree with that and I know you don't, either.

    But it is much,much harder to teach low ability kids. First, the classroom management issues are huge. Second, no teacher can shake the cognitive dissonance that arises when teaching even something as relatively basic as algebra to kids who, after five years of instruction, still don't know their integer orfraction operations. It's not just that they are harder to teach, but the feeling that you are wasting your time, and the world has gone mad in expecting weak kids to become strong.

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  2. I think it all has to do with your perception of "challenging"? If you're talking about the material that you have to actually teach, and what it takes to get students to understand, own and master more difficult material, then you could say that teaching higher level classes is indeed harder. I teach Pre-AP Pre-Cal and AP Calculus AB at my school. I'm the only teacher of both subjects, so it is challenging. I don't have anyone to bounce ideas off of or to collaborate with (hence why I went looking for the mathtwitterblogosphere), so being assigned these classes poses a challenge in and of itself. But at the end of the day, I have students who WANT to be in my class. They're CHOOSING to take an elective math course, so there's some built in motivation and desire that you don't find in lower level required math courses. Every few years I get thrown the odd section of "regular" Algebra 2 and I always find it much more challenging. Not because the material is challenging or because I lack resources, but because more often than not, the class is full of students who have decided for one reason or another that they're just not good at math, and no matter how hard I try, how many cool activities I present, they're going to do the bare minimum to get by. They don't usually care about the "why's" they just want to know what to do so they can do it and be done. For me, this is way more challenging. To have groups of students who simply do not care. And you can say that if I was a good teacher, I could make them care. I could inspire them to want to learn and succeed in math. But that's just not true. And I question whether or not you have truly had one of these lower level classes if you think otherwise. Don't get me wrong - I manage to reach my fair share, but not ALL of them, and nowhere near the percentage you do in an upper level class.

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  3. I think the idea here is whether it is easier to make progress with "lower" students than it is with "higher" students. For example, is it easier to bring a "lower" student up two grade levels compared to the same type of gain with a "higher" student. I am definitely thinking about the value-added systems that are often used to measure adequate yearly progress for schools. High-achieving schools usually are anti-value-added, as it is more difficult for them to make gains (or at least that is the presumption). Vice versa for low-achieving schools.

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    1. You must be a middle or elementary school teacher? They are the only ones I know who talk about grade level.

      Although we never say so, this is primarily a discussion about high school students.

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    2. I am a HS teacher, and we absolutely talk "grade levels," as in my students enter HS with a reading level of grade 3, math grade 5. I am evaluated, as are all the teachers in our building, on how quickly we get them up to their current enrollment grade level. We many of us, when we say we work with "lower" students, we really mean low. I also teach, in the same building, students who are at grade 12+.

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  4. In my experience both groups have their challenges, but I have personally found working with a more disruptive group (regardless of ability) to be more emotionally challenging than working with a compliant group.

    I prepare as much as possible for both groups, but I often find that subpar lessons are more successful (and therefore I get less feedback on whether or not a lesson is subpar) with a stronger academic group. The edge between a successful lesson and an unsuccessful one is finer with a weaker group.

    In terms of why there is so much disagreement about this issue, it probably comes down to two factors - a lack of coherence between all of us on what some language here means, and different expectations of what "low performing" means.

    I worked with a group of students that regularly threw things at me and cursed at me on a daily basis. They were by far my most challenging group of students ever. At the end of the year, out of two groups of 17 students, only 6 students were still enrolled in school. Of those 6 students, 3 of them passed the NYC Regent's exams, and the other 3 were close to passing and to this day, I wish I could have done more for them given what I know now.

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  5. Some folks are better equipped (emotionally & otherwise) to handle disruptive, detached, apathetic students than others. If you chose this profession based on your desire to help & save kids at the margins, then the lower performing group would be your preference. If you chose this profession because you love math, then higher performing kids would be your preference.

    It hurts me a lot when I try sometimes so hard to push the boulder up the hill and it's just too heavy.

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  6. Yeah, I don't understand the controversy here at all.

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  7. I take issue with the title. Categorizing kids as strong or weak is counter to the growth mindset we talk so much about. That aside, I find my honors and fundamentals classes challenging in different ways. Honors kids can be grade focused, be used to getting things quickly without studying and in one class they're all friends and my loudest class! Fundamentals kids have a huge variety of issues, but they're up front with me. I love teaching high and low level classes for different reasons. The class average may be a lot higher in the honors class, but that's not how I classify "easy."

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    1. Refusing to categorize kids as strong or weak is counter to the mindset we call "reality-based."

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    2. What is this logic, reason, commonsense and level-headed reality you are attempting inject??

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  8. I think we're confusing the words "easy" and "meaningful" here. I recently switched from teaching more high-achieving kids to students who struggle in math because I felt like I wasn't growing as much professionally and like I had gotten into a rut. I've really enjoyed my work with the under-performing students and feel invigorated and pushed in a good way, and I don't know that I would classify those classes as harder because at the end of the day, I feel fulfilled working with them in a way that I didn't with accelerated groups. But I have worked in the past with students that I didn't feel I was adequately reaching and that felt very hard. So I think what is easy may mean what feels like some level of success and fulfillment, which teachers experience differently with different student populations.

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  9. I agree with a lot of what others have stated in their comments, especially David's. And the very reason that I agree with all these "different" viewpoints is because I do NOT think there is a disagreement among us. Each situation is unique. Our viewing lenses are so personal and nuanced by numerous factors.

    I've always taught both. I think the distinction between "easy" and "difficult" [classes to teach] is more defined in high school than in middle school because of the AP courses.

    I'm old and mean, so I honestly don't have issues of classroom misbehavior (like when I first started out). There is something so much sweeter about a struggling kid understanding something for the first time than a high kid acing another test. And I very much want to practice something that I say to the kids all the time, "If it's easy, it's not worth doing." But this might all become a big lie as the years keep piling on me. :)

    @Tina: I think I know what you mean about the title of post. But I don't think Michael would use these terms in front of kids. He's conversing among us teachers and we understand what he means. Even so, I'd rather see a teacher call a kid "weak" but works his ass off to help this kid succeed than to see a teacher call it by some other term but does too little to make a dent. I guess I know exactly what I mean when I refer to a group of kids as "weak." I know that they lack basic math skills and are at least 2 years behind their peers. Nothing more, nothing less. These same kids also know that they can crush me in basketball and tennis and in any sport that involves anything round and bouncy. I'm weak at this, you're weak at that, let's help each other.

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    1. Regarding "weak":

      I've become more comfortable using the terms "smart", "weak", and "strong" as I've realized just how much of one's mathematical ability is in one's control.

      I'm a fairly scrawny guy. When it comes to lifting heavy objects, yeah, I'm weak. That's a fair assessment, and it's not a value statement. I could change, if I worked hard.

      I mean, I would never call a kid strong or weak, but that's just me being polite. The kids know. I know. It's no secret.

      Would the title be better if I said "Kids with Weak skills vs. Kids with Strong Skills?" Is the issue that it sounds like I'm saying the kids are weak instead of saying that they have weak skills?

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    2. You know you've started a good debate when its keeping me up at night. At this moment I'm comfortable with this statement:

      There's a problem if veteran teachers only teach upper level classes.

      The younger kids tend to have more behavioral issues and the lower level classes are filled with kids who have varied issues stemming from all sorts of underlying problems. Veteran teachers are better equipped to handle both of those. Both schools I've worked at have freshman houses, filled with almost entirely new teachers because "ew, freshman!" And that's a problem.

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  10. I have both honors and regular classes and I'm the newbie. The one who'd taught before has regular classes only. From my experience they are both difficult in different ways. I'd say my honors classes are harder though.

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  11. Been writing this in my head all evening, so here goes. Again, as others have stated, I think it's all a matter of perspective.

    For instance, statistics is the easier course to teach, right? Compared to calculus? I mean, it's mostly simple arithmetic, a bunch of definitions, and pretty relevant to what's going on in the world what with polls and such. Not like dealing with derivatives and rates of change and curve sketching, you know, the really HARD material. Naturally, if we all had the choice, we'd only teach statistics, since it's so easy.

    That's straightforward, right? How could you possibly disagree?

    Well, maybe because you're not that great at remembering definitions, or understanding percentiles, or differentiating the hypergeometric distribution from the binomial. I can recite pi to over 15 decimal places, doesn't mean I know how to balance my chequebook. Whether the material is easy or difficult is a matter of opinion. I think there's a similar argument to be made here.

    Now, I think part of what makes those with "weak skills" harder (relatively speaking) is that there's a gap there. For me, math is the most awesome thing ever, and for them, math is a required course they have to take. They find ALL of it difficult. (And what do you mean you want to do something fun today? Math is fun!) I think Marshall kind of hit the nail on the head earlier in that some people are better at bridging that gap than others. The emotional drain can be huge. Which isn't to say it's not rewarding, but it may not be for everyone. (Which may raise the question of is it for ANYONE?)

    Another factor is the disciplinary issue, which let's face it, they don't really prepare us for in Teacher's College. That's the one I have the most trouble handling. And yes, I do teach mostly the 'honours' level students (including a statistics course) - though not only seniors, not sure how that argument got muddled in here - because I think that's what I'm best at. I also thought I'd be a better teacher for high school than a primary school, so, y'know, that's where I'm at.

    Which isn't to say I'm not extending a little beyond my "strong/weak" comfort zone from time to time, but I don't see a point in stretching myself to the point where I snap. No one wins then.

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    1. A teacher of both Stats and Calculus here. I find Stats much more difficult to teach because of who I am. I rely when thinking and when teaching on drawing connections to previous ideas. In Calculus I feel I can always back up until I meet the student at their comfort point, then help them move forward again. With Statistics I have no such avenue to explore.

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  12. Three assumptions I disagree with.

    1. Smarter kids equals easier. Define smart however you like.
    2. Teachers are opting for smarter classes because they are easier.
    3. Teachers opting for easier classes is a bad thing for students.

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  13. I teach both honors classes and general classes. Both are rewarding in their own ways.

    I enjoy pushing the honors kids out of their comfort zones and actually making them think for the first time in a while.

    I enjoy pulling the general kids into learning stuff that they don't think they're capable of.

    While the honors classes may be more fun for me because I'm able to find a chance to play with more math, the general classes help keep me grounded.

    I feel like I work equally hard with both.

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  14. Never underestimate the struggle of dealing with the helicopter parenting that tends to come with "Honors classes". The student can be compliant in terms of their civil behavior but their academic behavior is lacking. In the school where I teach, teachers are punished for pushing honors kids out of their comfort zones. The way it works is that the students complain about their grades, which we teachers have practically no control, the parents literally gang up and swarm the administrators and the administrators then pressure the teachers to make it easier. If a teacher fails to comply and does not have tenure they are likely to not be rehired. If a teacher fails to comply and has tenure they will be sent to the dogpound, namely given a schedule of teaching a "Resource Physics" class. This wouldn't be so bad if there were reasonable expectations placed on what the students were able to learn, but instead teachers are expected to generate the same results with the same assessments as the general education classes with kids who have Down Syndrome. This is not an exaggeration, it is designed to be completely punitive and it is criminal to all parties involved.

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