Wednesday, December 13, 2017

Baby Steps on Alternate Diplomas

I'm pretty happy to see that students with disabilities will have an alternate route to getting a high school diploma. It seems to me that passing the English Regents, for example, requires the skill of passing the English Regents. I haven't taught it for many years, and the test has changed, but what it measures is not a whole lot different.

I was talking with an English teacher who told me she was upset. Evidently, another teacher was telling students they could write a paragraph and support only one idea. She said that wasn't enough if the students wanted to pass the English Regents. I'll tell you, though, a lot of writers support one idea in a paragraph. Some spend an entire article supporting one idea. In fact, I've read entire books that support an idea.

I taught students how to pass this exam back when it was all writing. I'd always been frustrated teaching writing in high school because everything I'd seen appeared to treat a five-paragraph composition as though it were the Holy Grail. Introduction, reason one, two and three, and conclusion. Voila! You can write.

The only problem is I don't know anyone who writes like that. Unless you're aiming for a career doing English homework, I'm not sure where that knowledge will get you. Back when I was teaching the English Regents, I determined the lowest common denominator for ELLs to pass was a four paragraph composition. I drilled these poor kids to death. I read every word they wrote, and made them rewrite once, twice, three times, whatever it took.

The Chinese teacher told me a story. She said two of her students were discussing the test. "I don't know what I'm gonna do," one said. "I have to pass the English Regents or I won't graduate."

"Have you taken Goldstein's class?" the other asked.

"No, why, is it good?"

"No, it's terrible. You will hate every minute of it. But you'll pass the Regents."

That's kind of a backhanded compliment. It was my job to make kids pass the test. I worked out a formula and followed it. I didn't enjoy it at all. When I'm allowed to teach students English rather than test prep, I love it. When students learn English better, it helps them forever. Making them take that awful course I taught was ultimately not productive. I mean, sure they passed the Regents. And sure they got admitted to college. But if they had to take a writing test, they'd almost certainly have been bounced to remedial.

This was a shame because I'd have been able to teach them the same stuff the remedial courses offered. I'm pretty sure of that because I actually taught some of those remedial courses in Queens College (back when they offered them) and Nassau Community College. But hey, they couldn't graduate if they couldn't pass the test. So I showed them how to pass the test.

My students were almost all literate in their first languages. We just didn't give them enough time. I've seen geniuses from the DOE come into our school, ostensibly to meet us, and simply demand we get more ELLs to pass the English Regents Exam. Here's the thing--this exam is inappropriate for my students. They ought not to have to take it at all.

I'm not expert on disabilities, but I do know that some people are better in different areas. They tell us we must differentiate because all students are different. In the same breath they tell us all students must pass all these tests. That's ridiculous. We don't need 100% college admission. There are plenty of happy plumbers and electricians. There are a whole lot of people doing jobs like those that pay a whole lot better than jobs like ours.

Why aren't we teaching kids how to fix cars? Why aren't we teaching them how to build houses? Why are practical skills worth less than college education? And why are we insisting that everyone has to pass every test? People need to find their own paths. The State doesn't need to push everyone the same way.

This alternate for some students is a good step, but it's only one. We can do better by our kids. A whole lot more of them can succeed if we let them go where they want and need to.
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