As excited as you might have been when you read the headline for this post, I hate to break it to you, but I don't have an easy solution either. (And in case it's not obvious, I don't think those other quick-fixes are good answers either.) However, I would like to address one thing that I rarely hear people talk about. I don't necessarily have the answer to the problem either, but I think that if we start getting real about this particular issue, then we'll actually be on the road to a solution. We need to start talking about social promotion.
Oftentimes you'll hear complaints about how students make it through high school and then wind up having to take remedial English classes at the college level, or they have to write things for their employer who is dumbfounded as to how they could even be considered literate. I've heard that some of the teachers at the local junior college, and even some teachers in other departments at my very school, have accused us English teachers of not teaching our students how to write.
I've been teaching freshmen and seniors for the past several years now, and I can tell you that in both cases, you will find students who manage to move on even though their writing is hardly what you'd call grade-level appropriate. What's worse, I can tell you that some freshmen move on who can barely string together two sentences. So what's wrong with me then? How come I'm not teaching them to write?
Here's the thing - most of my students come to me and their writing is exactly where I'd expect it to be. Some freshmen even write better than most of the seniors. Am I supposed to go over identifying the noun in "The dog sits on the floor." with my classes? Sure, that would help a small percentage of them, but is that what we want to do? Dumb things down for everybody? Go back to third grade grammar when most of them are ready for an introduction to Shakespeare?
When it comes to seniors, I see many of them make mistakes that I know that the other teachers have taught them about. In some cases, I have seniors that I've had as freshmen, and I've had to write on their papers "I told you freshman year not to do this!"
Well then why the heck am I moving these kids on then? If they can't write, then I should fail them, shouldn't I? And if a senior can't demonstrate the ability to construct a decent essay, then I have no business passing them and letting them get their diplomas, right?
I can tell you right now, that if I had my way, I would fail kids based solely on the fact that their writing stinks. Do you want to know what would happen if I actually tried that? I'd get grief from parents and even administration. After all, if the kids are at least turning everything in, even though it's lousy work, then the attitude is that the kid should pass. How do I know I'd get grief? Because I get grief from parents when the kids fail because they hardly even show up and don't turn any of the work. And we've been told in roundabout ways that we should lower our standards so kids can pass. In other words, if I tried running my class this way, I could count on absolutely NO support, and I'd wind up tilting at windmills.
Crud, I had a student who missed at least 2/3 of class time and the majority of the work. He misses some of class due to a legitimate illness, but his parents didn't want to hear of it when I suggested that actually being in class was a crucial ingredient to passing my class. Once they brought in the lawyer, I basically just rolled over, as it was clear to them that what was important was that their son get at least a C and not whether he actually learned anything from my class. Could I have fought it? Sure. But to what end? I've seen other teachers try to do the right thing, only to have some high-up muckity muck change the student's grade themselves.
Why? Because we want our graduation rates to be high! What nobody wants to acknowledge is that keeping standards high and keeping the graduation rate high are two ideas that will fall into conflict with one another. What we need to focus on is making sure that those who do graduate do so because they've demonstrated that they've actually earned it. In other words, give the teachers some control. If some kid can't solve for x, then he shouldn't pass Algebra no matter how nice he was or how much homework he turned in. If a kid can't write an essay, then he doesn't get to pass English. If he doesn't know the difference between the Revolutionary War and the Civil War, then he doesn't pass history. And who will determine this? A standardized test? No. The people who get paid to educate should be the judges.
So obviously the problem is these middle school teachers! They haven't taught those kids well enough to be ready for my class! No, I'm not going to blame them. Because after all, what about all those kids who CAN write really well? Where the heck did they learn it? Basically they face the same problem that we do - but even worse. From what I've heard from a friend who's taught middle school for more than a decade now, a student has to perform horrifically before the school will even consider holding him back.
Again, I'm not too sure where we can go from here, but maybe we need to give these kids some real incentive to do well and actually learn something. I imagine that the quality of my seniors' papers would rise quite drastically if they knew that passing meant not just turning something in, but turning in something GOOD.