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The Great Dumbdown

written Saturday, 2/11/2006


In talking with other teachers, I’ve heard numerous references to the “dumbing down” of classes, and of America’s youth in general. The term typically speaks of the behaviors and shortcomings that many of us have come to tolerate from our students. Even though they’ve been passed on to high school, we know their skills are actually several grade levels behind. We know many of them work long hours at jobs after school to help support their families, and education has become a lesser priority. We know they often live in unstable households, and don’t enjoy the luxury of a good environment for studying once they leave school. We know that most of our students have no plans to pursue higher education, and statistically speaking, only a small percentage will ever obtain a college degree. This is an environment where a decades-old “tradition” has students extending their summer vacations until the day after Labor Day, even though school officially starts several weeks earlier. I’ve read that absenteeism in New Orleans is almost 30% during the start of the school year, often with parents’ tacit approval.

So, when I lower the academic expectations in my classroom to levels far below what I ever experienced in high school, am I “dumbing down” my classes? Or, am I adjusting the level appropriately for children who aren’t yet equipped to achieve my idealistic vision for them? This past week had me asking that question over and over again.

I’ve been at West Jefferson for seven full weeks now, not counting the winter vacation. Especially in Algebra 2, the students have complained that I’m going too fast. I was determined not to make the same mistakes I made at Bonnabel, where I felt I had let student apathy drag my course down to a snail’s pace. After all, the students also complain about the unbearable burden of three homework assignments in a typical week and my refusal to grant them “free Fridays.” I already spend up to a week teaching lessons for which the textbook recommends two days. The state of Louisiana lays out a “Comprehensive Curriculum” of topics that I need to teach in a school year, and I’m far off pace. However, almost two months of my “high expectations” have failed to yield satisfactory results. I feel no guilt for the F grades earned by students who put their heads down to sleep from the moment they sit down in my class, but I’m troubled by the ones whose sincere efforts never pay off. It’s depressing that they claim to have never seen material that I know their previous math teacher covered several months ago. Not even brief reviews are able to jog their memories. For that matter, they frequently claim to have never seen material that I covered only a week or two earlier. The retention level is ridiculous! The pace of the course may already be too slow from my perspective, but what’s the point in moving forward at the current rate if most students get absolutely nothing out of it? Regardless of where the blame lies, it feels like a waste of time to steadily march ahead.


With some concern for the handful of students who are ready to move on, I reluctantly spent the past week in both courses practicing the same topics that I had taught the prior week. In Geometry, we did several “hands on” activities involving ratios and proportions. In Algebra 2, we spent most of the time on classwork, simplifying and solving equations with radicals. Ideally, these assignments would have been given as homework. Given that I’m still unable to issue textbooks for the students to take home, I decided that I need to allow even more time for them to work in class so that they can ask questions when they get stuck. Besides, the reality is that half the students don’t even attempt homework.

The results for this week seemed to offer some encouragement. I actually saw some more “sleepers” making an effort for the first time. Is it possible that these students have only now realized that this stuff is within their grasp? Of course I still had to remind some to stay on task, but overall, most students were putting forth reasonable effort. More and more were asking for help, and trying to understand the material. As some of the faster students finished their classwork early, I asked them to help me assist their fellow students who were still struggling. This felt like progress.

At this pace, there’s no way I’ll get through the Comprehensive Curriculum this year. Not even close. However, being able to say that I completed the state’s checklist would feel like a shallow accomplishment if the students retain nothing that they’ve been taught. One of the two other Algebra 2 teachers is now a couple chapters ahead of me in the book, although I suspect that many of his students feel left in the dust. A couple of his students came to get help from me at lunchtime, claiming they can’t keep up in his class (Of course, I’m sure many of my students still make the same claim about me). The other Algebra 2 teacher, though, is moving at approximately the same pace as I am, so I’m not too concerned about being singled out by the administration for going too slowly.

Prior to this week’s Algebra 2 quiz, I worked out a problem on the chalkboard and left it up during testing. This was a compromise for kids who have become too accustomed to open-book and open-notes tests. Naturally scores were higher than usual. Even though there were still too many Fs, this week’s grades didn’t depress me like they normally do.


So, am I participating in the “dumbing down” of America’s youth? Am I succumbing to drastically lowered expectations? As long as I continue to see sincere efforts to “suck it up and get better,” I feel satisfied that this is a necessary starting point for improvement. I’m starting to see some reasons to be optimistic.

When the new academic quarter started a couple weeks ago, three students were transferred from other teachers’ classes to mine. Two boys were switched at the request of their former teachers, who thought they might do better with a male teacher. One of them, in my Geometry class, is originally from Orleans Parish and had been increasingly disruptive and disrespectful in recent weeks. The other boy, in my Algebra 2 class, had shown absolutely no motivation at all to work. The one transferred girl asked to be reassigned to a different Geometry class since she’s a Senior, and worried that poor grades from her previous teacher would keep her from graduating. Her former teacher, the Math Department head, claims the girl was lazy and absent too often. As unenthusiastic as I was to receive problem students from other teachers in my first year, I’m finding that all three of them are showing early positive signs. The Orleans boy is respectful to me and did very well on last week’s quiz. The other boy was dormant for the first week with me, but has begun doing his work and asking questions in class. The girl has been present almost every day, and is turning out to be one of my better students. What a boost of confidence this has given me! Maybe I’m giving them some renewed hope and confidence, just as they are doing for me.

There’s another girl in one of my Algebra 2 periods who used to sleep every day in class, and complain that “I need to get up out this class.” Over the last few weeks I’ve been daring her to either start believing in her abilities and rise to the challenge, or go ask her counselor to have her moved to a different class. She finally has started trying to learn, but after a half year of lackluster effort, she’s finding success slow to come. Now she rolls her eyes whenever I approach her before class, and asks why I keep picking on her. Outwardly, she acts as if she resents my pestering. Despite her increased effort during the last two weeks, she failed this week’s quiz as usual. At the bottom of her scratch paper, though, she wrote “I tried Mr. White.” If I can convince her to keep trying, pretty soon I know she’ll catch on. That’s why I pester her, as well as many other students. Hopefully they know that too.

I guess my higher expectations are something towards which the students need to work over the course of a school year – not something that I can reasonably demand from the start. With less than four months to go, we’ll see how far we get. Maybe by the end, I can even start un-dumbing my classes a little bit.

Geometry: This week I had students use rulers to measure objects in pictures, and set up ratios/proportions to figure out the sizes of the objects in real life. Algebra 2: We continued practicing rational exponents and radicals.