Wednesday, May 30, 2012

“Making Middle Grades Work” Doesn’t Work

Brace yourself.  This is a long one.

I wanted, actually, to say in my title that Making Middle Grades Work is “stupid,” but I thought that went a bit too far.  And I’m sure you can Google it right now and find countless reports of how great MMGW is, but I’m here to tell you that they are wrong.   Are there elements of MMGW that are great?  Sure.  But as a whole, it’s a problematic model and I’m writing this to talk about why.

In my last post, I mentioned my frustrations with the tendency for blanket policies within the education world.  While this is true for nearly everything (“all-call” emails reminding an entire faculty about appropriate seasonal dress, hoping to reach one particular offender, come to mind as one egregious example – and yes, this has happened more than once at more than one school where I taught, believe it or not), it is particularly true when someone in a position of authority happens upon a technique a teacher has used successfully.

Call out the troops!  Mrs. Dayplanner teaches quadratics this way!  We must all now use her method! Mr. Havenport is doing this really great tool for discipline!  We must now all use his technique!

It’s awful, and it defeats the purpose.  And there is no mention of the fact that neither of those methods might have worked with any of Mrs. Dayplanner's previous classes, and Mr. Havenport uses that technique with only half of his classes, and it's usually not his first choice. 

If there is anything true in education (well, there’s a lot true in education, but this in particular), it’s that we are constantly reminded to teach the individual students. We all have individual people in our rooms, who all come from different home experiences, with different stories and different environments making them into exactly who they are as they sit in our classrooms.  Differentiate, differentiate, differentiate, is the battle cry.  And then we’re given blanket mandates that we must teach these lessons in these ways, marching in lock-step, disregarding the specific and particular needs of the individual people in our rooms.

Making Middle Grades Work is a giant example of this.

If you’re not familiar with MMGW, its essential tenet is that you can not, and will not, allow students to fail.  They can not, and will not, be allowed to make choices to fail.  They can’t “not turn in” assignments; they can’t turn in poorly-done assignments.  Or rather, they can, and the teacher will give repeated opportunities to fix whatever is wrong and to complete whatever is missing.  Envision a teacher telling a student who’s choosing to give up, “I won’t let you make this choice,” and pushing them to succeed.  This is a great teacher, right?  Now, turn the tables just a bit.  The teacher no longer has to pull that student aside to say that or offer that assistance; it’s mandated.  There is no choice to be made. 

Trouble is, students have a right to make a choice.  More importantly, we have a duty as teachers to let them exercise that right.

You read that right.  We have a duty as teachers to let our students choose to fail.

Now I know there are people who are thinking, with so many kids already in so much trouble, can she really be sitting here telling me it’s a teacher’s duty to let these kids choose to be unsuccessful?

Yes.  I can, and I am.

Because here’s the problem:  Any good teacher already does these things for his or her students.  Any good teacher already notices who is giving up and who needs another shot, and who needs an exception made to allow them to re-do poor assignments or turn in missing ones.  Any good teacher already uses his or her discretion and professional judgment based on infinitely many factors to do all of these things, and more, for his or her students.  I can’t tell you how many times I did it, or how many times I saw it done.  And it’s not just for the students on the brink of failure:  it’s also for students who need a nudge from a B+ to an A-, or a C to a C+, or anything else.   The key difference is that students used to have to engage with that teacher or otherwise earn the opportunity. 

Now, don’t get me wrong.  There are certainly bad teachers in the world.  But let’s talk about the majority of teachers, who are good, who entered teaching for all the right reasons, and who, day in and day out, bust their tails to do the best they can.  And yes, that’s most teachers. 

Well, those good teachers already do what MMGW mandates.  They do it on their own scales, in ways that fit their classrooms, their schools, their students, their courses, their rubrics, and so forth.  Moreover, there are mechanisms in place to work around the teachers who are not already doing this.  For students slipping by, there are guidance counselors and administrators who theoretically pull grade reports; there are interventionists, and if it’s the student who wants an opportunity but is up against an unreasonable teacher, there are certainly appeals to the administration and higher.   So in that sense, MMGW is not only unnecessary, but it’s also redundant.  A good teacher already does it; a bad teacher can be overridden.

But we have MMGW, and so what happens?  Students are not dumb; they understand how to game this system within a few seconds of hearing it.  “I can turn it in however late I want?  And do it over ‘til I pass?”  “You can’t fail me?” 

And so, what used to be a teacher working individually with students to help them succeed is now a blanket policy robbed of its effectiveness.  (“You will help your students succeed” is not what I mean.  Of course that should be policy.)  The teacher isn’t working with any student, or making any special accommodation to help the student along to success.   There is no discretion to make different accommodations for different students based on their unique circumstances.  (And as an aside, I am adamantly opposed to the “if I do it for you, I have to do it for everyone” nonsense.  No, you don’t.  You have to do it for everyone with this exact set of circumstances in this exact situation.  What is wrong with exercising discretion these days, and making distinctions?  Again, a phenomenon of blanket-policy-thinking failing us.)  The student feels no small victories along the way, no reward for an unexpected opportunity to re-do the assignment.  There is no personal sense of satisfaction or accomplishment in bringing up a grade – because MMGW removes the ability for it to feel in any way special.   Now it’s mundane.  Didn’t get a C?  Do over.  And do over.  And do over again. 

Think of being this struggling student.  Wouldn’t it mean more to you if your teacher noticed you, sought you ought, and made a gesture to help you?  Isn’t it necessarily less meaningful when the teacher does all of those same things as a matter of course and has no choice but to do it?

That sounds terrible.  I sound as though I advocate telling teachers they don’t have to care.  That’s not the case at all.  What I am trying to say is that by making all of these accommodations entitlements, they lose their effectiveness because students don’t feel any ownership of them, or any sense of having earned them. 

There is a lesson to be learned in failing, just as there is a lesson to be learned in losing a game.  It’s a matter of learning how it feels and deciding if you want to be in that position again, and then figuring out what to do to avoid it.  These are important life lessons and important life skills, and MMGW takes away the opportunity for students to authentically learn them.  There are consequences for one’s actions (or inactions), and sometimes the consequences include failing an assignment or a class, or losing a game.  And where better to suffer these consequences than a middle school, sheltered from the real world and long before high school and all that “matters” academically for post-high-school plans?

So yes, it is our duty as teachers to let students learn these lessons, in order to grow as people and to understand what it means to take responsibility for oneself. By disallowing an opportunity to fail, we fail our students – and society -- in a greater, more damaging way:  we fail to teach the next generation that there are consequences to one’s actions, and how to be responsible for one’s choices.

Years ago, when I first started teaching, I had a colleague who wanted to make every assignment he gave “extra credit.”  He was frustrated by the phenomenon wherein students will do more of, and a better job at, what they perceive to be a reward compared to what they perceive to be the expectation.  I can’t say it enough:  MMGW takes this away; there are no opportunities for teachers to say, “I know you can do better.  I’m giving you an opportunity to do better.  Let’s fix this.”  There is no extra credit.  And thus, there is no reward.  Worse, there is no opportunity for teachers to take a moment to know a student and interact on a personal level: “ I want you to succeed, and we are going to get you through this class because you are going to redo this assignment.”  Nope. It’s mandated.  Sure, a teacher can still nurture and nudge, but the student had the same ability to turn in the assignment repeatedly without that.  It’s not special, and that personal touch, and the significance of it, is forever lost.  Go a step further, and there’s not even motivation to do the work to begin with.  The good kids will do it because “it’s what you do,” but there is a very quick slippery slope until even the best kids will take advantage of the “no deadline, no bad grades” policy. 

MMGW is, quite simply, a mess.

If you give a kid $5 every time they come to your window, and all they have to do is come to the window to get it, eventually they’ll stop coming.  It’s not special.  It’s too easy.  It is, in effect, rendered meaningless to get that $5.  And yet if one day you’re not at the window to give out the $5, you’ve robbed the kid of what has become an entitlement. 

MMGW robs our kids of the opportunities to feel special.  To feel as though someone has taken special note of them to give them an opportunity to succeed.  It robs our teachers of autonomy.  It takes the very students we’re most worried about, who perhaps don’t have support at home or a sense of self-worth, students who already think no one cares or thinks they’re special, and takes away one last opportunity for teachers to help provide it.  Don’t do well?  A good teacher would likely let you try again.  And again.  And again.  But more than likely, these extra chances would be under pre-estsablished conditions, and with the teacher’s guidance, and the knowledge that you were working as a team.  MMGW makes it a mandate, and conveys the message that there’s nothing special about you or anyone else.

It’s not how the world works.  Okay, who cares how the world works, right?  We’re here to teach our kids, but also to coddle when they need coddling. 

Good.  Well, MMGW took away the opportunity to coddle.

It teaches our kids that there’s no need to have a work ethic, because you can do it over and over again whenever you finally feel like doing it to begin with.

I can’t stand MMGW, because it takes what good teachers already do, strips the acts of feeling personal or special, strips the teacher of the authority to fix consequences, and steals from our students the opportunity to learn about responsibility and life.

Are there modified versions of MMGW?  Sure there are.  Are there books out there that tout it as the next greatest thing?  Well of course there are, silly.  It “worked” somewhere, so it must now be done everywhere! 

I don’t believe in it.  I believe in giving autonomy to our teachers.

Because once again, what works for one won’t always work for the many, and by forcing it on the many, we are forcing some classrooms to go from effective to ineffective – not because they were struggling before, but because someone decided we must all, once again, march in lockstep.

Here’s an idea for a blanket policy:  get rid of MMGW.  That just might work.

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