Chapter 39: Elder Statesmen
Experience is the best teacher. Nowhere is this more true than in 9th grade clasrooms within the Bloomberg reform schools where the sagacious overage 9th grader has more impact on the learning that takes place than does the teacher. However, like most aspects of the current education reform movement, it is true only in an Alice in Wonderland way.
On age 9th grade students begin the year at the age of 14 and end it at 15. Although there is now a move to create larger small schools, schools that include grades 6 through 8 as well as the conventional high school grades of 9 through 12, typically an on age 9th grader is new to his / her high school. Their first months in the 9th grade are their first high school experience.
I use the term "on age" because the typical 9th grade student in these schools is not necessarily 14 at the beginning of the year. I have discussed a 9th grade class in these pages in which 62% of the 38 students on the roster were at least one year over age, some as many as 4 years over age, for 9th grade. Those were the numbers by the end of the school year 2011-12.
The 9th grade class discussed in Chapters 35 and 36 is now undergoing a similar evolution. At the time of the observation on Oct. 16, 2012, 12 out of 31 students were overage according to the observation report linked to that chapter. Since that date 2 students have been added to the roster, both overage. The numbers are now 14 out of 33 overage student - 42.4%. 7 of those 14 students are already 2 years behind. Another 2 are 3 years behind and one is 4 years behind. The good news is that 4 of the 14 overage kids are only a single year behind!
If this year progresses as last year did, more such students will be funneled into these 9th grade classes. The addition of 4 more such students to this class will bring the numbers to about 50% overage. That means that 50% of the students in the class will have failed or been held back at some point before reaching 10th grade.
My situation is further complicated by the 3 students the assistant principal imagined she observed in the classroom. In line 3 of her report, I am addressing the imaginary Daisy. In line 9 I'm supposed to have asked the imaginary Diane to take off her hat, which she does in line 10. In line 54 I asked the non-existent John to turn to page 29 in the textbook. If you think you've stepped into the Twilight Zone in this paragraph, I refer to the actual report: Observation Report entered into my DOE file
(The fantasy begins on page 2.)
I don't know if these imaginary students are on age or overage. This important data is listed at the top of the first page of that report. Which of those 31 students on the roster mentioned on that page were these 3 imaginary beings? How often did they attend class? Are they on age or overage? At the end of the term I don't know if they passed or failed my class. Thus I cannot calculate either my atendance data or my "scholarship" figures with any degree of accuary. It's a virtual Crocodile's Dilemma.
I was headed for one of these over-stuffed with over-aged 9th graders classes one day when I heard a commotion down the hall. It seemed to emanate from my destination. As I neared the classroom, a substitute teacher came running out of the room as if her life if not her career depended on it. It was, of course, my group. When I entered the room, I found that the students had sculpted a great pyramid at the center of the classroom. They had piled desks, one on top of another, to a height of more than 10 feet. This was towards the end of the year. By this time some of the on age stduents were participating as gleefully as the over-aged.
Since four-year graduation rates, rather than determining the success of the students, now determine in large part whether a school remains open for business or goes out of of business, Bloomberg reform school administrators are face with many Sophie's Choices. One of them is how to give a "senior" who never passed 9th grade math or English adn who never bothered to pick up the credit in summer school the opportunity to make up that credit. As school budgets shrink, there is less money for PM (after school) classes. Small reform schools often don't have enough students failing a given course to make up an entire class of students in need of "recovery", which would also require an extra teacher hour per day, something the budget may no longer allow for.
One "solution" is to program these "seniors" into regular 9th grade classes. The composition of the "regular" 9th grade class begins to look something like this:
# of students student
12 on age
5 already over age entering 9th grade
5 hold back from last year
8 "juniors" and "seniors" attempting to make up a creit
In this way the on age 9th graders become outnumbered by the elder statesmen.
But the wisdom of the elder statesmen has nothing to do with Buddha, Confucius or even Granny from "The Beverly Hillbillies". The wisdom that these elder statesmen pass along to their inexperienced peers has more to do with how to make high school an enjoyable six-year experience at the end of which arrives not a diploma but an invitation to apply for an alternative program than with the sound advice not to put off until tomorrow what you can do today. These elder statesmen might coin axioms like:
"A truancy a day keeps the diploma away."
"A paper ball in the basket is with 8 on the floor."
"Early to bed, early to rise and you miss out on a lot of fun."
"All work and no play has it backwards."
"Don't put off until tomorrow ... put off until next year."
"Do as I do ... not as they say."
"If at first you don't succeed, don't give up. Fail again."
What kind of role model is this elder statesmen? What kind of student has spent 3 years in high school and yet still lacks 9th grade credits for graduation? What kind of example are such students setting for the unsuspecting on age 9th graders?
For teenagers the difference between 17 or 18 and 14 is enormous. There are few 14-year-olds mature enough to be immune to the negative example of the 17-year-old freshman, particularly if the elder statesman freshman is popular, good-looking, charming or even charismatic as some are. Many are one or more of these thing because academic success ranks well down the list of what makes one attractive or influential. There is nothing wrong with that per se. The h[problem arises when the academics of younger students is negatively impacted.
I've seen this many times over the past 11 1/2 years. I would estimate that of those 12 on age 9th graders in that prototypical classroom above, no more than 3 are immune from the negative impact of the elder statesmen. The other 9 will lean in the direction of the general tenor of the class. A teacher who can hold the elder students at bay stands a chance of mitigating their influence. When the numbers of elder statesmen freshmen exceed 30%, however, there is nothing a teacher can do.
"I'll write your essay, Mr. Haverstock," I was old once, "on one condition."
This was a final exam. The student offering the deal was one of the best writers in the class.
"What condition is that?" I said.
"I'll write your essay if you give me detention," she said.
I had watched this 9th grade student's performance deteriorate over the course of the semester as half a dozen over age elder statesmen had been dumped into her class. By the end of the semester the percentage of elder statesmen in the room had reached 45%. I could have graphed the negative correlation between the arrival of those students and the deteriorating performance of this and other students.
"You want me to give you detention," I mused.
"That's right. Two days."
"I'll have to call your parents, you know," I reminded her.
Solomon is never around when you need him.
"Okay," I agreed. "Write that essay and I'll give you detention."
I knew she could easily write the essay. The rest of the class had spent the semester trying to catch up to her. She spent the semester slowing down until at this point she was willing to take an "F" on her final exam essay if I didn't give her detention. Her grade had ceased to mean anything to her. The reason was simple. 45% of the students in the class now acted as though grades were meaningless.
She wrote the essay. I gave her 2 days detention. (She had a friend who had gotten detention.)
Detention was obviously neither punishment nor deterrent for this student. It was more like a reward. Worse, a failing grade had ceased to be a motivating factor in itself and this was happening in the most important of all high school years - freshman year. If the best students start giving up during their 9th grade, the cohort is doomed. Filling 9th grade classes with elder statesmen in the desperate hope that these over age underachievers have somehow realized the errors of their ways and will in one or two semesters make up all the classes they've failed over the course of the previous 3 years is akin to sabotage for a small Bloomberg reform school.
That school was sabotaged.