Saturday, May 7, 2011

The "Readiness Myth" - Why We Don't Want Students Who Are "Ready" Already

completely prepared or in fit condition for immediate action or use
duly equipped, completed, adjusted, or arranged, as for an occasion or purpose

When is a student "ready" for the next phase of their lives? Students are "ready" when they are "completely prepared...for immediate action" and "duly equipped... for an occasion or purpose." We talk about "readiness" all the time in schools, but I don't think we are using the word "ready" in the sense. We use "ready" instead to label students for placement in grades, courses, and college. We determine whether students are "ready" to go to the next grade or "ready" to take that AP class or "ready" to enter college. We have made "readiness" a high-stakes enterprise. Students who are "ready" are allowed to matriculate and take that AP class and enter college without taking remedial courses. Students who are not "ready" are held back and denied entry into advanced coursework and charged hundreds, if not thousands, of dollars to take extra courses that don't count toward a degree.

In my opinion, our use of "readiness" to determine whether students can move on to the next phase of life is broken. We use "readiness" as a key that opens doors for students who are deemed "ready," and we withhold the key from students who are not. Lack of "readiness" has become code for "stupid" or "lazy" or "falling short of potential." Education reformers are now using "readiness" to grade teachers and school as well as students. If teachers and schools are not getting students "ready" for the next test or grade or graduation, then those teachers and schools are failures, just like their students. "Readiness" now has the highest of stakes attached to it.

Jay Mathews' Class Struggle column in the Washington Post recently addressed community college placement tests. The College Board, who authors the ACCUPLACER test for many community colleges, encourages students in their instructions for the test by saying that it is not possible to "fail" a placement test. Yet, community colleges use the scores from this test to determine placement in remedial classes. So, in essence, students can "fail" the placement test, as Mathews points out. These students end up spending money and time taking remedial courses because they are not "ready" for "real" college work.

Here is the flaw in our logic of "readiness" - if students are already "ready" already for the next phase of their lives, what do we have left to teach them? If students are "ready" already for AP classes, what does the teacher have to offer these students? If students are "ready" already for college work, why should they go through with college work? I believe that if we only teach "ready" students, we really aren't teaching. We are merely babysitting.

I've taught many AP students over the years, and there were several who really didn't need me. They were the poster children for "readiness." All they really needed was the course textbook and perhaps an encouraging email from me now and then, and they would have passed the AP test with flying colors. These students were very "ready" for AP and for college work. I had little to offer but some tricks of the trade for writing free-response questions and tips for remembering often-confused concepts. I didn't have to do much teaching for these "ready" students.

Now, my non-"ready" students were those who really needed me. They needed me to work with them to develop the skills they needed to be "ready" for that test in May. They weren't as independent as my "ready" students. They could read the textbook and still not understand everything they read. They needed me to critique their essays extensively and repeatedly before they were able to write a coherent, cohesive response to a prompt. Some days, my non-"ready" students battled with me over each and every teaching point. Other days, they trusted that what I was teaching them would make a difference in their lives. We enjoyed a dynamic give-and-take relationship in the classroom that I truly enjoyed. I loved seeing the light come on with these non-"ready" students. I felt like I was accomplishing my ultimate teaching goal - to make a difference in the lives of my students.

I've had many colleagues over the years who did not want students who weren't "ready" for advanced coursework. When course selection time came around, these teachers would demand that students complete applications or take placement tests to enter their classes. They would meet with teachers in feeder classes to talk about which students were "ready" and which were not. They would complain about teachers in feeder classes who were too generous in recommending students for advanced courses. They would make students and their parents sign forms saying they were aware that the student was overreaching their potential by taking advanced coursework over the objections of their teachers or their placement test score.

For the most part, I think these teachers are well meaning. They don't want to set students up for failure. They don't want to see students frustrated when the course gets tough. But I think these teachers are missing the real point of schooling - to teach students how to overcome failure and frustration. They were missing the point because they were afraid that their students' failures would reflect badly on their teaching. Students who are "ready" already are not likely to encounter failure in our schools. They will rarely be frustrated with our classes. And they will rarely be challenged. And they will make us look good as teachers. We will look good when they do well on our tests, but I don't think they will ever really learn anything from us.

In today's climate of data worship and high-stakes accountability, we have become afraid of students who are not "ready." Students who are not "ready" will be frustrated with us and our course expectations. Students who are not "ready" will fail sometimes, if not entirely. These students may not give us the data we need to make AYP or to be deemed "effective." They may make our AP pass rates fall. Or they may make us look really, really good. The risks of teaching non-"ready" students are great, but so are the rewards. So instead of using the data we generate to create appropriate learning goals for our students so we can help them become "ready" and ultimately succeed, we are using the data we generate to punish students for not being "ready" already.

Real school reform will happen when we embrace non-"ready" students and get on with the business of school, helping them to become "completely prepared" and "duly equipped" for whatever life has for them. Teaching them how to overcome failure and how to deal with frustration will do more to make our students "ready" for the real world and the 21st century than any amount of test prep or data worship. Our new evaluation systems for students, teachers, and schools should focus more on non-"readiness" than "readiness." "Readiness" is a prize we should always pursue but never achieve. For by achieving "readiness," we then have nothing left to learn.

1 comment:

Kellye said...

Good food for thought Amy. Can we send this to the Congress and the state legislature please? :)