Wednesday, December 12, 2012

Electile Dysfunction?

The Urban Dictionary provides one definition of “electile dysfunction” as, “Failure of the general populace to vote in any given election.”

Apparently the results of last year’s town election are perceived by some as failing to provide a mandate when it comes to the conduct of the Southbridge school committee. 

Despite the fact that the two candidates who were elected achieved that goal by a better than two to one margin over their next nearest competition, efforts at a counter-revolution persist.

This was clearly in evidence at last night’s school committee meeting.

Followers of The O’Zone who read last Saturday’s article “No Holiday For Southbridge School Politics” and then watched last night’s meeting must have experienced a profound feeling of déjà vu.

The meeting was rife with factional division. The “temporary acting superintendent” was effusive with self-praise during his Report of the Superintendent. The same person was uncharacteristically unprepared when it came to the Report of the Director of Finance & Operations.

Repeated shots were taken at the suspended Superintendent, the Middle/High School Principal, and the current leadership of the school committee. Simultaneously, the minority was unsparing in its praise for the current “temporary acting superintendent”. All of these elements are in keeping with the speculation laid out in the above cited article.

What’s apparent to me is that the minority is convinced that these goals and tactics will win back the voters who turned against them in the last election. As long as they cling to this conviction, I fear that we will continue to have a profoundly dysfunctional situation with the minority simultaneously seeking to restore the status quo ante as well as to convince the voting public that they were mistaken last time around.

Changing gears, but somewhat within the same domain, is a subject that came up last night during the discussion about “interventionists”.

Pamela Abate, who the Worcester Telegram describes as “[heading] the math departments at both the middle and high school levels” spoke to the issue. In the course of her exposition, she remarked that these interventionists were needed because so many students move into a given grade level without mastering essential subject matter from the prior grade level.

This is a matter about which I am sorely vexed.

From what I have been able to gather, the whole educational system has become so fixated upon the socialization function that it has taken a back seat to the educational function. Nowhere is this more pronounced than the prevailing attitude toward what is termed “retention”, what we used to call being held back.

Ms. Abate made direct reference to the phenomenon of “social promotion” where a student is promoted to the next grade level despite being unable to fulfill the academic requirements of their current grade level. Remedying this situation is the primary justification for the hiring of such interventionists.

My inquiries have revealed that this is a subject that has undergone dramatic change over the last several decades. The former superintendent, Dr. Dale Hanley was, I am told, a strong opponent of retention.

Perhaps my views are antediluvian, but I am convinced that a decades-long relaxation in academic standards through an ever increasing tendency toward social promotion may have more to do with the decline in educational performance than any other single factor.

What motivation is there for marginal or under-achievers to invest serious effort when they know that they will be advanced with no stigma of being held back if they do not perform? Further, to what extent are those we perceive as over-achievers actually such when the bar is lowered in this way? What potential damage is done to their psyche when they graduate and are confronted by an environment where the standards for excelling are far more stringent?

I think that this is a subject that warrants a thorough airing. It may explain a lot of why our educational system is failing – because of the unwillingness to deal with failure realistically. If we don’t accept that students can and do fail, then the blame will always be put elsewhere and the answer will always end up being to increase assessment models, personnel, tools and, ultimately, financial resources.

It also brings me back to wondering how we can have such sub-standard results in MCAS scores in lower grades while the high school manages to achieve a level I status. We have yet to receive any kind of cogent explanation of how this can be.


  1. Ah yes, the abused "research shows" excuse of social promotion to address the drop out rate. Holistically speaking - it ain't working!

    Yes, last night almost had a teacher appreciation moment even if it was thinly veiled political in nature.

    Kids are 2-3 grades behind in reading and math ability - or more - and are expected to do more with common core with less ability. A state led recipe to failure.

    Hey but blame the teachers its their fault that 20-30 annual miracles aren't preformed on a student taken achievement test. Its their fault that they can only teach a dysfunctional, school committee approved curriculum. Its their fault that the administration is under investigation and removal proceedings. So I ask, is it really their fault that no school is a level 4 school but yet the district is a level 4 district?
    I think not!
    If you have read all of this and understand the reasons for Southbridge's educational failures thank a teacher. If you bailed or failed to understand the issues perhaps you were socially promoted from this same educational system?
    The message here is that the entire system is so holistically broken and that the blame isn't going where it really needs to. Social promotion is a problem. A one prong reaction to high drop out rates. However the major problem for Southbridge's educational failures is so much more a holistic system problem than it is a retention problem.

    1. An August 2012 by Guido Schwerdt and Martin R. West from the Harvard Kennedy School titled The Effects of Early Grade Retention on Student Outcomes over Time: Regression Discontinuity Evidence from Florida
      found that,
      “A growing number of American states and school districts require students to meet basic performance standards in core academic subjects at key transition points in order to be promoted to the next grade. We exploit a discontinuity in the probability of third grade retention under a Florida test-based promotion policy to study the causal effect of retention on student outcomes over time. Regression discontinuity estimates indicate large short-term gains in achievement among retained students and a sharp reduction in the probability of retention in subsequent years. The achievement gains from retention fade out gradually over time, however, and are statistically insignificant after six years. Despite this fade out, our results suggest that previous evidence that early retention leads to adverse academic outcomes is misleading due to unobserved differences between retained and promoted students. They also imply that the educational and opportunity costs associated with retaining a student in the early grades are substantially less than a full year of per pupil spending and foregone earnings.”


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