Superintendent: Students should not be force fed

Shelter Island School Superintendent Michael Hynes isn’t surprised by recently released data revealing students in the United States often experience a drop off in test scores as they advance from elementary to middle school and then high school.

The statistics from the U.S. Education Department’s National Center for Education Statistics shows there’s less improvement on standardized tests over time, according to the center’s director, Jack Buckley. The tests measure performances in math, science and reading as compared with scores of students from other countries.

“These new international comparisons underscore the urgency of accelerating achievement in secondary school and the need to close large and persistent achievement gaps,” according to U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan.
Dr. Hynes attributes the problem to reading and writing abilities that aren’t where they should be by high school. There have been a lot of shifts in methods of teaching reading and writing and much has been lost in switching from one system to another, he said.

There’s also a change in parenting that Dr. Hynes said results in poorer student performances by high school. Parents are often working two or even three jobs and may not have the time to oversee students’ homework or come to school to meet with teachers, he said. And some parents tend to blame the school when there are problems. When he was a student, he recalled, if his parents were called to school because of a problem, they generally embraced and worked with educators to assure he would straighten up and fly right. Today, some parents assume the educators are wrong, he said. There has to be a balance and more cooperation between parents and teachers.

A look at the school PTSA will show more parents involved with the school district when their children are in elementary grades; fewer parents when students at the middle school level; and a real drop off among parents of high school students, Dr. Hynes said. One element of that is because older students want to assert their independence and don’t want their parents involved.

But from the earliest school years, American educators and parents help students more than they should, instead of encouraging them to work out their own solutions, he said. A study of U.S. and Japanese students showed that teachers and parents stepped in quickly when they observed a child struggling to resolve a problem. In Japan, a full half-hour went by before anyone stepped in to assist the child, Dr. Hynes said.

“We need to celebrate working it out,” he said about encouraging students to take time to explore potential solutions. But teachers here argue that they often don’t have the time to allow students to work out solutions because of the mass of material they must cover to prepare students for Regents exams. The result is too little time is devoted to allowing a child to learn what went wrong when he or she failed. People tend to learn more from their failures than their successes, the superintendent said.

There’s a race to cover more material instead of covering material in depth. The result is that schools are “force-feeding students,” he said.

“When performance is based on testing, opportunities to struggle are hampered,” Dr. Hynes said. Testing has to be used as a “growth model” for teachers and students, not an assessment of their abilities. Tests scores are “just one of the spokes” on the educational wheel, he said.

American students are “conditioned to think” failure is bad and struggling is a negative, he said. They would be better served by covering less material, but being allowed to struggle more to learn.

Toward that end, Dr. Hynes has a five-year goal of increasing the “rigor” involved in improving reading and writing skills and learning basic math facts. The result will be that students who graduate from Shelter Island High School will be more resilient and better able to cope in college and the workplace, he said.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do. Our job is not just academic,” Dr. Hynes said. Educators need to be involved with the social and emotional development of students.

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