Monday, January 4, 2010

Reasons for poor academic performance by Thomas Donnelly

To all New Bedford residents - I am Tom Donnelly and I used to teach Biology and Chemistry in the Blue House Freshman Academy of NBHS. I retired last year after 30 years of teaching.

I have been away for more than a year – and I know there have been changes - but I want you all to know that you have a GREAT school here in NBHS. I worked there for seven years. Sure, at times it was difficult, but for the most part the experience was pleasant. The administration, faculty and support staff are all excellent professional people. The vast majority of the students are respectful, hard-working, teenagers. They take us seriously when we tell them how important an education is and behave accordingly. The rest…a fairly small percentage? Well, that is another story.

I have a basis of comparison. I taught in the Massachusetts towns of Weymouth, Carver and Plymouth; as well as Putnam, Connecticut. All these schools had different demographics than NBHS. While many schools talk of having a "family atmosphere" - NBHS means it quite seriously. There is excellent support available to our students.

Back in late 2007, Donald Vasconcelles, the Headmaster of NBHS, asked us to write down the reasons that students receive F's and D's. This request came via my Department Head, Anne Olivera. I spent a sleepless night reminiscing about my 30 years teaching and then wrote down some things.

Reasons for poor academic performance.

Ø Failure of students to comply with attendance requirements mandated by NBHS policy, Massachusetts State Law and the Federal "No child left behind" Act.

Ø Failure of students to make up work after absence, even though many opportunities are given.

Ø Failure of students to be prepared for class when they ARE present. (e.g. book, notebook, pen/pencil, homework done)

Ø Failure of students to complete and submit assignments. This includes regular homework as well as larger projects.

Ø Failure of students to prepare adequately for tests and exams.

Ø Failure of students to redo tests if they have a poor performance. When given this chance, many choose not to.

Ø Failure of students to use opportunities for bonus credit during the term. Personally, I never allowed my students to even attempt "extra credit" unless ALL regular credit had been done and never to avoid failure.

Ø Failure of students to make effective use of time during the school day. What we used to call "study hall".

Ø Failure of students to seek extra help before academic problems reach a level where failure is inevitable.

Ø Failure of students to reach an appropriate level of academic maturity before starting high school. Too many students continue the same attitude they had in Primary and Middle School into High School. This involves doing little or no work during the marking period and then attempting to "make up" all missing work or seeking to do "extra credit" so they can pass. This is simply unacceptable.

Ø Failure of parents to maintain adequate supervision and discipline of their children. Given the present constraints of the law, and the economic situation, this is not their fault. Most of the time I know they do the best they can - but many parents can do much more.

None of this is new. These examples of student apathy and lack of discipline are pervasive, endemic and self-perpetuating. They are also contagious - dragging down other students who would do well if not exposed to them.

Just before I retired the faculty of NBHS was given a questionnaire to fill out about student discipline.

We were asked:

"What do you think of discipline at NBHS?"

I was reminded of what the Mahatma Gandhi said when asked what he thought of Western Civilization. He replied:

"I think it would be a good idea."

I was tempted but, no, I did not write that. What I wrote was:

"Flagrant disregard for rules, regulations and policies. Indifference to consequences."

This is troubling, but not surprising. When the "cool kids" are the ones that are failing all their subjects, frequently in trouble and suspended, being removed from school in handcuffs, being defiant and insubordinate to every adult in the building and disrupting the school climate - then what can any of us do, really? The law protects THEM - not the rest of the students.

Criminals are glorified in music, television and cinema! The New Bedford Standard Times published the photos of gang members on the front page and calls them "KINGS"! Again - how can any educator compete with that?

A few years ago a parent wrote in the newspaper that the problem was that we had “too many white women teaching our young black men at NBHS”!

Truly, is there an upper limit on how idiotic and ridiculous you can get?

Every year more laws are enacted that inhibit or even prevent teachers, administrators and PARENTS from doing their jobs. We are then blamed and "held accountable" for NOT doing our jobs. It is completely absurd and – mark my words here – not sustainable.

These problems are not unique to NBHS. I have colleagues in other schools in the area, both public and private. They report similar things. Lack of student motivation and parental supervision is a problem in other countries around the world as well.

I have traveled to Western and Eastern Europe, Turkey, and Tunisia. I spent the last four summers in Suzhou, Jiangsu Province, China. When I travel to other countries, I always make it a point to stop by the local schools to look around and introduce myself. I have made many friends this way. This may seem hard to believe but, our schools in the USA are very much admired.

The first question asked everywhere I go is:

"What do you do to motivate your students?"

After I stop laughing, I always respond the same way - the students that are motivated are that way because they and their parents WANT to be motivated. It is that simple and it has always been that way. It has very little to do with the schools. It has a great deal to do with their parents and upbringing.

At present, more is being done by schools and teachers to help students succeed than ever before. Students are given more opportunities to pass and improve than ever before. In short, they CHOOSE to get the grade they get.

The blame for failure needs to go where it belongs. On the students that choose to fail.

Here is my suggestion.

First, identify the criminal element at NBHS. It won't be hard. Look at their academic and discipline records. Look at their CRIMINAL records. Many of them have one. Walk down the halls. Watch the security videos.

Second? Do what Joe Clark did in the movie "Lean On Me". Expel them. It is plain and simple. Just expel them. Throw them out onto the street.

Now THAT won't be easy. There will be howls but if you do that and do it EVERY YEAR – you will have a completely different - and better - NBHS.

Looking back now…… 30 years ago........ In my first year of teaching, students failed. Not as many as now but - they failed. Why? I looked back at my first record book recently. (Yes, I still have it!) I taught Honors Chemistry in 1977-1978. Students failed for the same reasons they do now. See previous bulleted items.

Thomas Donnelly is a retired NBHS teacher. He is presently teaching Advanced Placement Biology and Chemistry in Changzhou, Jiangsu Province,
The People's Republic of China.


Anonymous said...

I agree, it the parenting that poses the greatest strength as to whether a child will succeed. We can only do so much during the school day, then they go home and it all gets undone. Start attaching welfare checks, state and fedaerl assistance, mandate comunity service when their child misbehaves... we'll see a change. And the courts need to stop tying our hands. Stop letting some slick tongued lawyer come in spouting civil rights get away with holding the child accountable to the FREE education they are getting.. Don't like it? Go to some other country were you have to pay or even have to prove you are worthy of the priviledge.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Tom! We all have that inkling and understanding but you have both the credibility and ability to articulate it so well!!!

Anonymous said...

I truly believe that with your heart and soul in your career, you should be able to reach any student, no matter the socio economic chains they may bear. If we start listing why students can't learn, we make a dangerous affirmation. In twenty five years I'm hoping I must have at least touched one of these kids who can't learn....

Anonymous said...

Affirmations can work both ways. You can get a community group or a school committee member who can affirm for a parent that it is all the teacher's fault that Johnny cant complete his homework or turn up on time.

Anonymous said...

Since this is posted here as a blog entry, am I to understand that this position is supported by the union? The union believes that teachers and administrators can choose who deserves an education and who is a "criminal?"
While I can agree that some children in our high school have serious issues which lead to problems in our high school, isn't it also possible that education and maturity can lead to change in our city? As a teacher and a resident of NB, I would prefer to see all children in school than on the street. Mass, yearly expulsion is not an answer. It may make teaching easier, but did we become teachers only to teach the kids who are eager to learn or to help all children?
I have seen so many kids turn their lives around because of teachers who believe in their right to be there and in their right to receive our dedication to service in this community.
New Bedford needs some strong alternative programs to better serve the needs of our struggling students. But it is not time to "throw them out" along with our hope for change in our city.

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Anonymous said...

two questions: Where does the article say "teachers can choose who is criminal"? Also, why should criminals or disruptive students hinder the progress of others?

Molly said...

I think we could do a better job in educating students because students "should have the best possible preparation for whatever future endeavors they may pursue.- Paul F. Walsh Sr."

We should have better options for students. Not everyone can be successful in a school of 3000 students. I don't believe any student should be thrown away and discarded. What do they learn then? How to be a better more desperate criminal?

Anonymous said...

social networking is one of the main reasons behind students low academic performance