September 09, 2006

Be Positive?

On the first day I give my high school students four rules: Be polite, Invest in yourself, Be positive, and Obey the rules. This year I really emphasized “Be positive.” I explained that to have and maintain a positive attitude was a choice. That the world was an ugly, dirty place and that we as individuals can either choose to be negative, or be positive. I gave the example of my parents. My father died in 1999 of colon cancer. Once diagnosed, he only lasted 10 more weeks. My father was a fighter, but his attitude about his illness was very negative (naturally) and that hurt his chances of survival. My mother was diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma (blood plasma cancer) just over a year later. She was given 18 months to live. My Mom immediately made a purposeful choice to be as positive about the time she had left and her treatment as possible. Today she is still living strong and leading a very healthy and vigorous life. It’s a choice.

But then something happened that challenged my positive attitude. Actually, its been happening ever since last school year. While my multimedia students were enthusiastic and ready to get to work, I soon discovered that not all of them qualified for the course. In fact, fully one-third of the students enrolled did not take the prerequisite course (taught by another teacher). That’s a problem. The multimedia courses are sequential. Allowing a student to stay enrolled in a second year course without completing the first year course work is setting that student up for failure. The immediate source of the problem lies in the counseling department. Over the years I’ve made every adjustment that I have been asked to make by the counselors to make their task as simple as possible, including changing the name and duration of the courses. However, the problems remain. Add to this the fact that for the first time in seven years, I don’t have a full schedule of multimedia courses, and you can see why I started to feel negative.

The larger issue here is the broad and systemic threat to electives. With the current pendulum swing in education placing more and more emphasis on test scores, schools all over the country are scrambling around trying to figure out how to make sure that no child gets left behind, and that their campuses achieve an acceptable API and AYP. Many administrators have elected to place failing students in remedial classes (only we don’t call them remedial, we call them “review” or “support”.) In order to make room in the schedule of an underperforming student something has to go. The most logical class to reschedule? The elective. So instead of woodshop, or drama, or multimedia, students who are already disengaging from school find themselves in two or more periods a day of a subject they probably dislike or do not enjoy. The idea is that by devoting the extra time to the students’ weaker core subject areas, the students will improve. And in many cases, the individual student’s score do rise. The end result is that the high school has created a more accomplished standardized test taker, and the API and AYP ratings improve. Mission accomplished.

But hold on a second. What about the electives? Aren’t they important to the students’ education too? Why are the subjects that regularly challenge the students to think critically and analytically calling on the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy the ones to get the axe? And this isn’t the first time. Electives in general and the visual and performing arts specifically are often the first disciplines to go along with Music and P.E. (By the way, are you familiar with the money coming for Arts, Music and P.E.? Finally!) But of course it’s not about the money; it is about educating children. Sometimes I wonder if we are trading the education of students for the training of students? I’m afraid that this “teach to the test” philosophy of education is having a stronger and stronger punch every year, and is now threatening our professional futures.

Elective courses challenge students to synthesize and utilize everything they absorb through their core course work. Electives teach students skills they can use in the world to succeed and compete right now. Even more importantly, electives give many students a reason to come to school. In the current environment, if a student loves woodshop but is struggling in English, he or she loses the class they are passionate about to double down in their weakest area. I have to be honest here and interject that if that had happened to me in high school, if I had been denied my drama class to take an additional English class, I would not be writing this now. Ironic, isn’t it? But that’s the reality for a huge population of students.

The other amazing realization I had during the first week of school was the impact of advanced placement (A.P.) courses on electives. At my high school, A.P. courses are only offered during periods 1-4, and some only once a day. I lost two of my advanced students to A.P. courses that were scheduled in conflict with my advanced multimedia course. My advanced course is technically A.P. since the students are eligible for transfer credit at our local junior college. But it is not recognized by the University of California as A.P. and the grades are not weighed. I’m not sure if this is true, but I heard that a student can only transfer three A.P. courses. One of the reasons the higher kids take so many A.P. courses is to boost their G.P.A. above 4.0. making them a more attractive college applicant.

Electives are losing both the high kids and the low kids. It’s a fight. But like Rocky Balboa, I am committed to staying positive. Even though I may lose a few rounds, I will keep fighting on and make a comeback in the sequel.


  1. Electives are under attack all over the country it seems. Guidance departments don't seem to understand (or even want to understand) what they are about. To all too many of them the only questions are "how do I get the college students the best possible resume" and "how do I get the kids who are not going to college to keep "wasting" my time?" If they can find a way to get the poorer students to pass the standardized tests or (as good if not better) get them to drop out they do what is easiest. Sorry for venting but I've heard too many stories of guidance telling kids to drop out in my time.

  2. First off, I'm disappointed that AP classes are weighted differently. This discourages students from following their interests because they feel they must have the weighted credit. That's sad to me.
    I'm also disappointed in a school forcing students to double-up in areas they're struggling. This is not going to help the student at all. They have to figure out a better way to motivate and educate the student.
    And, finally, our guidance department caters entirely too much to the students. In fact, I have several students leaving my class after first semester (despite the fact that it's a year-long course) because they want to take a class that doesn't fit with their current schedule...My opinion is, they should've thought of that before. It is a year-long course...they have to stay with it. I simply can't believe guidance is allowing it.