Not wanting to do new material before the winter break, I decided to focus on expanding the my classes knowledge of previously-learned material by having them apply their concepts to never seen questions from the advanced placement exam.
The biggest problem my students have is applying what they know to the problems at hand. The analysis and thinking skills are things they lack. Many of the teachers I work with claim the kids are getting dumber. I don't agree. My students are extremely bright and motivated. They pay attention in class and ask questions. They do homework. They study. They even research on their own additional problems they hope will increase their test grades.
The problem is these kids have not been taught properly. While going over a problem where all they had to do was show how an answer was arrived at, I drew an analogy between that and what they did with trigonometry proofs. Faces with blank expressions stared at me. When I pushed and asked if they still did proofs, a young man answered, "No, we are now getting a dumbed down education."
A friend thinks her son is just has average potential. Although she and her husband always push him to do more, the school is happy with his 80-85 grades and leaves him alone. The child is an athlete, possibly the only one on his team not in danger of being kicked off because of academics. The coach thinks he is a super star. Last week I started helping this young man study for a geometry test. I realized in about 2 minutes that this boy is not average, he is way above all the rest. His problem is that he's been allowed to reside in the middle and, being a typical teenager, took comfort in being allowed to do the minimum and still get by.
The push to educate everyone is educating no one. I cringe every time I tell a group of students to just use their calculators when a fraction arises in an equation. I know it is wrong and I know they are being cheated but I have to get them to pass a regents exam in June and do not have the time to spend teaching them skills that they need, skills more useful than being able to graph a parabola. I know I am cheating the top when I skip a derivation or spend a week doing a topic that should be covered in a day or two but I have no choice when the class has kids with mixed levels of ability.
I started teaching in 1973. Back then, there were kids with learning problems. I remember a graduating senior who could not count past 100. (How she got to be a senior, I don't know.) Today there are still graduating seniors just as limited. The difference is this girl was in a class with kids like herself. She didn't hold others back. The subjects she took were subjects she could handle and, while she might not have achieved much, she did learn to count that term. Today, this student would be in a class room with kids that are capable of doing more. A child without the ability to count would be forced to learn the quadratic equation. Of course all will suffer along the way as the teacher struggles to find a way to reach everyone -- to differentiate in a class of 34 students.
I don't have answers and maybe that is because there simply are no answers. Everyone is born with different abilities and we need to nurture the abilities people are born with rather than the abilities we want them to have. Programs like No Child Left Behind and Race To The Top have done nothing more than provide a "junk education" (another comment from a student) for the children of today.