Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Are high school teachers' priorities misplaced?

December 01, 2009

Is there a disconnect between what students want out of high school and what teachers focus on?

Accounting giant Deloitte LLP says yes, pointing to the results of a national education survey it released this week comparing teacher, parent and student attitudes about high school's purpose.

The study found just 9 percent of high school teachers say their primary mission is to prepare students for college, versus 48 percent of students and 42 percent of parents who say college preparation should be the chief focus of high school.

(Click on our data tab above for selected details from the survey.)

Some Orange County educators say they aren't surprised by the findings, while others have questioned the way the survey was worded and defended teachers' performance, even as they acknowledged there's room for improvement.

"It's more complex than the survey," said 21-year educator Whitney Amsbary, a fifth-grade teacher and president of the Orange Unified School District's teachers union.

"You can't just go with what the students want – they don't know what they need further down the line. ... There needs to be a conversation about the purpose of high school. Is it a practical thing that everyone is going to make it to college now? You would hope so, but in certain areas, life skills are more important than college."

Deloitte says its survey is evidence of a "dangerous disconnect" between what students and parents want out of high school and how teachers view their job responsibilities.

In the survey, 40 percent of teachers also said it was "somewhat important" or "not too important" that students from their high school attended college. (The other 60 percent said it was "very important.")

Meanwhile, 70 percent of students indicated they "definitely" planned to attend college, even as only 22 percent of them indicated high school had done an "excellent" job preparing them for college.

(Click here to read the full report.)

"Our current high school evaluation system doesn't do enough to encourage administrators, principals and teachers to think of the longer term needs and future career goals of their students," Deloitte said in the study. "We must move away from focusing solely on state tests and other immediate metrics and apply a longer term view that aims at providing our high schools students with real learning that is applicable to college courses and even further down the line in the workforce."

The study – commissioned by Deloitte and performed by Washington, D.C.-based KRC Research – surveyed 401 high school educators, 601 high school students and 401 high school parents in September via phone and Internet. The students and parents were all from lower-income families, defined as having a household income of less than $40,000 annually.

Deloitte does a national education survey annually; last year's focused on incorporating business with education.

"What parents and students surveyed want from high school is at odds with what we've been asking our high schools to do for close to 100 years," Deloitte CEO Barry Salzberg said in a statement. "Redefining the mission of high school is an important next step for building a 21st century workforce."

Mixed local reaction

Local educators, parents and teachers gave different views on the survey's findings.

"It troubles me that teachers who are just teaching life skills and the subject material are often teaching average students, low-income students, minority students – and they think that's the bar," said 14-year educator Sal Tinajero, a history teacher and speech coach at Fullerton Union High School and a Santa Ana city councilman.

"That's not the bar," said Tinajero, a son of immigrant parents and a parent of two young children. "Our job is to teach students to be successful enough to get to college. The great equalizer in our country is to attend a higher-level learning institution and completely change the direction of your socioeconomic status."

Others said teachers may not be as disconnected from what students want out of high school as what is suggested by the study's authors.

In the survey, most of the teachers said their primary mission was either to get students to master the subject they teach (38 percent) or to teach basic life skills (30 percent). Ten percent said getting students to graduate was their primary mission.

"There may not be as big a disconnect as one interpretation may conclude," said 24-year educator Joanne Fawley, a government teacher at Cypress High School and president of the Anaheim Secondary Teachers Association. "Teachers see mastery of the subject as a form of college preparation. The academic content standards are very, very high, and the rigor provides the foundation for college, and for anyone moving into adulthood."

Progress on college prep front

Teachers' attitudes toward college preparation also appear to be changing. One of the largest college prep programs in high schools, Advancement Via Individual Determination, or AVID, has seen tremendous growth. One school district, Garden Grove Unified, is seeking to train all teachers with an AVID mindset – that is, to think about how to get all students ready for college and beyond, said Daria Waetjen, a director for Orange County's AVID program.

"We like to talk about it as training all kids for college, but whatever comes after college, there's a career," said Waetjen, a director of instructional services for the Orange County Department of Eudcation. "We want students to be able to complete a rigorous course of study, but at the same time, all of the career technical education classes are rigorous, too."

Competing demands on teachers can sometimes cause them to lose focus on their primary mission of college preparation, some said.

For example, many Advanced Placement teachers are so focused on getting their kids to pass the end-of-the-year AP exam that they lose focus of the bigger picture, said 17-year-old Saam Alakhani, a senior at Dana Point's Dana Hills High School and the student representative to Capistrano Unified's school board.

"I feel like a lot of the AP teachers are just geared toward passing the AP exam, maybe a little more so than preparing kids for college," Alakhani said. "But it's not the teacher's fault. I think they are doing the best they can."

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