Sunday, March 10, 2013

Responses to comments on "Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Akward Kids"

A rather spirited discussion has ensued at TheAtlantic.com regarding various issues raised by my article.

Some people objected to my claim that many people with formal or informal diagnoses of Asperger's Syndrome are worse off now than in more traditional classrooms. They pointed out that not all Aspies are academically gifted and that many depend on accommodations that didn't exist a generation ago.

They are correct. The IDEA, the current basis for educating and accommodating special needs students, dates only to 1990. And Asperger's Syndrome is a broad and populous category that includes many kids who do need academic supports. But it also includes many kids who are highly skilled academically and whose main deficits are social, and it was this group--as well as other, unclassified, socially awkward kids--that "Are Grading Trends Hurting Socially Akward Kids" is about.

A different angle on the Asperger's label came from other readers, who proposed that appropriate IEPs would exempt students from the sorts of social requirements I discuss in my article. But many socially awkward children don't have IEPs. Nor do IEPs guarantee exemptions from all problematic requirements. The entire IEP team--teachers and parents alike--have to agree, and, as the comments at TheAlantic makes clear, many teachers (and even some parents!) don't think their autistic spectrum kids should be exempted from social requirements.

These people argue that grades that reflect social skills help prepare students for the real world. Like it or not, the real world favors people with social skills. Of course, it also favors people who are physically attractive, so, by this argument, teachers might also downgrade kids for looks.

The reply, of course, is that kids are more able to improve their social skills than their physical appearances. Wouldn't points off for deficient eye contact and an unengaging presentation style prod students into self-betterment? Perhaps this works for some kids, but where the most socially anxious or clueless are concerned, such negative incentives can backfire. As I argue in my article, what these kids need are trained social skills therapists who teach social skills explicitly: specialists that most schools (for all their speech and occupational therapists) quite simply don't have on staff.

Some commenters objected to my related claim that:

The kinds of jobs that autistic students aspire to -- for example, computer programming, engineering, writing, and the visual arts -- tend not to involve the sorts of group dynamics that occur in K-12 classrooms.
They point out that today even programming jobs require large amounts of collaboration and interaction. That's true, but, as I've argued here and in my book, the social demands of such collaborations differ in several key ways from those of groups in K-12 classrooms. It simply isn't the case that spending many hours in classroom groups prepares students for professional collaborations.

Other commenters objected to my suggestion that kids shouldn't be downgraded for not explaining their answers to math problems. Surely if you know what you're doing you can explain your steps. But it's important to distinguish between explaining your answers and showing your work. Today's students are expected to explain their answers to simple problems that many can do in their heads in a single step--as opposed to showing their work in complex, multi-step problems where there actually is work to show.

Other commenters found my claims alarmist. Surely I cherry-picked the worst examples, and even though only 35% of the points on the science presentation rubric come from content, it is, after all, a science presentation rubric. One commenter calculated that only 2-3% would be taken off of a student's grade for deficient social skills. But even if this is a case, multiply that 2-3% by the hundreds of thousands of socially awkward kids out there, and you get a significant number of cases where this makes the difference between an A- and a B+. When selective magnet high schools or colleges see a "B+" in chemistry on an applicant's transcript, how many will stop and ask whether it reflects social awkwardness rather than deficient effort or skill in chemistry? Factor in all the other grade-lowering trends I discuss in the article (presentation skills are just one example), and the result, in today's highly competitive high school and college admissions processes, is a significant impairment of the future opportunities of many socially awkward students.

Finally, as for cherry picking, I didn't get my examples from a sweeping search through the educational orchard. The science rubric is the first of many that come up on Google; the social studies assignment came home in one of my kids' backpacks.

7 comments:

Barry Garelick said...

I also reacted to the claim that you "cherry picked" the examples. One has only to look through the internet for a few minutes to find comparable examples. It isn't cherry picking so much as shooting fish in a barrel.

Happy Elf Mom said...

Filing your article under, "It is not funny because it is true."

People who disagree are looking at an entirely different demographic from the one you outlined.

momof4 said...

Even socially adept kids may hate group work - mine did because they were always supposed to give someone a free ride, either because the kid(s) wouldn't do the work or because the work wouldn't be A level. They wanted to be left alone to do their own work and they hated wasting time. They didn't mind doing/listening to BRIEF presentations, in theory, but spending a week enduring all the girls in the 4th-grade class acting out a scene from their book (with costumes and a friend or two) was high-level torture - at least 45" minutes each, for about 12 girls... They weren't allowed to do a book report; a diorama was the least painful option. It's a wonder that the sight of a shoebox doesn't send me, my daughter or my sons into a panic attack.

Anonymous said...

There are a lot of us in our late 30's and early 40's who have never been diagnosed with Asperger's or autism, but who see kids with personalities like ours get that label. As one of them, I have mixed feelings. It's true that in my day, schools made no special accommodations to kids like me, but it's also true that there was no need. Clearly defined work and clearly defined rules of conduct made for an environment where kids like me could thrive.

Like many kids, I was discouraged from arts classes and drama classes precisely because I was not a good team player, and I was fine with that. But to think that my prospects in other subjects would be compromised because I didn't fare well with group work or mix this nonsense into my math homework, I find this development deplorable.

1crosbycat said...

When my smart and shy (but not Asperger's) daughter was given her classes for 8th grade, she was not assigned pre-AP English or pre-AP Social Studies because the 7th grade teachers felt she would not "do well" participating in the Socratic circles, which now seem to be the mainstay of high school AP English and Social Studies classes. I got her re-assigned by meeting with her guidance counselor and she did well in English, and not well in Social Studies (worldview differences with teacher). I can see no way to accomodate socially awkward kids in these AP classes where participation counts for a significant part of the grade and when the class is centered around this type of discussion. These kids are excluded from the AP opportunities and placed in slower-paced (boring to gifted kid) regular classes. With schools often being very large with duplicate classes, I suggested that not all of them had to be geared toward the outgoing students, and with computerized scheduling it shouldn't be all that difficult to schedule high school classes specifically as is done in college. The school didn't care and the kids didn't have any compassion for the shy kids either from feedback I received.

Anonymous said...

An under appreciated problem with the new social dynamics in the classroom is the potential for bullying of socially inept kids or kids with autism or learning disabilities. Teachers used to try to mitigate social interactions, and grades were a great equalizer for bright but awkward kids. Now, it's open season, with socially dominant kids running group activities, and classroom bullying is rampant. Teachers now have the attitude that kids need to learn to deal with the inappropriate behavior of classmates rather than trying to stop it. Teachers place kids in social situations that the child or parent would never choose to be in, and then leave the kids to work it out amongst themselves. How is an awkward child supposed to succeed?

kcab said...

I was thinking about this topic last night and realized that the social grading trends harm those who are at a social disadvantage for reasons other than social awkwardness too. For example, a student who is new in town, or one who is perceived as perhaps being in a lower social class. I think both of those are affecting the grades received by my (extroverted, neurotypical, smart, funny, non-stylish, non-made-up) high school sophomore. Typically she has benefited from grade schemes that reward social adeptness, but that seems not to be the case in her new high school.

So, I think I see the type of grading discussed in the article as an issue for anyone who is at a social disadvantage, whether it is permanent or temporary, neurological or due to external circumstances.