Sunday, November 22, 2009

It Makes Me Want to Shout!

"Learning to Teach to Bridge the Achievement Gap". This is the currently the biggest buzz phrase in education. It is powerfully loaded, politically correct, eduspeak. But what does it really mean?
'Closing the gap is this generation’s civil rights issue, said Charles Weis, superintendent of schools in Santa Clara County. “We know what needs to be done; we know how to do it,” Dr. Weis said at a rally for educational improvement. Yet, he added, “educators are notoriously bad at adopting others’ good ideas".'
So what are some of those good ideas? Well here is one being used in a school district in Santa Clara County:

'On a recent day in Martha Borg’s third-grade classroom, she asked three students to join her at a small semicircular table. While the other students worked in their notebooks or with tutoring programs on computers, the three sounded out some new words — like “natural,” “environment” and “tortoise” — and then read aloud as Mrs. Borg moved from one to the next.'

That is the way that reading was taught 40 years ago. It appears to be working once again. We didn't use computers, instead we practiced our math algorithms (but that was before it was called drill and kill). And guess what? Students don't know their math facts anymore, especially fractions, but at least they haven't suffered sudden death due to practicing their multiplication facts and perhaps more of them are learning to read again.

Those educators who are "notoriously bad at adopting others’ good ideas", by Superintendent Weis' standards anyway, might just be the ones who, having practiced in the field for years, know what works. In this instance, the "new" method is indeed the "old" method which was sloughed-off some time ago in favor of some new fad in reading education.

"Small groups are a part of all classes at Anderson, and students get small-group time with the teacher. The groupings cluster students of similar skills, as determined by another practice the new leadership introduced: continual assessment. The assessments then guide individual instruction."
The bold and italicized type is mine. My goodness! Another example of the reversal of a longtime trend of integrating students of different skill levels. What is being said here? That teaching small groups of similarly skilled students is effective. Don't all of us of a certain age remember reading groups 1, 2 and 3? But then they changed the names of the groups (red, yellow, and blue) so the students wouldn't feel bad if they were in a lower level group, except that the plan didn't work and all the students knew which group was reading more difficult material. Sorting students into ability groups was called "tracking", a reviled practice now, and there has been a movement to abolish it for the last 30 years.

Some of the rationale to abolish tracking was good. Too many students who had the ability to do well in school were often placed in the lower tracks. This generally correlated with race and class. Conversely, students who should never have been put into an "honors" class were placed there due to their place in society and the influence of their parents.

Teacher training programs claimed that multi-level learning groups were more effective. Of course research was cited and examples given. The efficacy of the able students helping the less-able students to master the material was touted as an idea. But if a person thinks about it for more than 2 seconds, the grand plan doesn't make very much sense in terms of efficiency or outcomes.

It is ironic that a type of program that was tossed because it was unfair is being re-introduced, under a different name of course, to "help close the achievement gap".

It makes one want to shout! I hope Arne Duncan is listening.

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