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Derailing De-Tracking and Progressive and Experiential Learning by Emphasizing Race, Zero-Sum Thinking

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

The preposterousness of tracking in mathematics became evident to me early in my career as a student. As noted in earlier blog posts, when I moved from the (then) small college town of West Chester, PA to Tulsa OK when I entered fourth grade and back again three years later when I entered 7th grade I witnessed how tracking “works”.  Tulsa’s fourth grade mathematics curriculum was identical to West Chester’s third grade curriculum. Consequently, I did extraordinarily well in math and because of that I was identified as “gifted and talented” and put into an accelerated program when I entered sixth grade. Upon moving back to West Chester, though, I was placed in the second “tier” of classes for mathematics and everything else. There was not only a marked difference in the level of instruction I received, but an even more marked difference in the expectations for our class as a whole. As “gifted and talented” sixth graders in Oklahoma, my classmates and I were inculcated with the idea that our nation’s future was in our hands: we had an obligation to learn as much as possible to compete with the Russians who had launched Sputnik. As a second tier 7th grade student in Pennsylvania, though, the emphasis was on working hard to get a high school degree and doing our assignments neatly, orderly, and on time. Because I liked math and did well in it, I eventually qualified for the first calculus class offered in our high school despite my placement in the second tier in middle school. But in retrospect I did so because my parents assured me I wasn’t a “second tier” student and I had an excellent high school math teacher who was able to find “first tier” students in the “second tier” classrooms. 

The intractability of tracking became evident to me as I worked in and led schools and eventually school districts. In the junior high school where I taught in Philadelphia the students were grouped homogeneously in sections from 8-1 (the “highest” group) to 8-37. In both high schools where I worked as an administrator students were grouped into “College Prep” and “Vocational” sections, a grouping that was presumably based on the choices made by parents and students but reflected the homogeneous grouping in the preceding grades. When I became Superintendent, I worked with Middle Schools in two of the districts I led to abandon homogeneous grouping in Middle Schools. Doing so was a political struggle because both teachers and parents had deeply ingrained notions that it was impossible to change: notions that “ability” was predetermined and immutable and when “high ability” children were mixed with “low ability children” both groups suffered. 

The latest manifestation of that intractability was described in Laura Meckler’s Washington Post article “Can Honors and Regular Students Learn Math Together? A New Approach Argues Yes“. Unlike the debates I had in districts that were almost all White, the latest debates in California have added race to the debate and, in so doing, are engaging voices from the Trump wing of the GOP, voices that add a toxicity to an already contentious debate. Here is Ms. Meckler’s description of the issue:

The California Department of Education is considering a new framework that could affect how millions of students there learn math.

There are two approaches to de-tracking: One advances all students in an “honors-for-all” approach; the other slows the curriculum down for all, arguing this will benefit advanced students by helping them to truly absorb math concepts and build a stronger foundation for advanced work later.

The California framework uses the second approach, but amid intense opposition the recommendations are being revised and softened, recognizing that the tracking is likely to persist.

As is, the framework recommends that all students be mixed into classes together through 10th grade, and that everyone wait until ninth grade to take Algebra 1. Today many advanced students take Algebra 1 in eighth grade or even seventh grade. If adopted, it would be a recommendation, not a mandate. But past recommendations have proved influential.

I would quibble with the idea that having everyone wait to take Algebra 1 until ninth grade is “slowing down” the curriculum for everyone (another long post would be required to explain the rationale for that assertion), particularly since students would have the chance to take advanced mathematics courses in high school if they so desire as Ms. Meckler notes later in her column. I am not at all surprised to read about the pushback the California DOE is getting and how the debate is inevitably entangled with race. 

For me, the notions of “ahead” and “behind” are mental constructs the same way that race is a mental construct. As studies in brain growth are illustrating, neuroplasticity makes it possible for people to change their thinking about deeply ingrained ideas… but only if one is open to new ideas and new possibilities. Studies like those referenced in Ms. Meckler’s article, are only persuasive to those who are willing to believe them.  Old notions, like old paradigms, can only be changed through direct experience and direct experiences like those I had in my formative years as a learner, are hard to replicate at scale. 

Teenagers Working is a PROBLEM? I Don’t Think So!

May 31, 2021 Comments off

The NYTimes has an article in their business section today with this headline and lede: 

The Luckiest Workers in America? Teenagers.

Teens are picking up jobs — and higher wages — as companies scramble to hire. But that trend could have a downside.

As a teenager who worked part-time from grades 7-12 in order to pay for my Freshman year of college, begin a record collection, and have money for movie dates and proms I am very happy to see that teenagers are getting the opportunity to get back to work! And the work they are doing will teach them lessons and give them experiences that public schools cannot begin to replicate. But NYTimes Jeanna Smialek and David McKay DID find a downside: some educators fear that the work will detract from their academics AND the hiring to date has benefitted white teenagers more that minorities: 

Some educators warn that jobs could distract from school. And while employment can itself offer learning opportunities, the most recent wave of hiring has been led by white teens, raising concerns that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market.

The first part of that concern, that “jobs could distract from school”, is invalid in this day and age. If anything, schools should be working with employers to integrate what students witness at work into their academics and using the students’ work experiences to illustrate the relationship between what it being taught in the classroom with the skills students need on the job. Teachers who pretend that what THEY teach in their classes is more important than what employers expect their workers to know contribute to the students’ perceptions that there is a disconnect between work and learning. There isn’t. When students work they are learning about human behavior and, in many cases, applying the humanistic principles they garner from reading literature and the basic mathematics and algebra skills they learn in the classroom. This connection was not obvious to me when I delivered newspapers, mowed lawns, did landscaping work, moved furniture, painted hospital rooms, or worked on an assembly line. But when I had time to reflect on it as an adult I came to realize that there was an explicit connection that an artful teacher could have made if they realized what I was doing apart from the school and demonstrated those links to me. 

The second part of that concern, “that young people from minority groups might miss out on a hot summer labor market” could also be addressed by schools if they re-directed the role of counselors away from preparing students for college and focussed more on transitioning students to adulthood. Our culture’s obsession with college attendance combined with taxpayer’s unwillingness to fully fund public education means that any expansion of the duties of counselors to address NON-college bound students is an impossibility. If we want to connect with all children in school and especially if we hope to help minority students take advantage of hot job markets, we need to have counselors who are connected with the job market capable of connecting able and willing job seekers to job openings AND to provide support for those who have never held a job to succeed once they have a placement. Instead of seeing guidance counselors and college placement coaches we should view them as “life coaches”. And to do that requires MORE counselors and, therefore, more money. 

The influx of federal money might provide an opportunity for additional counselors to provide not only the post-Covid mental health services described in numerous articles but the link to the suddenly hot job openings that are emerging in the coming months as the economy opens up. NOW might be the opportunity to redefine the mission of counseling, particularly in those states like NH and VT who have established mechanisms for students to get academic credit for relevant workplace experiences. 

Carpe Diem! 

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NYC Schools Offer No Virtual Learning in Fall… and Offer No Change to 2019-20 Status Quo

May 25, 2021 Comments off

The headline for Eliza Shapiro’s article in yesterday’s NYTimes reads “NYC Will Eliminate Remote Learning For Next Year School“. Ms. Shapiro opens the article with this focal point:

New York City will no longer have a remote schooling option come fall, Mayor Bill de Blasio said Monday, a major step toward fully reopening the nation’s largest school system and a crucial marker in the city’s economic recovery after more than a year of disruptions caused by the pandemic.

The announcement represents the single most important decision the city was facing on school reopening, and means that all students and staff members will be back in buildings full time. Many parents will also be able to return to work without supervising their children’s online classes, which could prompt the revitalization of entire industries and neighborhoods.

The content of the article was a good encapsulation of the debates that have raged for the past months. This debates tended to focus primarily on the impact of school closures on the economy at large, an impact that was a consequence of public education’s ultimate duty: the provision of child care for the low wage work force. Low wage workers could not function unless they were physically present at the work site and their children could not do well with remote instruction without parental supervision. From the perspective of political and business leaders reopening schools had nothing to do with teaching children: it had to do with getting the low wage workers on the job so their businesses could function. The media’s endless coverage on the debates about masks, social distancing, the role of the teachers unions, deep cleaning, and the deficiencies of remote learning due to technological glitches provided grist for the culture wars that accompanied the “debate” on school reopening.

Bu for the past several months, politicians, teachers unions, school boards, and parents have been having the wrong debate. They’ve been debating the effectiveness of the ad hoc remote learning formats to the 2019-20 status quo model of education and found the ad hoc learning formats wanting. When schools were forced to close due to the pandemic, I was hopeful that the hiatus from the traditional “stand-and-deliver-and-teach-to-the-test” model of schooling would call that model into question and, when the spotlight was shone on it, the public would, at long last, abandon the factory model and replace it with something better. That didn’t happen. Instead of looking at remote learning as a stopgap measure policy makers and politicians could have used the closures to closely examine the premises of the current school system. They could have asked the set of questions posed in the “About” section of this blog. Fundamental questions about the way school is organized and the way quality is measured. Questions like:

  • Why are students grouped in grade levels based on their age?
  • Why are students graded within a particular grade level based on their rate of learning?
  • Why are students grouped at all?
  • Why do we use comparisons with other students to define an individual student’s “success”?
  • Why do we use extrinsic rewards and punishments to motivate students?
  • Why do we limit the mission of school to academic instruction?
  • What values do we teach children because of the way we measure student learning?

Instead of debating “when will schools reopen” we could have been debating “how will schools operate when they reopen?”

Ms. Shapiro alludes to this missed opportunity near the end of her article:

Along with bringing students back to classrooms, some families say the city should also do more to address so much of what wasn’t working well for vulnerable children before the pandemic, including segregated schools, large class sizes and poor infrastructure.

“When the pandemic hit, we thought this was really the wake-up call for us to do better, to really restructure the system,” said Shino Tanikawa, a parent activist in Manhattan. “I don’t see that happening.”

Too bad the NYTimes didn’t use more of its column inches to explore the kinds of restructuring parent activists like Shino Tanikawa were seeking. It MIGHT have changed the debate away from the “culture war” topics like masking and union-vs-management to deeper questions about the purpose of schools— which I hope is more that providing child care for low wage workers.