I hope the holidays were pleasant for everyone. Except for one vigorous debate with my husband over whether to wash the pre-washed lettuce yet again, we had a serene and home-bound holiday. We visited friends in the neighborhood. made fudge and played Rummikub.
Because most of my friends have school-age kids, we always fall into conversation about education. I want to share two conversation themes that came up several times over the holidays.
The first is the perennial private school versus public debate. I am in a strong public system here in Decatur, made all the stronger by the prevalence of parents with advanced college degrees. (This is due to the high number of CDC researchers, Emory doctors and college professors who live here. )
Neighbors with two kids in public school and one in private told me that the biggest difference they saw was testing. Their public school offspring were always being prepped for tests or taking tests. And they felt that once the CRCT was completed in the spring, most learning stopped in public schools. Their youngest in a private school spends little time preparing for tests or taking tests. They feel that he has had a more rewarding experience in school as a result of being spared testing pressures and preparation.
The second issue that came up a lot is tracking based on abilities. Until this year, our local middle school had advanced classes in math and language arts for children who tested into them. This year, they are not pulling students out of classes but creating “clusters” for those capable of more challenging work within the regular classes. Few parents of advanced students thought this approach was working well.
I attended a high school with rigid tracking and have mixed feelings about it. But I also think the success of this “cluster” approach to acceleration depends on the ability of teachers to differentiate instruction, an issue that we have debated here on the blog many times.
I have teacher friends who contend that differentiating instruction for every child is impossible in classes of 30 students with ability levels that range from functioning years below grade level to years beyond. In such a diverse pool of learners, teachers tell me that they have to throw the life preserver to the students who can barely tread water in class and leave the Olympic-level swimmers on their own.
In talking to parents about offering advanced opportunities within regular classes, most said their kids didn’t quite grasp that they were in an advanced cluster; the kids only grumbled that they received packets of advanced work to do. Some of the kids treated the packets as optional.
It still surprises me that school systems are experimenting with how best to address advanced learners as I would assume that there would be clear findings by now on what works. I also think that administrators tend to oversell these programs to parents during orientation meetings. The administrators describe how the program should work when all the conditions are optimal and the teacher is on board and highly effective.
But few classrooms have optimal conditions.
–By Maureen Downey, for the AJC Get School blog