Liddick: ‘Equal access’ no miracle cure
Wait, what?Evidently, the Summit School Board intends to implement its “equal access” plan, and the opposition be damned. According to the board president, they’re a bunch of racists anyway.The ongoing tiff over what our school board terms equal access, and what those of us with a memory might recognize as the logical conclusion of the “mainstreaming” movement, is informative. For a moment, the mask slipped; parents and taxpayers were treated to an unvarnished look at a group of educational administrators who will do as they jolly well see fit, whatever we rubes say about it. Have no doubt, the board’s “task force” will bubble with enthusiasm for the project, and any written report will be so cloaked in educational fustian that the normal reader will be comatose by page 2. Then, the board’s desires will be wrought.The spat is a shame, since one of the overall goals of the program – moving the English Language Learner population into English-language-only classrooms – is laudable. Evidence shows this dramatically speeds English acquisition, as well as improves overall performance. But yes, the “model” for the program is … flawed. Reading through the questions and answers generated at the August school board meeting on the subject, it’s clear a common mistake is being made: “high academic achievement” is being linked to the mechanics and processes of teaching – “… high quality instructional delivery of curriculum and learning activities …” – with only two of 19 items dealing at any length with the reality of differing levels of student ability. It seems our school board has mistaken Summit County for Garrison Keillor’s Lake Woebegon, where “all children are above average.” Read the entire Q & A for yourself at the Summit School District’s website.A background note: I believe in education for special purposes, and in individualized instruction for those having difficulty learning; it works. I’ve seen it, more than once. But based on past iterations of the “one size fits all” methodology the school board’s “equal access” plan proposes, I fear that sort of thing wouldn’t be possible once full implementation occurs – regardless of airy promises to the contrary.In the real world, an all-abilities classroom follows an unforgiving calculation of time management. The lowest-performing students and those with behavior problems get the lion’s share of attention. The highest performers are left to their own devices; often, they are dragooned into tutoring the middling students. This regime is reinforced by the presence of high-stakes testing, and no amount of gaseous language about “ability grouping,” “rigorous challenges” or “measuring elements of outcome” will change it. Most teachers know this; few will freely admit it to non-teachers. So no, “equal access” will not produce a dramatic uptick in student performance. Review Summit School District CSAP scores for 10th grade science, where the program has been implemented, and enrollment has more than tripled – something the district points to as evidence of success. In 2009-10, 61 percent of students tested were “proficient and advanced”; in 2010-11, the number dropped to 48 percent. It’s only one result, true. But one should take it as evidence that conversion needs to be rather slow and results measured carefully before the district fully commits itself and its charges. Damn-the-torpedoes pursuit of this academic fashion is a mistake. It will disadvantage the very best students, and will have further deleterious effects on relations between the school board and the public. It will also exacerbate a problem about which the board is rightly concerned: the low graduation rate of some groups of students.Consider the stated goal of the program: “Equal Access to High Academic Achievement for ALL” (emphasis in the original). When everyone is in a classroom which expects high achievement, some will flourish; perhaps more than were previously enrolled in advanced programs. But what of those who have trouble maintaining the pace? Those unprepared for true academic rigor? Those lacking the intellectual horsepower, the tools, or even – gasp – the inclination to push the scholastic envelope? In a less-demanding environment they might be “C” students, and go on to make large sums of money fixing my cars or installing HVAC systems. But if “High Academic Achievement for ALL” is the benchmark, common sense tells us that one of two things will be happening a few years from now: Either we will be wringing our hands in worry over the rising dropout and failure rate, or the school district will be desperately casting about for “new methods of measurement.”While we wait for the next miracle cure to come along. Summit County resident Morgan Liddick pens a Tuesday column. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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