Friday, September 12, 2008

Disadvantaged by Expectations

I attended a school board meeting last night where I observed a presentation made by several school administrators about the 2008 summer school program in that district. There were three separate programs there - a k-6 program, an Algebra Academy summer program for students in grades 5-8, and a 7-12 program.

The Algebra Academy program looked spectacular. Students who had scored proficient or advanced on the previous year's California Standards Test were invited to participate. The Academy ran all morning on the days it was in session, and students progressed through a series of 35 minute class sessions with no real breaks. The teachers were math experts who love teaching math. The sessions were exciting and interactive. Students were using manipulatives, playing math games, and building things. In short, they were having a blast--while they were learning!

Then we heard about the traditional summer program for students in grades 7-12. The program was designed for students with Ds and Fs who needed to retake a course or two, or get some additional tutoring to pass the California High School Exit Exam. The presentation talked about attendance and students completing "essential assignments." Overall, it looked like the program was successful because high percentages of students passed their courses, but it was clear that neither the content of the program or the methods employed by the teachers were anything like the Algebra Academy.

Here are the questions that were running through my mind after the presentation:

Don't the students who have been struggling with grades deserve an exciting, engaging program, too? Don't they actually need it to succeed?

Why should engaging teaching methods be reserved as a reward for students who have demonstrated that they can succeed with more traditional methods?

If all teachers during the regular school year employed the type of hands-on, motivating teaching techniques used during the Algebra Academy, wouldn't there be fewer students with Ds and Fs? Wouldn't overall attendance also be better? Wouldn't fewer kids drop out of school?

Why do we expect that students who have performed better in response to traditional, less interactive teaching methods need more creative methods to really excel and keep from getting bored, yet we assume that those who have not performed well in response to traditional methods need more of the same to "get it right?"

I completely understand the challenges associated with motivating students in today's secondary schools, and I also understand the challenges associated with teaching to standards and preparing students for exit exams and proficiency tests. However, the expectations of most schools regarding which students need which teaching methods is completely confused.

The more advanced students absolutely should have access to creative, innovative programs and engaging teaching methods.

All students should have access to those programs and methods all the time.

Students who are disengaged from school and getting Ds and Fs know what most educators think about them and what they expect from them. Eventually, they will adopt those same expectations for themselves. By high school, most of them have already.

The current approach will continue to disadvantage those who are already disconnected from the schooling process and traditional methods.

Restructuring programs for struggling students is difficult. It demands much more of administrators and teachers. Most importantly, it requires the courage to advocate for an instructional approach that takes more energy to implement and bucks up against over 150 years of tradition in secondary education.

Who will have the courage to do it differently?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more! Our schools continue to give students, particularly students who are not achieving grade level standards, more of the same instruction; however, "if you always do what you've always done, you will always get what you've always gotten." We have the brain research that tells us what works best to help all kids learn (exactly what was exemplified by the Algebra Academy - hands-on, engaging activities, critical thinking tasks, passionate teachers)but our classrooms are still using methodology that was seen 100 years ago! Let's let all students experience the thrill of learning and success like the students at the Algebra Academy. It can be done!

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