Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Curbing excellence: The trouble with American education

In line with maybe my newly found interest in education, but the claims made by Steve Chapman in this column make sense. To start, the Evanston, IL school district (a city on the northern city limits of Chicago) opted to eliminate a high honors freshman English course. Why?
School administrators in Evanston insist the change is aimed at making the curriculum more demanding, even as they make it less demanding for some students. Thanks to the abolition of this elite course, we are told, "high-achieving students" will profit from "experiencing multiple perspectives and diversity in their classes to gain cultural capital."

In other words, racial balance will take priority over academic rigor. Blacks and Hispanics make up nearly half of all students but only 19 percent of those in advanced placement courses and 29 percent of those in honors courses.

This is because minority students at Evanston, which has an enrollment of nearly 3,000, generally score lower on achievement tests. Putting all students together is supposed to give everyone an equal opportunity.

But if you have a fever, you don't bring it down by breaking the thermometer. The low numbers of black and Hispanic students are a symptom of a deeper problem, namely the failure of elementary and middle schools to prepare them for the most challenging course work. Evanston has had a big racial gap in academic performance for decades, and there is nothing to gain from pretending it doesn't exist.
Evanston is said to be racially and ethnically diverse. Yet "minority" students still have issues achieving up in that part of the Chicagoland area. So the next paragraphs to that quote above are key:
Schools that group (or "track") kids by ability generally get better overall results. Chester Finn Jr., president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, notes in a recent report, "Middle schools with more tracks have significantly more math pupils performing at the advanced and proficient levels and fewer students at the needs improvement and failing levels."

Why would that be? Teaching is not easy, and teaching kids with a wide range of aptitude and interest is even harder. Grouping students by ability allows the tailoring of lessons to match the needs of each group. Putting them all together is bound to fail one group or another. 
Then how do we decide ability or aptitude? It seems to me some of these measure are arbitrary. Although I know that many measures to decide ability or achievement have been proven.

Another problem is implementation. Surely it cost money to separate students out according to this idea ability or aptitude. It also costs money to hire personnel who can teach each group to their abilities.

You know it reminds me of the LSC meeting at Bennett this past month. They said that the special education students who aren't even at grade level (or more accurately are at a lower grade level than their peers) are still tested at the same grade level as their peers. That's right if a special ed student is only at a 1st grade level and they're in the 7th grade, that student is still tested in the 7th grade. That individual is doomed to fail.

Attaining a level of excellence is key to changing the perception of the public schools. Just have no idea how to get the schools there. Well all aspects of the urban school system from the students, to parents, to teachers and the administrators. There has to be a way.

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