Joanne Jacobs notes two recent articles that question whether or not all children need the same things from schools. The articles suggest that students from suburban backgrounds do not need the same things from public schools that children from at-risk backgrounds need. They note that suburban parents are not pushing for school reform because they are happy with the state of their schools. Therefore, the articles suggest, education reform policies need to focus on schools serving at-risk populations and should tactfully ignore schools serving middle and upper class students. Then they may earn the support of the suburban parents who are currently hesitant to push for reform because they are happy with their current schools.
There is a sad truth here because, yes, children from suburban backgrounds have different needs than children from at-risk backgrounds. My kindergartners enter the classroom without knowing the alphabet, some, not even able to recognize their own name in print. I have a feeling many suburban children enter kindergarten all about to write their own name, and read some words. It's true- instruction itself needs to vary from child to child based on the children's individual needs.
But this can be done in the classroom through differentiation or good teaching. It doesn't mean we need different policies for different schools. In the field of special education we've done a lot to make sure all children are given the same experiences and are held to the same expectations. Federal laws dictate that children with special needs receive a Free & Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) in the Least Restrictive Environment (LRE). Every classroom in American should be meeting the needs of all the children within its walls- creating shared experiences and shared expectations regardless while differentiating to meet the students' individual needs.
It seems to me that policies that would differentiate between whole schools based on the income of the neighborhood would be just as discriminating and segregating as our special ed environment before FAPE and LRE were put into place. We would be creating a cultural expectation that children from poor neighborhoods deserve to be given one set of schools while children from more privileged neighborhoods deserve another. This may help close the achievement gap that is measured by standardized tests, but I suspect we would find that the achievement gap between those ready for the college and the workplace and those not prepared would expand.
Our children going to schools untouched by policy would likely be pushed toward using creativity and critical thinking skills in their daily lives. Those children would enter college and the work place prepared to examine difficult questions from all sides, think outside the box, and would have a better understanding of how to work toward a larger goal. Children from at-risk neighborhoods whose teachers were pushed to teach only to the test will have factual knowledge and will be able to write a clear 5 paragraph essay, but will not have the skills to apply that knowledge to their world. Freshman college classes will be filled with two different schools of thought- and one of those sets will quickly become very, very frustrated as their peers adapt to the new environment due to their academic preparation.
Every child, regardless of their neighborhood, deserves to be exposed to critical thinking skills and creativity. Every child deserves to have the same experiences that truly prepare them for the real world and not just to take a test that measures their teacher's ability. Good teaching will meet the needs of all students in the classroom, finding ways to teach the facts needed for the test through larger projects that also teach creativity and critical thinking.
The system is far from perfect now. We need better teaching that will focus on giving all children both sets of skills. We need administrators and policy makers that understand child development, how children learn, and the importance of teaching students how to take factual knowledge and apply it to a greater problem. We do not need different policies for different schools. We do not need to discriminate against or track our students based on their neighborhoods.