Saturday, July 9, 2011

Slippery Slope

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.


Anonymous said...

If children could have as long as they needed to complete K-12, I would agree with you. But they don't, and the children from challenging backgrounds often need an intense education in the basic skills -- speaking in complete sentences, recognizing letter sounds, fine motor skills important for handwriting and typing, and so forth. I know that you, as a special ed teacher, are well aware of the importance of these building block skills. I wish I believd that in-class differentiation could work for filling in the gaps that we so often see in children from poverty homes (and often other homes). But it hasn't been my experience that this works. Now, with early intervention (language-based preschool in particular), the gap may be diminished by first grade. But I do believe that children who are still working on basic skills need a classroom where that is job #1, SO THAT they can do the broad-based learning and creative thinking that we all hope each child can access.

organized chaos said...

Anonymous- you're right- children from different backgrounds do enter our schools with very different needs. Most of the children who enter the doors of our kindergarten class at the think-tank have been exposed to such little language, even in their home language. Some do not even recognize their own name when it is spoken. We work hard to build a curriculum around their needs that ensures they will be up to grade level by first grade.
I think what scares me about the two articles is the suggestion that overarching policies should be in place that state there are different expectations for different schools. The articles did not seem to take into account what we know about how children learn, instead they seemed to be focused on the fact that they could win over more ed-reform supporters simply by telling parents that their schools will be ignored and only the "other" schools will be subjected to these standards. It could easily lead to bad policy that sets education behind instead of moving it forward.
A lot of what happens in low-income schools is that teachers are not teaching how we know children should learn to read because they are teaching to the tests. Those kids don't need more policies like that- they need teachers that have intensive training in how to teach children coming from those backgrounds.
There's a difference- and I don't think I'm articulating it well here. Perhaps it comes down to the fact that I seem to no longer be trusting education policy to make a meaningful difference in our schools.