Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Deep Curriculum for All

As a young teacher, I taught in a high school that separated students into five different tracks at each grade level. Students in each of those tracks were supposed to receive a certain sort of education. As you might imagine, the lower track expectation was for lower level curricula of the sort described in the example in Kylene Beers’ The Genteel Unteaching of America's Poor. I, though, was na├»ve and new as a teacher, and it never occurred to me to dumb down learning in my classroom or to shield certain of my students from particular kinds of learning opportunities. Thank goodness for newness and naivety!

I thought back to my high school teaching days yesterday when Washington Post columnist Jay Mathews and Newsweek released “The Top of the Class” (Newsweek, June 8, 2009). The report names the most successful high schools in the nation measured by adding the total number of Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate or Cambridge tests taken by all students at the school in May and dividing the result by the number of seniors graduating in May or June. 1500 American public high schools have made the grade of 1.000 or higher.

In his column "Is AP for All A Formula For Failure?" (The Washington Post, June 8, 2009), Matthews argues that all students should take AP classes and he points to one or two schools that have had success with this. The Newsweek list points to more successful schools. It seems, according to #5 on the FAQ for the Newsweek list, that the higher ranked schools do offer more students challenging curriculum along with those tests.

Today, as I thought about the high school rankings, Education Week released its annual Diploma Counts report. Today, in America, only 7 of 10 students graduate from high school in four years (a statistic which some consider to underestimate the numbers of dropouts). In fact, in 2006 (the latest available data from the Editorial Projects in Education Research Center) only 69.2% o American students graduated from high school. That was an increase of 2.8% over the 1996 graduation rate—not so good in my estimation. I can’t help but think that some of those who don’t graduate drop out because they are not drawn into a challenging curriculum. And we can change that.

What if we take Matthews’ argument and translate AP and IB into “challenging 21st century curriculum” as NCTE defines it in the NCTE Framework for 21st Century Curriculum and Assessment? Can we increase the numbers of high school graduates and the numbers of schools that rank at the top because their students are successful with challenging curriculum? I think so.

1 comment:

Susan Houser said...

I totally concur with Millie's comments about "dumming down" the curriculum for lower achieving students. My own experience tells me that even students labeled "poor readers" will and can achieve at whatever standard the teacher sets.
A few years ago when teaching these labeled 8th graders, I read such short stories as "The Necklace", "The Monkey's Paw", "The Tell-Tale Heart" from the original text with my students. These are a difficult read for even above average readers in 8th grade. Not only did they enjoy and comprehend the stories, they asked for more by the same authors. The year after this great experience, however, I was handed a dummied down version of some of these same stories and authors in a text from a canned curriculum bought by the county for "below grade level" readers and told I "must" use the text. My students were not only insulted, they were so bored with the story before we got to then end, they didn't even want to finish!
I have concerns even today as I read in the newspaper about how our county(Pinellas, Florida) ranks lower than any other Florida county in student test scores for minority students or students identified in the "achievement gap" statistics. I'm not sure what administrators expect when their solution to the problem is this, as stated by our superientendent:
'The specifics are unclear. But for some schools it could mean longer days, smaller classes or more focus on teacher quality if it will help black students succeed, said superintendent Julie Janssen.'
There's a good solution - segregate them in "special classes", have them stay after hours for remediation and focus on the "teacher quality". This is all negative motivation. Why not just expect that the students will read where they need to, provide additonal vocabulary and comprehension strategies that
will help struggling students and continue to include them in higher level thinking classes where they actually communicate with other students who do have the advanced skills? What a novel thought!