Tuesday, February 26, 2013

Narrowing the Achievement Gap: how current trends backfire

Narrowing the achievement gap, as I noted earlier, has become a national obsession. But many of the efforts by today's educational institutions to narrow the gap actually end up widening it.

One such strategy, as I argue in my last post, is Reform Math. Its deficiencies have prompted the better educated, more resourceful, more financially able parents--the ones whose children are most likely to be on the upper side of the gap already--to seek outside enrichment or private education. Those whose entire K12 math education comes from classroom Reform Math, therefore, not only get a worse math education than children in most other developed countries, but also fall even further behind their more privileged classmates here in America.

A second strategy aimed at narrowing the gap is insisting that all kids do grade-level work, as defined earlier by the No Child Left Behind tests and now by the Common Core standards. This not only holds the top performers back and prompts their parents to seek private schools and/or extracurricular enrichment; it also makes it impossible to effectively remediate those on the other side of the gap. Many kids in this country either enter 1st grade with below age-level academic skills, and/or later fall (even further) behind because they're particularly vulnerable to deficient phonics instruction, deficient penmanship instruction, and all that's wrong with Reform Math. Perhaps they begin school with a weaker cognitive aptitude or mild learning disabilities, or perhaps it's simply that their parents aren't intervening with all that extracurricular help that their more privileged counterparts are getting.

In this blog I've focused mostly on how the one-size-fits-all approach hurts high-achievers. But I've also seen it hurting those on the other side of the gap. In the after school teaching program I'm involved with, for example, I see 5th graders who are still counting on their fingers and baffled by numerators and denominators struggling unsuccessfully through homework assignments that ask them to multiply numbers or add fractions. To make any progress at all, they need at this point to begin with math lessons several grade levels below what the Common Core dictates. Will the typical Common Core implementation allow this?

A third gap-narrowing strategy that ends up backfiring is the reliance on accommodation over instruction, which I blogged about earlier. Here I discussed a Philadelphia-area school that attempts to educate students with dyslexia and other "language-based differences" via an "arts-based approach that includes costumes, games, activities, and classrooms decorated as medieval castles and prehistoric caves." To catch up with their peers, these students need more practice with language and reading, not less.

A similar strategy aims to accommodate different "learning styles": providing multiple "entry points" for assignment completion. A science teacher at one model school, for example, assigns weekly homework with options that range from doing an experiment or solving some science problems, on the one hand, to tracking down a science article in the mainstream media and writing a summary.

But "learning styles" research is bunk. What the actual research suggests is that students differ not in their learning styles, but in their cognitive strengths and weaknesses. And what this means is that strategies intended to acommodate styles end up widening gaps. How likely is it that those with weak science skills will choose the science problems while those with weak language arts skills will choose the summary? Essentially what we have here is a voluntary form of tracking, vaguely reminiscent of that found in European high schools: one for the scientically inclined, another for those who prefer language arts.

But most of today's education professionals say they're totally opposed to tracking--precisely because it widens the gap. Narrowing the gap, however, means putting children ahead of ideology, and putting an end to the many new practices that are largely responsible for how wide the gap has gotten in the first place.


shiftingphases.com said...

Thanks for the thoughtful treatment. I was hoping to check out your resource on learning styles, but the link is broken -- hope you can repost.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks! Fixed!

Anonymous said...

I had a teacher who assigned weakly homework as well.

Katharine Beals said...

Spelling error fixed as well. Thanks, Anonymous.

Anonymous said...

Yes! Accommodation is fine when the problem is something that cannot be changed; blindness, deafness, missing/impaired limb, paralysis etc. That was the original target population for IDEA, IIRC and accommodation is necessary for that population. However, for learning disabilities, ASD, ADHD etc., kids shouldn't be accommodated, they should be taught how to cope and to maximize what they can do. A relative's dyslexic child was simply given answers by her spec ed teacher, who had no idea how to instruct her (despite the fact that effective strategies have been around since before WW1 IIRC); the only help was a private consultant - who had left the school system because she hadn't been allowed to teach the strategies she knew would allow the kids to compensate. After a few years working with her, my relative's DD was able to manage on her own, with no IEP - and has since graduated from college with a foreign-language major (and has a real job). The one-size-fits-all approach is one of the biggest weaknesses of the public school system, IMHO.

shiftingphases.com said...

Thanks. If you're not already reading Will At Work Learning, you might appreciate it -- I find him thorough and dispassionate (see for example his series on learning styles.

Katharine Beals said...

Thanks for the link, shiftingphases. I just checked it out. Yes, he does seem thorough and open-minded.