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February 24, 2006

Making One Size Fit All: Rainwater seeks board input as schools cut ability-based classes

Jason Shephard, writing in this week's Isthmus:

Kerry Berns, a resource teacher for talented and gifted students in Madison schools, is worried about the push to group students of all abilities in the same classrooms.

“I hope we can slow down, make a comprehensive plan, [and] start training all teachers in a systematic way” in the teaching methods known as “differentiation,” Berns told the Madison school board earlier this month. These are critical, she says, if students of mixed abilities are expected to learn in “heterogeneous” classrooms.

“Some teachers come about it very naturally,” Berns noted. “For some teachers, it’s a very long haul.”

Following the backlash over West High School replacing more than a dozen electives with a single core curriculum for tenth grade English, a school board committee has met twice to hear about the district’s efforts to expand heterogeneous classes.

The school board’s role in the matter is unclear, even to its members. Bill Keys told colleagues it’s “wholly inappropriate” for them to be “choosing or investigating curriculum issues.”

Superintendent Art Rainwater told board members that as “more and more” departments make changes to eliminate “dead-end” classes through increased use of heterogeneous classes, his staff needs guidance in form of “a policy decision” from the board. If the board doesn’t change course, such efforts, Rainwater said, will likely be a “major direction” of the district’s future.

Links and articles on Madison West High School's English 10, one class for all program. Dr. Helen has a related post: " I'm Not Really Talented and Gifted, I Just Play One for the PC Crowd"

Most elementary and middle schools long ago abandoned “tracking” students based on test scores or prior grades. Now some question whether the “one size fits all” model is best for high schools.

In summarizing the research, Adam Gamoran, director of the Wisconsin Center for Education Research, urged board members to keep a close eye on failure rates and standardized test scores. [video from the recent performance and Achievement meetings: 1/30/2006 2/13/2006]

Heterogeneous classes aren’t a panacea, but Gamoran said grouping kids by ability has in the past led to lower-tracked classes with weaker teachers, lower standards and higher percentages of minorities.

Others share this same concern.

“While we can tell kids and we can tell each other that…we’re all the same, we’re all equal, separateness doesn’t communicate equality, and it doesn’t produce equality,” said Amanda Bell, a sixth grade teacher at Sherman Middle School. Indeed, she told the board, ability-grouping was “feeding into racism.”

But Jeff Henriques, a member of the group Madison United for Academic Excellence, told the board high-achieving students deserve to be challenged in classrooms of like-minded students. And Lucy Mathiak, who is challenging incumbent Juan Jose Lopez in April’s school board election, says heterogeneous classes aren’t the only solution to racial disparities in classes.

“You want to desegregate [advanced placement] and upper level classes?” Mathiak asked board members. “Then start desegregating the guidance system,” which she says often encourages minority students to take less challenging courses.

Action or inaction on curriculum will certainly be a significant issue in the April 4, 2006 Madison School Board election (2 seats)

Posted by Jim Zellmer at February 24, 2006 7:48 AM
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