“Enriched instruction” = “I’m going to grade her harder”

THE STORY

In my entire professional career, I have only dropped the “F” bomb on a teacher once. I am not speaking of “F” for “failure,” but the other unmentionable, unprofessional and terribly offensive “F” bomb. My daughter’s teacher (subject matter omitted to protect the innocent) produced award-winning students in the subject matter National Test every year. She was masterful at helping her students achieve “high levels” that allowed them to take even higher levels of the same subject very early on in their high school careers. My daughter was fortunate enough to have her in 7th grade, where, because she performed so well, she was placed in the “A” track for her 8th grade year. When she began her 8th grade year with the same teacher, there were a few “B” track students “inconveniently” placed in the same class, so the teacher took all her students back to the same 7th grade material, the same text, the same tests, the same notes from the beginning to the end! This, she said, was so “everyone was on the same page.” The “B” track students did not make the class pace very fast, and, therefore, the 8th grade class ended not far past the entire 7th grade year. Lo and behold, in my daughter’s 9th grade year, the same teacher was given “A,” “B” and “C” track students in the same “level 2” class. The teacher used the same approach as in my daughter’s 8th grade class, even to the point that my 6th grade son had the exact same homework in the same subject with the same textbook from a different teacher for the entire first month of school. Angry and bitter about how her class was formed, the teacher let her students know that the administration was careless about putting students of so many different levels (or tracks) in the same class. My daughter and one other student were quite bored and asked the teacher for supplemental instruction. They were now in their THIRD year of the exact same textbook, the exact same tests and the exact same methodology with the exact same teacher. I received a very friendly and enthusiastic phone call from my daughter’s teacher, who told me what a joy it is to teach someone such as my daughter. The teacher laid out her plan to “enrich” the girls’ instruction, which included potentially inspiring activity applying the subject matter in quite enjoyable ways. Then, the teacher caught me completely off guard. While my daughter was enjoying the success of her grade of “A” in the class, tired of the teacher’s complaints that they are repeating level 1 material for the third time and that the school is doing the students and teacher a disservice by placing all three tracks in the same class, my daughter was also aware she was not learning anything new. The teacher simply told me that, because this was “enriched instruction,” she was going to grade my daughter much harder. It was going to be more difficult for her to get an “A.” I, in my most regretted utterance to a teacher ever, said, “There’s no f-ing way my daughter is going to be penalized for asking for engaging work! If she can do the work you ask her to do, she should not be punished for wanting to see it applied in real life, and she should not be graded on a different scale than the others who for the most part had had the same material as well.” I then told the teacher that if she was going to stress my daughter out by lording a less attainable grade of “A” over her head simply because my daughter wants to learn something new and meaningful, I know for a fact my daughter would rather just “get the grade.” I regret losing my cool and have apologized as profusely and sincerely as I can to her teacher, but this story brings up so many concerns about mass education. Let’s examine them.

THE ISSUES

You are right if you have concluded that this one is personal! This is my baby girl, who, now at 20 years old, writes a blog of her own (www.wordsofhopeblog.com). The deep-rooted issues rampant within this story frighten me! There is not a single issue that overrides or supersedes the others. All the issues are widespread, but very few of them have really been solved at a systemic level in many schools at all.

-Tracking: In principle, tracking can be an efficient way to streamline the delivery of a set of content to a homogeneous population. But, just as confusion exists over who constitutes the A-team in an organization, many times there are many issues with creating and implementing a system by creating A-, B- and C-Tracks of students in mass education.

1) Which students are placed in which track under which criteria?

2) Under whose authority are students placed into each track?

3) What exactly are the criteria for placing students into a certain track, and who designs them?

4) Are the criteria commensurate with the school’s overall mission?

5) Is the mission appropriate in the context of professional standards?

6) How are the tracks (and the grades received from students in each track) reported to subsequent institutions of learning?

7) What is the purpose of the tracking, and is the school overall aware of and in agreement with that purpose?

8) Does the tracking serve the purpose of accomplishing the proper objectives in the curriculum?

9) Is the “curriculum” around which the tracks are created professionally and developmentally appropriate for the students?

Tracking makes sense for very specific purposes, but, in its current state, teachers really don’t have the time or capacity to individualize instruction when tracking does not help. Instead, they teach a set of curriculum using a particular (and familiar) method, usually the same way they were taught. Even if their preferred approach is not supported by the Education research base, teachers are still committed to it believing it is easier to teach similar kids the same content in one simple manner. My daughter’s teacher was responsible for placing each student in her or his “track,” but the administration was responsible for creating classes out of the whole group of students. Given the nature of the subject matter, the manner in which the teacher assimilated the students was completely unsupervised, or, in my opinion, neglected. As a result, an entire class except for three C-track students repeated the level one content material at least once and then rushed through the level two as much as possible. The entire class did not move very far along the mastery spectrum of the intended level TWO to be taught.

-Remediation: When forces beyond the teacher’s control place students of different tracks into one class, how should instruction look different? Should teachers “punish” students who have already mastered material others in the class haven’t by forcing boring, repetitive review? Is there a better way? Research says “yes.” However, supervisors (with unrealistic demands of test scores, etc.) and overworked teachers do not have the time or permission to fail at learning these strategies. Therefore, teachers insist on homogeneity… of student demographics, of instructional approach, of student behavior expectations, of parental involvement, of teacher support and validation for a teaching job “well done” and of much more. I must say my standards are high given my credentials, but all schools boast “excellence,” yet most are offended when that “excellence” is challenged in any way.

-Supplemental Instruction or “Enrichment”: The issue here involves more than just exceptionalities (described a bit more in the next related issue). When parents (or consultants such as myself) hear their student’s teacher will be supplementing or enriching instruction, the immediate thoughts turn to “real-world” application. This inherently means that “regular” instruction is UNrelated to student life experience. But, on that exciting occasion when a teacher does invite students to participate in enrichment activities, the assumption is that students already have learned “what they’re supposed to” and now they are applying it in other environments. This raises many issues, too!

1) Does everyone get to participate in supplemental instruction or only those who actually master the material?

2) Is the teacher assuming all the students can perform the enrichment exercises even though some have not had the opportunity to practice doing so? Another way to ask this questions is, “What is being assessed: the accomplishing of the “regular” curriculum or the application of the regular curriculum in the supplemental setting?”

3) Related to the above question is the following: Is the teacher making an assumption that if students master the “basic” information, they will automatically be able to perform the supplemental tasks? And a corollary, “Is the mastery of the ‘regular curriculum’ the appropriate objectives for the discipline area being taught?”

4) Will students be punished if they perform poorly on the supplemental tasks even though they have successfully mastered the “basics?”

Again, supervisors and teachers do not spend their time resolving these conflicts of interest in the name of academic freedom, busy-ness, or for any number of other reasons. A great deal of research exists to help academic institutions resolve these issues to the point of creating a relevant, vibrant instructional experience for the teachers and learners.

-“Individualized instruction”:

I would like to save this issue for a full-blog entry, but it cannot go unnoticed in this story! Call it “learning differences,” or “differentiated instruction” or whatever the buzzword du jour, there exist research-tested methods to manage students who need a special set of instructional strategies to help them achieve the most and best they can. In a mass-delivery system of education (independent, charter or public), teachers fall into the full spectrum of supervisory support. This story demonstrates the worst possible scenario: leaving a teacher with “success” and the department in which she teaches to their own devices. In this case, two students simply did not want to repeat Level I material for the third time. The teacher neither received nor asked for proper support or input regarding her choice to “go back and get everyone YET AGAIN on the same page.” As a parent, it felt almost as if this choice was punishment for the administration’s placing A-, B-, and C- Tracked students in the same class. Instead of the students’ best interest in a “least restrictive environment,” she chose boredom and drudgery, complaining publicly to the students about the foolish choices of the administration. My question is, “Who is being punished here?” We all know the answer to that!

Regarding supplemental instruction or individualized instruction or differentiated instruction, I know many “stories” that fall both on the positive side and negative side. This story was personal, but it illustrates three important issues. First, teachers’ commitments to one “successful” approach may help every students accomplish a particular set of objectives, but are those objectives the ones the students ought to be achieving? Second, when students accomplish even those self-selected objectives, what happens when students DO or DON’T accomplish them (BEFORE and WITHIN respectively) the amount of time the teachers have allotted? Third, where does the role of supervision fit in to the big picture goals and objectives of the department, the professional field, and the school? Difficult issues such as these are deeply rooted and take serious growing pains to resolve, pains rarely allowed to heal and guide educational excellence.

-Whose problem is it?

This is such a sticky wicket! When a teacher gets ANY results, colleagues, administrators and parents alike praise the teacher and/or leave the teacher alone, hoping the achievements will result in the same with next year’s students. This breeds a culture where the teacher, the department and the administration dance with negotiated distance regarding the efficacy of the instruction being delivered. Then, when two grade-mongering, very capable students stir the pot and ask for something “better” from the “successful” teacher, the dominos begin to fall. Is it admin’s fault for placing the students together? Were the A, B and C-tracks clearly defined and processed in the class make-up? Were the tracks clearly understood by the admin and parents? Is the admin aware and accepting of the teacher’s choice to bring all students back to Level ONE material for the second or third time? Does the admin have the courage or capacity to help the teacher do the better choice of supplementing student instruction? Do parents such as I exacerbate the problem insisting that, if my student is given a more difficult path to achieving an “A” when she has already mastered the material TWICE already with the same teacher, this should be reflected on her transcript? (I would also like to address grades and grading as a complete blog-topic story.) What is the role of humility in attempting to provide the best instruction to as many students as possible?

THE POSITIVES

Just like a teacher who would attend a “What works for me” seminar, I cannot deny that the decision to entertain supplemental instruction for my daughter and her classmate was well intended. At least the teacher recognized how bored her top two students were. And, given the narrow thinking of a grading system in general, I concede the teacher had truly thought how she might integrate such instruction into a “regular” curriculum. My daughter scored first in the state on a national test for students studying the subject matter at Level 2. This encouraged her a bit, having studied the same material for three years in a row. As alluded to in the Story, my daughter went to 10th grade able to take AP classes in the very subject matter for which she had merely achieved “level 2,” and through her senior year in high school, she achieved an “A” in two AP classes and two college-level classes in the same subject matter! (Yes, this is an indictment for standardized tests, misplaced professional objectives, etc., subjects we will certainly NOT avoid in this blog!) Forgive me if I cannot say anything else positive, it truly was personal, LOL. I’m over it now, and the experience has helped my daughter be an advocate for herself regarding what she needs to learn while she considers big-picture curriculum and instructional choices that confront her.

THE NEGATIVES

I took my daughter on a trip with me where she would be able to show off her “first-in-the-state” expertise of the subject matter. When we arrived at our destination, she was not able to apply the most basic of principles assumed by the “A” in her class and the “First Place” ribbon on the National Exam to have been mastered at such a level. How do you tell a 9th grader she may have studied the exact same material for three years and now can’t apply it in a simple, realistic situation? To me, the most “negative” component of this story is the destruction of the wind for the proverbial sails. We, as teachers, complain students aren’t motivated, and we blame everyone but ourselves about why. Students know they study “stuff” so they can navigate life better in the future. But, rarely are they allowed the messy process of experimenting with real-life content and circumstances to refine their skills. Basic research-based principles tell us how we can plan instruction to motivate (make relevant) our students, but we ignore it for many reasons. The result? Students who resort to grade-mongering, bad attitudes, apathy, and/or much more! I was a bit disappointed but not surprised in the administrators’ saying their “hands were tied” regarding this issue. Again, we see schools that sing their own praises of “excellence” but become tied down when someone on the outside challenges that “excellence.”

THE CONCLUSION

Did I need to repent from dropping the “F” bomb? Yes! Do I LOVE the teacher referenced in this story? YES! She is a hardworking, dedicated and effective teacher of some important aspects of the subject matter? Did I take the whole thing personally? YES! But this does not excuse a school admin team or a department of teachers from missing an opportunity to grow professionally! I know there are tried and true supervisory approaches as well as methods and strategies to accommodated students who have already mastered a set of content objectives being addressed in a classroom… no matter what the make-up of the class is! Do the supervision and strategies take time and resources? Yes! Do we always defer to the most expedient solution, that of ignoring an award-winning teacher’s choices for teaching a unique population of students in a unique context the same material 3 years in a row? We shouldn’t… but we do!

Show me your EducationEnthusiasm!

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s