Last Thursday afternoon our student council hosted a talent show; students could buy tickets and leave their last two period classes to attend. We probably had around 600 kids come, with 8 student performances. The talent level ranged from a fun garage band and an Italian exchange student ballerina to a girl with an untrained set of pipes belting “In the Arms of the Angel” and two attempts at interpretive dance. A group of my sophomore girls bravely played the cup game on the floor of the stage while singing a medley of pop songs. I was a judge, along with a vice principal and a secretary. We sat in a row at a table in the front, American Idol-style. Thankfully we could keep our comments to ourselves. It’s tough to judge such varying acts against each other; we mulled over if we should be judging the act at face value (some had clear technical difficulties), or judging the effort behind the act (the cup game girls have been practicing for weeks; one dance number was clearly made up on the spot), or the potential for talent. The singers had great potential, but all three needed a few lessons with someone who knew what they were doing. I applaud their bravery; this school has its cliques like every other, and unless you are the student council president/captain of the football team who just got into a service academy, it’s tough to impress your peers. But how far does sheer chutzpah get a person in life? Unfortunately it didn’t win anyone any talent shows…
I received an email from a college friend who went through my same education program but opted not to enter into the teaching profession. Instead she’s preparing for medical school. Despite her days not being spent entering grades and battling sarcasm, she is still very interested in and has wonderful insights about the field of education. She forwarded me an editorial written in The Atlantic this week titled “Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students by Ability.” The author, Barry Garelick, accurately sums up the switch from “tracking” programs of the early 20th century to the all-inclusive classroom designs we deal with today. He bemoans the fact that attempts to “eliminate the achievement gap” have instead resulted in such low expectation that all learning is stifled:
As a result, grouping students according to ability — a practice viewed by many in the education establishment as synonymous with tracking — has been almost completely eliminated in K-8. Instead, most schools practice full inclusion, which means educators are expected to teach students with diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom using a technique known as “differentiated instruction.”
Unfortunately, the efforts and philosophies of otherwise well-meaning individuals have eliminated the achievement gap by eliminating achievement. Exercises in grammar have declined to the point that they are virtually extinct. Book reports are often assigned in the form of a book jacket or poster instead of a written analysis. Essays now are “student-centered” — even history assignments often call upon students to describe how they feel about past events rather than apply factual analysis. Math classes are now more about math appreciation and being able to explain how a procedure works rather than the mastery of skills and procedures necessary to solve problems.
I have one period that has 25 kids; 10 are “modified” students on an Individualized Education Plan (IEP), 4 are under a 504 plan, while another 4 just got inducted into National Honor Society this week. The high achieving kids die a little each day; for some reason they chose grade-level English over Pre-AP, and spend much of my class texting, sleeping, or reading, because their work takes them 10 minutes while it takes the rest of class 45 minutes. While I can on occasion produce different tests (as per IEP requirements) for different levels, the reality is that my “differentiated instruction” really comes down to “I expect less from this student than from this student.”
Like the talent show, I am unsure if I am grading for results or potential. For example, if one of my NHS kids totally half-asses an essay, I give him an 80%; if a special ed kid gives me four sentences when the assignment is a full-page essay, but I know that’s all she can possibly give me, she might receive a 90%. I actually have different rubrics for the same class. Once while returning papers, the above-mentioned 80% and 90% papers got stuck together, and that NHS kid had to return the A- paper to me while still clutching her B- paper. I was mortified. Granted, the sped kid isn’t on a college-track plan; she’s on a minimum plan for graduation, so she’s probably not competing for a college slot with my NHS student. Still, it really bothers me to have a sliding scale, when the world doesn’t grade on effort. It grades on results. Ask any NFL coach who got released after one playoffs-less season. On the other hand, if I graded only on results, a large portion of my students would fail outright, even when they put in a ton of effort, listened, and turned in all their work.
Thankfully, we are nearing the end of the school year, and, as predicted on the First Year Teacher Bell Curve, my enthusiasm level is shooting through the roof. This is a good thing – otherwise we might have a situation like this one, thoughtfully reported this week in The Onion.