When Dunbar was ‘First Class’

Alison Stewart’s First Class: The Legacy of Dunbar, America’s First Black Public High School is ” uplifting and maddening,” writes Michael McShane in Education Next.

From its opening in 1870 to the 1960s, the all-black Dunbar High produced “doctors, lawyers, Ivy League professors, generals, and titans of business,” writes McShane. Yet, “Dunbar saw a precipitous decline” just as opportunities were opening up for African-Americans.

Equity trumped excellence, he writes.” Rather than educate the best and brightest for placement into top universities and success in work and public service, Dunbar became a standard comprehensive high school that educated everyone residentially zoned to attend it.”

Stewart looks at Dunbar in 1920. Students who passed the admissions test had to meet  ”astronomically” high academic standards.  Students were tracked into different levels. Those who couldn’t do the work were sent to Cardozo High, which was vocationally oriented.

The school demanded good behavior.

The student handbook covered topics ranging from grooming requirements (daily baths and thrice daily tooth brushing) to recommending types of friends that students should have. (“Girls and boys who fail in lessons, who are unsatisfactory in deportments or careless in their habits, should not be chosen as companions.”) The handbook told students how to walk down the street and reviewed proper dancing protocols (“Boys, after dancing thank your partner and escort her back to her seat”) and how to sit, walk, and function within the school.

Nowadays, KIPP leaders have been accused of  “cultural eugenics” for mandating student behavior, writes McShane.

Policies and programs should create opportunities for strivers to excel, writes Mike Petrilli.  “We should bring an ethos of meritocracy back to our anti-poverty efforts—the same ethos that still works relatively well at the top of our social structures and could work equally well at the bottom.”

Two of his suggestions draw from the Dunbar High experience:

Schools must be orderly, safe, high-expectations havens. There’s a movement today to make it harder to suspend or expel disruptive children or to chide charter schools that enforce strict norms of behavior. That’s a big mistake. To be sure, we should use discipline programs that are effective, and sky-high expulsion rates are often the sign of a poorly run school. But we should be at least as concerned—if not more concerned—about the students who are trying to learn and follow the rules as we are about their disruptive peers. If suspending (or relocating) one student means giving 25 others a better chance to learn, let’s do it.High achievers must be challenged and rewarded. As Tom Loveless has shown, the anti-tracking craze that swept through our schools in the 80s and 90s left many suburban schools untouched but wreaked havoc in our poorest urban communities. . . .  high-achieving poor kids forfeited the opportunity to be in “gifted-and-talented” classes, honors tracks, or fast-moving Advanced Placement courses.

In addition, strivers deserve a fair share of resources, Petrilli argues. For example, Pell Grants could be increased if they were reserved for college-ready students.

The return of reading (and math) groups

In the late 1950s, we read Dick, Jane and Sally in our reading groups, the Robins, Bluebirds and Cardinals. My group — the Robins? — got to move on to the more sophisticated Robert and Susan before the end of first grade. Read, Robins! Read, read, read!

Grouping students by ability and performance — once the norm, then verboten — is now back in style, reports the New York Times

Education professors and civil rights advocates attacked tracking in the 1980s and 1990s, arguing that low-income, non-white students often ended up in low-level, low-expectations classes. “The kids who are thought of as the least able end up with the fewest opportunities and resources and positive learning environments,” wrote Jeannie Oakes in Keeping Track: How Schools Structure Inequality.

Education schools told teachers to group students of different abilities together, so the “fast” kids could teach the “slow” kids. Teachers tried to “differentiate” and “individualize” instruction for children of very different achievement levels, English fluency and ability (or disability). That proved to be very difficult.

At Public School 156 in Brownsville, Brooklyn, which enrolls mostly African-American and Hispanic children, many living in homeless shelters, Cathy Vail randomly sorts her fifth graders at the beginning of the year using lettered sticks. After six weeks of testing and observing them, she shifts them into “teams” of seven or eight.

Children may be assigned to different groups for reading and math, and can switch groups if they have shown progress, struggle to get along with other students in a group or need extra help with a particular lesson.

. . . Working on each week’s set of new vocabulary words, all four groups draw illustrations and write captions using the assigned words, but she encourages team C, her highest-achieving group, to write more complex sentences, perhaps using two new vocabulary words in the same sentence. She also asks children in team C to peer-teach students in the other groups.

“At the end of the day, they’re learning the same words, but just with different levels of complexity and nuance,” she said.

At a New Hampshire schools, teachers have used reading groups for at least a decade and now are creating math groups. Teachers call it “dynamic grouping” to emphasize that students can move to a higher group as they improve.

We had math groups in fourth grade. I built two kinds of fire clock, using a candle and rope, one boy built a sun dial and another created a water clock. We whizzed through fourth-grade math, skipped fifth grade and learned sixth-grade math, which we had to do again in sixth grade.

Ability grouping is not tracking’s evil twin

Flexible ability grouping is not the evil twin of tracking, argues Paula Olszewski-Kubilius, president of the National Association for Gifted Children and a professor of education at Northwestern, in Ed Week.

If committed educators could be easily trained to implement a low-cost intervention that boasted consistent learning gains for all students, headlines would herald the discovery of the educational holy grail.

That low-cost intervention is here and readily available. It’s called ability grouping.

As classrooms become more academically diverse, grouping students by ability — and regrouping as they improve — helps everyone, she writes. A 2010 meta-analysis found benefits in reading. A 2013 study found significant improvements in math and reading for high- and low-performing students.

Tracking sets students on a defined path, writes Olszewski-Kubilius. It’s often permanent. “Flexible ability grouping is a tool used to match a student’s readiness for learning with the instruction provided, delivering the right content to the right student at the right pace and at the right time.”

A stupid way to pick ‘gifted’ students

Our system for identifying “gifted” students isn’t very smart, writes Andrew Rotherham in The Illusion of the ‘Gifted’ Child in Time.

New Yorkers were outraged to learn that “behemoth education company Pearson had bungled the scoring of standardized tests used for admissions to gifted education programs,” he writes. “Scoring errors would have denied admission to 2,700 students who qualified.”

But the incident also highlighted the arbitrary nature of how we decide which students are so superior academically that they are essentially funneled into an elite group of schools with a specialized, advanced curriculum.

New York City uses a test to determine who’s gifted. Some programs require a score at the 90th percentile; others require the 97th percentile.

. . . does anyone seriously think that a student at the 96th percentile (or the 89th for that matter) might not benefit from gifted education programs, as well? Of course not. It’s the scarcity of seats, rather than any rigorous definition of merit that is driving these distinctions.

Affluent, educated parents hire tutors and test prep services to help their kids qualify as gifted.

Rotherham offers three proposals:

1. Increase the options. In New York City and elsewhere, gifted programs often function as a school-choice strategy for making public schools more attractive. But demand clearly overwhelms supply. . .  .

2. Level the playing field. Providing extra support for students from diverse backgrounds is essential. . . .

3. Just make our schools better. Efforts to improve the quality of curriculum and instruction are good for everyone. So is expanding access to pre-K education. It’s no secret that too many American students aren’t challenged in school. While programs for truly exceptional students have a place, all kids would benefit from more enriching and rigorous educational experiences and more would be seen as “gifted” with a better educational experience at their back.

Numbers 1 and 3 seem like no-brainers. But expanding the definition of  ”gifted” has limits.  Many non-genius kids would do well in enriched, challenging classes. But once the reasonably smart kids are in with the exceptionally smart kids, what do you do with the average, slow and very slow students? What happens to unmotivated, poorly behaved students?

“Gifted” hadn’t been invented when I was in high school, but we had five tracks in English, three in most other subjects. I loved Level 1.

The case for ability grouping

Let’s Go Back to Grouping Students By Ability writes Barry Garelick in The Atlantic. The drive for equity in the ’60s and ’70s eliminated tracking. Most K-8 schools now ask teachers to teach students of diverse backgrounds and abilities in the same classroom, using “differentiated instruction,” writes Garelick, who’s starting a second career as a math teacher. In high schools, what used to be “college prep” is now called “honors.” Courses labeled “college prep” are aimed at low achievers.

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.

Gifted programs can relegate late bloomers to the non-honors track as early as third grade, he writes. By contrast, ability grouping can be flexible, letting students move up quickly when they’re ready.

A recent analysis of Dallas students found sorting by previous performance “significantly improves students’ math and reading scores” and helps “both high and low performing students,” including gifted and talented students, special education students, and those with limited English proficiency.

Schools are reviving ability grouping and tracking, according to Tom Loveless in the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education.

He suggests a few possible reasons for the reversal: The emphasis on accountability, started by No Child Left Behind, may have motivated teachers to group struggling students together. The rise of computer-aided learning might make it easier for them to instruct students who learn at different rates.

Differentiating instruction for students of widely varying abilities — not to mention motivation and English fluency — is exceptionally challenging.  The “2008 MetLife Survey of the American Teacher reports that many teachers simply find mixed-ability classes difficult to teach,” notes Garelick.

Brookings: Ability grouping is back

Elementary teachers are using ability grouping once again, according to the 2013 Brown Center Report on American Education by Tom Loveless.

Ability grouping was very popular from the 1960′s through the 1980s, but came under attack as inequitable in the 1990′s. In 1961, 80 percent divided children into robins, bluebirds and sparrows, or the like. (I was a bluebird in 1958.) By 1998, only 28 percent of fourth graders were being placed in reading groups by ability. That shot up to 71 percent by 2009, Brookings finds.

Math ability grouping rose from 40 percent of fourth graders in 1996 and 42 percent in 2003 to 61 percent in 2011.

With more computers in elementary classrooms, teachers may be “more comfortable with students in the same classroom studying different materials and progressing at different rates through curriculum,” writes Loveless.

Although ability grouping is coming back, efforts to de-track middle school math are continuing. However, pushing more eighth graders into algebra isn’t raising achievement, the report finds.

States with rising percentages of eighth graders taking Algebra I, Geometry, and other advanced math classes were no more likely to raise their NAEP scores from 2005-2011 than states with declining percentages of eighth graders in those courses.

When more students take pre-algebra and algebra, the courses appear to be watered down, writes Loveless. However, there’s no watering-down effect for geometry.

The U.S. is often exhorted to emulate the high-scoring  “A+ countries” — Belgium (Flemish), Czech Republic, Hong Kong, Japan, Korea, and Singapore – in math instruction. However, “the average A+ country made no more progress in math achievement than any other country in TIMSS” since 1995, the report finds.

And the Finns may do well on PISA but they’re nothing special on TIMSS.

Study: Sorting students boosts scores

Sorting students by performance “significantly improves” reading and math scores, concludes a study that analyzed  data linked to a cohort of elementary students in Dallas. Sorting helps both high- and low-performing students, though the high achievers showed larger gains.

Tracking went out of fashion a generation ago. Teachers are supposed to “differentiate” instruction for students with varying levels of achievement, English fluency, ability or disability and “learning styles.”

“A wise wonk once wrote that the biggest challenge facing America’s schools is the enormous variation in the academic level of students coming into any given classroom,” notes Education Gadfly.

Analysts attempt to account for unobservable ways that schools might sort (say, by student behavior) and ultimately find that three-quarters of the schools organize students along at least one dimension: Nineteen percent by prior math scores, 24 percent by prior reading scores, 28 percent by “gifted” status, 57 percent by LEP (limited English proficiency) status, and 13 percent by special-education status (further, around 40 percent sort by at least two dimensions).

Grouping all students by prior performance would produce a significant gain in reading and math achievement, researchers concluded. However, school leaders also must consider “the impact of homogeneous classes on classroom culture and the importance of flexible grouping (so that students move out of low-level classes after they demonstrate mastery).”

Education and rights

I was working through some ideas for a paper I’m sketching out, and I thought I’d share a little bit of what I’d been thinking about.  Now, we’ve all heard about inalienable rights: life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.

And most of us have probably heard (ad nauseum) that education is a right.  We know because, among many other organizations, the United Nations tells us so.

Education is a fundamental human right and essential for the exercise of all other human rights. It promotes individual freedom and empowerment and yields important development benefits. Yet millions of children and adults remain deprived of educational opportunities, many as a result of poverty.

Normative instruments of the United Nations and UNESCO lay down international legal obligations for the right to education. These instruments promote and develop the right of every person to enjoy access to education of good quality, without discrimination or exclusion.

Often.

Article 26.

  • (1) Everyone has the right to education. Education shall be free, at least in the elementary and fundamental stages. Elementary education shall be compulsory. Technical and professional education shall be made generally available and higher education shall be equally accessible to all on the basis of merit.
  • (2) Education shall be directed to the full development of the human personality and to the strengthening of respect for human rights and fundamental freedoms. It shall promote understanding, tolerance and friendship among all nations, racial or religious groups, and shall further the activities of the United Nations for the maintenance of peace.
  • (3) Parents have a prior right to choose the kind of education that shall be given to their children.

There are manifold state Constitutional provisions, and a small host of legislative statutes and court decisions establishing various rights to education here in the United States, as well.

So what, exactly, is the extent of this right?  There’s an obvious legal-realism sort of answer that I want to put aside for now: I’m not interested in hearing how the extent of the right is whatever the courts say it is.  My question is aimed at the right not as a legal phenomenon, but as a moral one.  Let’s assume there’s a moral right to an education, a right that one holds against one’s parents, or against one’s society.  How far does such a right go? [Read more...]

What matters is what we call it

There’s a really great article on differentiated instruction that came out in the Washington Post yesterday.  It’s great in the sense that it tells the truth, even if it doesn’t really mean to.  The reporter pretty clearly approves of differentiated instruction; the article has exactly two sentences out of three pages that are critical of the practice.  The rest is a very informative puff piece.

My favourite part is a short but vivid description of a teacher who breaks her class apart for math instruction:

The first group to approach her half-moon table sat down with small whiteboards and markers. The five students drew pictures to help them think through the subtraction problem in front of them. Using squares, lines and dots to represent hundreds, tens and ones, they solved the problem by crossing out the symbols that corresponded to the number.

Rather than teaching formulas, the curriculum emphasizes lessons on place value and number sense so students can learn why formulas work. Students often use blocks, number lines and charts to solve problems and talk through the answers.

The second group, a little more advanced, practiced a different strategy. They broke each number into hundreds, tens and ones and solved it in three steps.

The third group moved on to practicing multiplication tables. Carter also squeezed in a short lesson from the third-grade curriculum on how to round numbers up or down.

I can’t help feeling that what’s going on is just a less efficient, less effective form of tracking.  Bottom line: it’s still separate classes — they’re just in the same room with the same teacher.  Galway Elementary, where this is taking place, has seven second grade teachers.  So instead of having seven different teachers each teaching a separate math class (imagine seven different levels of differentiated instruction!) and giving those tightly defined groups their full attention, what we apparently have is seven different teachers each teaching just three separate math classes, with each class necessarily getting one third of a teacher’s attention.

In what universe is the latter considered the superior option?

The real issue here (of course) is race, which does indeed get passing mention:

The shift in math instruction in Maryland’s largest school system is the latest example of a move toward more mixed-ability classes that is mirrored in Fairfax and Arlington counties and across the country, with greater inclusion of special education students, more open enrollment in Advanced Placement classes and the elimination of some honors-level courses.

It’s all part of an effort to lift the performance of all students and overturn a legacy of sorting children into perceived ability tracks that often divided along racial lines.

That last sentence is a masterpiece of misleading rhetoric — both halves of it.  Sure, it’s an effort to “lift the performance of all students”, but from where to where are we “lifting” performance?  One might think that student performance will improve without schooling at all, as their brain matures.  It may not improve very much, but it will improve.  So what, exactly, is the goal here?  It doesn’t seem to be maximizing every student’s performance, because if it were you’d split the classes up so that every teacher was giving a group of students their full, undivided attention working through math that falls directly in their ZPD (or which is appropriate to their ability, if you disdain technical jargon).

Maybe what we want is to lift everyone to some level of parity… but as nice as that might sound to some people, it’s simply not going to happen; the variety of human capability is simply too great.  I ask again, to where shall we “lift the performance of all students”?  There’s no real answer, of course, because it’s not a real goal: it’s a political slogan.

It’s also impressive how the reporter sneaked the word “perceived” into there, qualifying the terrible legacy of tracking, as if to imply that in that vague, mistaken past of ours, we were filled with folly and illusion to think that some kids were smarter than others.  Yet I wonder if Michael Alison Chandler (the reporter) thinks that Elise Carter — the heroine of his story — is breaking her class up, if she is “differentiating”,  based on “perceived” mathematical skill, or whether she’s actually latching on to real distinctions between her students.  Bets, anyone?

Of course the teacher is recognizing real ability differences.  No one (except perhaps the most extreme sort of communist conformists) really cares if we track students by ability, at least within subjects.  After all, even the people who seem to be against it seem to be for it, as the article demonstrates; and it’s intuitively the best way to teach a subject.

But people care tremendously what we call it, and what it looks like from a distance.

UPDATE: Rachel Levy says in the comments that my comments above might be unduly harsh.  Lord knows it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been to harsh, and if Rachel says you’re being inappropriately judgmental, it’s probably a good idea to stop and ask yourself if that’s so.  So I did.  And upon reflection, the only thing I’d backtrack on is the attribution of deliberate intent to mislead from my critique of that the very unfortunate sentence I singled out.  It could very well just be a recitation of other parties’ stated motivations, related from their own point of view.  (Which doesn’t stop it from being misleading, mind you, but does put the author in a better light.)  I think the article is a fine piece.  It’s well-written, well-researched, and informative.  It still seems to me, though, that it’s written with a strong underlying opinion, one that is wrong-headed.  Now, I could be misreading the article, and to a certain extent reporters are probably inclined to write nice things about schools that give them access to the classroom.  It’s thus also conceivable that the approval implicit in the article is not genuinely the reporter’s own, but an artifact of the craft.  But that doesn’t make it any less biased.

Life without math

If a car is going 80 miles per hour, how long will it take to drive 80 miles? It’s not obvious to the woman in the video, even after her husband — possibly now her ex-husband — asks her to think about “miles per hour.”

This is Why Tracking Needs To Be Brought Back to Math Classes, writes Lynne Diligent, who overcame math anxiety as an adult. Some students need concrete explanations of things that are obvious to others.  Diligent also writes about how teaching math is like teaching drawing skills. Students need to learn how to see in a new way.