“Like many high-poverty middle schools, Oakland’s Elmhurst Community Prep is trying to reach students who are academically all over the map,” I wrote in an Education Next story. “One-third of the students are working at grade level in reading and math, says Principal Kilian Betlach. Another third are one to two years behind. The remaining third are three or four years behind—or more.”
I saw a seventh-grade class where students were using Newsela to read the same news story written at three different levels. The easiest text was very, very basic. Were students accessing grade-level content — or being passed even farther along without adequate skills? What’s the alternative with so many students so far behind?
Do most disadvantaged students need an extra year in elementary school to get on track for success?
In high-performing countries, “students do not routinely arrive at middle school from elementary school two or even three years behind,” asserts Marc Tucker, who leads the National Center for Education and the Economy.
In response, Fordham’s Michael Petrilli wonders what would happen if students in high-poverty elementary schools had more time to catch up to grade-level standards, before the work gets harder (or should get harder) in middle school. He proposes adding a second second grade for most students.
Even the most effective high-poverty schools struggle to prepare all their students for middle-school success, Petrilli writes. He cites KIPP DC’s Douglass campus in Washington’s Anacostia neighborhood.
KIPP is achieving remarkable results, better than almost anyone else. Yet it still has children making the transition to the middle years who are far behind. At KIPP’s Douglass campus, just 21 percent of fifth graders score at the proficient level (4 out of 5) on the PARCC test for reading and writing; if we include those at level 3, it goes up to 51 percent. KIPP does better in math: 45 percent of fifth graders score a 4 or 5; 69 percent are at 3 or above. . . . Even with high-quality preschool, and even with a fantastic elementary school, even with longer school days and years, there’s just not enough time in the six years from kindergarten through grade five to help all low-income kids catch up to the grade-level expectations they will face in middle school. The impacts of poverty and related social challenges are just too overwhelming. This is particularly the case for reading, where the slow, gradual, and cumulative process of building content knowledge and vocabulary simply cannot be rushed.
Petrilli suggests stretching a “high-quality, well-aligned curriculum” over four K-2 years instead of three. “At the end of second grade, most students would graduate to grade 2.5,” but high achievers would go straight to third grade.
Teaching would be very different in middle and high school if most students were prepared for grade-level work. What would it take?