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Friday, September 23, 2005

Standards-based Education, Part III

One key tenet of standards-based education is the observation that some students take more time than others to master any given skill or concept. No one can disagree with the observation, but the conclusions to be drawn from it are another matter.

Let’s call our topic X. We’re supposed to believe in the following conclusions:
  1. All students can learn X.

  2. Since some students will learn X faster than others, we need to grade them on their final achievements, not on their progress as of a specific date.

  3. In order to be able to schedule a summative assessment for X (final test or whatever) on a particular date, we have to provide extra hours of learning time for any student who needs them.

  4. If X is deemed important, it’s important for all students, since we don’t want to close the doors on any particular future for any student.
There is definitely something appealing about these four conclusions, but all four are fundamentally wrong-headed unless they are significantly modified. Let’s look at them one by one:
  1. In fact, not all students can learn X. Some are severely brain-damaged. Some don’t have the prerequisite knowledge. Some have such severe emotional problems or disrupted home lives that they are not prepared to learn. Even if for some reason you exclude all those students from consideration, the reality is that June 21 is going to come around right on schedule — right after June 20 — and not everyone can learn everything by that date! The only way to believe that all students can learn the material of every course by the end of that course is to dumb down the demands and thereby penalize the kids who are most capable and most interested in learning. That’s one of the effects of the No Child Too Far Ahead Act, or whatever it’s called.

  2. In an ideal world, it would be great to grade students on their final achievements, not on their progress as of a specific date. But in the real world, any teacher who does that is inviting students to procrastinate and procrastinate. I would love to think that grades aren’t important, but if I don’t grade tomorrow’s quiz, there will be too many kids who will just slough it off.

  3. Sure, we should provide extra hours of learning time for any student who needs them. We should also have class sizes limited to 18 (the average in Switzerland). But the number of hours in the school week and the realities of school budgets make both of these dreams impossible. High school class sizes average 23 in the U.S. (29 in California!), and they’re not likely to drop any time soon. Weston does provide 50% extra classtime for Algebra 2 students who have been identified as needing it, but even in Weston you can’t get that for geometry or precalculus. (And if we had the budget to offer it, how many students could fit it into their schedule? And what if they also need extra time in history and science and Latin?)

  4. Item 4 is particularly well-intentioned. Indeed we don’t want to close the doors on any particular future for any student. That’s why Weston requires Algebra II for all students. But that’s a baseline, not a general conclusion about all topics. There’s simply too much material that’s important, and what’s essential for the student who’s going to take AP Physics simply isn’t the same as what’s essential for the student who’s going to take AP European History, no matter how much we might like to pretend that everything’s that one student needs is also needed by another student.

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