Monday, June 01, 2020

Why are average students stuck in the dullest high school courses?

Feb 21. 2020
A classroom in the Kevin Durant Center in Suitland, Md., on Jan. 16, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Calla Kessler.
A classroom in the Kevin Durant Center in Suitland, Md., on Jan. 16, 2019. MUST CREDIT: Washington Post photo by Calla Kessler.
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By The Washington Post · Jay Mathews · NATIONAL, EDUCATION 

I became an education reporter because I wanted to know why so few high schools were giving their average students challenging assignments. The best students were often allowed into Advanced Placement or International Baccalaureate courses. But college level work for the rest of the students was a no-no.

Putting "C" students into AP felt on those campuses like a cultural gaffe, the equivalent of holding the senior prom in March.

The situation has improved somewhat. About 12 percent of high schools have at least half of their 11th- and 12th-graders taking a least one AP or IB course. Still, the majority of average students are told to stick with easy stuff. I figured that must be because school leaders weren't taking into account the needs of students to be ready for college or a job.

Craig Kesselheim is changing my mind about this. He is a senior associate at the Great Schools Partnership, a nonprofit school-support organization based in Portland, Maine. He said the tendency to sort rather than teach is rooted in a specific high school administrative routine - producing the Program of Study, otherwise known as the course catalogue. It describes every subject at every level available at the school.

"Logistically, Program of Study documents are most often published midyear or early spring to assist school counselors with the course placement of entering ninth-graders," Kesselheim said. "A frequent result of this deadline pressure is a hastily cobbled-together collection of paragraphs, submitted by teachers and department heads, comprised largely of last year's text, and edited by no one."

Middle school teachers are pressed into recommending which students going into high school should take honors courses and which should not. In many schools, "there is no science to these acts of judgment and no uniformity across teachers or across content areas," Kesselheim said. "Placement recommendations are highly subject to departmental whims, teachers' beliefs about ability and implicit bias."

Kesselheim was once a middle school science teacher and administrator. For the past 16 years, he has been helping schools and districts ease themselves out of traditional course hierarchies that don't make sense. "Highly engaged parents use the system to ensure their students rise to the top. America's DNA for public education seems to be a zero sum game: In order to have winners, we must have losers," he said.

I asked why so many schools, usually run by intelligent people who want the best for their students, let this go on. He blamed professional isolation, something I have seen often in the schools but never thought about much. Teachers must make their own decisions on a variety of matters, including grading. The same isolation is imposed on department heads, counselors and administrators.

Schools might have mission statements promising common goals, but hardly anyone pays attention. "One department, maybe social studies, provides an open door to any student wishing to embrace the challenge embedded in an honors-level class," Kesselheim said. "The department down the hall or in another wing, perhaps English, requires an application essay."

Unguided grading practices pave the way for mindless sorting. "School systems do a far better job of codifying dress codes, class-rank procedures and disciplinary ladders than they do in guiding and unifying teachers' grading practices," he said. Grades influence how students think about themselves and their futures, yet teachers often give grades as they like without much thought about the effect. There is little evidence that bad grades inspire improvement, while instruction that is challenging has been shown to work.

It usually takes an order from above to change practices at high schools that keep average students out of AP and IB classes. The Fairfax County School Board's decision to open AP and IB classes to all students in 1998 brought much change and spread through the rest of Northern Virginia. Sadly, few other states and districts have made that move.

Kesselheim said he thinks schools can fix this on their own. They can launch course reviews, seek community engagement and get isolated teachers and counselors to talk to one another.

Average students often have much potential, but how can they show it if they are always assigned to the slowest and dullest courses?

 

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