School Coffee Chat 12

Last night I went to the first in what will hopefully be an ongoing series of coffee chats about the Ypsilanti Schools. The meeting was held at Bombadill’s and hosted by Richard Weigel. Richard came on board with the Ypsi Schools as Executive Director of Educational Services. Among other things he is responsible for curriculum and teacher training in the Ypsilanti Public Schools. About twenty people including various parents and three members of the school board (Amy Doyle, Floyd Brumfield and David Bates). Several issues were discussed over the two hour conversation. Richard seems to have a lot of good ideas, and seems to be implementing some good things. I am definitely looking forward to using the new EdLine system this year. It is being rolled out this fall for middle and high school students. All the parents will be given account information for the system, where we will be able to login and check up on attendance, homework assignments, grades etc. This will be very helpful in allowing me to check up on what my kids are supposed to be doing. That was definitely an issue last year. It is hard to be able keep up with what the kids are supposed to be doing, when the teachers have upward of 100 students to keep track of. This will hopefully allow the teachers to communicate information to the parents and students in an efficient manner.

Two big issues that came up were curriculum and grouping of students. On the subject of curriculum, they are currently reworking how it is defined and how students are evaluated against the curriculum. The plan is to have a clearer description of what the goals and expectations are for each subject at each level. By clarifying what the goals are the teachers can get help in planning different activities to target the skill and capabilities of students. In conjunction with that will be better defined ways of evaluating whether students know what they need to know at each level. The implication is that there will be more flexibility in moving students when they have demonstrated proficiency at a particular level. I think that this would be a very good thing and might help to overcome the other big issue that came up. This has to do with grouping and distribution of students.

Although Mr. Weigel denied that it was official policy, the reality in the classroom is that students are assigned to classes in such a way that there is a mix of students at different levels of capability and achievement. The idea behind this is that the higher achieving achieving students help set a good example for the struggling students and can help bring them along. In principle this may be a good idea. The problem with this is that the reality is a lot tougher. In an environment where you have a particularly wide range of students, unless the teachers are really prepared to facilitate, the students help each other, it just doesn’t work. There is also the issue of behavior. The top students are expected to provide and example for the behaviorally challenged students. When you are talking about elementary age children, this idea puts a lot of pressure on the higher achieving students. They are expected to help the other students but at the same time the teachers still end up having to focus on the behavior problems. While the teachers are doing this, the more adept students aren’t getting challenged and as a result are getting dragged down through boredom and frustration. At the same time I suspect (and this purely conjecture on my part, I have no evidence to back it up) I think it may also be frustrating to the struggling students to see other kids have a relatively effortless time with work and this can also be counter-productive. I think that students can help each other. But I also think that the kids should probably distributed with a somewhat narrower range in each individual classroom. I understand the desire and the rationale to have widest distribution in each classroom, but I don’t think the reality works. Many of the parents in attendance last night expressed basically the same concern, Richard heard us and took copious notes. Where it goes from here remains to be seen but at least we are talking and someone from the administration is listening and acknowledging the concerns.

Finally at the ending of the meeting I spoke to Richard after asked me if I knew much about podcasting since I was recording the discussion so Jules could hear it. I told him about Max’s podcast We talked a bit about my ideas for providing the teachers with training on free and open-source software tools that they can use. He was very enthusiastic and wants to move forward with that. I definitely want to do whatever I can to help the schools improve and I urge everyone in the community to contribute whatever skills they have to the cause.

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12 thoughts on “School Coffee Chat

  • trusty getto

    I hear your concerns, and I don’t disagree that there are pluses and minuses of different approaches, but the consequences of allowing students to “track” by segregating them based on ability are far worse. Our schools must cater and tailor our approach to all students, not just to the few who excel. The answer is to provide the tools to keep expectations high for everyone, allowing those who excel to continue to excel, not segregating based on ability.

  • Sam Post author

    Cam, I don’t like the idea of segregated students by ability either. But the reality that in the class room seems to be that having too wide a range does put a drag on the better students. Some teachers are prepared to deal with the dynamics of this kind of situation, but not all of them. I’m not a professional educator. I’m just trying to articulate what I have seen, and throw out some ideas for discussion about alternatives. I agree that the approaches must be tailored to help all the students. I just hope that we can come up with some ideas, that provide enough flexibility to let students that have indeed mastered a subject to move forward rather than artificially holding them back. Frustration is bad for a student whether it comes from struggling with a subject, or not being challenged. No one should be left behind, but no one should be held back either.
    Maybe if I can introduce teachers to some other technological tools, they can use these tools to give the students some other more creative challenges to work on.

  • trusty getto

    Again, I hear you Same, but how do you deal with the drag placed on the less able or less advanced kids by putting them together with each other, thereby lowering the expectations that apply to them and labeling them as such? If you lower expectations, you will by default get less from these kids. And if you do that, you’re not giving them the same opportunities to excel that you’re giving others.

    From a general or global perpsective, each and every “drag” (I wouldn’t use that term myself) placed on the higher achieving kids mirrors a “drag” placed on the lower achieving kids by segregating them.

    Keep in mind that one of the reasons we run afoul of NCLB from time to time — not making the proper progress — is because we do expend resources catering to the higher achievers. One hidden attribute of NCLB is that it creates incentive to forget about the smart kids and pour all the resources into underachievers, because, that’s where you stand to get the most gain — more bang for your buck so to speak. Which is why it’s a stupid law. Again, we don’t do this, but districts do, which causes more flight toward charter, private and parochial schools, which in turn weakens our public schools.

  • Sam Post author

    I don’t agree that letting students that have mastered a subject area move up to the next level lowers the expectations for those who haven’t. I have not advocated lower expectations for anyone. On the contrary, by showing students that once they have learned something they can move on to new challenges, they may have an incentive to work harder. By forcing students stay at an artificially low level, we are actually catering to the lowest common denominator.

    Maybe the real issue here is that we are in fact arbitrarily segregating students at grade levels based more on age rather than on skill level in the subject areas. I believe that we need to do what we can to work around this ridiculous law. If we can’t afford to expend resources on special programs for the kids that are running ahead, let’s just let them keep running and move them up. Then we can focus the resources that we have on the kids who need the most help.

  • trusty getto

    But we do allow students who get ahead to move ahead. That’s not the problem you’re describing above. You’re describing somethign different than that.

    We have (since before I joined the board) permitted high achievers to continue to achieve. That’s why some of our kids end up at Yale, at Oberlin, at the Naval Academy. It’s not like they’ve been hanging around twidling their thumbs for four years, or dragged down by under-achievers. They excel, and their permitted to and supported.

    There is no getting around NCLB. It was designed to exert federal control over our local school districts. It was designed to refocus school efforts based on certain assumptions. The only way to dump it is to do like Utah did — refuse to accept federal funds. We can’t afford that. The problem with NCLB is that the assumptions it makes aren’t true. Regardless of its shortcomings we can’t ignore it, and we can’t get around it. We have to comply, or we will be closed down.