Monday, August 29, 2016

Editorial: Where is the Program Going?

Those of us defending Advanced  Learning never have much of a respite. There's a historical trend of egalitarianism that pushes back against any attempt to differentiate learning. Of late its coming from those concerned primarily with race and equity with changes at Thurgood Marshall and Garfield. To summarize, the various charges leveled against the program:

  • The demographics don't match that of the general district.
  • These represent bias in the testing and identification process.
  • The presence of any self-contained, tracked program hurts those not within it which is disproportionately students of color regardless of the fairness of the identification process.
  • The program is merely a modern day form of segregation and its participants are actively or unwittingly racist.
So is providing acceleration and enrichment unethical? I think the answer here is contained even within the district's goals  "Seattle Public Schools is committed to ensuring equitable access, closing the opportunity gaps and excellence in education for every student." For the advanced learning community,  excellence in education for every student remains an elusive goal and is what motivates most of the parents.  Families are searching for appropriately challenging curriculum and opportunities for their children.

Unfortunately,  we are also cast because of the moment  into the role of defending an imperfect system. Seattle Public is a big complicated district that has much room to grow in almost every area. However, the good should not be the enemy of the perfect. Critics have seized on flaws to suggest we should throw the entire system out rather than pushing to correct them or even recognizing where improvements are occurring.

So, I will start by saying that the AL office has done a historically poor job of reaching out to minority and low income families even within the bounds of what the law allows. They often have patted themselves on the back for producing brochures in several languages and refused to acknowledge how the chaotic process of identification itself creates barriers for families. The department does not really collaborate with parents so the periodically offered suggestions on improving the process from the community haven't gone far.  One positive step has been the push for universal screening in the south east quadrant. This has apparently borne some fruit according to the statistics from the department. (30% of the population are students of color and underrepresented population have been growing by 18% a year in the program)  Most people I believe support efforts to reduce barriers here and we have to see improvements made before we can judge how much of an effect they have on demographics. Secondly, I think a lot of the criticism ignores the presence of minorities already in the program and the heavy recruitment of them by programs like Rainier Scholars out of the public system.

Testing is a very imperfect science and I tend to prefer looser systems myself for that reason. Its better to admit more students and risk false positives than restrict and shut kids out from the curriculum they would benefit from.  However, the actual tests used for identification are in use across the country and not fundamentally flawed as some assert. The programs select for a population that achieves in the upper percentiles on tests and all the standardized testing shows that is how the students continue to perform.  A lot of the critics deny this fact and fundamentally believes there are no difference in the students that requires a different curriculum.

Its also important to realize once this selection process is finished, the district concentrates the kids in a few schools.  That distorts all discussion of demographics at such sites. Its not surprising that there are lots of white students in honors or AP classes at Garfield, since we funneled all our high performing ones there from a much larger geographic area.

Moving on, tracking is a complex subject. There is a fairly large body of research both for and against it. See:   My general position which I've stated before, is that when a different curriculum is needed, tracking is generally appropriate.  Its ineffective to try to teach large numbers of students completely different lessons at the same time.  Given an impossible task, the classroom by default will regress to the mean. This is generally why families have left their neighborhood schools in the first place. Its often not that there is no differentiation there, its that its proven insufficient because of the gap between children. On top of that the home classrooms are sometimes unable to provide the social emotional supports or peer group that certain kids need to be successful

Sometimes, again because its an imperfect system, we're left with the district claiming the tracks are teaching the same material. There are two responses to that, where there is no true distinction tracking does lose its rational. Often, however, this situation is artificial. The same district has diluted or forced the curriculum into the same pathway against the complaints of the community. The proper action here is to create a class that is actually different.

Finally, are we as a group stubbornly resistant to change? First we are not monolithic. The advanced learning community has just as broad a spread of opinions as the general population.  Speaking for myself, I'd say we're looking for the following out of the district:

  • Inclusion in any process.
  • Healthy two way communication .
  • Consideration of quality and the needs of the students within the program. 
  • Systems to measure the health of the program and signs on the ground that we're moving in the right directions.

1 comment:

Lynn said...

Thank you for this.