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Minneapolis school board candidates & the achievement gap   |   Ability grouping students & teachers, Minnesota's "separate but equal" doctrine   |   Ability grouping & the achievement gap

Ability grouping & the achievement gap
Write-in "Doug Mann" for School Board
Another Option for Minneapolis School Board Voters (2004 General Election)
by Doug Mann, 29 Oct 2004, Submitted to the Star-Tribune for publication 28 Oct 2004

Mpls issues list
Subj:      Re: [mpls] school board candidates
Date:     10/1/2004 3:40:17 PM Central Daylight Time
From: [Doug Mann]

In a message dated 10/1/2004 10:16:41 AM Central Daylight Time, Mark Snyder writes:

<< ...what happens to the kids who are coming into the school system unprepared to learn and cannot keep up with the same academic track as other students?>>
[Doug Mann] <<What kids are you talking about? Who are the kids who aren't prepared to learn, can't keep up, in your estimation? (What percentage of the overall student population? Of the major racial subgroups? Of those eligible for free and reduced price lunch?)>>
[Mark Snyder] << I would say the kids who are demonstrating that they're not getting the material.>>

[Doug Mann] In my opinion, a teacher should attempt to figure out why individual students are not getting the material. That involves a process of gathering and organizing data in a systematic way, assessing strengths and weaknesses, and developing a plan with measurable goals and timelines, specific interventions and expected outcomes.

Methods used to gather and organize information in a systematic way include active observation (including the collection and recording of data in a systematic way), paper-and-pencil tests / quizzes, flash cards.

Reading is a critical skill that K-3 teachers should know how to teach and should learn how to teach well as quickly as possible. As I recall, my child development textbook stated that a "normal" 5 year old, that is, over 90% of 5 year olds have the cognitive ability to learn how to read.

There are also huge variations in genetically programmed neurological and motor development, such as with the acquisition of fine motor control necessary to easily track a line of print. About 90% of children acquire that ability somewhere between the ages of 4 and 9 (on average, girls mature more quickly in this area). Overall, genetically programmed learning abilities narrow considerably as students progress from grades K to 3.    

Students in a given first grade classroom are going to be all over the map in terms of what they already know and can do when it comes to reading. Some students can already read because they had effective reading instruction in Kindergarten or at home, and others are starting from scratch and may have a very limited "sight vocabulary" and recognize only about a dozen letters (most children can learn more than that in a half-day kindergarten class). Reading instruction doesn't have to be delayed for some or watered down for the whole class if the teacher presents the material in a certain order, with the approaches necessary to address the knowledge and skill deficits of particular students.  

It has been estimated that about 20% of the population has some kind of  "Specific reading disorder." Specialized, one-on-one instruction is necessary for about 2% of the population with more severe disorders. A teacher should know something about SRDs (Specific Reading Disorders) and approaches that can benefit most students and adequately address the needs of most students with SRDs.

In a mixed-ability class of 6 year old children who speak English as the native language, it should be possible for most to master critical reading skills, provided the teacher has learned how to teach reading skill and uses "best practices." (generally the most effective and efficient instructional methods and approaches)

I favor mainstreaming special Ed and English Language Learners. However, I also see the need for separate classes in language arts and other subject areas for students who speak Spanish, Somali and other languages and do not speak English (or don't speak it well enough), until they are proficient enough in
English to function well in a classroom where English is the language of instruction. I also favor separate classes, as a last resort, for students with special needs that cannot be effectively addressed by a particular regular Ed teacher.      

[Mark Snyder]<< I have no idea what percentage of students that would be or what racial subgroup they might represent or whether they're eligible for a free or reduced price lunch. I don't care about any of those things because I'm not obsessed with the idea that the MPS is racist or discriminates by class.>>

[Doug Mann] A school board member should know a great deal about the learning gap that exists between categories of students identified by race and eligibility for free and reduced price lunch. Closing those learning gaps and boosting student achievement are the district's strategic goals. A strategic goal is
the goal to which all other goals are subordinated.  

[Mark Snyder] <<What matters to me is that the students who need a slower pace or who need extra help or attention will get it. As someone who occasionally needed that as a student due to my hearing loss, I can speak from experience that you can feel just as inadequate as part of a mixed-ability classroom where you don't know what's going on as you can from being part of a "low-ability" group.>>

[Doug Mann] I believe that most students can handle a "high-ability" curriculum. Some need extra help and special attention. And students need competent teachers, the more competent the better. In my opinion, a prerequisite for "untracking," i.e., phasing out ability-grouping, is to distribute probationary teachers evenly throughout the district's schools and cut the teacher turnover rate in order to reduce the exposure of students to inexperienced teachers.      
[Doug Mann] <<In schools where students are assigned to separate classrooms for reading instruction according to "ability" or achievement, who is going to be better prepared to learn? A) students who learn the higher-order reading skills B) students in the not-yet-ready to learn how to read class.>>
[Mark Snyder] <<If this is what's happening, that seems to be an argument for MORE ability-based grouping, not eliminating it.
Perhaps Mike Atherton was onto something when he suggested we get rid of the grade-progression system and replace with progression upon demonstrating mastery of required skills or subjects. I think I'm remembering that right. If not, I hope he will chime in and correct me. >>

[Doug Mann] In my opinion, the Minneapolis school district already does about as much ability-grouping as the law allows. And the district is not in compliance with Title VI of the Civil Right Act of 1964 in relation to monitoring the progress of K-3 students assigned to low, medium and high-ability classrooms for reading instruction and other subject areas, in my opinion. See "Title VI requires evaluation of ability grouping practices."

In my opinion, the best practice is to keep K-3 students with the same teacher for the bulk of the day. K-3 teachers need to know all of their students as well as possible because teaching K-3 students what K-3 students are expected to learn requires complex, individualized planning and a lot of flexibility, especially if you are to give them all a "college-bound" education.  That is why it is impractical to have the kind of division of labor and specialization for K-3 students that Michael Atherton proposed in an Email exchange on this
list 2-3 years ago.

-Doug Mann, King Field
write-in "Doug Mann" for school board