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How to fix the public schools in Mpls? -Part One
With permission, I am pasting some comments / questions posed in an off list Email, and my responses.
> 1) I find it somewhat inconsistent to hear that you have enrolled your own
> child in a nonpublic school while pursuing an oversight role in the
> public schools. If elected what sort of support would you give to school
> choice, and how would you work to intermix the schools in Minneapolis so
> that rather than bear additional financial burden, learners might have
> more options within the district (especially the primary schools, which I
> think may have the greatest disparities due to their smaller size and
> community orientations)?
My own child was continuously enrolled in the Minneapolis Public Schools for over 4 years. During that time my child was not only denied an adequate education but also psychologically abused in the classroom. I do not want to be a member of the school board bad enough to make my child a martyr to the cause.
In my opinion, "school choice" is a sham. It's not enough to give parents a chance to bid on one of the district's better schools. Every public school in Minneapolis should be a good school. Every child has the right to a cost-free, quality, public education.
> 2) Specific curriculum points: I understand your opposition to
> ability-tracking and I share your concerns. The over-testing of children
> may also reinforce to them that they are below average, since those
> standardized tests focus on rankings rather than curriculum coverage as a
> measurement. But I am not convinced that simple curriculum tweaks are
I think that I agree with you.
Tests that are focused on curriculum coverage are valuable as diagnostic tools. An example is the weekly math quiz that is typically given to 3rd grade students in an academic curriculum program.
Standardized tests like the California Achievement Test (academic aptitude tests) have some value in evaluating the overall quality of education at a school, identifying disparities in educational outcomes between schools and groups of students, etc. For this purpose the CAT is better than the test currently used by the MPS, the Northwest Achievement Level Test. You can't make direct comparisons between upper and lower level students with the NALT because students at different levels are not taking the same test.
The Minnesota Basic Standards Test is a curriculum content test. It is not inherently evil, but has had a negative impact on teaching practices in "problem schools." On this issue I recommend an article written by a Texas teacher which appeared in Rethinking Schools ["Bamboozled by the Texas Miracle" by Teddi Beam-Conroy] <http://www.rethinkingschools.org/Archives/16_01/Tex161.htm>
> I believe a real overhaul where students are not passive recipients of
> their education is needed. I would prefer to think of these children as
> learners, and their teachers as guides. What might you do to increase the
> fluidity of the school programs so that it is not even possible to
> ability-track students within a school?
The K-8 Montessori schools may be the kind of model program you are looking for. A Montessori school is set up more like a traditional K-8 school of the 1870s and 80s (with a number of innovations) than the factory model that's been commonplace for the past century. For a couple of months I was a Montessori preschool parent, and a few years ago attended an orientation for prospective Montessori parents and spent a day actively observing a Montessori classroom for children aged 6-10, i.e., grades 1-3.
Montessori students work individually and in groups, but are not grouped by the teacher. I got the impression that perceived academic ability is generally not the principle around which children group themselves in a Montessori classroom.
Montessori students learn a lot from each other. You might even say they bare a lot of the burden of "teaching." Peer tutoring happens naturally in certain settings, and I think it happens a lot in a typical Montessori classroom because the learning process is very student-centered. Montessori teachers spend large blocks of time engaged in active observation (or systematic data collection), the first step of a scientific method of teaching (also a very 19th century concept).
> 3) Your comment about kids teaching other kids: I know you clarified this,
> but I am concerned about any efforts to have the "fast" kids help the
> "slow" kids. This is an ad hoc ability-tracking if it happens more than
> once and the children recognize the pattern. It also constitutes unpaid
> labor by unlicensed teachers :) More seriously, even in group tasks, I
> would be concerned that "fast" kids will pull the weight, while "slow"
> kids drag projects along-- and that this will create resentments and other
> problems. A less rigid approach to education overall might allow children
> more control over their lives by allowing them to select their project
> partners freely, and to choose from a variety of project types from
> individual to large group. Thoughts?
My comments about the Montessori schools above indicate how I think the task of "untracking" is best approached.
Whenever peer tutoring happens, some kids are going to be in a "teaching" mode more than others. However, the "teaching" that goes on among students, which is more properly called "tutoring," is not the same as practicing the art of teaching. In my opinion, the argument about it being unfair to exploit students as unpaid teachers makes no sense unless you are talking about student teachers.
I don't think that kids generally have a problem helping each other out, showing another student how to solve a problem, clarifying instructions, etc. However, peer tutoring can be done in a way that causes resentment. For example, regularly assigning "fast" kids to help out "slow" kids in lengthy tutorial sessions in one or another subject is not a great idea. However, there are instances when its better to consciously group, than to not group, children of unequal ability for tutorial sessions on a short term basis. For example,
Let's consider the hypothetical example of a first grade teacher with 30 students. Of those students, 20 need to learn a critical reading skill in order to meet or exceed grade level expectations by the end of the academic year. This can be accomplished near the beginning of the year in 2 to 3 weeks with the aid of "mixed ability" grouping.
On the other hand, if mixed ability grouping is not utilized, what happens? Let's say you put 7 students in a "low-ability" group, 7 in a high ability group, 8 in a low-middle ability group, and 8 in a high middle ability group. The low ability students do not learn the critical reading skill at all and make little or no progress, the high ability group is reading above grade level by the end of the academic year, and the students in the intermediate groups fall somewhere in-between.
-Doug Mann, Kingfield
Doug Mann for School Board