Archive for Tuesday, July 6, 2010

K.C. schools to try grouping students by ability, not grade

July 6, 2010


— Forget about students spending one year in each grade, with the entire class learning the same skills at the same time. Districts from Alaska to Maine are taking a different route.

Instead of simply moving kids from one grade to the next as they get older, schools are grouping students by ability. Once they master a subject, they move up a level. This practice has been around for decades, but was generally used on a smaller scale, in individual grades, subjects or schools.

Now, in the latest effort to transform the bedraggled Kansas City, Mo., schools, the district is about to become what reform experts say is the largest one to try the approach. Starting this fall officials will begin switching 17,000 students to the new system to turnaround trailing schools and increase abysmal tests scores.

“The current system of public education in this country is not working” said Superintendent John Covington. “It’s an outdated, industrial, agrarian kind of model that lends itself to still allowing students to progress through school based on the amount of time they sit in a chair rather than whether or not they have truly mastered the competencies and skills.”

Here’s how the reform works:

Students — often of varying ages — work at their own pace, meeting with teachers to decide what part of the curriculum to tackle. Teachers still instruct students as a group if it’s needed, but often students are working individually or in small groups on projects that are tailored to their skill level.

For instance, in a classroom learning about currency, one group could draw pictures of pennies and nickels. A student who has mastered that skill might use pretend money to practice making change.

Students who progress quickly can finish high school material early and move forward with college coursework. Alternatively, in some districts, high-schoolers who need extra time can stick around for another year.

Advocates say the approach cuts down on discipline problems because advanced students aren’t bored and struggling students aren’t frustrated.

But backers acknowledge implementation is tricky, and the change is so drastic it can take time to explain to parents, teachers and students. If the community isn’t sold on the effort, it will bomb, said Richard DeLorenzo, co-founder of the Re-Inventing Schools Coalition, which coaches schools on implementing the reform.

Kansas City officials hope the new system will help the district that’s been beset with failure. A $2 billion desegregation case failed to boost test scores or stem the exodus of students to the suburbs and private and charter schools. The district has lost half its students and will close about 40 percent of its schools by the fall to avoid bankruptcy.

Covington wants to start the system in five elementary schools in hopes of spreading it through the upper grades once the bugs are worked out.

“This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.”


cato_the_elder 7 years, 9 months ago

How sad. Outcomes-based education is now to be inflicted on what is already one of the most mediocre school districts in America. What if a student never honestly "masters" anything? Have the touchy-feely pinheads in charge of this scheme figured out how they're going to accommodate that? How much further are educational standards going to get watered down? Covington says, "This system precludes us from labeling children failures." So how will they get them to the "next level," as he says? By watering down what they have to "master" and what they need to do to "master" it, that's how. Then, of course, no one will ever receive a "D" or an "F" - which is consistent with the mantra of outcomes-based education apologists for years that "every child is an A-student." Good grief.

With outcomes-based education, you can teach anyone to dunk a basketball. All you have to do is lower the goal.

1029 7 years, 9 months ago

Yeah, no kidding. This sounds like socialism to me. KCMOians better be ready for a huge tax increase.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

If you don't like something, it must be the liberals, silly. Maybe you should find out the party affiliation of the people who authorized this before labeling it liberal. Let us know what you find out.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 9 months ago

Workinghard, your comment is well taken. The worst example of outcomes-based education imposed at the national level came from the Bush administration, and it's called "No Child Left Behind." On the other hand, people who peddle the notion that "everyone is an A-student" tend to be liberals, although a significant number of political liberals within the teaching profession do not favor outcomes-based education.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

"everyone is an A-student" was an idea that was carried too far. Now we have a group of young people that think they are special and the world is about what they want and they're entitled to take or do it. It doesn't inspire the students to set and achieve goals. “This system precludes us from labeling children failures,” Covington said. “It’s not that you’ve failed, it’s just that at this point you haven’t mastered the competencies yet and when you do, you will move to the next level.” I guarantee that if they stay at a level too long, the other kids will label them as failures. It would be interesting though to see if the teachers report less discipline problems.

imastinker 7 years, 9 months ago

Actually I don't agree with you guys at all.

Splitting students into different tracks allows teachers to teach to a class of students at a similar ability. In a typical class, you have a few students who are struggling to keep up and doing poorly because the teacher is going too fast, a fair amount of students who are keeping up and doing pretty well, and others that are bored in class because the teacher is trying to teach to the middle and slower students.

Splitting the students up into different abilities allows the slower students to stay with people of similar abilities and the faster students to learn more and stay interested at school.

I don't see the downside here.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

As long as a test is required to pass to the next level so there is no lowing of the standards just to pass a student to make your record look good.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

Didn't Kennedy school try something like this, I know they were talking about it back about 14 yrs ago. Anybody remember?

avoice 7 years, 9 months ago

I'm with imastinker. This sounds like at least some school districts are beginning to realize how badly we've let down our more advanced students by forcing them to languish in classrooms where all the focus and resources go to the students who struggle the most, and that includes all the resources we expend on students with learning disabilities. It's fine to want to improve those children's academic skill levels, but we should not be doing this at the expense of the brighter students, who are the real future of our nation. We should make sure that we are moving those children forward as quickly as possible so they can achieve the higher levels of knowledge and skill of which they are fully capable. Why do we want to set up these kids for boredom, disinterest, and disengagement? As long as this system includes pushing all students to excel more rather than less, there is a lot of positive potential here.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

Does Lawrence not have the gifted program anymore?

tomatogrower 7 years, 9 months ago

This is a great idea. And the next step would be to offer more vocational training at the secondary level, and maybe start an apprenticeship program, so those who aren't academically talented can get some real training. We gear all our energy towards sending all kids to college, and not all kids want to or are able to go to college. Why not give them a good start as a mechanic, plumber, construction worker, etc. Make sure they know the basics of reading, writing, and math, but then give them a way to make a living. I'll bet you'd see the drop out rate go down rapidly in high school and in college.

fanaddict 7 years, 9 months ago

I believe they do that already. I could be wrong, but I think there is a program in both the junior high and highschool where they have kids go work an hour at a local business.

Deb Engstrom 7 years, 9 months ago

This is only available to special education students.

workinghard 7 years, 9 months ago

Kind of like the job corp program. Actually we did havesomething like that back in the 70's I think, then the school district decided everyone needed to go to college. Yes, bring that back.

cato_the_elder 7 years, 9 months ago

Tomatogrower, other than the first sentence of your post, which apparently means that you support the harebrained scheme reported on, I agree with you completely.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 9 months ago

Schools are the only place where we seem to believe human beings are widgets on a factory line being 'produced' by the system. Children learn much like adults; we just tend to ignore that. If the average adult were given 6-7 'bosses' in a single day, some with radically different styles and rules than the one worked for an hour before, many adults would throw up their hands and, perhaps, just quit. We do this to children in middle and high schools and call it 'normal.' Anyone see the disconnect? If we get serious about the standards (if that is what they really are) and teach people from where they are and try hard to get them where they need to be, things can improve. This is a good effort and a starting point for real reform. We have the skills, the staff for the most part and the technologies to do this. All we need is the will and the wisdom to quit buying textbooks to drive much of our effort. Care to see all the published 'standards' we are allegedly teaching? Try this:

ljwreader33 7 years, 9 months ago

This is an excellent idea. Allowing advanced students to move through the curriculum at a pace appropriate for them will give them the opportunity to expand on their experiences and reach a higher potential. Too often gifted students end up doing "seat time" while the rest of the student population catches up. This leads to disengagement and laziness. Conversely, slower paced students will be allowed the time to focus on the areas they need to in order to master skills necessary to move through the curriculum effectively. No more moving on just because it's the end of another school year. Whomever decided that students should be grouped by age and not ability had it all wrong. This strategy could well be the way to get our country back on track in competing with other nations. Way to go, Superintendent Covington!

sickofdummies 7 years, 9 months ago

Is anyone concerned about the social ramifications of this? It is one thing to have different achievement levels within one age group, but a whole different ball of wax to mix different aged students. I have an academically advanced child and would not want her in a class with other kids who may be several years older and more mature than she is. That seems like it could be a recipe for disaster.

Paul R Getto 7 years, 9 months ago

Sick of: I hope your appellation is not sympomatic of your perceptions concerning other people. I share some of your concern, but teachers can handle this; they used to do it well in the old one-room school houses, which are being recreated here in a technological age. You can't easily have it both ways. If your child is advanced beyond his/her peers, and is forced to sit through a year of school which is not needed, is this worse than hanging with older students who can present a challenge? We all seem to want it both ways and the system as constructed is not set up to handle this. PS: Are children in your neighborhood allowed to play with older kids? If the neighborhood resembled schools, the parents would march out in the morning, gather all the five-year olds and say, "Now, let's play kick the can. Why? Because you are five and it's 9 in the morning. At ten we will make all of you play kickball, etc. etc.........

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