Protecting Students from Learning

Today’s Educational Policies and Instructional Programs Protect Students from Learning

That’s the impetus of Barry Garelick’s article Protecting Student from Learning, published on May 18, 2011 in Education News. From the article:

I attended Mumford High School in Detroit, from the fall of 1964 through June of 1967, the end of a period known to some as the golden age of education, and to others as an utter failure. For the record I am in the former camp, a product of an era which in my opinion well-prepared me to major in mathematics. I am soon retiring from a career in environmental protection and will be entering the teaching profession where I will teach math in a manner that has served many others well over many years and which I hope will be tolerated by the people who hire me.

Why would Barry hope that the traditional methods he intends to use to teach math will be tolerated by the people who hire him?  Because, as he discusses in his article, today’s desire for equity in education has lead to an intolerance for what are commonly referred to as “traditional methods” on the grounds that they relied on rote memorization and mindless repetition, failed thousands of children, and only served “gifted” children.

This last criticism refers to the low numbers of students taking algebra and other math classes in the 50’s and 60’s and is taken as evidence that the techniques of traditional math—drills, memorization and word problems that were not necessarily related to the “real world”—worked only for bright students who learned math no matter how it was taught. Another side to this argument, however, is that the low numbers of students who took algebra and other math classes during this period was because of the tracking practices that were in force at the time.


During the 60’s and 70’s, radical critics of schools such as Jonathan Kozol, brought accusations of sadistic and racist teachers, said to be hostile to children and who lacked innovation in pedagogy. “Traditional” schooling was seen as an instrument of oppression and schools were recast in a new, “hipper” interpretation of what progressivism was supposed to be about. In moving away from the way things were, the education establishment’s goal was to restore equity to students rather than maintaining the tracking that created dividing lines between social class and race. The end product however was a merging of general track with college prep with the result that college prep was becoming student-centered and needs-based with lower standards, and less homework assigned. Classes such as Film Making and Cooking for Singles were offered, and requirements for English and History courses were reduced if not dropped. Social class and race was no longer a barrier for such classes as evidenced by the increasing numbers of white students began taking them.

By the early 80’s, the “Back to Basics” movement formed to turn back the educational fads and extremes of the late 60’s and the 70’s and reinstitute traditional subjects and curricula. The underlying ideas of the progressives did not go away, however, and the watchword has continued to be equal education for all. While such a goal is laudable, the attempt to bring equity to education by eliminating tracking had the unintended consequence of replacing it with another form of inequity: the elimination of grouping of students according to ability. Thus, students who were poor at reading were placed in classes with students who were advanced readers; students who were not proficient in basic arithmetic were placed in algebra classes. Ability grouping was viewed as a vestige of tracking and many in the education establishment consider the two concepts to be synonymous.

Enter differentiated instruction.  Under today’s mantra ability based grouping is unnecessary as teachers offer differentiated instruction to different level of learners in their classrooms. The marketed promise of differentiated instruction is that teachers provide minimal directed instruction on the topic of day and then break student into groups of different levels of learners for more in depth learning.  The students do exercises while the teacher rotates around the room helping each group, and more advanced students help their classmates grasp concepts while still being challenged to exceed the lesson of the day.

Malarkey.  Differentiated instruction is little more than a marketing gimmick – a myth.

Reality is that with 26 – 30 students in a classroom teachers neither have the time nor the materials to provide more challenging instruction to children who have already mastered the concepts and skills in that lesson or less challenging instruction and materials for students who are struggling.  Furthermore, with so many openly math phobic teachers in elementary ed, chances are that the classroom teacher has no idea what comes next to be able to craft more challenging instruction and has no idea what foundational concepts and skills a struggling student might be missing that are causing him / her to struggle.  In truth teachers follow the proscribed lesson of the day with little to no variation.  Kids who already “get it” help their classmates, doodle, or roam the hallways under the guise of going to the library, while kids who don’t get it are left behind.  Remedial instruction for those kids who don’t “get it” encompasses drilling them on previous state exam questions so that they can pass the state exam, not instruction to provide them with the knowledge they need to move on to the next level.  More advanced instruction for the kids who do “get it” is left to the parents.

The results are that such students are passed on into algebra courses in high school with little to no mastery of the arithmetic procedures that are essential to move on to more abstract versions of the same. As such, they do not qualify for the honors track courses, nor—ultimately—AP calculus. Those who make it to the honors have received the instruction and knowledge they need through tutoring/learning centers or their parents. In some cases, there are schools whose gifted and talented program consists of a traditional approach for math and other subjects. Thus, students who qualify for such programs are exempted from the one-size-fits-all, student-centered classes. This pattern holds as well for other subjects.

In either case, students entering high school have been unintentionally split into groups of students, some of whom will qualify for honors classes and those who will not. Depending on the high school, the non-honors courses may be watered down versions often by necessity. These students are passed on through the system in some schools; in others they receive failing grades. Students, through circumstances beyond their control, may end up “tracked” in sub-standard courses and will be ill-prepared to take math courses in college, thus shutting out possibilities of a career in the sciences or engineering.

The net effect of “differentiated student centered instruction” is lowered expectations.  As Barry cites in his article, things like drawing a book jacket or poster in lieu of a book report or creating a facebook posting from General Washington as he prepared his men to cross the Delaware and confront the British at Valley Forge.  Because of these lowered expectations we have created a generation of children who have never had to work hard to achieve acceptable grades and who lack the knowledge and skills to complete college level courses or succeed in their chosen fields. Worse, we’ve created a two-tiered system where students whose parents have the knowledge or resources hire private tutors or home tutor do so, while students whose parents lack the resources or knowledge are forced to accept substandard instructional programs from the schools that set them up for failure.

The move to homogenize skill levels in the classrooms has been entrenched now for several decades. It has come to the point now that students who have been forced through circumstances into non-honors tracks, and judged to not be able to handle the “traditional mode” of education are not presented with the choice to work hard—and many happily comply in a system that caters to it.

Which raises the question of whether higher expectations and more teacher-centered instruction yield better results. Vern Williams is a middle school math teacher in Virginia, who teaches gifted students and served as a member of the President’s National Math Advisory Panel. He relates a story about how he was recently assigned a tutorial class made up of students who had failed and barely passed Virginia’s sixth grade math exams. When he first started teaching the class they wanted to play games, but Williams challenged them and included material that he was teaching to his seventh grade (gifted) algebra classes. He reports “Many of the students wanted to ditch their regular ‘baby’ classes and just attend mine. They viewed my class as not only interesting but serious.”

But students who have been put on the protection-from-learning track fulfill the low expectations that have been conferred upon them. The education establishment’s view of this situation is a shrug, and—despite their justifications for the inquiry-based and student-centered approach that brings out all children’s’ “innate” knowledge of math—respond with “Maybe your child just isn’t good in math”. The admonition carries to subjects beyond math and is extended to “Maybe your child isn’t college material.” And while it is true that a “college for all” goal is unrealistic, the view that so many students somehow are lacking in cognitive ability raises serious questions. As Schmidt (2011) states in his paper: “To attribute achievement differences solely to differences in student efforts and abilities is grossly unfair and simpleminded and ignores the fundamental relationship between content coverage and achievement.” There is now an in-bred resistance to do ability grouping and to teach using explicit instruction. That such approach may result in higher achievement, with more students qualifying for gifted and honors programs, is something that the education establishment has come to deny by default. It is an inherent and insidious tracking system that leaves many students behind. And many of those disdain and despise education and the people who managed to achieve what they could not—the same hatred that I imagine Raymond must have felt many years ago.


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