Tag: eacher Quality

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Better Teaching Solves Achievement Gaps

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Improving the quality of teaching in our schools is the most-critical of the many solutions we will need to stem achievement gaps and end our nation’s education crisis. But far…

Photo courtesy of Jose Vilson

Improving the quality of teaching in our schools is the most-critical of the many solutions we will need to stem achievement gaps and end our nation’s education crisis. But far too many teachers are wedded to outmoded concepts of how to teach. This, along with a lack of concern and care for every kid in the classroom no matter their race or socioeconomic background, means that many teachers are more of the problem than the solution.

Dropout Nation Contributing Editor Steve Peha, in this reprint of an earlier piece, offers some thoughts on how teachers can work every day to solve achievement gaps and ensure that every child they teach gets an equally high quality education. While your editor does not fully agree with all of Peha’s suggestions (I think you have to focus on equitable outcomes as well as opportunities), his thoughts should be given consideration.

Perhaps the answer to the riddle of education reform is simpler than we have led ourselves to believe. Perhaps the key to better learning is simply better teaching. Traditional teaching was created for a different time, a time when we aspired to educate a smaller and less diverse population for a simpler world with fewer requirements.

Three generations ago, a patchwork 8th grade education was not only common but satisfactory—and skill in writing was not highly prized or even really needed to earn a meager living in an Industrial Age economy. Many racial and ethnic groups were schooled in sub-standard circumstances. Some kids weren’t educated at all.

In generations past, we didn’t think much about teaching, learning, and equity. We taught the way we taught. Some kids learned, some didn’t. And most of us never worried about whether education was fair. Now, as we hold our kids to higher standards, we must hold ourselves to higher standards, too. Anything less would be to knowingly perpetuate generations of inequity along with a grossly inefficient system that continues to produce poor results at high cost and with great frustration.

New expectations, new populations, and new legislation reflect a society that has become more diverse, more pragmatic, and more eager to extend quality education to all. Changes in time and culture inspire changes in method. Best of all, with effectiveness and equity as our guides, new methods can be optimized not only to help kids who might otherwise struggle but to provide advanced learning opportunities for others as well.

In expressing our sense of equity, then, we should strive not to close achievement gaps but to help all students maximize their achievement. In any unit of study, kids who start out farther behind will have to be inspired to work harder and to dedicate more time. Kids who may already be competent will have to have to be encouraged to master advanced skills. Our teaching must account for both of these realities. This will reduce gaps in achievement over time even if it never erases them completely.

Kids with more to learn must be given a reasonable opportunity to learn it. At the same time, other students must not be held back from pursuing new skills and more advanced understanding. In the end, if everyone learns as much as they can, the most meaningful gaps will narrow, not because we’ve held some kids back or pushed others ahead by diverting resources from the more privileged to the less privileged, but because kids with more to learn tend to make faster progress through less complicated material.

At the intersection of teaching, learning, and equity, striving for standardized outcomes is inherently inequitable to kids with high pre-existing skill levels who will likely learn faster and achieve more if they are only given the chance to do so. Striving for state-sanctioned minimum competence is also inequitable to kids with low pre-existing skill levels who are rarely given the chance to develop meaningful abilities. Instead, true fairness demands that we work toward mastery for all by optimizing individual progress and by ensuring that each student learns as much as possible.

Consider a hypothetical example based on common sub-group achievement data from a diverse school district. Let’s pretend I’m a middle school Language Arts teacher. I notice after the first month of school that many of my students struggle with spoken and written English grammar. Even though this is not on my list of state standards to teach at this time, I can’t abide the thought of kids heading off to high school without this basic skill set. I would be thrilled if every student arrived each year with the uniform knowledge specified by our standards. But this never happens. So I will teach first to the needs of the students and then to the requirements of the state.

In situations like this, traditional approaches to instruction tend to exacerbate gaps in achievement. When teachers faced with diverse classrooms rely on a single traditional method that favors those students who need the least help, the smart get smarter, the rest tend to languish, and inequities compound. So resorting to the traditional grammar book approach—with the workbooks, worksheets, and Latin-inspired rules and vocabulary—isn’t likely to help all kids reach their potential. Second, the purpose of grammar instruction is not the memorization of terms and rules but the production of well-formed sentences.

So I’ll throw out the grammar books, bring in real books, and use them to teach kids how to speak and write sentences from Common Standard English. I’ll also introduce a simple system for analyzing sentence structure that does not require an understanding of traditional grammar but that helps students develop important sentence-building skills nonetheless.

To make it easier for kids to study sentence structure, I came up with a different way of describing sentences. This is not an “official” way. I’ve never seen it in a textbook or had it taught to me in a class. But I have found that it works well for just about everyone—from first graders to twelfth graders, even college kids and adults.

Take a look at this smooth-sounding 41-word sentence: On a bitter cold winter morning, Malcolm Maxwell, a young man of simple means but good intentions, left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life. Notice that it’s made up of several distinct parts. In this system, there are four kinds of sentence parts:

  • Main Parts. These parts usually contain the main action of the sentence: “Malcolm Maxwell,… left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised,….”
  • Lead-In Parts. These parts often lead into other parts, especially main parts: “On a bitter cold winter morning,….”
  • In-Between Parts. These parts go in between other parts. They feel like a slight interruption: “…a young man of simple means but good intention,…”
  • Add-On Parts. These extra parts convey additional information about other parts: “…and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.”

Using this system, we can describe our model sentence like this: Lead-In + Main + In-Between + Main + Add-On. Here again are the five parts written out in order:

  • Lead-In Part. “On a bitter cold winter morning,”
  • Main Part. “Malcolm Maxwell,”
  • In-Between Part. “a young man of simple means but good intentions,”
  • Main Part, continued. “left the quiet country town in which he’d been raised,”
  • Add-On Part. “and set off on the bold errand he’d been preparing for all his life.”

New sentences can be created by combining different parts in different ways. To make longer sentences, more parts can be added. But it’s surprising how effective we can be with just a few. By using this system to analyze the sentences kids read, and then using those sentences as models to help kids create their own increasingly complex sentence patterns, students develop a repertoire of well-formed sentence structures they can use in both speaking and writing.

In a system of standards, tests, and legislated learning timelines, equity requires us to teach with more regard for our students than for our state. Official benchmarks are too low to be accurate indicators of meaningful achievement. True equity demands that we set real-world expectations for all students and that we provide the tools and support they need to meet them, while at the same time accounting for individual differences in where kids begin and in how they proceed.

In striving for fairness, we acknowledge that different students will achieve differently even under equitable conditions. But if we teach with individual learning as our focus, and if we work to assure that students learn as much as they can, we will move consistently closer to the goal of achieving true fairness in education as all students move closer to realizing their full potential.

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