One benefit of the spotlight on Congress and the fiscal cliff is it makes the education world look relatively functional. To keep things in perspective, here’s a pair of recent education antics.
Having insisted for years that all students take algebra, often as early as eighth grade, experts have run squarely into a shocking development. Apparently, when you mandate that low-level math students take algebra in the same class as high-level math students, the high-level math students don’t learn as much algebra as they used to. A University of Chicago study found that mandating “algebra for all,” eliminating remedial and other math classes, and mixing students of all abilities in the same class “had negative effects on math achievement of high skill students.”
In short, as we mouth endless platitudes about making American math students globally competitive and prepared for the 21st century, we’re restructuring math programs to ensure that our best students, the ones who might have become globally competitive and prepared for the 21st century, aren’t.
In a burst of insight, experts suspect that the decline of high-achievers’ skills might stem from the “less challenging content and slower-paced instruction” common and necessary in algebra-for-all classes as teachers attempt to teach algebra to remedial math students, or what we used to call remedial math students before we outlawed remedial math and started calling them algebra students.
Algebra-for-all isn’t “much help” for lower-level students either. While more received transcript credit for algebra, “failure rates increased,” “test scores did not improve, and students were no more likely to enter college.” California and North Carolina studies similarly determined that placing “struggling students” in algebra “fails to improve their achievement on state math tests” and “reduces the likelihood that they’ll take and pass higher-level math courses in high school.”
The statistical evidence and common sense confirm that the best way to teach math or anything else is to group students according to ability and current skill level. That’s why expert skiers don’t take lessons with beginners and thoracic surgeons don’t learn to cut meat alongside butchers.
The study’s author warns that this is “touchy terrain” about which “people have very strong opinions.” The people she’s referring to are education reformers, and the strong opinions are reformers’ objections to grouping students according to ability. They’ve been enforcing these objections for 40 years now, which is about as long as American students’ achievement has been declining.
What a coincidence.
Meanwhile, according to Education Week, schools are embracing graphic novels as “learning tools.” In case you’re wondering what graphic novels are, boosters freely admit that they’re “what generations of kids would recognize as a comic book.”
Comic books at school aren’t entirely new. They’ve been used for years to help “struggling readers, English language learners, and disabled students.” The difference is now they’re “moving into honors and college-level Advanced Placement classrooms.”
Remember that the next time an education expert or school official tries to prove that schools are raising standards by citing an increase in the number of students taking Advanced Placement classes. I guess it all depends on how you define “advanced.”
Boosters contend that graphic novels in high school honors classes are just as valid as the “picture books used in kindergarten.” They’re even included in the new “rigorous,” nationwide “Common Core” standards that promise to save public education — again.
Naturally, “some naysayers still question their value in the classroom.” As one enthusiast laments, “You’re always going to have the traditionalists say comic books aren’t real literature.” The way he sees it, though, comics are “visual literature,” and he’d be failing his students if he didn’t train them for “visual reading.”
Advocates presented experimental results at December’s meeting of the National Council of Teachers of English. Half a senior honors class read the epic poem “Beowulf,” which took them six hours. The other half read the graphic novel version, which took them only two. When both halves took the same multiple choice test, the students who read the traditional version scored only six points higher on average than the students who read the graphic novel. The teachers presenting the results unblushingly concluded that six points “isn’t worth the extra reading time.”
Where do I begin? First, setting aside their idiotic arithmetic, these same cutting-edge teachers would doubtless argue in any other context that multiple choice tests are an inadequate, overly “traditional” way of assessing a student’s reading skill and learning experience. Second, this is what they’re proposing for a senior honors course. Third, any teacher who thinks that reading the actual poem and the comic book are equivalent literary experiences has no business teaching “Beowulf” or anything else, including comic books.
The fact is comic book versions of “Beowulf” and Hamlet have been around since I was a kid. They were called Classic Comics, and they were on the rack next to Superman and Archie. Some kids actually read them, but nobody confused them with reading the actual classics.
Of course, now that we’re raising our standards, the comic books are fine.
Watch your step. The education cliff’s just up ahead.
Peter Berger teaches English at Weathersfield School.
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