I support the intentions behind DCPS’ A Capital Commitment: Better Schools for All Students by 2017. I salute Chancellor Henderson and Capital One for agreeing to a strategic plan, which sets ambitious goals for our most vulnerable students and schools. It’s not only the right thing to do, but also an effective use of time and resources. If we want to improve teaching quality and student learning within the 40 lowest performing schools, then we must devise, and adhere to, a strategic plan. Whereas I’m a fan of this enterprise, I’m skeptical about extending the school day for the lowest performing public middle schools – three of the four in Ward 8 alone – to bolster student performance.
My skepticism doesn’t stem from my desire to work less. I can assure you, I’m a workaholic with no desire to seek professional help. In fact, if an extended school day guarantees an increase in student learning, then I would be more than willing to “give it a go.” That said, if an extended school day is inadequately implemented, i.e. simply adding minutes or a class period the current school day, then this approach will exacerbate school specific challenges, and not diminish them.
Rather than risk creating more problems than solutions, we must focus on improving the current school day. We must focus on enriching instruction by increasing teacher collaboration and interdisciplinary planning. We must promote quality learning by addressing student behavior and school-wide disciplinary systems. How can we focus on enriching, and not extending, the school day? Well, let’s start with the elephant in the room: the effectiveness of heterogeneous classrooms.
In order to turnaround the three lowest performing public middle schools in SE DC, central office will need to reassess the effectiveness of heterogeneous classrooms. Although the spirit behind this model is morally sound, a heterogeneous class isn’t always the most academically effective. Furthermore, it tends to cause unnecessary burdens and stress for teachers, while at the same time, negatively affects students who are on, or above, grade level. The former spends countless hours finding ways to accommodate every student, regardless of ability, while the latter tends to lose instructional time, i.e. a highly rigorous lesson.
Simply put, heterogeneous classrooms, within a low performing middle school, aren’t necessarily effective for the students on either side of the classroom spectrum. Students who struggle to master on grade-level content need more one-on-one guidance, while students on, or above, grade level need more rigorous academic content, coupled with adequate amounts of guidance, as well. Given the huge disparities in classroom composition, vis-à-vis student computation and comprehension skills, a heterogeneous classroom often leads to an undesirable effect: Teaching to the middle.
I know…I know…this is where differentiated instruction comes in, right?
Well, yes AND no.
Differentiated instruction is, by far, the most illusive teaching strategy, albeit with or without the use of technology. All too often, education experts promote differentiated instruction, to accommodate all students within a heterogeneous classroom. In fact, it’s quite common to hear the “differentiated instruction” mantra during education discussions and debates, particularly, centered on the rationality for creating academically diverse classrooms. However, the reality on the ground, particularly within a high poverty urban public middle school, is that most teachers will struggle to differentiate instruction, on a daily basis. Moreover, heterogeneous classrooms aren’t necessarily the most academically effective setting for students who are “struggling readers.” In my professional opinion, under-performing, high poverty urban public middle schools need to set up, what I call, the “most strategic environment” (MSE) within each classroom.
So, what does the MSE classroom look like anyway?
First, the MSE operates from an unyielding conviction that a teacher-student relationship matters more than test scores. In order to gain an appreciation for why relationships matter, I urge you to watch the late Rita Pierson explain why “every kid needs a champion.” Without an understanding of, or appreciation for, how relationships help produce both academic growth and personal development, then the idea of the MSE classroom is lost in translation.
Second, the most direct route to creating a MSE classroom conducive for cultivating teacher-student relationships is through establishing a strategic teacher-to-student ratio. In my professional opinion, a smaller class size (i.e. twenty students), particularly within a high poverty urban public middle school, is more conducive to cultivating relationships than a larger class size (i.e. thirty students). On the surface, this shouldn’t be too difficult to comprehend. Basically, a classroom with thirty plus students reduces the amount of time a teacher has to conduct meaningful one-on-one conferences or “chats.” Subsequently, a classroom with twenty or fewer students increases the likelihood for a teacher to develop meaningful connections with EACH student.
Furthermore, based on my professional experience, student misbehavior is often curtailed in a smaller setting. A classroom crammed with low SES students, especially middle school-ers, is the more likely to experience an increase in off-task behaviors and disruptions. Although teachers must establish a firm and fair system of rewards and consequences, they must have a MSE classroom that is conducive for cultivating relationships and maximizing instruction. Simply put, loading low SES middle school students into a classroom places a logistical and emotional strain on teachers, including the most effective ones.
Last, the MSE classroom is more academically homogenous than heterogeneous. That said, “grouping by ability” doesn’t mean we simply take a student’s performance score from the previous year’s standardized test to create classrooms based on performance ranges. To the contrary, in order to create a strategic cohort, you must take into account multiple measures, such as grades, behaviors, parental involvement, participation in school activities, etc. Building a strategic classroom environment demands input from all stakeholders within the school building, such as administrators, teachers, counselors, parents, and social workers.
In conclusion, if the primary focus of education policy is to recruit and retain high quality teachers for every classroom, then policies must create MSE classrooms that are conducive for maximizing high quality teaching and learning. Misguided, or disconnected, classroom policies often create unnecessary burdens and stress for hard-working teachers. My genuine reservation about extending the school day within three of the four lowest performing Ward 8 public middle schools is that, without adequate or meaningful investments, the policy of “extension” will fall well short of its intended goal. Subsequently, it may inevitably lead to higher rates of teacher churn, higher rates of student suspensions, and higher student attrition rates from the public middle schools in Ward 8. Therefore, before “we” extend the school day, “we” must first enrich the current system. Simply extending the school day, while ignoring the significant challenges Ward 8 public middle schools face, will exacerbate the problems, and not reduce them. Again, we don’t need longer school days; we simply need smarter ones.
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