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New orthodoxy harms pursuit of academic excellence

A strange, new educational orthodoxy has taken hold of Washburn High School, a public school in southwest Minneapolis.

A strange, new educational orthodoxy has taken hold of Washburn High School, a public school in southwest Minneapolis. Issues of academic excellence and equity are in play. And the stakes have been raised by the “Love it, or leave it” attitude taken by Minneapolis Public Schools (MPS) leaders.

Before dismissing this as a typical kerfuffle of no concern to anyone beyond the tumult of MPS, consider that educational fads have unpredictable lives, and this one could one day be coming to a school near you.

The new orthodoxy is this: Classrooms must be arranged to include students of every achievement level. There shall be no classrooms that group students in order to facilitate more focused instruction, whether that be for remedial purposes, or to provide additional challenges for more advanced students.

In other words, one-size-fits-all classrooms are the new order of the day. One speed. One standard level of difficulty. Anything that separates students by achievement is deemed suspect at best.

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So forget about traditional honors classes. Don’t ask for A.P. courses or any other arrangement that smacks of “advanced.”

Washburn does employ an International Baccalaureate (IB) program for all juniors and seniors. But Washburn’s version means one level for all, unlike the traditional model with two IB levels, and non-IB options as well.

‘Honors for All’

Washburn does repurpose the “Honors” label, applying it to all core-subject courses (English, Science, Social Science) freshman and sophomore years. “Honors for All” is what they call it. But since they arrange for no classroom to go faster or deeper than the standard curriculum, it makes as much sense as declaring all of Lake Wobegon’s children “above average.”

Before the objections come rolling in, let me say that there are minor exceptions to this one-size-fits-all characterization. Let me acknowledge that there are good reasons to design part of the school day to include courses that bring all students together. And let me hasten to add that there are a number of things to like about Washburn, apart from this new orthodoxy and the harm it poses for academic rigor.

Nuances aside, however, the clear direction is to limit choices and have all students take the same classes together. 

Why they are doing this is far less clear.

It isn’t because …

It isn’t because this approach is proven to work well. Four years into the experiment, state data on student achievement show that Washburn fares poorly in comparison with similar metro schools. Nor is there a track record elsewhere to argue for this approach over a longer time frame.

It isn’t because there is growing agreement in the academic community that one-size-fits-all classrooms are the way to move ahead.

It isn’t because there is a demand for this approach that Washburn aims to fill. MPS doesn’t market Washburn as a magnet school for a one-size-fits-all program.

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Washburn is doing it instead because the proponents of the new order feel that offering different levels of instruction is unjust, stigmatizing even, to those students not in the more advanced classes. They have an unfounded belief that if schools offer different levels, they must also employ a rigid and unfair tracking system.

Yet, all neighboring public high schools, MPS included, find acceptable ways to offer a mix of standard courses, along with honors and A.P. options. Only Washburn seeks to resolve accessibility issues by refusing to offer advanced options to anyone.

Different challenges within classroom

Instead of using different course options to challenge and inspire students who are at different levels, Washburn expects that each teacher will provide suitable challenges for all levels within every classroom.

In other words, teachers are expected to provide the differentiation that the system does not. Unfortunately, in the real world of large classrooms with students spanning many grade levels in terms of achievement, this doesn’t often happen, even with good intentions and skilled teachers.

Moreover, to date, Washburn has been lacking in the extensive out-of-class tutoring operation that proponents of the approach elsewhere argue is essential for realizing effective differentiated instruction in one-size-fits-all high school classrooms.

In short, this approach puts the entire burden upon Washburn teachers, without the requisite support. For administrators, the arrangement is foolproof. Blame for any shortcoming falls on teachers, not the system. This is one of the reasons an MPS mediator has been working to bridge differences between Washburn staff and administration.

The message to parents

If only there were a mediator to also intervene on behalf of parents. When the principal and the area superintendent both respond to questions of academic rigor by regularly telling current and prospective Washburn parents that they should take advantage of Minnesota’s open enrollment law, there is a need.

Their message to dissenters is clear: Please go away. But when other MPS schools with better options are effectively closed to those with the wrong city addresses, this means exiting the district.

Although this might be an effective short-term strategy for preserving the idiosyncratic vision at Washburn and for disguising the reality that they are failing to meet the academic needs of large numbers of students from all backgrounds, it ultimately harms both the district and the wider community.

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Kip Wennerlund is the parent of three MPS students and has taught at several universities.

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