On March 5, the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education voted to adopt the Superintendent’s Middle School Transformation proposal. As part of this plan, middle school Social Studies and Science will be completely deleveled in all grades and Language Arts will be completely deleveled in all grades except for a small cluster of 8th graders (comprising 12-15%) of students who will take 9th grade Language Arts starting in the 2013-14 school year.
We will also be adopting the International Baccalaureate with its accompanying curricular, assessment and pedagogical changes.
I support an upwards-pushing leveling system with honors classes and thus disagree with the Board of Education majority on complete deleveling. However, as someone who, if elected, would be joining the Board of Education after the decision to delevel has been made, my role would be to make sure that this difficult process is implemented as successfully as possible. It would be my role -- along with the eight other Board of Education members -- to see that the sketches of programs for high-achievers are remembered, developed and funded. It would be my role to see that struggling students have enough of the extra support they will surely need. It would be my role to see that the promise of curricular improvements accompanying the International Baccalaureate are kept and that we create a curriculum that is exciting, outward-looking, and has high-expectations for analytical thinking and research.
Successful Implementation and Moving Forward
• Make the Curriculum Great.
The International Baccalaureate has a reputation for challenging assignments, interdisciplinary study, and inspiring critical thinking, but the Administration has not clarified what changes are actually going to take place in the classroom other than that classes will now be taught by teachers who will now be trained in IB’s precepts. Adopting IB without changing our curriculum would mean that we have an IB imprimatur, but not the qualities of the IB program that truly make it renowned.
The current Language Arts curriculum has some good elements, but there are also numerous ways it needs to be improved. The themes of the classes tend to be very focused on the self and the experiences of teenagers, and not the broader world, there are few interdisciplinary linkages, and there are some recommended assignments which are not going to make anyone college-ready, like create a “collage about people who did the right thing” as part of an 8th grade unit on Anne Frank.
There are also not one, but TWO, marking period-long units on science fiction/fantasy, which is one too many. Writing a new Language Arts curriculum is the privilege of the teachers who will teach it, but the Board of Education must set high expectations for sophisticated, outward-looking guiding questions, transdisciplinary exploration, balance of literary genres, and more challenging, mature literature to be read in class.
Simultaneous to IB adoption is adoption of the new Common Core standards (which will impact elementary school and high school as well). The Common Core requires that students read more non-fiction and do more explanatory and persuasive writing, as opposed to writing about self-experience. The justifications for these changes are that reading non-fiction will better prepare students for college and their careers, where non-fiction reading and persuasive and explanatory writing are the rules. Also, reading complementary non-fiction can enhance understanding of a work of fiction.
Teachers in South Orange-Maplewood are already assigning more non-fiction, but this is not officially part of the curriculum yet and in some classes the non-fiction reading is random and thus is less than the sum of its parts. As a service to teachers and students alike, the district should make non-fiction reading coherent and make it complement the fiction reading. The non-fiction can be history, but it also can be journalism from the time period, essays, literary criticism, or even poetry. Mountain Lakes’ 8th grade Language Arts curriculum is a good example of this kind of complementary fiction and non-fiction.
We should also consider certain changes in Social Studies. Many schools teach World History before American history for the simple reason that most of World History precedes American history chronologically and younger children tend to love World History topics like the Stone Age and Ancient Egypt. The theme-model of 7th grade Social Studies also should be reconsidered. When children learn about topics in history by theme there is a risk that they learn about subjects out of context. Should the first thing students ever learn about Russia be the dictatorship of Josef Stalin? Should students learn about a poor country's problems without learning about its accomplishments as well or the economic and cultural backgrounds of those problems?
We should not shy away from making the curriculum more rigorous as well. Yes, I know that is an overused word and some people feel that schools are pursuing rigor for rigor’s sake, but to us “rigor” is simply classes where students read complex literature and have analytical assignments, often writing. It does not mean more homework, it means more thoughtful work.
• Give Teachers Real Support for Differentiated Instruction
Multiple studies have shown that teachers, even while they receive coaching in differentiated instruction, do not offer it or tend to only differentiate to struggling students. The SOMSD’s approach to the challenges of differentiated instruction is to offer more and more (and more) professional development in it, as if the problem were a lack of conceptual understanding.
This professional development may have some utility, but it is the wrong approach because what makes differentiated instruction difficult is that teachers lack the time to create the assessments and tiered lessons that effective differentiated instruction requires. The solution to this is to do more to provide teachers with libraries of differentiated materials – which can include inquiry-based learning – that they can use to appropriately challenge students of different levels of readiness.
• After School Supplemental Instruction: Give students who need to receive supplemental instruction the option of receiving it after school.
The current proposal calls for students who are struggling in their classes to receive supplemental instruction during their lunch periods and their related arts classes. This is problematic for several reasons. One, all kids need lunch to socialize and relax. Two, the total hours of the supplemental instruction add to about five hours a week, which is very little compared to the 9-10 hours of supplemental instruction that successful charter schools offer. Three, a child who loves art or music and may have art or music in a career path will now have to give that up.
The Administration was too quick to decide against after school supplemental instruction. If a struggling student does not or cannot attend after school supplemental instruction then he or she should be required to attend during the school day, but the after school option should be available.
• Have more "reach" in literature circle options.
Literature circles are ideal activities for differentiated instruction, yet, in many cases, even the most advanced options in literature circles would not be challenging for a highly proficient reader. In many cases, the most difficult options for students to choose from are only a year or two above grade level. In the elementary schools and middle schools students who wish to read more difficult, complex works of literature should have that option.
• Expand 8th grade accelerated English.
There is no reason to keep enrollment in 8th grade accelerated English to 12-15% of a class. Such a number is artificial and is based on an arbitrary desire to keep accelerated English to one class per middle school. Given that students who read at the top decile read three years above grade level, having 25-30% students take a class which is one year ahead of what they would be studying otherwise is reasonable.
• Fund extracurricular academic clubs.
The Superintendent’s report mentions creating “content specific enrichment activities,” such as Intel Science, Model United Nations, Mock Trial, and Technology Student Association programs but also warns, “pending budget considerations.”
This is unacceptable. There are numerous social and academic benefits of extracurricular activities like these and they (along with a student newspaper and National Geography Bee participation) are very common in middle schools and the costs are very small compared to several new expenses. The Administration must devise a way to fund these activities.
• Differentiate professional development so that teachers who are weak in one area can receive targeted professional development.
A problem I have often heard of in the schools is that some classes are disorderly. No student should have his or her learning disrupted by rudeness, bullying, or other form of interruption.
We must not tolerate disruption behavior, but we should recognize that it often occurs in a vacuum of classroom activity. To address this we should have targeted professional development to help teachers, often new ones, be able to provide a calm learning environment for all students.
• Insist on High-Quality Assignments and Support Independent Projects
There is also the overarching way that classes are taught. A common criticism of Levels 2 and 3 (and sometimes the deleveled Grade 6) is that they consist of much more worksheets, note taking, and “read the chapter and answer the questions” assignments. We must monitor classroom instruction so that the new deleveled classes do not evolve in this way.
The Superintendent’s proposal contains three lines about independent, student driven projects as a new opportunity for high-achieving students. This program is unrelated to leveling, but it is a good one. To make this idea something that students are more likely to participate in and benefit from, there should be an incentive for students to do this extra work, such as a field trip or award.
What should be done is that students who want to do independent projects should have seminars, either within the class whose subject the students are doing a project or as periodic meetings with other students and mentors who are taking on this challenge.
The Middle School Transformation is a mixture of some very positive steps with some steps whose educational efficacy is doubtful. Although I disagree with the decision to delevel, the International Baccalaureate with its curricular improvements and encouragement of independent projects should be celebrated.
As a Board member I see my role as more than hoping or anticipating for a good result of the Transformation, I see my role as monitoring its progress with an eye for problems that will need attention. Teachers will need a great deal of support to succeed in deleveled classrooms, struggling students will need a great deal of support, and high-achievers will need new opportunities that will allow them to reach greater heights of accomplishment.
This piece has been concerned almost entirely with the middle school, but that is because of the prominence of the Board of Education’s recent deleveling and IB decisions. My running mates and I have many ideas for the elementary schools and Columbia High School as well that will benefit all students. These reforms range from a strong expectation for above-grade level work in the elementary schools and courses on increasingly important topics like computer science, economics, and the non-Western World. We also want to expand academic enrichment after school in the elementary schools, create a Newcomers program to help transfer students adjust, continue to expand summer learning opportunities, and expand the selections of non-athletic extracurriculars.
The promise of public education is to make sure that every child reaches his or her full potential and to discover, and cultivate, whatever gifts that child has. I believe that the above proposals bring that vision closer to fulfillment.
Jeffrey Bennet is running for a seat on the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education on a slate with Madhu Pai and Wayne Eastman. Read more about his candidacy . Patch welcomes all candidates for election to post or blog on Patch.