Sunday, December 7, 2008

OK for Scarsdale, Off Limits to City Kids

From my first days as a teacher, I felt the the key to reading well was an interest and joy in reading.

So, what comes first? An enriched curriculum that will create a need to read or a skill-based reading program based on a data and accountability program? Scarsdale, the gold standard of school districts, increasingly pushes the boundary in the direction of enrichment.

An article in Sunday's NY Times, Scarsdale Adjusts to Life Without Advanced Placement Courses, talks about the change from a focus on teaching to the Advanced Placement Tests toward a more enriched curriculum in AP courses.

A handful of exclusive private schools, including Ethical Culture Fieldston, Dalton and Calhoun in New York City, have abolished Advanced Placement courses in recent years, but Scarsdale has set a precedent for high-achieving public schools.

A year after Scarsdale became the most prominent school district in the nation to phase out the College Board’s Advanced Placement courses — and make A.P. exams optional — most students and teachers here praise the change for replacing mountains of memorization with more sophisticated and creative curriculums.
Bruce G. Hammond, executive director of the Independent Curriculum Group, a network of private schools that do not teach to standardized tests, said that many private and public schools chafed under the limitations of Advanced Placement courses, and would drop them if not for opposition from parents.

Now comparing AP courses in Scarsdale with the way kids in the inner city are being taught in the test and data driven world of the NYC school system may look like a classic case of trying to compare apples to oranges.

I don't agree. I have heard Joel Klein and his minions talk about equity and the civil rights struggle of our times. But when challenged about the narrow casting of the curriculum that has resulted from his data and accountability emphasis, he has said that first kids need to read well before they can take full advantage of an enriched curriculum.

I beg to differ.

The primary motivation in reading development is a need to read and many kids who struggle don't feel that need. Reading in a world of test prep equals tedium and with the pressure and threats of being left back added, becomes an often joyless exercise.

Build an enriched curriculum and they will come. And improve their reading in surprising ways. Of course, there are often some techinical issues, like poor phonics, that may interfere in the process, but those are relatively easy to solve.

Reading well is based so much on vocabulary, which expands in the context of experiential learning. Poor vocabulary development is one of the major gaps in the so-called achievement gap and it takes years to overcome.

The lessons about test prep being learned in Scarsdale (a system run by real educators – would they ever pick a Joel Klein for Superintendent?) should be applied to a broader base.

The Klein/Leibman model denies urban kids the same kinds of opportunities given to wealthier kids by restricting their learning to things that can be measured, leading to the creation of an even larger gap.

Talk about lack of equity. Bringing the apples and oranges of the inner city and the wealthy suburbs into alignment is the true civil rights issue of our times.


irasocol said...

As I've said on my blog earlier this year, I figured - according to The New York Times which called teacher education programs "diploma mills" - that the way to really improve Scarsdale schools would be to replace their teaching staff with TFA corps members.

I wonder why that hasn't been done?

Anonymous said...

well this has been done by many people.