Monday, March 16, 2015

On Differentiation and Grouping: Three Cheers Plus One for MS 88 in Park Slope

MS 88 has been part of our FLL robotics program pretty much every year since I began volunteering 13 years ago when I retired. We had another rousing event this past weekend and MS 88 was in the house of Javits on Saturday, along with 78 other teams from all over the city and they won a 3rd place award for programming their robot.

So, when I  saw this Daily Howler headline from Bob Somerby based in the Baltimore/DC area, my first thought was that somehow he was connecting to MS 88's robotic win. Not. The Sunday NY Times had a major piece on MS 88 and Howler takes the writer somewhat to task. (For those who don't know, Howler taught in inner city Baltimore for a decade or more - I believe.)

Here he touches on ability grouping, differentiation and other related topics and seems incredulous that it might be possible kids doing math on 1st grade level are in the same class as kids on 7th grade level. Ahhh, Joel Klein's "reforms" where that point is irrelevant -- all the teachers have to do is say the magic word - DIFFERENTIATE - and VOILA - MAGIC.

Well, maybe technology using one on one is an answer. And maybe not. I'm posting in full her because excerpts won't make sense. Best to click here and go to the site if you can - and check out some of those weird comments Howler gets.
Posted: 16 Mar 2015 11:49 AM PDT
MONDAY, MARCH 16, 2015

One cheer for the New York Times:
Last week, we offered an anecdote and an impression about our public schools.

On C-Span, Professor Guinier and a gloomy caller had said that we’re destroying another generation of black kids in our public schools.

That’s often considered the hip, gloomy thing for know-nothing “liberals” to traffic! In response, we said we think that a lot of people have been trying very hard to create better schools for low-income kids.

To refresh your recollection, click here.

Middle School 88 (Park Slope, Brooklyn) sounds like another such school. We’ll offer three cheers for the school itself, one cheer for the way the New York Times reported on its math instruction.

The report appeared in yesterday’s Sunday Review, a very high-profile placement. The Times described Tina Rosenberg, author of the report:

Tina Rosenberg won a Pulitzer Prize for her book “The Haunted Land: Facing Europe’s Ghosts After Communism.” She is a former editorial writer for The Times and the author, most recently, of “Join the Club: How Peer Pressure Can Transform the World” and the World War II spy story e-book “D for Deception.” She is a co-founder of the Solutions Journalism Network, which supports rigorous reporting about responses to social problems.
On its face, that’s an impressive resume. As we read it, though, we noted that Rosenberg doesn’t seem to be an education specialist—and it seemed to us that this lack of background was observable right from the start of her piece.

Here’s the way Rosenberg started. In our view, she’s describing a very significant problem and asking a very important question:

ROSENBERG (3/15/15): Like middle school math teachers everywhere, the seventh-grade math teachers at Middle School 88 in the southern part of Brooklyn’s Park Slope have an impossible job. At this high-poverty school, which not long ago was considered failing, students enter with levels of math skills ranging from kindergarten to eighth grade. How can anyone teach to them all?
Already, one minor point of confusion appears. Do those students enter the sixth or the seventh grade with that very wide range of math skills? (Like middle schools almost everywhere, Middle School 88 enrolls kids in Grades 6-8.)

Whatever! In our experience, Rosenberg is describing a major problem. It can be hard to know how to teach groups of low-income students, since many kids may be many years “behind” traditional “grade level,” whether in reading or math.

If the kids are performing on a wide range of levels, it’s hard to know how to teach them all. If all the kids are “way behind,” it may be hard to find instructional materials designed for kids in that fix.

At any rate, seventh-grade teachers at School 88 encounter kids with a wide range of math skills. In our view, Rosenberg’s inexperience starts to show right here, in paragraphs 2-4:

ROSENBERG (continuing directly): Emily Reisman, who’s been teaching math at M.S. 88 for six years, said that until three years ago, the school taught math the way virtually everyone did. “We would create work sheets at different levels,” she said. “For adding and subtracting fractions, we’d create low, medium and high-level activities for kids to do. The lower level was more straightforward, with a picture. The higher level had word problems.”

Math teachers also try to personalize instruction by grouping students by ability and spending more time with groups that need extra help. They have students work together and teach one another. They offer bonus activities.

But none of these strategies allows students to learn at their individual levels. And that is imperative, because math is cumulative: basic skills are necessary for building advanced ones.
To us, that passage didn’t quite seem to make sense—and not just because Rosenberg seemed to shift from the past to the present in paragraph 3.

Reisman makes it sound like all those kids, with their wide array of skill levels, were all jumbled together in the same seventh-grade classrooms. It sounds like kids with first-grade math skills were in the same classrooms as other kids with eighth-grade math skills.

Surely, the school must have been splitting its seventh-graders by achievement levels for purposes of math instruction. Were the kids who were working on first-grade level really in the same math class as the kids who were working on eighth-grade level?

To us, that suggestion didn’t seem to make sense. And by the way: if a child is working on first-grade level, he isn’t likely to be adding and subtracting fractions at all. Just this quickly, we thought Rosenberg’s lack of experience was showing.

Maybe there’s something that we aren’t getting here. But we’re often struck by the apparent cluelessness which obtains with our education reporting, even at the highest levels.

Case in point:

A few years ago, we were amazed by Dana Goldstein’s report on this same general topic for Slate. The New York Times had reported on a fourth-grade teacher whose students were working at a wide range of levels. Goldstein mused thusly:

GOLDSTEIN (6/10/13): Grouping fell out of favor in the 1980s and 1990s, when it was stigmatized because of its relationship to high school-level “tracking”...Grouping remains controversial, in part because it pits two of the education world’s favorite buzzwords against one another: “differentiation” versus “high expectations.”

“Differentiation” calls for a teacher to adjust the delivery and assessment of lessons for each student in her class. All students might hear the same introductory lecture on fractions, for example, but in small groups later on, some students would be expected to complete four numeric problems, while others would tackle those same four problems, plus an additional two word problems. The teacher would move around the room, providing one-on-one help and instruction geared toward each student’s ability level.
Even in 2013, Goldstein was considered a high-ranking education reporter. That highlighted passage struck us as highly clueless.

As Rosenberg’s report suggests, a very wide range of skill levels may exist in a given school or classroom. To us, Goldstein seemed to have little idea how wide these ranges can be.

Everybody gets the same lesson? After which, some kids get four numeric problems, while other kids get two additional word problems? Compare that “solution” to the problem Rosenberg describes!

In yesterday’s report, Rosenberg described a new math system, Teach to One, which is being used at Middle School 88. As we told you last week, it’s our impression that the country is full of teachers and principals who are trying hard to make low-income schools work better. 

It sounds to us like School 88 is one more of these schools.

It’s easy to traffic the gloomy nostrums Professor Guinier trafficked that day. But math scores for black and Hispanic kids are way, way up in the past several decades.

The efforts being made by School 88 may be one more explanation for that highly encouraging fact. Unfortunately, newspapers like the New York Times almost never report that encouraging fact. Very few people have ever heard that highly encouraging news!

Is Teach to One getting results at Middle School 88? Are the kids at School 88 actually learning more math?

Near the end of her piece, Rosenberg discusses that important question. We thought her inexperience was showing again—this time, in the important, obvious questions she doesn’t seem to have asked.

Three cheers for Middle School 88! One cheer for the New York Times!

Ever so slowly we turn: We first discussed this general problem in the Baltimore Sun on February 9. By that, we mean February 9, 1982!

We had never heard of computers! For passages from that musty old work, you can just click here.

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