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Doug Mann LPN, LNC

Green Party listserv discussion re: Education Rights resolution

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Green Party listserv discussion re: Education Rights resolution
By Doug Mann, 8 March 2006

Below are 2 questions raised in a discussion about the education rights resolution on Green party listservs, and my responses (with minimal editing).

Wasn't it the case that the public school system in the US was already failing miserably when Reagan took office in 1981, and It just took another 10 years for people to really notice?

People didn't notice that the schools were going to hell in a hand basket during the 1970s and early 1980s because they were not. Education achievement gaps were being closed. And it took the Reagan-Bush administration less than ten years to produce widening gaps in education achievement after they launched their counter-revolution in education policy, which the Democratic Party leadership signed on to by the early 1990s.

In April 1983 a commission appointed by the Reagan Administration issued a report entitled "A Nation at Risk," which warned of the rising tide of mediocrity in the US public school system. During the 1970s and early 1980s the difference in average scores between black and white 13 year olds on reading exams administered as part of a federal testing program called the National Assessment of Educational Progress, had fallen by about 50%. Other measures of academic performance also indicated a narrowing gap between the traditional haves and have nots in the education system. Given that context, "a rising tide of mediocrity" can be understood to mean that
the achievement gap was being closed at the expense of the high achievers. However, much like GW's weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, the Reagan administration had no evidence that high achieving students were generally being held back, that desegregation was a noble but failed experiment, etc. The elder George Bush commissioned a evaluation of data in the US department of education's data base in the late 1980s, which yeilded a report (the Sandia Report) that showed steady gains in academic performance of the top quintile of 17 year old students during the 1970s and early 80s, a time when a rapidly growing proportion of 17 year olds were attending school and completing their secondary education.

What's wrong with abiltity-grouping?

When high achievers are not challenged in a "mixed ability" classroom, the problem is likely to be teacher-centered learning activities and a poorly designed curriculum, and / or mismanagement. Ability-grouping is a solution that would only make things worse for a majority of students, and would not necessarily make things any better for the high achievers, in my opinion.

What Nancy Sayed wrote about the need to have tests that are aligned to the curriculum is important to bear in mind. Without good, diagnostic tests, the teacher is going to have an awful hard time figuring out what works in their classroom, and doing the kind of planning that is needed to challenge all of the students.

Minnesota has had a fairly good curriculum for college-bound students since the 1950s or 1960s. I think it's called the North Star Standard. That is what most school districts in Minnesota have used for their general student population. In the early 1970s Minneapolis and St. Paul used the same curriculum with students in the better elementary schools and with "fast learners" who were tracked into "advanced" classes in middle school grades. The curriculum was watered down to some degree for a majority of whites in working class neighborhoods, and even more for most students of color in the big city schools. There were no standards for general high school programs in Minneapolis and St. Paul. The curriculum between subject areas and grade levels generally didn't mesh well in "general" programs, especially in schools with the least stable teacher staffing.

In the mid-1990s, the MN department of Education came up with its "basic standards" for students in the lower-tiers of the educational system in the big city schools. That is what the "Basic Standards" test is aligned to. But even so, Minneapolis has not brought a large majority of its students up to the "basic standard." Of the African American 8th graders who took the basic standards test last year, only 28% passed it.

I was a high achiever in the South Washington County MN school district (bordering St. Paul) which did a fairly good job of challenging most of its students without ability-grouping. However, early in 1972, when I was in the 10th grade, I transferred to the St. Paul Public schools. With few exceptions, students who had attended one of St. Paul's best elementary schools, serving upper-middle and lower-middle class, white residential areas were assigned to "advanced" classes. Students who had attended an elementary school serving
only lower-middle class, white residential areas were mostly placed in "general" classes. I was initially placed in general classes, then transferred to advanced classes after I mentioned to the school's counselor that the curriculum in the regular courses was extremely watered down by comparison to courses I had been taking at South Washington County's high school.

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