In Mixed Ability Classrooms, Who Is Really Doing the Teaching?

“I put him in that group on purpose,” my son’s math teacher told us during Parent-Teacher conferences. “The other students were having trouble understanding some of the concepts and I knew your child could help explain them.”

This isn’t my son’s first time at this rodeo. A few years ago, his Computer Programming teacher flat out told him, “I’ll teach this half of the room, you teach that one.”

I didn’t mind it at the time, because my son is an autodidact when it comes to programming, and I didn’t expect a middle school course to come close to what he’s taught himself (no matter how many times Mayor Bill De Blasio pats himself on the back for a #CSForAll curriculum that isn’t even his). I was happy my son was given the option to be helpful, rather than just sitting around (or, worse, making trouble out of boredom. My son is no saint.)

But this math example is different. I already have a kid who wants to quit high school and go straight to college (NY state law makes it almost impossible before the age of 16). He complains daily about how slowly the class is moving.

Now, I give his teacher credit. She also told us, “When he answers a question in class, he goes so quickly and skips so many steps that he thinks are obvious. But the other students could benefit from hearing his thought processes.”

When I relayed the message to my son, he said, “Oh, OK, I’ll slow down and try to be helpful.”

So, kudos. The teacher picked up on his restlessness and figured out a way to keep him engaged (and out of trouble; see “no saint” above). That’s what good teachers do.

But that technique has its drawbacks. My son is still frustrated by not being allowed to learn the math he wants. He is, however, loving his AP Environmental Science course and its teacher, so it’s not that he’s impossible to please: He just craves challenge. I know he’s not the only one, which is why, unlike the Mayor and Schools Chancellor I think NYC needs MORE accelerated schools, not less.

It’s also why I’ve pushed back against the “mixed ability” classrooms the Mayor and Chancellor do support. This includes removing all screening for admission to District 15 middle-schools, and setting aside 25 percent of seats in high-achieving District 3 middle schools for children performing below grade level.

I’ve written about how my daughter was helped by being put into Special Learning and not forced to continue sitting in a classroom where she was in over her head and just kept falling further and further behind.

And I’ve voiced my concern about how removing screens will make it difficult for teachers who are used to better prepared kids (and/or parents who can afford tutoring) to deal with a much wider range of prior knowledge and acquired skills.

In a letter to the NY Times, an educator took offense to that viewpoint, writing,Teaching multiple ability levels in a classroom is an integral part of any teacher’s education and training. Plain and simple, it’s our job.”

My response was that getting students to grade level was also a teacher’s job (though President Obama’s former Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, did open my eyes to how that’s not the case). However, seeing as over 50 percent of seniors graduate not college-ready, that job is obviously not getting done, pure and simple.

Chancellor Richard Carranza is proud that, when he ran the schools of San Francisco (and sent his daughter to a screened school – no, I’m not going to stop harping on that until he stops claiming he can’t think of any reason why a parent would want their child in a screened school), he got rid of Algebra in middle school. Thanks to that, Carranza claims, poor and minority students’ math scores went up, while middle-class kids’ scores didn’t go down. (The NAACP also declared SF California’s worst county for Black students, but why quibble over facts?)

Of course, the top students’ scores didn’t go down! They were being tested on material they’d already mastered! That’s like boasting that middle schoolers totally killed reading that “Cat in the Hat” passage! (Not that every NYC middle school could actually claim that, especially not those where only 5 percent of students are performing at grade level.)

As for poor and minority students’ scores going up, perhaps that was because teachers could now focus solely on getting the bottom of the class up to grade level. An absolutely worthwhile and essential goal that I could not agree with more.

But was it merely the teachers, or were the top performers also roped in, because “the other students were having trouble understanding some of the concepts and I knew your child could help explain them.”

There is nothing wrong with helping out once in a while. As I said, my son was enthusiastic as soon as he was asked.

But keeping kids from moving ahead so they could take on some of the teachers’ burden with those who are behind?

Is that fair? To anybody? Isn’t this just another way, like rezoning, to hide low achievers among high-achievers so it becomes harder to see that the exact same kids are still being failed?

Teachers stress how they’re trained professionals. Their jobs aren’t easy and can’t be done by just anybody. My husband is a teacher. Once again, I couldn’t agree more.

So why are we handing this incredibly important responsibility over to kids? This approach hurts everyone!


What do you think?

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