By Cary L. Tyler
I have heard it for years from good students as well as struggling students: High school can be tedious, course work forced, and the biggest complaint, the pace is either too fast or not fast enough.
Here we are, 2012, and surrounded by the greatest ability to provide differentiated (individualized) instruction via teachers and teacher use of technology, as well as resources such as Khan Academy, TedED and You Tube for Educators, but we still have ninth grade, tenth grade, eleventh grade, and twelfth grade.
Why not focus on ability-based education? Some Detroit schools are looking at this for their failing schools, but I am advocating that this happen for all schools. Schools in Colorado, Alaska and Maine have also trended in this direction. Research and practice has already shown that it is more efficient than our current approach.
[Aside: Kansas City tried this approach with five of their elementary schools in 2010, but had to abandon it this year as they admitted it conflicted with their accreditation period and also their superintendent took off just after implementing the system.]
Yes, the initial argument is indeed valid: Switching to an ability-based environment would be a major shift in how we view education.
Some worry that all educators may be doing is throwing kids in front of computer screens and hope it all works out. Others may fear that the lower skilled student could receive even less support, or that high schools lose their talented students early and thus miss their chance at extracurricular successes that may occur in the senior year.
However, including the initial reaction from my own former students on Facebook concerning this question, the needs of our students outweigh the current functionality of our high schools (and perhaps, even our K-8 institutions).
As a parent told me recently, just like athletes do not master certain sport skills at the same time as others, neither do students of the same age master curriculum and concepts at the same time. Even honors students do not progress in the same fashion. For example, I excelled in English and history (even with my bounce-off-the-walls personality), but math killed me. I did not have time to master it before the teacher moved to the next chapter, and the cascading effect damaged my grade point average.
I ended up hating math by my junior year, and it also affected my ACT score and thus, I paid more for college than I might have had I the option to slow down and get reinforcement of my math skills.
One of my former colleagues brought up a good point: Eliminating the grade levels, especially at the high school setting, might compromise maturity and social growth. However, I am also seeing seniors make more and more maturity and social growth mistakes because of their frustration and boredom; mistakes that can not only damage their future aspirations, but in the short term do social damage that today’s Facebook/Twitter generation will not soon let someone forget.
However, let the high school athlete or drama student go to a fourth year of high school, but instead of worrying about credits, let the college come to them. Let 101 classes become the norm, or provide options for students to take trade courses.
By going to a mastery system, maybe more students will graduate actually knowing something than “D means diploma”. Eliminate the “D” and instead require students to master a subject. If it takes four years, fine. If a student is bright enough to finish in three, more power to them.
To paraphrase a 70s TV show: We have the ability; we have the technology to better educate our students, better allocate our resources, and also better respond to the ever changing needs of these kids if we break free of an antiquated system.
It will not be an easy change, but it is one that does not require that much of a mess. Start at the high school level and, without necessarily changing requirements, begin allowing students more choices (online/college/trade as well as on campus courses) to complete their high school education and prepare for post-secondary approaches. Advance students academically, but also provide social counseling to those who want to move on but may not be as prepared as parents, teachers, or the child would like to be to make that transition.
Additional links concerning mastery: