Tuesday, March 10, 2009

Setting the Bar

Concern was recently expressed regarding allowing students to elect to take high-ability classes at the high school level. Throughout elementary and middle school years, students are required to meet test-based criteria to qualify for high-ability classes. However, when students enter the high school, the opportunity to take a high-ability class becomes a matter of choice. Test results and teacher recommendations are still used to assist students in making course selections, but students are encouraged to try the more rigorous courses. Such a policy leads to questions regarding the level of expectations in the high-ability class and the responsibility of the teacher to the success of her students.

The level of expectations in the high-ability class are genuinely higher than in other classes. This is generally a consequence of the syllabus and subject being taught. At the high school level, for instance, many high-ability classes are either Advanced Placement classes or dual credit classes, both designed to meet college-level rigor. Allowing more students to elect to take these courses suggests that some students will enter the class lacking the skills or background knowledge needed to achieve at a high level. In other classes, the teacher would differentiate instruction to allow students to work from their ability level. Teachers often see the differentiation as a means of lowering the bar, when it is really more a matter of helping students learn from a different perspective. The bar cannot be lowered in the high-ability class (and should not be lowered in any class). Students need to know the expectations and be held to those expectations. This is the student responsibility to his or her learning: meet the expectations.

The teacher, however, also has a responsibility to the success of her students. Students should never be written off as lacking the necessary skills and knowledge. Students should always be given the support they need to learn the material--even if the material is in some way beyond them at the given moment. Sometimes a teacher of a high-ability class will make the first few weeks of the class so difficult that the struggling students will rush to their counselor to drop the class. In the teacher's mind, the students did not belong in the class; her classroom is for the elite and not democratically open to the masses. Such a teacher misunderstands her profession, for the students she is left with can learn without her and not because she has empowered them. She needs to work with the struggling students as well, helping them to find a way to be successful.

Stating that students are responsible for their successes and their failures is a good thing, but the statement does not absolve the teacher of her responsibility. Whether working with struggling students in lower-level classes or working with high-ability students in high-ability classes, the teacher's first priority is to help her students learn and to grow intellectually.

Some will scoff at my thoughts as too idealistic--"all the women are strong, all the men are good looking, and all the children are above average." But I believe there is truth to these words, and dismissing the thoughts contained here does not absolve us of our responsibilities as educators.

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