On Monday night, the "Task Force on Excellence and Equity" recommendations were presented to the South Orange-Maplewood Board of Education and supported by Superintendent Brian Osborne.
As predicted, they are radical and extremely one-sided, with no discussion of ample evidence that the most academically gifted and talented middle school students need to be grouped together in at least some subjects to be sufficiently challenged.
They ignore the problem, widely cited in story after story by parents and students—including one of the district's most talented students who spoke at last night's meeting—that our fastest learners are frequently underchallenged and bored in the classes that combine Levels 3 and 4 in sixth grade.
Instead, the Task Force and Superintendent propose to extend this system to 7th grade for every core subject except math. Eighth grade will come soon after, and more high school electives are to mix Level 3 and 4 students as well. In addition, Elementary Enrichment for language arts is to be gutted by offering it to all 5th graders as a push-in program.
The current pilot of this initiative was described in laudatory tones Monday night by the principal of South Mountain School and a teacher with the usual celebration of "enhancing the curriculum for all," as if nothing could be lost by denying elementary students with the highest grades and test scores even one hour a week together. Yet one South Mountain parent told the Board that his son, who had loved enrichment in fourth grade, was now bored by the new fifth grade material, which is not advanced or harder but merely different than regular curriculum material.
These bombshells were almost voted on last night by the Board without any chance for feedback from the wider community. The anti-meritocracy tide is driven by the illusion that our levels are at least one major cause of the racial achievement gap we see in our district—even though a gap of 26% was acknowledged to exist by 3rd grade before Enrichment even begins. Nor has the combining of Levels 3 and 4 in 6th grade several years ago done anything to reduce this gap in later grades.
The Board also heard a long presentation by Paul Roth saying that level placements in middle school are a strong predictor of success in completing college, and the superintendent misleadingly described this as "writing the student's transcript" in middle school—even though Mr. Roth noted several times in his presentation that correlation is not necessarily causation.
That caution applies especially in this case, since the data probably show only that our level assignments accurately reflect both aptitude and motivation for academic achievement, which themselves are controlled by demographic and social variables that are also very strong predictors of success in college. In other words, the correlation of levels and college success results from common causes. Of course, we may be able to raise student performance towards greater college success, but nothing in these data suggests that deleveling will contribute anything to that end.
However, I am hardly in favor of the status quo.
Too many parents of Level 3 students say their children are not sufficiently challenged, and we should believe them. And critics are right that a Level 4 with more than half of 7th and 8th graders in most core subjects is not a set of honors classes.
In fact, our fastest learners are not sufficiently challenged even in current Level 4 classes in middle school, unless the teacher is unusually adept. Moreover, with Level 4 so large, failure to get into it is said to have a stigmatizing effect on student self-perception, which is made worse by the racial disparity between Levels 3 and 4.
These are all real and serious problems.
Here is an alternative proposal that addresses all these concerns, rather than only those relating to the interests of Level 3 students, and still allows us to lower class sizes for all current and would-be Level 3 and Level 4 students in middle school:
A Bell-Curve Level System with fixed rigor (for middle school grades)—
1. Transition level: 10-15% of students who need the most help and individualized attention to move up into the next level in any given subject.
2. General level: roughly 70-80% of students, including all current Level 3 students and 70-75% of current Level 4 students, in a combined class with:
- current Level 4 curriculum for all (with ways of verifying this);
- the same grading rigor as current Level 4;
- the same behavioral expectations as current Level 4, with significant penalties for disruption of class (but not a lower level placement);
- limitations on the amount of group work and teaching other students expected of students.
3. Acceleration level: the most advanced 10-15% of students (perhaps 25% of current Level 4)
- those who can benefit most from the next grade level of instruction in a subject, and
- those who would be least well deserved in the General level even with its fixed standards;
- would be similar to the small Level 5 we have in some subjects, and used to have in more.
Finally, this system should include an opportunity for students doing well in the General level to opt into Acceleration with an understanding that they have to perform at a very high level to stay there. Students who are finding Acceleration too much should also be able to move into General without any shame.
The key difference between this proposal and the Task Force recommendations is the opportunity to move faster in small accelerated classes for the quarter to third of current Level 4 students who are already underchallenged and likely to suffer the most loss of adequate attention in new classes merging Level 3 and Level 4 students.
Even proponents of deleveling rarely dispute that such a group exists, no matter how well the teacher shuttles all period long between groups of students working at different tables. Last night, one high school teacher reported that in the merged elective he taught, the top third of his Level 3 students did as well as the bottom third of his Level 4 students. But, of course, he said nothing about the top third of his Level 4 students. That is the group whose interests are preserved in my plan, but completely sacrificed to anti-meritocratic misconceptions of equity in the Task Force plan.
Moreover, my plan for the General level or merged courses seeks to address legitimate concerns about keeping Level 4 rigor. Proponents of deleveling say they want this. But are they willing to see students who were comfortable in Level 3 now getting more Cs and Ds, with the consequent results this has on self-esteem? Of course, if their theory is right, Level 3 students should start performing better on average in the combined classes. But how much? If we see no increase in lower grades for this group at all, we can safely conclude that rigor was not kept fixed.
Finally, my proposal retains Level 2 (Transitions), whereas it seems the Task Force eventually wants to move most Level 2 students into the combined courses where they'll be tested at Level 4 standards. In sum, the Bell-curve proposal promises to:
- remove the racial disparities in our level 3 and level 4 division;
- ensure a more demanding set of standards for current level 3 students;
- avoid the large class size difference between current level 3 and level 4 classes;
- avoid the alleged stigma of current level 3 placement: because the Acceleration level would be such a small percentage of our students in any middle school grade (unlike current level 4), there should be no social stigma attached to not being in it, just as there is no stigma attached to being in level 4 8th grade math rather than in level 5 math in 8th grade.
- still address the legitimate concerns that our highest-achieving middle schools are not sufficiently challenged even in current level 4 classes.
This plan seems better than any I have so far heard proposed, and I hope it will be seriously considered in this discussion. It gives both sides of this debate most of their highest priorities and thus is a recipe for social harmony as well as improvement in student performance across the board.
What other proposal has all these virtues? Certainly not the one presented to the School Board on Monday.
John Davenport is a Maplewood resident and an Associate Professor of Philosophy at Fordham University.