Naming the Elephant

November 28, 2012 by

It’s the elephant in the room. How are we going to help our most struggling students, those more than two years “behind” their expected grade level skills or with significant gaps meet the college- and career-ready standards in the Common Core?

A new report helps us get a grip on the important challenge we are facing in our country. Aligning Competencies to Rigorous Standards for Off-Track Youth: A Case Study of Boston Day and Evening Academy by Jobs for the Future can be used in two different ways to generate meaningful dialogue among state policymakers, districts and schools.

First, it outlines the process Boston Day and Evening Academy (BDEA) used for aligning their competencies with the Common Core, taking into account the academic needs of their student population. The tools and resources that are shared can definitely help everyone expedite their own alignment processes.

Second, it offers a section on Lessons for Educators that can be used as a discussion tool.  BDEA and JFF have the courage to name the elephant.  As you read this section, remember the issue isn’t just about over-age and under-credited students in alternative schools. Most middle school and high schools have students that have entered without “grade-level skills”. So it is a challenge we all share:

Schools serving over-age, under-credited students need to include the mastery of some middle and even elementary school competencies, particularly in mathematics. Of all the lessons learned, the most challenging and concerning for BDEA has been the significant gaps in students’ mathematics knowledge and how to best handle those gaps.

This issue is not unique to BDEA, nor can BDEA solve it in isolation. As districts move toward adopting the Common Core, they will confront the challenge o f how to support schools serving over-age, undercredited students, where students at a fifth-grade mathematics level may sit next to students at the tenth- or eleventh-grade level. Competency-based models enable the kind of differentiation these students need, but the approach is not a panacea. It takes a concerted, coordinated effort on the part of school leaders and teachers to implement.

I am getting calls almost every week now about how to structure accountability systems that account for the elephant. Recently a school called me to talk about how to revise highly qualified teacher policies because their high school teachers either didn’t know how to or wouldn’t effectively teach their students how to do elementary school math.

It’s not that this elephant is a by-product of competency education. It’s just that, in competency-based schools, it becomes visible. In competency-based schools, we are going to help the students learn rather than just passing them on to the next teacher or grade.

If you want to know more about how to serve students that need helping in getting back on track, check out JFF’s website Back on Track.

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