Middle School English Language Arts ‘Transformed’ With Vote to Abolish Acceleration, Create Differentiated Classrooms

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A resolution to transform 8th grade English Language Arts in the South Orange-Maplewood School District — abolishing an accelerated course that sent some high-performing 8th graders to a 9th grade ELA class at Columbia High School, and, instead, instituting differentiated instruction in 8th grade ELA — passed by a 6-3 vote of the Board of Education last night.

The move faced opposition from a number of parents who spoke at the meeting including Sabina Hack and Rusty Reeves.

Hack said she did have some “kudos” for the new ELA program but was concerned about “providing both curriculums in the same classroom,” saying it would place a “burden on teachers teaching two programs in one class.” Hack noted that the WIN period had been successful for remediation, “but not a win for all” — particularly students who could benefit from enrichment.

Hack’s husband Rusty Reeves decried the lack of data in the decision and said the new model “doesn’t serve students black or white.”

“We base our decision on speculation, ideology and bias,” said Reeves, who argued for what he felt would be a more rigorous model. “We still might have more white students in a class. So what?” (The district has been sued by the Office of Civil Rights over the racial makeup of higher level vs. lower level classes.)

But Superintendent of Schools Dr. John Ramos and Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Instruction Susan Grierson were adamant in their defense of the changes.

Said Ramos, “Teachers suggested that the way we currently construct [ELA] creates problems as students move beyond 8th grade.” He added that the district was “trying to figure out a more responsible way to do this to meet the needs of high achieving students.” (In previous discussions, Board members noted that the accelerated program was only instituted in 2012; additionally, it created problems for high schoolers who had missed the 8th grade curriculum and also were short one ELA course in their high school requirements.)

“I think we’ve come up with an answer,” said Ramos.

Under the new model, said Grierson, “All students have access to honors level work through the year.” No one group was necessarily relegated to honors work while others were kept out — as any student could choose on an assignment by assignment basis to maintain a faster pace, write longer pieces with higher levels of proficiency, do more written work, etc. Grierson said she had created clear rubrics outlining honors work vs. regular work.

Grierson added the five teachers across the two middle schools who would be impacted by the change had already received professional development on differentiated instruction, and that they would have access to “a library of additional mentor texts, more professional development in empowering every student, and strategies for increasing student engagement.”

“The standard is always high,” said Grierson. “The expectation for students who choose honors is there for them.”

Grierson also noted that all rising 8th grade students “just took an assessment. The teachers will know who the students are who they need to insist” meet the honors criteria.

At several points, Grierson invoked Board of Education Student Representative Nina Kambili: “As Nina said, everyone should have access to rigorous work.”

Board of Education President Elizabeth Baker said she was initially skeptical of the change, but said that she “liked that this was on a pilot basis.”

Still, Baker asked, “What can be done to ensure proper level of communication between teacher and parent? I’m not sure we want a 13 year old to be making those choices independently of an adult. They may take the easy way out.”

Grierson said that the interim report card sent between quarterly reports would be revised to be “the means of communication.”

Baker was not satisfied with this. “I would suggest clear information materials go out periodically. I don’t think the interim report is sufficient,” said Baker.

Board 1st Vice President Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad agreed, suggesting the use of Edmodo or Powerschool “to show if the student has selected honors vs. other.”

“Food for thought,” said Lawson-Muhammad. “Let’s use tools we currently have to answer Ms. Baker’s request.”

Board member Beth Daugherty suggested a additional mid-year report.

Board member Donna Smith thought going from an accelerated course to differentiated instruction was “a step too far back.” Smith suggested separate classrooms for honors and regular ELA. “I would like everyone to think about that possibility,” said Smith.

Board member Chris Sabin disagreed, “What’s so difficult?” He added later: “Principals inside and outside our schools are saying this is the future. It scares me that we wouldn’t try to do this.”

Baker acknowledged that because of the “volatility” at the middle schools in the recent years (“leveling up” and the adoption and quick abandonment of the International Baccalaureate Middle Years Programme), “there is a certain amount of cynicism as to whether we can do this.”

Baker agreed with Board 2nd Vice President Madhu Pai that there need to be “monitoring” and measurement.

But Baker lauded the preparation performed by Grierson. “I’ve looked at the binders. A lot of work has been done already for the teachers.”

Pai pressed Baker’s point about volatility: “I am cynical about one more pilot in the middle schools,” calling recent years “a roller coaster with IB,with de-leveling which again we have never monitored. We have no data to support that de-leveling is helping. I think there are a lot of good things about this proposal. I agree that kids shouldn’t be missing an entire year of the curriculum.” However, Pai said, “When you take something away, you need to give them something that is better or at least ‘like’…. How are you going to be able to better serve the needs of kids with such widely varying needs in one classroom?”

Lawson-Muhammad argued against an assertion by Pai that the students would be experiencing larger class sizes as a result of the change: “‘Gigantic classroom’ is wrong. There’s not a gigantic classroom.”

Finally Baker said, “I would hope that if we approve this tonight that this is going to be one of the most targeted, highly resourced, highly monitored and highly successful instructional initiatives and that we can use this a s a model.”

The resolution passed 6-3, with Johanna Wright, Madhu Pai and Donna Smith dissenting. Maureen Jones, Chris Sabin, Beth Daugherty, Elizabeth Baker, Stephanie Lawson-Muhammad and Annemarie Maini voted in favor.

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