What We’re Listening To: Mike Petrilli and Josh Starr on Whether the Brightest Students Are Being Challenged
This week, Ed Next’s Mike Petrilli was a guest on "What’s the Big Idea?," a podcast hosted by Josh Starr, superintendent of schools in Montgomery County, Maryland.
Starr has been in the limelight because he has criticized the amount of standardized testing taking place in schools, arguing that there should be a three-year moratorium on testing while we put the new Common Core standards in place. Montgomery County is currently rolling out a new curriculum that is aligned with the Common Core standards.
Some parents in Montgomery County are unhappy that the county is hoping to limit tracking under the new curriculum. In the past, many students in the wealthy county were offered accelerated instruction in math, but Starr believes that because the new curriculum is more challenging, it should not be necessary to accelerate so many students. He also suggested (in the podcast) that some parents push for their children to receive accelerated math instruction for the wrong reasons.
In the podcast, Petrilli challenged Starr’s claim that students with a wide range of abilities (in math in particular) will be able to be taught effectively in the same classroom using the new curriculum. (The issue of how to ensure that all students are challenged in diverse classrooms is a focus of Petrilli’s new book, The Diverse Schools Dilemma.) Petrilli described his visit to an elementary school in Montgomery County (which was the subject of an Education
Should we trust the judgment of pre-adolescents to decide for themselves what makes educational sense?
Photo by slightly everything
While visiting a local high school as a liaison between my department at the University of Missouri–St. Louis and the high school’s Advanced Credit program, I had occasion to speak with its young principal—a newly minted doctor of education. I told him about a challenge facing those of us who teach in K–16 education: the difficulty of getting students to summon the patience, stamina, and will to read dense text, particularly book-length writings, in an age of instant gratification, sound-bites, jazzy graphics, and condensed versions of knowledge. In short, I asked him, do students still have the capacity for deep reading, followed by deliberation and reflection? Can they conduct serious discourse? The principal’s response struck me: “Today’s students are actually smarter and better than students of yesteryear, since students today get to choose their own readings.” Really? I immediately wondered whether we should trust the judgment of adolescents, much less pre-adolescents, to decide for themselves what makes educational sense. And for that matter, since when has the mere act of “choice” been a measure of intellect?
Bizarre as this principal’s comment seemed at the time, it was grounded in mainstream progressive thinking—the student-centered, active, discovery-learning
Eric Grannis: "The charter school concept ... [is] about providing families with a wealth of choices."
Deborah Meier recently lamented that the charter school movement has been co-opted by people she terms “Reformer/Deformers”—folks who favor high-stakes testing, merit pay, and overly strict “no-excuses” school models and undervalue socioeconomic integration. While Ms. Meier and I come from somewhat different philosophical perspectives (she is a Socialist and I am, well, not), I must confess sympathy for an aspect of her critique: Our focus on test scores is alienating many educators and parents with more progressive educational philosophies. Her message is one that school-choice advocates should heed, lest we wind up shooting ourselves in the foot.
The charter school concept is about the organization of our school system. It’s about providing families with a wealth of choices and creating schools that can be more innovative and responsive to families because they are independent. It’s not—or ought not to be—about a particular method or philosophy of education. There shouldn’t be an official charter school pedagogy any more than there should be an official state religion.
There shouldn’t be an official charter school pedagogy any more than there should be an official state religion.
However, many parents feel that charter schools only provide a no-excuses option—an ironic twist, as
Predictably, the anti-reform crowd is having a field day with Sunday’s Washington Post article (and related video), which reported the relatively high rate of student expulsions in D.C.’s charter school sector. There’s some legitimacy to this exercise in schadenfreude, considering how many of us reformer types have used the success of high-flying “no excuses” charter schools to bludgeon middling (or worse) district schools with the accusation that “if the charters can do it, so can you.” The retort—well-founded, in my view—is that most, if not all, of these high-flying charters aren’t serving the same population of kids as their traditional public school peers. They inevitably do a bit of creaming (even if unintentionally) on the front end and a number of them push out disruptive students on the back end. Apples-to-apples comparisons are made difficult by this “selection bias.”
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. In my view, we should be proud of the charter schools that are identifying and serving high-potential low-income students—kids who are committed to using education to escape poverty and are often supported in that effort by education-minded parents.
The reason to celebrate these schools and the role they play is because the traditional system has been downright hostile to the needs of such striving children and families—as have been many charter critics. Magnet “exam schools,” such as those recently profiled by Checker Finn and Jessica Hockett,
About the Editor
Michael J. Petrilli
Executive Vice President
Mike Petrilli is one of the nation's foremost education analysts. As executive vice president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, he oversees the organization's research projects and publications and contributes to the Flypaper blog and weekly Education Gadfly newsletter.
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