Some kids need harder lessons than schools are willing to give them

New data reveals stubborn preference for below grade-level instruction

Perspective by Jay Mathews Washington Post August 22 2022

Hundreds of teachers and much data over many years have convinced me that too many schools think the best way to educate kids is give them easy stuff.

I have heard complaints about this mostly from teachers of college-level Advanced Placement and International Baccalaureate programs in high schools. They discovered impoverished children did surprisingly well in their difficult courses if they had more time and encouragement.

Yet these teachers continue to struggle against a widespread, if well-meaning, resistance to raising the level of learning. A new study of reading instruction in the 2021-2022 school year suggests this bias in favor of dumbing down instruction is still with us — and may affect our ability to recover from the pandemic.

A look at more than 3 million children in more than 150,000 classrooms who frequently use the ReadWorks reading instruction program indicates that students were just as successful on grade-level work as they were on below grade-level work. So their teachers rushed to give them more grade-level assignments, right?

Apparently not.

“That shift doesn’t appear to be happening,” said the report by TNTP, a nonprofit organization formerly known as The New Teacher Project. It has been working for 25 years to link poor and minority children with effective teaching. The report’s title is “Unlocking Acceleration: How Below Grade-Level Work is Holding Students Back in Literacy.”

Public education is facing a crisis of epic proportions

“Students are spending even more time on below grade-level work than they were before the pandemic,” the report said. “Students on the ReadWorks platform spent about a third of their time engaging with below grade-level texts and question sets. In fact, they received 5 percentage points more below grade-level content” than before the 2021-2022 school year.

“Students in schools serving more historically marginalized communities — particularly students experiencing poverty — were assigned the most below grade-level work. Students in schools serving the most students in poverty spent about 65% more time on below grade-level texts and question sets than their peers in the most affluent schools,” the report said.

The study does not compare the achievement of students taking below grade-level classes with those taking grade-level classes using randomly selected groups.

“We are making no data claims that say learning acceleration improves achievement by X, or students who were in a learning acceleration classroom had X better outcomes than those who were not,” TNTP spokesperson Jacob Waters said. “We simply seek to point out that across a giant sample of assignments, we’re not consistently making the choice to get kids access to grade-level content, especially if those kids attend schools that are serving large numbers of systemically and historically marginalized students.”

Tom Loveless, former senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, told me more research is necessary before we accept the TNTP conclusions. He pointed to one randomized middle school study in Florida showing long-term benefits from below grade-level remediation, although the students in that program took two English language arts classes at the same time, one below grade-level and one at grade-level.

The TNTP study said students in high-poverty schools got less access to grade-level work “even when they’d already shown they can master it.” Students in such schools who consistently succeeded on grade-level assignments got less access to grade-level work in the future than students in more affluent schools who hadn’t mastered those assignments.

I have found in schools across the country that a kindly reluctance to put too much pressure on children leads educators to bar low-income and minority students from challenging courses.

An inside look at classrooms finds ‘false promises,’ wasted time, and failure to learn

In 1987, two math teachers at Garfield High School in East Los Angeles produced 26 percent of all Mexican American students in the country who passed an AP calculus exam. The only reasonable explanation for that seems to be that plenty of such students in other schools were capable of such work if well taught, but their schools wrongly thought they lacked the ability. The recent success of IDEA network charter schools in Texas focusing on AP and IB classes for Mexican American children supports that conclusion.

However, it takes more than squelching bad assumptions to improve schools. Thuan Nguyen, chief executive officer of the nationwide AVID program to raise student achievement, said what teachers need is “proven practices to support students when rigorous content becomes challenging and confusing.”

The TNTP report said the most effective way to alter incorrect assumptions about disadvantaged children’s abilities “is to give educators a chance to enact high expectations, then reflect on what students were able to accomplish when given a chance to engage in reading, writing and discussing content-rich, meaningful texts.”

I would like more randomized studies on that. Wrongheaded assumptions hurt progress in nearly every field of human endeavor, but they are particularly galling when they affect children.

It’s not political. I have never seen a campaign leaflet saying we shouldn’t give children hard work. Improving how we categorize our kids is something we can work on together.