In recent months, newspaper and website stories, letters, and blogs have contained opinions from all ends of the spectrum regarding the access of students to rigorous coursework. From the so-called “heterogeneous grouping” at Annapolis High School and Central Middle School to the Advanced Learner Programs at our elementary schools, there has been considerable debate over the reasons for and wisdom of these initiatives.
Among those who have expressed consternation, a common theme seems to be that the efforts are “dumbing down” instruction for higher-end learners while failing to help on-level students increase their knowledge and success level. That is clearly not the aim, and not the outcomes we are seeing.
The research is clear: Students who are supported and encouraged to push their limits and who are exposed to rigorous coursework fare better – even in the advanced courses – than those who are not. And while we have admittedly had some missteps in the communication of some of these initiatives, our goal remains to raise the achievement of every single child.
The work of parental partners such as those on the Annapolis Education Commission and other panels to continue a dialogue aimed at moving our system forward by creating rigorous opportunities for all students has surely been productive. We cannot fall prey, however, to others who would segregate students based solely on past test scores and not future potential. That is a regressive approach which will only serve to relegate students to a portion of the curriculum, furthering a system of inequity that for too long has defined some children as unsuccessful.
Our progress at Annapolis High School has been made possible by a collaborative effort of students, teachers, staff, parents, and community and business partners who refused to buy into the notion held by too many that “those kids,” as they were deemed by some, were holding the school back. Instead, we collectively put a plan in place in which the rising tide lifted all students.
Among students receiving free and reduced-price meals, the percentage meeting the standard to assess Adequate Yearly Progress (AYP) as determined by the federal government went from 26.5 in 2005-2006 to 69.2 last year. As we moved away from a system of self-contained isolated classes to one of inclusion and co-taught models, the percentage among students receiving special education services increased from 24.3 to 76.7.
There is, clearly, more work to be done for us to meet the existing standard of 100 percent proficiency by 2014. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, if we are to close the achievement gap we must never be content with any mindset that settles for less rigor. Rather, we must challenge students, support them at every step along the way, and continually reassess their progress so that we can effectively tailor instruction that will result in the desired outcomes.
We have seen exactly that in the explosion of the number of students taking Advanced Placement courses and exams. Children do not arrive on our elementary school doorsteps ready for AP coursework. They grow through years of nurturing and support. We have thousands more students who are taking AP courses today and scoring 3, 4, or 5 on AP exams than were even being allowed to consider, much less take, AP courses seven years ago.
In a similar vein, the second of eight identified guideposts on our path to college and career readiness calls for students to perform at the advanced level on the MSA in reading and math in the third through eighth grades. Those goals simply cannot be met, however, by allowing students to go unchallenged.
Expectations are critically important. As a society, we must not only believe every one of our children is capable of greatness, but clearly convey to our children that we believe in them and are ready to help them be great. If we do, they can soar to great heights. If we do not, the fault is ours alone.