Middle school parents and others who keep an eye on public education are trying to make sense of changes
MNPS announced last week regarding how math and language will be taught in middle grades starting next fall. As in the past, the quality and clarity of communications from the district to parents and other stakeholders on this have been sorely lacking, plaguing what might be a reasonable effort at middle school curriculum reform with yet another MNPS public relations breakdown. Pedro Garcia's communications reign of (t)error may be a fading memory, but the system hasn't yet repaired itself. That's the obvious implication to draw from this latest instance of significant change handed down with no warning and communicated to parents in abstruse ways as the school year is ending, triggering yet another round of skepticism and distrust directed at MNPS administration.
The catalyst was a rather cryptic letter last week to public school parents from assistant superintendent Sandra Tinnon declaring (as if it needed declaring) that “mediocrity is an unacceptable goal in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools.” She announced that “middle school language arts and mathematics programs are currently being strengthened both in content and expectations” and that “standard or mediocre courses will not be the norm.” Tinnon offered some vague details about how curriculum and standards are changing, and also indicated that students will no longer be able to move ahead of their grade level in math. “The idea,” she wrote, “of students ‘testing out’ of particular grade levels or courses before being exposed to the year’s content could deny them of pertinent concepts needed for future success in mathematics.” (I have pasted in the full text of Tinnon’s letter after the jump since it is not readily findable on the MNPS website. In fact, the entire distribution strategy for this letter was bizarre; I am an MNPS middle school parent who never actually received the thing until someone emailed it to me.)
Tinnon's letter was short on specifics, and she and grades 5-12 director Lendozia Edwards have declined to respond to phone calls and emails seeking clarification. (In their version of PR 101, you announce significant changes as vaguely as possible and then you make yourself unavailable for follow-up inquiries.) Press reports
and the ever-percolating parental email and listserv mills have surfaced assumptions that Algebra I will no longer be offered for seventh graders who are ready for it, and that advanced classes will no longer be available in middle schools. These classes have in recent years encouraged many parents of high achievers to stay with the system rather than go private.
Few would object to higher expectations and diminished tolerance for mediocrity. But some parents are dismayed to see the system once again opting for a once-size-fits-all mentality mandated by the central office for every school, leaving little room for principals and teachers to adapt to the needs of particular populations and circumstances. An MNPS spokesperson told me late last week that these changes are being made "at the recommendation of the state.” So I turned to Connie Smith, who as head of accountability for the state Education Department is overseeing Metro’s efforts to overcome its “corrective action” status. Pointing to unacceptably high failure rates in Algebra I at present, Smith tells Pith the goal is “ratcheting up expectations for all kids” using “differentiated approaches.” She says that changes are necessary in advance of more rigorous high school standards statewide that will kick in a year from now. So is the state ordering Metro to kill off advanced classes in middle schools? In an email to a few alarmed parents last Friday, Smith insists (caps hers) that the state has "made NO revisions in Metro's current curriculum requirements." She adds, "We may have made suggestions to staff which have been mis-implemented" and also indicated that she has spoken to the Metro board of education chair "in my efforts to track down this erroneous information which is being circulated with responsibility for this given to the state." Smith also says there are plans in the works to rethink how Metro does gifted education, but offers no specifics.
Will these changes translate into higher levels of secondary school achievement across subgroups defined by neighborhood, race and class? Will they reinvigorate interest in staying in the system past elementary school among middle class and affluent parents who are tempted by private alternatives? Does Metro have enough qualified teachers to manage these so-called "differentiated approaches” in single classrooms, and will a summer’s worth of training and development make it fly? These are open questions, and as usual, Metro parents are getting very little in the way of hard information about how classrooms and curricula concretely are going to change; so, as usual, they will have no choice but to take it as it comes next fall. I’m inclined in theory to give school officials the benefit of the doubt and reserve judgment, but there remains a serious information deficit as reforms take shape. And it certainly doesn't help when Metro school administrators overstate the role of state education officials as a means to diffuse their own responsibility. This kind of uncertainty about what school officials are really up to when they make noise about changes is all too familiar, and is precisely the sort of thing that breeds suspicion and doubt among parents thinking about opting out of the system. (Are you listening, school board candidates?)
Here is Sandra Tinnon's letter.
May 18, 2008
Dear MNPS Parents and/or Guardians:
The Metropolitan Nashville Public School System is committed to providing a program to meet the changing needs of young adolescents. All students regardless of their race/ethnicity, gender, social-economic or disability status will have an opportunity to complete an academically rigorous middle school curriculum.
Mediocrity is an unacceptable goal in Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools. Certainly, every parent wants the highest quality education for his or her child. It is also both the professional and moral obligation for every teacher, administrator, and every school to likewise desire and provide a quality education for every student. Educational programming must be profoundly challenging, if used with rigor and relevance, and passionately delivered.
Creating a more rigorous curriculum and combating a culture of low expectations are initial steps this District must take in order to better provide a quality education for all students. To this end, the middle school language arts and mathematics programs are currently being strengthened both in content and expectations. Standard or mediocre courses will not be the norm.
The MNPS middle school Comprehensive Literacy initiative is designed to begin with the Basic Reading Inventory to be used as a diagnostic assessment so that students can access text at their independent reading level and encounter texts at their instructional level with teacher support. Bookrooms have been stocked in each middle school with leveled readers ranging from second grade to the twelfth grade, severing a diverse array of student reading levels. The bookroom provides teachers access to leveled texts to be used with small groups of students in guided reading. Struggling readers can work on the specific skills necessary to increase their reading levels while advanced students can access high leveled texts appropriate to their maturity level. As students move into the language arts classroom, the information provided from diagnostic reading assessments guides teachers in differentiating instruction by identifying texts that will provide a challenge for students with diverse reading levels.
Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools are offering a 21st century mathematics education for 21st century students. Mathematical concepts will be taught in conceptual and collaborative ways that are embedded in problem solving applications. Much emphasis is on student inquiry and on the communication of the students’ thinking as they work together to produce presentations that clearly articulate their findings and conclusions. Simple individual pencil-and-paper, skill-driven tests are not accurate measure of how students will perform in situations like the ones listed above. Thus, the idea of students “testing out” of particular grade levels or courses before being exposed to the year’s content could deny them of pertinent concepts needed for future success in mathematics. The 7th grade math curriculum for next year is much more challenging than this year’s Algebra I course. We are meeting the needs of advanced students, perhaps now more than we ever have in the past. Teachers are expected to do what is best for each student within their classes, as they have always done.
Elevated expectations for every student are the target. Regardless of quartile performance, movement from “below proficient,” and “proficient” to “advanced” is the goal for every student. In addition, improved course curriculum designed by teachers along the lines of the criteria for State honors courses represent a goal of more rigorous, deeper, and challenging content, delivered by knowledgeable, well-prepared teachers who are passionate about helping all students succeed.
Effecting positive and permanent change to benefit the students in MNPS is our task and the urgency for this work is clear. The results of this work will become evident in our middle and high schools and in the lives of our students. Mediocrity will not be accepted because all students - all children - richly deserve much more.
Assistant Superintendent, Teaching & Learning