For several of their elementary school years, my sons attended the International Community School, a charter school whose student body includes a large percentage of immigrant-refugee children, many of them very recent arrivals to the United States. For a great many reasons, my family’s experience with ICS was a rewarding one – for my sons in terms of their formal education and their socialization and understanding of other cultures, and for me as a professional educator in my exposure to a fascinating laboratory of learning.
The backgrounds of the students at the school were incredibly diverse, including the fact that many had come to the U.S. after several years in refugee camps, deprived of formal education. But the sense of community that was fostered in this school environment was something very special. One observer shared with me that the attitude towards learning was different here than at any other school she had experienced. “At other schools, students copy the answers from each other’s papers. At ICS, students show each other how to find the answers.”
The attitude of cooperation encouraged at ICS should not be unique to schools operating under special circumstances. Background and culture are not the only factors affecting how we learn. The diversity in the human family is broader and more profound than even the wide range of life experience can explain.
People absorb what they learn differently. Some take more time than others to reach the same level of proficiency. Some understand different aspects of a concept more completely than others. For some the way they apply the learning is different from the way that others might do it. Some need help while others may not. For those who need help, the quality of assistance called for may vary widely.
Modern public schools acknowledge the existence of different learning styles and different needs among the students. Most schools have some kind of framework for providing differentiation of instruction. Some even make demonstrating these processes a requirement in their teacher evaluation system.
But schools are fighting against their own organizational structure when they attempt to provide differentiated instruction aimed at facilitating real learning. Public school students are required to attend classes on the same schedule as all other students, regardless of their learning needs. They are required to take the same standardized tests, regardless of their ability or level of preparation.
At one public school I have visited, the principal addressed the upcoming battery of high-stakes tests by instructing the teachers to differentiate instruction as follows. First identify which students will be able to pass the tests with little or no additional help from their teachers. Then identify which students will be unlikely to pass the tests no matter how much help they are given. Neither of these groups would receive any extra help.
Only the students who were “on the bubble,” and might pass or fail depending on teacher intervention, would receive special attention. Teachers were instructed to focus their test preparation efforts on these students. It was students in this middle group who could affect the school’s overall performance on the standardized tests. If only a few more of the students in the middle group passed, the school could show improvement over the previous year’s pass rate.
For me, there could hardly be a starker illustration of the cost of making higher test scores the goal of our system of public education system.
The goal of education should be learning – for all students. We all learn differently. We are all “on the bubble.”