The past decade’s shift to significantly higher academic standards and more rigorous assessments means that many more students are now achieving far below grade-level expectations. In recent months and years, there’s been much debate about how best to help such students catch up.
To oversimplify a bit, on one side we find educators and advocates who believe that all students can benefit from spending most of their time working on grade-level material. On the other side are those who believe that all students can benefit from “personalization” or “differentiation”—strategies that meet them where they are and then accelerate their progress over time. (Yes, sometimes these two sides try to find common ground.)
This is in part a pedagogical debate, but it touches on key issues of school organization, such as whether students should spend significant time in small, targeted ability groups; whether we should retain pupils at year’s end if they aren’t ready to move on, or even add another grade to elementary schools where lots of kids are behind; or whether we should rethink age-based grades altogether.
This debate also has implications for assessment and accountability systems. Federal law currently requires states to test students on grade-level material—sometimes at the expense of accurately measuring what low-achieving (and high-achieving) students know and can do, and discouraging schools from teaching material from earlier grades, even if that’s what students need. Should we shift to a system that prioritizes accuracy instead, seeking to gauge progress over time as clearly as possible, even if that means testing some children on far-lower-level material than their age-peers? Or would that amount to endorsing the soft bigotry of low expectations once again?
This year’s Wonkathon will tackle these issues head-on. We are asking contributors to address this fundamental and genuinely challenging question: What’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind?
To keep responses somewhat focused, we will ask contributors to focus on students at the elementary and/or middle school level. Some related questions that contributors might consider include:
- Does the optimal strategy vary by subject (reading versus math, for example) or by grade level (elementary versus middle)?
- Is there a role for technology in personalizing instruction for low-achieving students, and if so, what is it?
- Is it important for us to find a common answer to this question, or should we allow each school to go its own way?
- What does your preferred approach imply for changes that would need to be made to existing assessment and accountability systems?
WHAT'S A WONKATHON?
For several years now, we at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute have hosted an annual “Wonkathon” on our Flypaper blog to generate substantive conversation around key issues in education reform. Last year’s exploration of high school graduation standards engaged almost two dozen participants and can be found here.
As in years past, we’ll encourage our audience to vote for the “wisest wonk,” an honor previously conferred on such luminaries as Jessica Shopoff, Chase Eskelsen, Christy Wolfe, Seth Rau, Joe Siedlecki, McKenzie Snow, Claire Voorhees, Adam Peshek, and Patricia Levesque.
If you’re keen to jump in—and we hope you are—please let us know and indicate when we can expect your draft. We will publish submissions on a rolling basis, so send yours as soon as it’s practical for you, but no later than November 4. Aim for between 800 to 1200 words. Send your essay to Brandon Wright, Fordham’s Editorial Director, at [email protected], as soon as it’s ready. And please be sure to answer the fundamental question: What’s the best way to help students who are several grade levels behind?
Let Brandon know if you have any questions. Otherwise, may the wisest wonk win!