Wednesday, February 22, 2012

The Logic of Different Abilities

Here is why NCLB and its variations are utterly illogical. Given: people learn at different rates. Some people learn fast, some people learn slowly. Sure, the rates are uneven, but if you average them out over time, they will spread out over presumably a bell shaped curve. Result: If you are teaching each child to 80 or 90% of his or her ability, the curve SHOULD spread out as a cohort of children gets older.

To be more concrete: Let's suppose that one child can learn 100 concepts in a year and another could learn 110 concepts in a year. At the end of one year the difference between the two will be 10 learned concepts. At the end of two years, the children will have mastered 200 and 220 concepts, respectively, bringing the gap to 20 concepts. Each year the gap SHOULD grow. Even if the lower performing student is working to the MAXIMUM of his/her ability, he/she will fall behind. The only way this can be prevented is by holding down the top student.

In reality, the gap could potentially be much wider. I seem to remember reading that average kids learn concepts after approximately seven repetitions. Slower kids need more repetitions; faster kids can learn something with as few as 1 to 3 exposures to the concept. Thus, some students could learn as much as 10 times as much as some other students.

Look at this the other way around: Parents: are your special needs children falling further and further behind each year? Well, that means that the other teachers are doing their job. Your children aren't failures; some may be succeeding incredibly. Some of them may even outgrow their disabilities; others may not. But, even if their disabilities persist, they still shouldn't be deemed failures - nor should their teachers. Board of Education people: if the gap between your lowest students and your highest students isn't getting BIGGER each year, then you are holding your top students back (or the test can't measure adequately the top students' progress).

Yes, we should try to remedy any disabilities that can be remedied. But you need a different yardstick to measure progress with different disabilities. Some disabilities are permanent or semi-permanent and the best teachers in the world could not bring these students up to grade level proficiency. Some disabilities are not permanent and can be remedied, compensated for, or even simply outgrown.

But we also shouldn't deceive ourselves into thinking that just because the achievement gap is shrinking, we are doing a good job. It means that we are neglecting those students who should be moving faster.

If someone can point out the problems with this diatribe, I would appreciate it. Perhaps I am missing something.

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