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Analysis: Plans To Catch Students Up After School Shutdowns Risk Creating New Forms Of Academic Tracking. This Will Do Them Even More Harm

Analysis: Plans to Catch Students Up After School Shutdowns Risk Creating New Forms of Academic Tracking. This Will Do Them Even More Harm

The American public education system had significant disparities even before the COVID-19 pandemic forced schools to transition to remote learning through platforms like Zoom. These inequalities in student internet access, district resources, and home support are now posing even greater challenges for vulnerable students, such as low-income children, students of color, English language learners, and those with disabilities. These educational disparities, similar to disparities in other areas, are widening the gap between privileged and underprivileged students.

As school districts prepare for the upcoming fall semester, many educational leaders are rightly concerned about addressing this divide. However, some well-meaning proposals to assist disadvantaged students may inadvertently hinder academic growth and perpetuate segregation.

One such proposal suggests implementing "half-grades" for struggling students or holding back large groups of children. While these ideas aim to provide targeted support, they could create new forms of academic tracking that separate students into different classes based on perceived ability levels. Additionally, emerging public safety guidelines may impose constraints on how schools group students, which could further impact the educational models adopted. For instance, a mayor’s advisory group in Washington, D.C. has recommended reducing class sizes to fewer than 10 students for younger children. In older grades, students would take all subjects with the same classmates while teachers rotate classrooms. The question arises as to how schools will assign students to these groups based on academic levels. What would this mean for an eighth-grader who is proficient in algebra but struggles with reading? Or for a third-grader who had high test scores prior to the pandemic but experienced significant declines after school closures?

Grouping students based on their achievement levels, also known as academic tracking, may appear to be an efficient way of tailoring instruction. However, extensive research shows that this approach is detrimental to students. Any method used to sort students by academic ability is influenced by various other factors, including family resources, access to test preparation, parental advocacy, and the implicit biases of staff and teachers. These limitations become even more pronounced when educators rely on online tools to assess academic progress at home. When students eventually return to physical classrooms, it will be challenging to determine whether assessments accurately reflect their true academic abilities or their social-emotional needs.

Implementing academic tracking has long-term negative consequences for students placed in lower tracks, as their achievement tends to diminish over time compared to their peers who started with similar achievement but were placed in higher-level courses. Grouping all struggling students together in one class does not effectively support their catch-up progress. While teachers may perceive some temporary benefits from managing a narrower range of skill levels in a class, academic tracking creates an expectation that this range will remain narrow. However, even within a tracked class, students learn at different paces, and the curriculum and teacher expectations often result in missed opportunities for students in lower tracks to access more challenging content. Maintaining the same small class groupings throughout the entire year condemns some students to persistently low learning trajectories based on unjustifiably low expectations.

During a time when calls for racial justice are resonating across the nation, public schools must contribute to dismantling institutional and individual racism by ensuring that every student has access to a high-quality education and by fostering meaningful relationships among students from diverse backgrounds. Unfortunately, academic tracking tends to yield classrooms that are disproportionately populated by students of certain racial and socioeconomic backgrounds. Even after 66 years since the landmark Brown v. Board of Education case, segregation remains persistent, both between and within schools. In many schools, you can easily identify the honors class by simply observing the racial makeup, consisting mostly of white and Asian students. Under the new safety protocols necessitated by the coronavirus, students will likely interact with smaller peer groups initially, and if academic tracking is prevalent, they may not have any classmates from different backgrounds at all.

An American principal working in Africa is applying lessons learned from the Ebola epidemic to tackle the challenges posed by COVID-19. Educators in the United States can also learn valuable insights from his experiences.

Recently, PDK released a comprehensive guide that is rooted in evidence to assist school and district leaders in assessing student proficiency. This will enable them to make necessary adjustments within classrooms, allocate resources effectively, and provide appropriate support where needed. As part of the superintendent’s team, system leaders such as principal supervisors, chief academic officers, and equity officers must consistently monitor data on student class placements and teacher schedules. Furthermore, the superintendent must publicly address the drawbacks of tracking, clearly specify the types of support that children will receive, and establish and enforce district policies that prioritize equity in student grouping. It is likely that training and reinforcement for school staff will be necessary, along with potential adjustments to resources and funding.

While it requires effort, successful de-tracking is highly beneficial. When implemented effectively, it can lead to substantial academic improvement for lower-achieving students while still fostering growth for high-performing students. The COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted our regular schooling systems, and as we rebuild, we need to not only focus on physical health and safety but also consider the academic pathways we establish. If we neglect to do so, we may inadvertently close off opportunities for the students who are most in need.

Halley Potter, a senior fellow at The Century Foundation and author of the report titled "Integrating Classrooms and Reducing Academic Tracking: Strategies for School Leaders and Educators," emphasizes the importance of this issue. Joshua P. Starr, the CEO of PDK International and a former superintendent of Montgomery County Public Schools in Maryland and Stamford Public Schools in Connecticut, supports and underscores these key points.

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Senate Voc. Ed. Bill Draws Lots Of Criticism

Vocational educators and conservative groups are expressing concerns about a significant vocational education bill that was unanimously approved by a Senate panel last week. Both sets of critics have raised multiple objections and are threatening to withdraw their support for the measure, which would provide funding for federal vocational education, job training, and adult education programs. This has become a major point of contention for those in the vocational education community who believe that their field should be treated separately.

Members of the Senate Labor and Human Resources Committee have stated that they are open to some compromises before the bill is voted on later this month. The American Vocational Association (AVA) plans to advocate for a "wide range of changes" before the bill reaches the Senate floor, according to AVA Executive Director Nancy O’Brien. The AVA was one of 20 education groups that signed a letter expressing reservations about the funding system and other aspects of the bill. However, Senate committee leaders have warned that while they are willing to make minor changes, a complete rewrite of the bill is not feasible. They are only open to fine-tuning it.

Once the Senate votes on the proposed Workforce Investment Partnership Act, it will go to a conference committee to reconcile the significant differences between it and a related House bill. The House bill, passed in July, focused solely on vocational education, leaving adult education and other programs to separate legislation.

The new funding formula proposed in the Senate plan is a crucial point of contention. The formula would give priority to states with unified plans that integrate vocational education with other job training programs when awarding federal grants. According to Ms. O’Brien, relying on a state’s funding structure rather than students’ academic performance may result in fewer federal vocational education funds for schools. She argues that if funding is not earmarked, states could redirect money from schools to other programs within their unified vocational education-job training plans.

Kim Kubiak, the executive director of the National Association of State Directors of Vocational and Technical Education, expressed concern that the Senate bill is written too broadly to fully understand its impact. She shares the fear that vocational education and schools may lose funding under the proposed plan.

The sponsors of the bill intended to streamline the current patchwork of vocational education and job training programs. A central component of the bill is the "one-stop service system," which aims to provide information on various services available to students and individuals seeking job skills. It would also connect federal job training activities to other relevant programs that can assist customers. Senator DeWine defended the provisions in the bill, highlighting new programs designed to target vocational education for at-risk students and dropouts.

Senator Tom Harkin, however, plans to advocate for additional funding for technology in vocational education classrooms. The inclusion of vocational education in an omnibus bill that also covers adult and job training programs has angered some conservative groups who view it as a move towards the federal government playing a role in determining students’ career paths. Kris Ardizzone, the executive director of the Eagle Forum, stated that her organization may use grassroots lobbying efforts to protest this year’s version of the bill, just as they did to sink last year’s vocational education reauthorization. According to Ardizzone, even if the bill were divided, there would still be objections to certain parts, such as the grants to states.

Renaissance Learning To Be Sold For $440 Million

Private equity firm Permira Funds has announced that it will acquire Renaissance Learning Inc., a company that develops curriculum and academic assessment products for students from kindergarten to 12th grade. The acquisition will be made for a total of $440 million, with Permira Funds offering a premium price of $14.85 per share, representing a 25.5 percent increase over the previous day’s closing stock price. The board of Renaissance has fully supported and endorsed the deal, urging shareholders to do the same.

Upon completion of the acquisition, Renaissance will transition into a privately held company. This news has already had a positive impact on the company’s stock, as shares rose by 23.4 percent to reach $14.60 in early morning trading on Tuesday.

Report Questioning ‘Crisis’ In Education Triggers An Uproar

Three researchers at a federally funded research center in New Mexico have caused a stir with their study on American education. The study challenges the perspective of policymakers and experts who claim that there is a crisis in the education system. According to the researchers, the current reform agenda is well-intentioned but misguided as it does not address the actual problems in education.

Some individuals in the research community believe that the report is being suppressed by the Bush Administration due to conflicting views. The researchers themselves have not commented on the issue, and it is rumored that they fear losing their federal funding if they speak to reporters. However, Administration officials and Capitol Hill sources claim that the report is undergoing peer review and is not being suppressed.

Peggy Dufour, the chief education adviser to Secretary of Energy James T. Watkins, has confirmed that copies of the report are available. She even provided two different drafts of the report along with critical commentary from the National Center for Education Statistics and the National Science Foundation. While some Administration officials may not be pleased with the report, it is premature to assume that they are burying it.

Despite this, some members of the research community believe that the report is being suppressed. One source claims that the researchers were warned not to speak up and that their careers may be in jeopardy.

The controversy began in early 1990 when Secretary of Energy James T. Watkins initiated an education initiative within his department. The Sandia National Laboratory in Albuquerque conducted the study as part of this initiative. The researchers reviewed existing research, interviewed educators, and visited schools to gain insights into the problem. One point of agreement between the researchers and Administration officials is that the available education data are inadequate. However, the Sandia researchers discovered the following based on the existing data:

1. High-school completion rates have remained steady for the past 20 years, and when considering equivalency diplomas, the rates are improving and among the best in the world.

2. The decline in college-entrance examination scores is attributed to a wider range of students taking the tests. When comparing test-takers today with those 20 years ago, there is no decline in scores evident.

3. American participation in higher education is the highest in the world, and there is no shortage of Americans pursuing technical degrees.

4. Increased educational expenditures have primarily gone towards special education, and it would be unfair to claim that increased funding has not improved overall student performance.

The researchers do not offer specific solutions but emphasize the need to improve teacher status and preparation and address educational deficits in disadvantaged, urban, and minority populations. Critics note that this report contradicts the Administration’s call for radical change and its claim that additional funding is unnecessary.

Peggy Dufour argues that the researchers’ use of data was selective and misleading. The National Science Foundation and the National Center for Education Statistics support her viewpoint, stating that the report relies on a flawed analysis and incomplete understanding of relevant research.

‘Documenting Their Statements’

According to sources, the researchers have been distributing preliminary versions of their report within the research community and on Capitol Hill for nearly a year. A few months ago, there were rumors suggesting that the Administration intended to suppress the report. In July, one of the researchers and the director of Sandia’s education initiative testified before the House Subcommittee on Elementary, Secondary, and Vocational Education. "We were aware that their actions would be restricted at some point," a Democratic committee aide commented, "so we aimed to document their statements while we still had the chance."

On September 24, representatives from Sandia presented their findings at a meeting in Washington attended by two Republican senators, Ms. Dufour, Deputy Education Secretary David T. Kearns, and Diane Ravitch, assistant secretary for educational research and improvement. Ms. Dufour and congressional sources stated that Administration officials, particularly Mr. Kearns, expressed their displeasure at the meeting. On the same day, the Albuquerque Journal published an article about the report with the headline, "U.S. Education Approved, According to Sandia Labs Report.” On September 30, Mr. Watkins wrote a letter to the newspaper refuting the report, describing it as "completely inaccurate." He highlighted that independent reviews had been critical and stated that his department "will not allow the publication of the study in its current form."

‘A Highly Political Environment’

Sources within the research community have reported that the Sandia researchers faced beratement and even threats of funding reduction from Administration officials. Ms. Dufour denied these claims but did acknowledge that officials criticized the researchers for sharing their findings before the report had undergone expert review and revision. "They have chosen to engage in political tactics," Ms. Dufour remarked, "and when that happens, all bets are off." Nonetheless, some researchers predict that Administration officials will exploit a protracted review process as a means to bury the report.

No Easy Project

When given the opportunity to transfer to one of the five new small schools that were opening in a restructured high school, Timothy S. Cagwin didn’t hesitate. Unsatisfied with his old school, the 39-year-old English teacher was particularly drawn to the new schools’ focus on "project-based learning," a teaching approach that is highly advocated for by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and other similar organizations, academics, and critics of the current education system.

Like other school leaders who are part of the nationwide effort to improve high schools in the United States, the leaders of these new schools believed that project-based learning would inspire both teachers and students to strive for higher levels of learning.

However, at Mr. Cagwin’s new school and the other schools formed from the restructuring of Olympic High School, the desired change in teaching did not happen quickly. Despite his enthusiasm, Mr. Cagwin found it difficult to implement his project-based learning plans. "Over the summer, I worked hard to make [projects] happen, but when the school year started, standardized testing seemed to take precedence," he said. Mr. Cagwin’s experience with project-based learning was not uncommon.

To address this issue, teachers from each of the five schools in the Charlotte-Mecklenburg school district, which has a student population of 132,000, came together with an external coach for a week in August to recommit themselves to project-based learning and to create a blueprint for the new school year.

The need for this reinforcement is not surprising to experts in project-based learning. Since traditional lesson plans and textbooks dominate in standard classrooms, successfully implementing project-based learning often requires teachers to embrace new attitudes, develop new skills, and take risks, according to Michael Simkins, a former principal and teacher from California who has conducted project-based learning workshops for many years. "It’s a challenging task," he said. "Teachers need to have a lot of intelligence and skills that they may not yet possess." However, there have been successful examples of innovative schools across the country that have implemented project-based learning, such as the Minnesota New Country School, the Big Picture Company schools, and those managed by the High Tech High charter organization. These schools demonstrate that teachers can rise to the challenge.

Proponents of project-based learning see it as a way to address the lack of rigor and relevance in high school coursework that contributes to the dropout problem in the nation. However, making project-based learning fulfill this promise and convincing teachers to embrace it has proven to be a difficult task.

One of the main obstacles for teachers new to project-based learning is to shift their focus from "covering the material," as Pamela Wise, the school coach from the Coalition of Essential Schools’ Northwest office, explains. Wise was brought in to lead professional development sessions at Olympic High School, which is supported by a grant from the Gates Foundation. The first step for teachers is to let go of the pressure to cover all the content and instead focus on facilitating real-world problem solving for students. This is similar to how adults work in teams to meet explicit standards in their professional settings.

Deciding on ‘Performances’

Educators need to develop the mindset of assessors and imagine student "performances" that can serve as evidence of their mastery of the relevant curriculum, emphasized Ms. Wise during the workshop in Charlotte. These performances can take on various forms, ranging from a traditional essay to a complex group task that involves creating and publicly presenting a plan. The group of twelve teachers who attended the workshop had previously started reading the Project-Based Learning Handbook produced by the Buck Institute for Education, a nonprofit organization based in Novato, Calif.

They then formulated the questions that would drive their projects. Their objective was to complete the planning for one project by the end of the workshop week and subsequently launch it by October 15.

Marie Ullrich, an English teacher about to embark on her second year of teaching, intended to explore the concept of "the American dream" with her honors English juniors. She planned to ask her students about the meaning behind the term, its attainability, and desirability. In addition to other assignments, Ullrich aimed to have her students reflect on interviews they would conduct with immigrants to the country. Meanwhile, Lori Jones, an experienced biology teacher, wanted her students to tackle the ethical issues surrounding different methods of genetic manipulation. Jones planned to assign her students the task of creating skits and performing them in class as a means of showcasing their understanding of DNA, the fundamental component of genes.

Ms. Wise reminded the teachers that, once they have formulated the questions and identified the performances, they must focus on "scaffolding" – the smaller lessons and tasks that prepare students for the final assessment. All assignments require "rubrics" – scoring guides that specify what qualifies as acceptable and higher-quality work for each aspect of the tasks. "Teachers often forget that they can’t just expect this magical thing to appear," cautioned Ms. Wise. "Kids need to be exposed to it and given time to practice. You need a two-minute presentation [before] a 10-minute one."

The creation of rubrics typically proves challenging for teachers. Therefore, on the Wednesday of the workshop, Ms. Wise dedicated a morning session to providing guidance on scoring. In structured small groups, teachers critiqued each other’s rubrics.

Project Planner

Teachers at the project-based learning workshop in Charlotte received a planning document designed to guide them through the process of designing projects. The guide came from LEARN, a nonprofit educational foundation based in Laval, Quebec.


1. What are my subject/learning objectives?

2. What interdisciplinary subjects and competencies are involved?

3. What inquiry question/investigation will fulfill the objectives identified in questions 1 and 2?


1. How will I spark the students’ interest in the inquiry question? What scenario will I use?

2. What information can I expect to emerge from our class brainstorming session? What misconceptions might arise?

3. What rubric(s) will I use? Will I create it myself or with the help of my students?


1. How will I organize the brainstorming session? How will we categorize and organize the information generated?

2. What kind of teams will be most effective for this project? (e.g., number of members, roles, responsibilities)

3. What computer technologies are necessary to complete these tasks? Do I need to teach or review any of these skills?

4. What research techniques will we need? Do I need to teach or review any?

5. What final projects would be well-suited for this type of investigation?

6. At which stage will I request product updates? In what format should these updates be? (e.g., journal entry, oral presentation, etc.)


What type of showcase would be most appropriate for displaying the students’ acquired knowledge? (e.g., museum display, PowerPoint presentation, live performance in front of an audience, etc.)


Should I ask my students to provide an oral or written reflection on their learning and thoughts about this project?


“My goal is for students to observe the ants in their ecosystem, perhaps even conduct an experiment where they set up bait for both regular ants and fire ants,” mentioned Ms. Smith. She appeared worried and had a large collection of materials, which demonstrated her dedication. “We need to consider where we want students to focus their time.” The teachers emphasized that devoted time and feedback from colleagues can greatly impact the quality of projects. Although their group was smaller due to professional obligations related to new schools, they plan to continue meeting and are willing to welcome others into their classrooms.

Despite making progress, Ms. Smith, who had previously worked in the chemical industry for 25 years before becoming a teacher, exemplifies the challenges that project-based learning still faces at Olympic. She has been contemplating how to incorporate this approach into her chemistry classes, especially since the state’s end-of-course test is a significant factor. So far, she has not implemented any projects.

“It will require a significant amount of effort to figure out how to develop a project,” she sighed. “I initially thought that PBL would come more naturally, but now I realize it’s more like a business plan—you have to carefully piece everything together."

In A Massachusetts School, Fomenting A ‘Revolution’ In Time

Similar to Nicolaus Copernicus, a Polish astronomer who challenged the world’s understanding of the universe, Joseph M. Carroll is pushing for a shift in the way educators perceive time. Carroll, the superintendent of the Masconomet Regional School District, believes that the traditional high-school schedule restricts improvements in education and inhibits individualized attention and student-teacher relationships.

According to Carroll, the current schedule, where teachers see up to 150 students for only 45 minutes each day, hinders the integration of concepts from different subjects and exacerbates the hyperactivity often associated with teenagers. His proposed alternative is to assign students to two 100-minute "macroclasses" and a interdisciplinary seminar, each trimester.

Carroll’s ideas have gained the attention of education reformers who applaud his challenge to the traditional norms. Harold Howe 2nd, a senior lecturer at Harvard University Graduate School of Education, commends Carroll for questioning the rigid division of time and suggests that time can be changed to improve education.

Participants in the pilot project, along with two Harvard University researchers who were commissioned to study it, have reported better student-teacher relationships and improved teaching. While test scores have not yet been compiled, those involved anticipate that students in the "Renaissance program" will perform at least as well as those in the traditional program.

However, Carroll has encountered opposition similar to Copernicus, facing criticism and concerns about the experimental nature of his ideas. Some residents and teachers argue that the district cannot afford such luxuries during a time of severe budget problems. The fate of the project may rely on the outcome of upcoming votes to lift property-tax ceilings, and Carroll may need to find private funding to sustain the project.

Nonetheless, Carroll acknowledges that challenges are expected when implementing bold ideas in schools. He believes that the greater struggle lies in convincing schools to try something different, rather than simply coming up with innovative ideas.

The Copernican Plan, proposed in 1983, draws on Carroll’s past experiences as an administrator in Washington and Los Alamos public schools. In both locations, he successfully implemented summer programs that focused on fewer subjects taught through longer classes over a short period of time. Additionally, independent schools and the High School in the Community in New Haven, Connecticut, have found success by incorporating "macroclasses" into their programs.

‘Pushing the Boundaries’

Mr. Carroll put forth a proposal to introduce a schedule change in Masconomet, a relatively affluent school district that serves as a regional junior and senior high school for the towns of Boxford, Middleton, and Topsfield. While the plan faced resistance from the Masconomet Teachers Association, an affiliate of the National Education Association, teachers and a group of community leaders agreed to study the idea and develop their own recommendations. Both groups concluded that a change in the school schedule that could foster closer relationships between students and teachers would be beneficial. The school committee agreed to establish a pilot revised-schedule project for the 9th grade during the 1989-90 school year. Mr. Carroll’s plan also includes other reforms such as differentiated diplomas and awarding credit based on mastery. However, he did not attempt to implement the entire proposal all at once.

"An organization can only handle so much change at once," he explains. "I am currently pushing the boundaries."

Personalizing Education

To implement the pilot program, Mr. Carroll called for student and parental volunteers, as well as teachers. This year, approximately 80 students, which is about half of the 9th-grade class, are participating. Additionally, with a $20,000 grant from the Amelia Peabody Foundation, Mr. Carroll enlisted two researchers from Harvard’s Graduate School of Education, Vito Perrone and Dean K. Whitla, to study the program. Students in the Renaissance program take two 100-minute classes each day for 60 days, and then switch to two new classes. They also attend a daily seminar where they are expected to apply their studies to examine contemporary issues. Teachers involved in the program teach six classes per year instead of five. However, class sizes are smaller, averaging 13 students, or one-sixth of 80, compared to 20 to 24 in the traditional program. Thomas Hussey, president of the Masconomet Teachers Association, states that changing the system did not have a significant impact on the teachers’ contract.

"We didn’t bend the rules that much," adds Mr. Hussey, a mathematics teacher who is not participating in the project. Teachers and parents who volunteered for the program claim that it has benefited both students and teachers. The revised schedule "makes perfect sense to me, from a student’s perspective," says David Donavel, an English teacher. "None of us study five or six subjects simultaneously." "The current setup of [other] high schools encourages the frantic behavior we associate with teenagers," adds Barbara Was, a school committee member. "They may have 10 or 12 different areas competing for their attention." At the same time, Mr. Donavel notes that the project "has the advantage of personalizing education." "This means that not only can I pay greater attention to the individual learning needs of students, but, on a less formal level, I can get to know and like the students, and they can get to know and hopefully like me."

"If they have a positive relationship with a teacher," Mr. Donavel suggests, "they are more likely to be motivated to work for that teacher."

Increased Student Involvement

The stronger bond between students and teachers has also led to students taking responsibility for their own education, according to Donald Doliber, a social studies teacher. Susan Haas, an art teacher, adds that she often asks students to evaluate their lessons and has found that they discuss ways to challenge themselves even more. The longer class periods have also improved teaching by forcing instructors to utilize new methods, notes Teunis J. Paarlberg, a math teacher. "You can’t stand up and lecture for 100 minutes," he says. "I would tire out, just like an actor." As an alternative, he and others say that there has been a greater emphasis on encouraging student participation in their coursework. These efforts have helped teachers reach the students who typically stay more reserved in traditional classrooms, says Mr. Carroll.

‘Failed’ Workshops

Despite their enthusiasm for the project, teachers are facing challenges, according to Mr. Carroll. The complex scheduling, in some cases, has resulted in teachers having limited time for preparation. Additionally, teachers admit that the seminar program was unsuccessful in the first trimester. "We failed," acknowledges Mr. Paarlberg.

"We thought we could engage students in discussing current and complex issues," adds Mr. Donavel. "Our mistake was assuming that they had enough knowledge to have those discussions. They’re only 14." In the current trimester, teachers are now asking students to select a single issue from the newspaper and follow it daily, culminating in an oral presentation. "We’re waiting to see if we observe the expected behaviors from the students," says Mr. Donavel. "We’re off to a better start."

The Problem of Retention

While the program participants seem supportive, some teachers and parents who chose not to participate question the program’s potential success. A major concern, according to Mr. Hussey, the math teacher, is whether students can retain their knowledge after a 60-day course. "It’s possible that a student who took math from September to November 1989 won’t revisit the subject until 1991," he points out. "Nobody knows how much they’ll retain. It’s worrisome."

Mr. Carroll suggests in his book that the teaching style encouraged by the new schedule would improve students’ long-term retention. Specifically, Masconomet has implemented an enrichment program for foreign languages to help students maintain their communication skills throughout the year. On alternate days, during seminar periods in trimesters when they are not taking foreign-language classes, students review vocabulary and engage in conversations.

A Unique Community?

Apart from academic concerns, Serena Caperonis, a school-committee member who opposed the program continuation, suggests that critics worry about the program’s cost at a time of tight budgets. To properly evaluate and provide options for students, she argues that the school must offer at least two classes for each subject. As the program expands to higher grades, the school will have to maintain two small classes for advanced courses. Ms. Caperonis proposes that the program might be better suited for a high school facing motivational issues, rather than Masconomet, where 82 percent of graduates pursue higher education. "It should be implemented in a community where motivation is a problem, where the community is dissatisfied with the current system. I don’t believe Masconomet is that community."

However, Mr. Howe argues that school reforms can benefit not only struggling schools but also those performing well. "Change in education shouldn’t only occur when things are failing completely," he says. "Change can be most effective when things are already successful. Such schools have more opportunities to experiment." Despite objections from critics, the school committee voted 8 to 3 last month to continue the program for another year and expand it to the 10th grade. This expansion improves the program’s cost-effectiveness, as Mr. Carroll can schedule the teaching staff more efficiently. However, he and others caution that the program’s funding, which amounts to $120,000 out of the district’s $7 million annual budget, may be at risk if the three towns fail to override property-tax limitations next month. Ms. Caperonis hopes the Copernican plan will not be used as an excuse to reject the overrides. "If the towns refuse to lift the tax ceilings, much more than the Renaissance program will suffer," she warns. "I am working hard to educate people that this is not the way to terminate this program."

Are Our Jobs Making Us Dumber?

Employers are placing greater importance on complex literacy skills from students, but recent studies from the United States and Canada suggest that many young people entering the workforce may lose these skills before they can even utilize them. According to a series of studies conducted between 2003 and 2011, the average literacy score for Americans aged 26 to 35 dropped by 14 points, which is equivalent to more than half a year of schooling. This decline was the largest among all age groups, but individuals of all ages in both countries experienced a decrease in literacy skills, despite having some of the highest levels of education in the world.

Leading the recent studies were T. Scott Murray, the international study director of the International Adult Literacy Survey (IALS) and the Adult Literacy and Lifeskills Survey (ALL), and senior adviser of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development for adult skill assessment. Murray believes that even in jobs where machines have not replaced workers, automation may be "dumbing down" positions in ways that differentiate highly skilled individuals from others.

Murray and other researchers in education and workforce argue that schools should focus on making students’ advanced skills more visible to employers, proving that they are capable of handling complex tasks. Additionally, students should be equipped with the tools to continue reinforcing their skills after graduation. Murray states, "The skills students possess are largely unseen by employers; they still rely on credentials that do not adequately represent a student’s abilities. If employers do not create skill-intensive jobs, workers’ literacy skills will deteriorate due to lack of use."

Murray, along with colleagues at the Canadian research firm DataAngel, compared the literacy skills of matched comparison groups of test-takers in 2003 and 2011. They utilized two aligned international literacy tests, the 2003 ALLS and the 2011 Program for the International Assessment of Adult Competencies (PIAAC), to assess the literacy levels of adults aged 16 to 65. The tests examined various activities, such as analyzing news articles and maps, understanding administrative forms or tables, and comparing mortgage offers. Both tests implemented the same 500-point scale and had common items linking them.

The results showed that individuals with higher levels of education experienced greater initial literacy gains after college. Those with a college degree were more likely to see improvements in literacy compared to those with only a high school diploma. However, the studies revealed that adults with postgraduate degrees were the only group that continued to enhance their literacy skills over the 2003-2011 study period, with an average gain of 3 points.

Interestingly, the studies also found that young professionals who had earned associate or bachelor’s degrees experienced the greatest loss in literacy skills, according to Murray.

Murray’s studies do not track a single cohort over time, but Stephen Reder, a professor of adult and digital literacy, noted that the results align with his own previous longitudinal studies of adults. Reder observes that the lack of comprehensive lifelong learning policies in the United States leaves individuals in the workforce for several decades without systematic support for continued education.

Previous research has shown that technology increases the average skill level of workers in a job by automating repetitive tasks, allowing individuals to focus on tasks that require higher skills. Anthony Carnevale, a research professor and the director of the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, states that technology has this effect.

To maintain and improve literacy skills after entering the workforce, researchers suggest engaging in various on-the-job tasks, such as learning new skills, sharing work-related information, teaching others, planning activities, influencing people, and solving complex problems.

Murray is collaborating with schools in Toronto, Ontario, Canada to promote the development of critical thinking and problem-solving skills in students’ reading abilities. On the other hand, Reder is assisting a coalition of 63 communities in California, Louisiana, Minnesota, New York, and Texas in creating a database of free, self-paced online courses. These courses aim to enhance digital literacy and advanced reading skills for vulnerable adults such as the homeless and immigrants.

Carnevale emphasized that the pace of change in the workforce is much faster now and the learning requirements continue to increase without ceasing. He believes that if individuals fail to adapt to these changes, they will face significant challenges in their careers. The scarcity of highly skilled workers compared to the number of jobs requiring such skills has led to higher wages. However, this also drives employers to automate or simplify tasks, which reduces opportunities for workers to develop skills over time.

Murray and his colleagues discovered that the acquisition or loss of skills among workers was associated with their ability to plan their own activities, influence others, engage in complex problem-solving, and perform mentally demanding tasks. Jobs that demanded high levels of literacy skills, critical thinking, and problem-solving were more likely to require training.

While some companies are implementing training programs due to the fear of competition, many others are unaware of the need for training. In the United States, Carnevale estimates that adult workers and their employers spend approximately $300 billion on informal training. However, the education system, including K-12 and career education, often fails to align with the needs of workers.

Reder, who was not part of Murray’s study, highlighted the limitations of traditional career pathways in K-12 education. These pathways are typically designed for single careers and do not cater to the needs of many modern workers. People who attend college often do not have a clear vision of where they will be employed five or twenty-five years later.

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Stop Working With The Most Boring People In The World

Predicting that Channel 5’s newest program, So You Think You Can Teach?, would end in tears was not a difficult task. Janet Street-Porter, Shaun Williamson, and Tamara Beckwith knew the answer would be a resounding no. Putting a B-list media pundit, an ex-soap star, and a self-proclaimed It girl in front of a Cambridgeshire primary school was a classic car crash TV. Sadly, the victims were the children.

However, Channel 5 deserves praise for recognizing the growing trend of teaching becoming a preferred second career. While it may have been a last-ditch effort for Street-Porter, genuine career changers view it as a positive step forward. A recent survey conducted by the Teacher Training Agency (TTA) shows that 30% of new entrants in the teaching profession are over the age of 30. Half of them held senior or middle-ranking professional positions.

The exciting news is that several older teachers are utilizing their skills to teach subjects suffering from a shortage of teachers, such as maths, science, and modern languages. One in four new maths teachers had previously worked in banking or accountancy. One in six science teachers previously worked as scientists or pharmacists, and 15% of modern language teachers had a former background in sales.

Offering golden hellos have undoubtedly played a role in attracting career changers into teaching, but it is far less tempting for a seasoned professional who has been earning a decent salary to accept a £6,000 tax-free starting bursary compared to a 21-year-old graduate with a £15,000 student loan debt. So why such a sudden surge in career change?

According to Mike Watkins, the acting director of teacher supply and recruitment for the TTA, while financial benefits cannot be ignored, a significant motivating factor behind these career changes is a lifestyle choice. People are beginning to question why they are working in their current jobs and looking for a more engaging way to use their subject knowledge to make a difference to society. Moreover, they want more flexibility in their working lives, and a school day provides ample non-routine workdays compared to a typical office day, and the holidays make childcare more affordable.

Ari Aresti’s story backs up this theory. Having qualified as a chartered civil engineer, he spent his early career working for a London-based company on projects as diverse as designing the Honk-Kong underground system and conducting feasibility studies for the Joint European Torus nuclear fusion project before quitting in his late 20s to run his father’s jeans factory in London’s East End. Aresti explains that he enjoyed running his own business for a long time, but competition was increasing, and he needed a change. Being a father of three, he enjoyed tutoring his kids in maths, and therefore, he decided to pursue teaching.

Aresti’s career journey has an inverted symmetry. His career adviser deemed that becoming a civil engineer would be a non-starter as he would need a degree. When asked what job he would least fancy doing, Aresti picked out teaching. Yet, he proved both himself and his adviser wrong. At 49, he signed up for a PGCE course at Brunel University and has been working as a maths teacher at a high school in Ilford, Essex, since qualifying three years ago.

Being a teacher was as challenging as his previous careers, and he struggled initially due to his unpreparedness for dealing with some of the pupils’ behavior. However, Aresti appreciated working in a supportive environment with colleagues always ready to provide help, which was different from the competition-driven business world. Also, his age and experience in life outside of teaching proved to be bonusses at his professional work. Aresti believes that having world-wise experience helped him cope with challenges better than some of his younger colleagues who couldn’t manage it and have left the profession.

Watkins too believes that age is a genuine advantage in teaching. Communication and management abilities are essential components of teaching, and older entrants tend to possess superior skills in these areas, giving them an edge over younger graduates.

The TTA has a target to recruit 40,000 applicants every year and therefore, they are seeking to recruit from a wide range of backgrounds. According to Watkins, the TTA is not specifically targeting any particular area. Moreover, they do not want to create an image of stealing bankers and scientists from different sectors. The aim is to highlight that teaching is a thriving profession offering various career advancement opportunities for everyone from recent graduates to seasoned professionals.

Aresti concurs with this view. When she commenced her teaching career, she did not have a clear career structure; however, she has already become an acting academic coordinator and intends to shoulder additional responsibilities.

If teaching is of interest to you, the TTA is accessible by phone, or you could visit any of their upcoming recruitment fairs. Unfortunately, if your name happens to be Street-Porter, Williamson, or Beckwith, then there will be no fair for you.

Attend the "Training to Teach in London" career fair in collaboration with The Guardian, taking place at County Hall Gallery on February 4-5. Additional information can be found at www.teach.gov.uk/events.

Student Loan Changes In England ‘could Imperil Supply Of Teachers And Nurses’

The government’s proposed student loan changes, which were announced two months ago, have been reviewed and analyzed in detail. Experts have concluded that they will have a significant impact on higher education in England, but not in the way that ministers had hoped. Published in February, the long-awaited response to the Augar review of post-18 education and funding included 40-year payback periods and higher repayment terms. While these changes are unlikely to dissuade middle-class teenagers from pursuing higher education, those from less-advantaged backgrounds may be held back, potentially leading to a shortfall of graduates in key industries such as nursing and teaching.

The Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) analyzed the government’s proposals and found that lower-middle and middle-income graduates will bear the brunt, paying £30,000 more than present graduates, with repayments spread over 40 years. Meanwhile, graduates in the highest income brackets will pay £20,000 less as the progressive elements of the existing loan package are stripped away. The IFS also found that proposals to restrict loans to those with minimum exam grades could have a dramatic impact on who goes to university.

The IFS estimated that imposing a requirement of GCSE passes in English and Maths might have stopped 10% of recent undergraduates from accessing loans, effectively barring most of them from campus. This is especially problematic, as the majority of students affected would be those from disadvantaged families or ethnic minorities, precisely the groups that governments have encouraged to consider higher education.

Claire Crawford of University College London’s Institute of Education described how the government and taxpayers would significantly reduce the investment that they are providing by recouping more from graduates. The proportion of graduates repaying their loans in full could rise from 25% to nearly 75%, according to the IFS. However, whether the new repayment regime will deter future English students varies. It depends on their calculations, whether they will be better off to pursue higher education.

Chris Husbands, the Vice-Chancellor of Sheffield Hallam University, explained that there are two views among his colleagues regarding the loan proposals’ potential effects. The first view is that it may not have any impact as the cultural predisposition to pursue university education as a way of self-improvement is deeply ingrained. This view posits that the changes to the loan regime will not significantly impact the demand for places. The second view is that this cultural predisposition is stronger among the middle classes than poorer households. This view adds that while none of these interventions are likely to be decisive in themselves, the combination of changes to the loan system is likely to have an effect on families in places like east Barnsley, reinforcing historically low rates of participation.

Ministers are less interested in widening participation, thinking that the job has been done, with the focus on the cost. Current forecasts show that there will be a 26% increase in student numbers over the next decade. As a result, policymakers are like hotel guests in an unfamiliar shower; alternating between being too hot and too cold while nervously adjusting the taps. Husbands is concerned that the deteriorating terms of trade on student loans and minimum eligibility requirements could get the universities back to the 1940s or 1950s when universities were filled with middle-class people, and poorer people didn’t get in.

The government has been improving its financial position but has done little to help students whose maintenance loans are falling in real terms. Tuition fees remain at £9,250, unchanged since 2016 and eroded by inflation despite government increasing teaching grants in some high-priority subjects such as health.

According to Mason, it is highly unlikely that prestigious universities will increase their intake of domestic undergraduate students. He attributes this trend to government policies that place restrictions on higher education institutions when it comes to expanding their student numbers. On one hand, the government limits the number of places at top universities, while on the other hand, it discourages "lower-value" courses from being offered. The result is a conundrum that results from conflicting policies enforced by different arms of the government.

A representative from the Russell Group of universities warns that despite increasing demand for places, universities are facing rising costs and frozen fees. This, coupled with high teaching costs for certain subjects such as nursing and engineering, may impact the quality and availability of courses offered to students. The spokesperson asserts that it is crucial for the government to work together with the sector to establish a financially sustainable approach to fund higher education, one that does not compromise on widening access to university. The Russell Group also emphasizes the importance of nurturing high-level skills and jobs as essential components of our economic recovery.

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