Pat McCauley doesn’t want to “buy” her son math classes that are in advance of where other kids in his grade level are placed. But if she has to, she says, she will enroll her son in private schools.
“[Math is] his thing,” McCauley said. “Discriminating against brighter children is going to cause a wholesale exit [from public schools]. … It’s not treating students as individuals. It’s treating them as a lump group.”
McCauley and many other Metro Nashville Public School system parents learned last week that advanced courses in mathematics and language arts will no longer be offered to middle school students in the format parents are used to.
Instead of having the option to enroll in advanced courses next year, all students in grades five through seven — and possibly eighth-grade as well — will receive differentiated instruction in regular courses. Separate classes will not be offered. That means kids of a broader range of abilities will be in the same classrooms, accessing instructional materials appropriate for their skill levels.
The change was recommended by the Tennessee Department of Education, which is playing an increasing role in decisions made throughout the district — particularly in the area of curriculum.
Connie Smith, accountability head for the state DOE, said Friday that the state has found a “lack of rigor” in curriculum for grades five through eight. Students were placed on “tracks” based on their ability levels that were difficult to move out of, she said.
Standards for all levels of students will be raised this coming school year, Smith said, and teachers will learn how to most effectively provide differentiated instruction this summer through professional development. Similar structures are in place in districts in Hamilton and Knox counties, as well as in Memphis.
“This is a move to raise expectations of Metro schools,” Smith said. “We know this will work. … It’s appropriate for urban, rural and suburban systems. … It’s working in schools with similar situations, similar demographics.”
The change is not intended to neglect any needs of gifted kids. Smith said the district is currently in the midst of a “reorganization” of how high-performing students will be educated. A timeline for that process is still in development, she said.
Metro middle school classrooms district-wide will look similar to what is currently in place at MNPS academic magnet schools.
“The magnet schools have a curriculum that is working. They’re already using differentiated instruction,” Smith said.
Olivia Brown, public relations coordinator for MNPS, said last week that students will be assessed for their current ability levels, then instructed using appropriate texts and differentiated learning approaches.
“Our goal is for the students to achieve the highest possible levels, and of course, [for the district] to get out of corrective action,” Brown said.
Differentiated instruction courses will give the district an advance on meeting statewide standards that are being ramped up for the 2009-2010 school year, Smith said.
Plans for the changes, as promising as they may sound, caused consternation among parents last week. Some parents have been aware, since earlier this spring, of the changes affecting middle school algebra course offerings. But many say they learned about differentiated education in language arts and mathematics classes for the first time on the last day of school, when a letter was sent home.
The letter, addressed to MNPS parents and guardians, is signed by district Teaching and Learning chief Sandra Tinnon. It discusses “leveled texts,” “21st century mathematics,” “elevated expectations” and “quartile performance.” It does not exactly spell out the change in course offerings, and a number of parents told The City Paper that they would not have understood the changes from the letter alone — instead, they are relying on information from other parents and from individual school staffs.
McCauley says that, as the parent of a student entering the fifth-grade next year, she received no formal notification. She first learned of the change through Children First!, a weekly communication from the district that parents and Nashville community members can opt to receive.
Another parent, Theo Wellington, said she has talked to other parents who are angry that they were notified of the change so late in the year. It’s past time for parents to apply to private schools, Wellington said.
“I’m really disappointed. I really view it as a breach of contract,” Wellington said. “As one of the top students, … how long are you going to keep up your high achievement if all you get is grief from it from your fellow students? … This is just going to tick off a lot more people.”