Last night, the Board of Education voted along party lines (5-3) to remove leveling in Language Arts for 6th graders for the 2009-2010 school year. The one-hour workshop was split to give all three stakeholders (the Administration, the Public, and Board of Education members) time to comment or ask questions.
Speaking for the Administration, Asst. Superintendent John Hennelly read his response to a letter sent by Mr. & Mrs. Gardell, focusing on the “gross inaccuracies” mentioned in the letter. Claiming that the BOE Curriculum Committee “sets its own agenda,” Hennelly brushed off the Gardells’ complaint that the Board of Education had not been involved in the decision to remove leveling. “Since I arrived in 2002, I’ve stated that one of my priorities was to take a look at our leveling policy….we’ve had several meetings over the years to look at this issue.” Hennelly later commented that “decisions are made on a best practice basis…this is not an election and the administration doesn’t have to do what parents might think is best at the time.” Lamenting that most parents have little interest in the actual research on the topic, Hennelly concluded that poor classroom behavior is the driving concern behind parental opposition to leveling, and that the administration does have a responsibility to address that issue. However, since the trend for 6th-8th grade CMT performance steadily decreases each year, Hennelly stated that the primary focus has to be on improving middle school students’ performance.
During the public comment session, concerned parents asked for a Q&A discussion instead of one-way comments to the BOE. Chairman Raczka agreed, and the questions asked demonstrated that most parents still have little grasp of the Administration’s plan. All were fearful of watered-down classes, loss of opportunity for advanced coursework later on in high school, and distracting behavioral issues when all students are mixed together. One parent presented the petition started by the Gardells, asking the Board NOT to remove leveling, and then added his own concern: “Nothing has been sent home explaining this decision – I feel like I don’t know enough to make an informed decision.” Another parent asked what was driving this decision: “financial concerns or the true interest of our children?” Assistant Superintendent Barbara Senges responded: “We’re not experiencing success with our advanced level classes. The percentage of children scoring a 5 on the CMT decreases every year after 5th grade, so obviously there’s a problem.” When asked what the teachers thought about this change, Senges replied: “I don’t believe the teachers have a problem with this model. Besides, we’re only getting rid of one level. This isn’t a huge change since we already differentiate in the same class for students who score a 1, 2, 3 or 4 on their CMTs.”
When BOE Members had a chance to ask questions, Sally Boske asked for confirmation that various courses are not disappearing, but rather the leveling of those courses would be eliminated (answer: true). Bill Boyd commented that if the greatest recent improvement of CMT scores has been in the elementary grades, and those are not leveled, we should expect a similar result for 6th grade: “for anyone doing OK on their CMTs, there won’t be much change in their scores. But for kids not doing well, those scores should go up, right?” (answer: yes). Assistant Superintendent Hennelly confirmed that this program was not a home-grown idea; instead, it is a series of best practices that are being used by other districts in CT. Senges added that this model will improve the curriculum because at the same time that leveling is removed, students scoring below basic on their CMTs will have additional instruction on top of and separate from the instruction given all students during the 85 minute language arts period (an additional 3-5 periods per week as necessary). Furthermore, when teachers “differentiate” the instruction, students will be learning in the context of their reading level. For example, 6th graders reading at the 10th grade level will read a 10th grade level book as they work through the lesson of the day. Students reading at grade level will read a 6th grade book, and students below level will read, say, a 4th grade book (or whatever is appropriate for their reading levels). Corinne Gill asked what other districts, comparable to ours, have eliminated leveling (answer: Bristol and several others). Ryan Kennedy asked if there will be data available in the next 6-9 months for those districts who are eliminating leveling for the 2009-2010 school year (answer: there should be).
Board Member Jay Keiser then moved to support the administration’s plans to eliminate leveling in the 6th grade Language Arts program. His stated reasons for doing so were:
- He’s heard a lot of parental comments against the change, but all the research supports the removal of leveling.
- It’s a low risk given the need to improve performance.
- The majority of students in 6th grade in CT are considered to still be in elementary school, so leveling isn’t necessary.
- If it turns out to be a wrong decision, it’s “not that bad” in terms of consequences.
- For those with questions about the Administration’s motive in this policy change, clearly the purpose is for the well-being and education of the children.
- It’s not a money-saver for the budget.
- The administrators have the educational background to make such recommendations.
Sheila Daniels commented that she would have a hard time supporting this change because she found research that said for every article that claims de-leveling is good, there’s another that proves it isn’t. She also worried that all the pieces weren’t in place to be ready to move forward, and she couldn’t understand why Middletown’s curriculum isn’t “rigorous enough” (a comment made by the administrators numerous times over the last several weeks). “We need to foster an environment conducive to learning for all kids,” Daniels stated.
Renee Johnson-Thornton stated that she still has lingering questions: “The material is compelling, but not a perfect fit. I want to make sure that we’re only committing to this change for language arts for the 2009-2010 school year.”
As I mentioned before, the Board then voted along party lines (Democrats for, Republicans against) to remove leveling for the 6th grade Language Arts program.
I have to admit that it took my attending ALL the BOE meetings for the last two months to get a decent handle on the topic of leveling and what the administration wants to do next year. I do think the Superintendent could have saved himself all kinds of pain by sending a letter of explanation home to parents, and offering to have a Q&A meeting to answer their questions. Would parents still have been upset by the decision? Probably, but at least Dr. Frechette could have spared the accusation that he’s covertly making important decisions and leaving parents out of the loop. In theory, parts of the plan sound OK to me (and I do come from a family of teachers and have taught myself), but I confess that there are just too many moving parts and unanswered questions for me to make a solid judgment. For example, all of the following statements have been made by the administration at some point during the last two months:
- The purpose behind this change is to close the achievement gap between various student sub-groups.
- The greatest improvement in CMTs has been the reading scores at the elementary level.
- Advanced students don’t benefit as much from advanced classes as regular and below basic students benefit from being in heterogeneous classes.
- Something happens after 5th grade so that the percentage of students scoring at level 5 on their CMTs drops each year for 6th, 7th and 8th grade.
- CMTs measure how well students are learning the curriculum.
- There are teachers already differentiating in their classrooms.
- Differentiation in the classroom was optional professional development for teachers this past year, and not everyone participated in the training.
- The original plan was to remove leveling in 6th grade math and language arts, but then after further consideration (i.e. much parental objection), the math teachers aren’t ready yet.
- “Our middle schools are struggling…I would hate to see the MISTs (Middle School Instructional Support Teacher) go” (comment made by Barbara Senges during the budget vote on 6/9/09 when Ryan Kennedy proposed cutting a MIST to help save the 6 elementary teachers cut by the proposed budget).
- All the research demonstrates that the highest performing students aren’t harmed by de-leveling.
- The new 85 minute double-instruction period lets one teacher see only 62 students during the whole year, so the teachers will know their students better.
- This really isn’t a big change since teachers already differentiate for students scoring at levels 1-4 on their CMTs. Adding in another level isn’t a big deal.
- More than 1/3 of Middletown students are below proficient on their CMTs (in reading).
- Middletown doesn’t have a rigorous enough curriculum.
When you sit back and consider all these statements together, I have a hard time coming to the same conclusion that the Superintendent did. I don’t see separating out advanced students as the problem. If CMTs are supposed to measure how well students are learning the curriculum as it is taught (and don’t forget that, at least in my 3rd grader’s experience, CMT prep started 2 months before the test and was a major focus for several weeks) and we don’t like the results we’re seeing, the conclusion has to be that students aren’t getting what is taught. Then we must ask ourselves, why not? Why should we wait until 6th grade to be concerned that CMT results are dropping? Why aren’t we completely committed to ensuring that our elementary students leave elementary school with the skills they need to succeed in middle school and high school? If that means committing serious resources to ensure every child can read at grade level, then why aren’t we doing that? Why throw money and instructional time at 6th graders when we could eliminate the majority of the problem before then?
I admit to being an efficiency nut – I can’t stand wasting time and/or energy on doing something wrong and then having to do it again. There has to be a better solution, and I urge the BOE’s Curriculum Committee to consider seriously what role it could play in reforming Middletown’s focus on and dedication to elementary education. In the meantime, the Administration has a long way to go to earn back the trust and respect of parents. Between the bus uproar at the beginning of the year, the Moody overcrowding issue, and the fuss over de-leveling, Dr. Frechette and his team have rightly earned the reputation of doing whatever they want without notifying parents in a timely manner. Whether that was intentional or not, I can’t say. However, the old adage that “perception is reality” is proved right once again.