by Gina Dalma
The Palo Alto Unified School District's board recently came upon an opportunity to innovate for the better and give all our kids a much better chance at being competitive in the 21st century. They were making the choice whether to keep or abolish English "lanes."
In our school district as well as others, parents of higher-achieving students and school administrators have strongly advocated for differentiated paths that put students into lanes according to their level of proficiency — the assumption being that this provides them with more of an individualized instruction, but in fact it does the opposite.
We are limiting students' growth and learning experiences as well as putting boundaries on their potential. We know that students rarely move to a different lane regardless of their academic growth and that highest lanes usually get the best teachers (though at PAUSD they are now rotating teachers).
What is the impact on our kids' belief in their abilities if they are placed in specific proficiency paths from their earliest teen years? I am sure Carol Dweck, author of several works on new research about the power of motivation, would say that we have an institutional "Fixed Mindset."
We have an incredible opportunity today to provide our students with the best education, but we have to let go of some of our preconceived ideas. We are in the midst of what should be the biggest education shift of the last decades. New academic standards, funding formulas for school districts, brain research about how we learn and educational-technology innovations are all part of the revolution.
The need to provide a better education for our youth has also never been greater. Globalization and hyper-connectivity have created a world, as New York Times columnist Tom Friedman often states, "where average no longer guarantees access to a middle-class life" with employers having access to mind-power world-wide — be it for high-level tasks or rote processes. In Silicon Valley, where one out of every five households has to make do with less than $35,000 a year, education is a matter of survival.
So the conditions are right from the demand side as well as from the supply side to re-create our educational system and achieve the outcome that public education was intended to provide — be the engine of growth and the great equalizer.
Sadly, this is exactly where the rubber meets the road and we go back to the "lanes" issue. Education is competitive — only so many students receive the fat envelopes at the end of high school and those fat envelopes are still a significant predictor of future earnings. As author Alfie Kohn suggests, this competition creates a frame where parents "not only want their child to get ahead, they want their child to get ahead of others. The sorry part is that this frame of mind and its loudest voices seem to be driving the school district's policies, undermining the impact of reform for all children.
There is not only the very important social justice lens through which we should think about this; it also makes academic sense for even the students currently at the top that we engage and care about all our students' success. Being in an inclusive classroom creates the kind of environment that mimics where our children will have to succeed in their future.
We are cheating our students out of a chance to gain key skills by narrowing the set of peers that they interact with. Real life will present them with the need to collaborate, create, develop critical thinking and communicate with a diverse set of individuals. Why don't we model that in school by providing them these opportunities in the classroom? The best teachers are the ones that are able to engage their highest-performing students to help their lowest-performing students. Students also learn more deeply as they teach. Lower-performing students may accelerate their learning from peer support.
Countries that are recognized for their quality education, such as Finland, do not have lanes. They believe all students can achieve. Teachers focus on all students mastering the material, and schools support teachers to ensure that success. Everyone does well because of the shared belief that everyone can.
I applaud the teachers who are urging that lanes be eliminated at PAUSD and am disappointed that the plan is no longer on the table. Silicon Valley is a world model for so many other things: entrepreneurship, innovation, drive to improve the world. Why is it not a model of 21st century education? We believe, and have repeatedly seen, that anyone with drive and vision can start a technology venture and change society. Why don't we believe that any 13- or 14-year-old can master school lessons? Why do we slot some of them into second-class citizenry before they even have a chance to start?
The biggest challenge to our nation's growth is our widening income gap. I am sure that much of this is a result of thinking that for some to succeed others need to fail. I don't buy that and really hope that our school and community leaders don't buy that either.