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Column: All Lebanon High Students Would Benefit From More Mixing

Lebanon

We urge the Lebanon School Board to support the efforts of the Lebanon High Principal Nan Parsons and other administrators to proceed next year to limit the number of ability groups, or levels, for the freshman and sophomore classes. All of us have thought deeply about the dilemma of how to provide every student with a challenging curriculum while not consigning any student to the stigma of a low-level class. We are confident that the amended plan put forward by the district, in response to earlier concerns expressed by a number of parents and teachers, is the right step.

The proposed changes would combine the two lowest levels of English and social studies courses for freshmen and sophomores and rearrange the curriculum for these grades to more closely reflect the Common Core standards. Although modest, these changes offer the high school community a chance to address the broader issue of “ability grouping” or “tracking,” in which students who are judged to be at a certain “level” of “ability” are mostly grouped with others at that same level in many of their courses.

Here, in brief, are our reasons for supporting the proposal.

∎ Data from many studies confirm that intelligence is not something fixed at birth but able to increase through challenging and stimulating learning. Thus today’s “slow learner” may be tomorrow’s “high achiever” unless that student is made to believe that he or she is just not smart enough to try to create something special.

∎ Being leveled and labeled can be self-fulfilling. Students are all too ready to accept the labels that a school places on them. Peer pressure to “be true to your friends” also works to hold students back from reaching for a higher level of achievement.

∎ Students who are segregated by ability too easily fall into self-defining ways of thinking, whether they are in high- or low-level classes. They are likely to aim for a narrow definition of achievement, whether that be passing the course or getting an A grade. If the mixing of students leads to any teasing or bullying, it only highlights a problem that needs to be dealt with regardless of student placement.

∎ Today’s students are tomorrow’s work force, required to work with and help lead a diverse group of fellow workers. All of our young people need to learn to live and succeed in an increasingly diverse world.

∎ Teachers must continue to learn to differentiate instruction to motivate today’s students, who rely on us to engage their learning styles so content can be mastered in a way that is meaningful to them. We do not help teachers grow professionally if we allow them to focus their instruction at any one level of assumed student ability.

∎ Data from New Hampshire schools that have reduced leveling appear to confirm that it leads to significantly higher rates of college readiness, as was highlighted by the faculty and administrators from several schools who spoke at a School Board forum on March 28. One district went from a 65 percent college acceptance rate for graduating seniors to 95 percent, which school leaders attributed to more students striving for higher learning as a result of mixing in classes with a broad range of fellow students. Lebanon can hardly afford to ignore the chance to aim for a similar rise — at no increase in cost.

∎ Fears that our more advanced students might be held back if they are mixed in with less-advanced students are groundless. This happens only when teachers “teach to the middle” of the class. Lebanon High has in place training to make sure that this does not occur.

∎ Lastly, in all the public debate about the proposal, we have not heard from parents of low-leveled students. We are concerned that many of these parents have not felt welcome to participate. We hope that, with the adoption of this cautious plan, all parents in our community will feel comfortable and welcome to speak proudly of their children in the future.

Change is never an easy process. People’s concerns need to be responded to with sensitivity and tact, whether they are students, parents or teachers. We are confident that Principal Parsons and her staff possess the skill and tact and goodwill necessary to help Lebanon High School embrace its future.


Rob Fried is the executive director of the Upper Valley Educators Institute, the author of several books on improving education and a former school principal and school board member. This opinion was endorsed by Barrie North of Strafford, the associate director of secondary education at UVEI and a former science teacher, Judy McCarthy of Grantham, a former K-8 master teacher in the humanities, and Frank Gould of Lebanon, a retired elementary teacher and former member of the New Hampshire Legislature.