THOMPSON: Rigor and Relevance
Perhaps the hypothesis that drives teachers the craziest is the notion that improved instruction and classroom management can solve the completely different problems of truancy and discipline. With their characteristic balance and thoroughness the Chicago School Consortium sorts through these issues in evaluating the Instructional Development System (IDS) in 14 high schools. (Kudos to Catherine Gewertz for supplying the link) The Consortium writes, "One underlying assumption of the IDS strategy is that if students are engaged with their courses they will come to class. That assumption may be flawed, however. As one principal said during our site visit: "Attendance is bigger than the curriculum. There are lots of things that keep kids out of school…. Good curriculum helps, buts it’s not the end all be all. Kids come with a lot of other baggage."
At first, nearly 3/4ths of teachers supported the IDS’s effort to improve "rigor and relevance," raising academic standards while seeking improved instruction. The IDS produced mixed results, slightly reducing the failure rate to around 25% and slightly increasing Grade Point Averages, while not improving attendance or test results. But students not only lacked prerequisite academic skills, but they also lacked the soft skills for the group learning methods of IDS.
Additionally, the IDS curricula focuses "on inquiry learning, an area with which both students and teachers have little experience and that may require more support. A science teacher described his students’ resistance: ‘In the beginning of the year I had a lot of resistance. It was a battle with the students trying to convince them ... The class and I argued. They were winning. I’m not teaching anything; we’re just arguing over how I should be teaching.’"
IDS was undercut also by tardiness, the failure of students to bring materials to class, and to relate respectfully with each other. But the Consortium was equally clear in documenting the shortcomings of teachers, and their "less than perfect implementation" of the curriculum. Teacher buy-in was undercut by the lack of evidence of IDS’s effectiveness, and its difficulty in demonstrating how it was different than previous experiments. When dealing with classroom disruptions, 17% of teachers were found to be Unsatisfactory, 43% to be Basic, 37% to be Proficient, and 3% Distinguished. When handling transitions that are so important with inquiry methods, 55% of teachers were judged to be Basic or below. The Consortium also issued another report on the unimpressive record of teachers asking probing questions.
But the purpose of the study is not inflaming the blame game. The Consortium closed with excellent advice. "IDS focuses its support on teachers, .... The need for paying additional attention to student academic and behavioral support may, however, be overshadowing the programmatic changes IDS brings."
We should all heed those carefully crafted words. Engaging pedagogy is hugely important; it is the key to improved classroom instruction; and we have a lot of room for improvement. But to address problems with attendance and behavior, we must focus on the prime causes of problems with attendance and behavior. - John Thompson