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A perspective on regrouping: Distinction made universal

By Jonah Ibsen

It is fascinating to work in a public school in the 21st century. With a plethora of new research about brain development, learning theory, emerging technologies and new teaching practices, not to mention the countless ways in which students can't help but keep you on your toes, there is no reason for a teacher to ever be bored. After 10 years of teaching middle school English, it has been an amazing transition to come and join the ninth-grade team at Harwood and I have been impressed by the intelligence, dedication and vision of my colleagues. Harwood is at the crossroads of significant change and, I would argue, progress. Much of this change is the result of new thinking about how students learn best and how schools should help students maximize their education, but at least one debate swirling around Harwood and our community can trace its roots back over 100 years ago.

Around the turn of the 20th century, our school system was designed to prepare young people to step into their appropriate roles in the rapidly expanding industrial economy. Alarmed that schools were losing sight of their mission to help kids develop into critical-thinking, socially engaged citizens, philosophers such as John Dewey founded the Progressive Education Association to reform our entire educational system. In works such as The School and Society and Democracy and Education, Dewey argued that schools should integrate students and curricula, doing away with the divisions between academic and vocational "tracks." Furthermore, he believed that schools should be redesigned to help all students learn to be more active participants in the social, political and economic decisions that impact their future.

One side effect of World War II and the Cold War was the widespread repudiation of the progressive movement in education. For much of the 20th century, it seemed as if Dewey lost the argument about the purpose and design of education in America. Tracking became widespread and schools, seeking standardization, adopted the factory model. The rapid changes in culture, climate and the economy of the 21st century, however, have caused many progressive ideas to come full circle. On a recent visit to High Tech High, a public charter school in San Diego, several Harwood educators were lucky enough to meet the two founding teachers from Cambridge. One of these visionaries, Larry Rosenstock, who once taught carpentry in inner-city Boston and is now the CEO of a growing network of project-based schools in California, said, "The purpose of school is not to serve the public. The purpose of school is to create the public."

If you agree that schools should not simply mirror the class system found in society but help shape a new, diverse class of thoughtful, involved citizens, then how should we proceed at Harwood? How can we continue to support dividing students into relatively arbitrary, stratified groups in which the best is expected of the few and mediocrity is accepted from the rest? What would John Dewey say about this moral question or, better yet, what did he say? In a 1922 article in the New Republic titled "Individuality, Equality, and Superiority," Dewey wrote, "The democrat with his faith in moral equality is the representative of aristocracy made universal. His equality is that of distinction made universal." I believe that at Harwood, our equality should be that of distinction made universal. In other words, what we need to do is to clearly articulate what we expect all students to learn and be able to do by the end of ninth grade and to lay out exactly what it would mean to earn distinction in all honors-level classes. Let students see for themselves what it means to achieve distinction and let them choose to pursue an honors distinction in any class they wish.

To further our goal of creating the next generation of citizens, let's rethink how we gauge and talk about the education our students and children receive. I, for one, am fed up with "rigorous" as a catch-all term meant to denote challenging and demanding coursework. What does it mean for a class to be "rigorous" anyway? Does that signify a lot of homework, a fast-paced style of instruction, deep exploration of real-world topics, a climate of adult-level civil discourse, or something else entirely? Instead of rigor, I suggest two new ways of thinking about what and how our students are doing in school: engagement and student work. Let's start talking to students about what makes their classes engaging and interesting. How are teachers tapping into or sparking their curiosity, creativity and critical thinking? What classes, units, projects, or assignments are students going home and discussing with their parents? And, along these lines, let's start asking what students are concretely doing, making and producing in school. While a search for rigor becomes increasingly subjective the harder you look, student work will always speak clearly as a measure of how meaningful and challenging any given class may be.

I would argue that by grouping students in flexible, new ways, clearly defining what honors looks like and making this a real possibility for any student, talking about engagement rather than rigor, and publicly displaying exemplary student work, we can make distinction universal at Harwood. And that sounds like real progress to me.

Ibsen is a ninth-grade English teacher at Harwood Union High School.

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