Acceleration Nation

There it was—an ad for dealing with imaginary learning loss. Nope—your kid doesn’t need remediation to bring him up to speed after this year of screen-based semi-school. He needs acceleration! Sure he’s, umm, fallen behind somebody, somewhere. But the solution is not reviewing what he may have missed—it’s accelerating. Going faster. Catching up, then presumably surging ahead. Winning.

I was so struck by the totally American nature of this language—We Must Compete! No remediation for us!—that I googled the company’s motto and found that there are several pre-packaged learning systems and books using the same theme and jargon.

Acceleration, it appears, is having (another) sexy moment. It may even be sexy enough to tap into some of that federal funding this summer, if education vendors hustle and enough media figures wring their hands while bemoaning ‘learning loss.’  

If your kids have been moping around, griping about not seeing their friends and the head-banging monotony of Zoom lessons, it’s logical to be a little anxious about what they have not learned in the past year. Things that might have been not only interesting or challenging, but important for future coursework and plans. It’s OK to worry about their emotional health, their need for exercise and socializing.

But while I have absolute faith in well-prepared, caring teachers to do their best to move students forward, there are still a lot of balls in the air. Will enough people, old and young, be vaccinated in time for a new school year? What curve balls might the virus still be capable of? How will we re-evaluate most critical uses of instructional time with our overstuffed core curriculum—and how much permanent impact will a year of uncertainty and danger have on what ‘school’ looks like, this fall and all future school years?

Hard to say, but I am fairly certain that simply prescribing acceleration rather than remediation is an example of rhetorical flourish over substance.

My Masters degree is in Gifted Education. In my introductory courses, the foundational thinking in every article and text was that there were two basic streams of instructional practice designed to address the needs of gifted children—enrichment and acceleration. In short, going deeper or going faster. Or a combination of both.

The drawback of enrichment was that providing unique challenges for very bright kids meant you had to diversify learning, custom-tailoring lessons for differing ability, something that has always been available, but is a classroom management challenge. With acceleration, you could move children through existing structures faster—taking HS Algebra in 6th grade, for example. If you were willing to put your 11 year old in a class with high school freshmen, that is—and had a plan for what happened when her ability to the do the work outstripped her emotional maturity.

Working in the field of gifted education, it turned out that most parents didn’t care much about going deeper. What they wanted was not in-depth exploration but getting ahead of other students. Accelerating. The idea of extensive, hands-on digging into something Bright Child was passionately interested in was not appealing, especially if there were no tangible identifying markers of giftedness in the process.

I don’t remember much about elementary school, but I clearly remember my reading instruction in 5th grade. Instead of traditional reading groups, we were using brand-new SRA reading kits, color-coded 8 x 11 cards featuring stories or non-fiction articles. You moved up through the colors by passing little comprehension tests at the end of each card, until you reached aqua (or maybe it was gray). Then you started at the beginning of the next box.

You could accelerate by acing colors quickly. Miss a few questions, however, and you were stuck in purple for weeks. I remember scanning the room, or meeting someone at the box to exchange a card and noticing, hmmm—too bad, she’s on orange.

My teacher, Mrs. Wildfong, let me breeze through the first box. Then one day, instead of starting me on the 6th grade box, she pulled me into a corner of the room and showed me a small bookshelf. Quietly, she told me that for the rest of the year, I could read anything I liked on the lowest shelf. After I read the book, I was supposed to write a page in a small spiral-bound notebook about what I’d just read. There were no questions about POV, themes or characters—just my opinion, or what I’d learned.

I read every book on that shelf and filled several notebooks. After that, I had a permanent pass to the library, and permission to go during reading class whenever I needed new reading material. I read completely through the Beany Malone series, the Cherry Ames series, and a group of biographies with blue covers featuring black silhouettes. I also recall that other kids in the class wondered, with some resentment, why nobody else got to go to the library whenever they felt like it.

I remember the year, and Mrs. Wildfong, with great fondness. I tell this story not because I was ‘gifted’—I wasn’t—but because Mrs. Wildfong improvised enrichment, tailoring my reading curriculum without shorting her other students. For the rest of the day, I was doing long division and coloring maps with everyone else. Deeper, not faster.

In the 6th grade, I started at the beginning of the SRA box with everyone else, and when I started moving ‘too fast,’ my teacher made me stay for weeks in one color, reading all the yellow cards then all the brown cards, because heaven forbid any child should outstrip The SRA Box. I did not resent this—I really loved my 6th grade teacher—and my parents did not go to school to complain, to demand that a child reading at the 12th grade level be given special privileges, blah blah blah.

There are lessons in this completely ordinary story.

One is that the pandemic, for some children, may have been like my reading shelf and library pass—a chance to do something educational that they’re good at and enjoy, without the constraints of a large classroom full of kids who are good at and enjoy vastly different things, and a teacher trying to maintain order.

Another lesson is that some—again, just some—children will move forward on concepts or skills they normally would have encountered in the previous year very quickly, once they are given a bit of personal attention from a teacher who is not trying to teach 15 live children and 15 tiny, boxed heads on a screen simultaneously.

This is not about ‘acceleration’—it’s about a caring adult who has experience teaching this particular skill to children. We need teachers (and, importantly, school leaders) willing to dump pacing charts and incessant testing in favor of knowing their students–their personal goals and challenges, not their test scores. We need to reinforce skill- and knowledge-building, confidence and healing after a very rough year. There is no need to ‘set a high bar’—kids have always cleared learning bars at their own pace and feeling OK about yourself is a prerequisite.

A third lesson is that public education has increasingly become a consumer product, and advertising for that product now uses commercial language and advertising techniques. This doesn’t bode well, and probably lies under the insistence of many education nonprofits that standardized testing be done now, so the ‘data’ generated allows them to picture a picture of deficient kids who need to go faster rather than deeper.

Let’s stop asking about learning loss and catching up. It’s not a race. Let’s provide the resources to move kids forward.

The Villains of Education

Back in the early days of internet bulletin boards and discussion platforms, there was a seminal piece on forming virtual communities that was passed around by educators interested in using technology to do more than record grades and attendance. Its author (Howard Rheingold, maybe?) posited a working theory of how virtual communities evolve, and the kinds of connections they built, if they were allowed to exist over time without moderation.

The author said most groups and interactions tend to cluster, over time, into three patterns: Sex. Religious veneration. Common villains. (Or something pretty close to those.)

What s/he meant was that people in online groups either flirt, worship particular heroes, heroines or initiatives—or communally post critiques about persons or initiatives they don’t like.

These were not the outcomes of virtual communication that I wanted to consider when I read this white paper. Back then, I wanted to believe that real and complex work, deep learning and genuine community could be accomplished online, and that the crummy habits we develop in face to face encounters could be avoided. But no.

If you wallow in ed-related social media (and if you’re reading this, you likely do), then you’ll know how a group that forms around an education topic can go off the rails. You’ve seen someone post an out-of-mainstream idea and get crushed by horrible, trigger-happy commenters, folks who live to uncover a villain and pile on.

The last time I saw this happen was when a teacher in Massachusetts posted that she hoped MA would not waive spring testing this year, because she believed the scores would show that her students did just as well online as in face to face schooling.

You can imagine that this outlier opinion did not go down well on a ‘teachers’ unity’ Facebook page. You can also imagine that it didn’t take more than about ten minutes for accusations about this teacher’s work conditions, privileges, inferior moral judgment about children in poverty, and lack of intelligence to start flying. Nobody was posting: Hmm? Tell me more!

Of course, there’s probably an All Kids Must Test!page she can join, and find new friends, but that’s not the point. Online discussion groups around education DO tend to evolve into monolithic viewpoints—veneration of certain policies, thought leaders and policy-makers, or a place to complain, bitterly, about the same things. Plus, a kind of flirting—looking for others who find our ideas and appearance attractive.

So much for vibrant, informed discourse or intellectual challenges. Even Facebook page names—Dump DeVos, BadAss Teachers—let you know that the readers may have a common POV. Many aren’t interested in an exchange of perspectives as much as finding Their People.

That’s OK. Most of the recent, pre-pandemic Red for Ed organization happened via Facebook pages and Twitter. And, of course, the January 6th Capitol insurrection organizers used the same social media sites.

Shutting social media sites down (or warning users about their real or imagined transgressions) won’t keep us from the Big Three human-group behaviors—flirting, veneration and attacking common enemies. Whether we’re good-hearted public school teachers or Proud Boys, we’re looking to find compadres, heroes and villains.

It’s when emergent events that impact all educators quickly morph into ad hominem attacks and assumptions that I worry about our ability to act as activists around education issues. Let’s not get stuck on naming and shaming enemies before we negotiate and advocate for the things that will support public education. Pointing fingers is cheap; better to hone your talking points.

Let’s not, for example, turn every policy issue into second-guessing the results of the 2020 election—who Bernie or Elizabeth or Pete may have chosen to craft policy as cabinet members, and how much better that would have been than Biden’s cautious, dismantle-the-fortress approach. The same goes for panning high-profile teachers’ union leaders, most of whom are currently trying to build relationships with policy-makers in hopes of impacting education legislation during what might be a short window of change.

Over the past year, teachers across the country have taken it on the chin from frustrated parents and craven political leaders. But there are a whole range of issues—standardized testing, safely returning to in-person school, vaccinating kids, the advisability of school sports during a pandemic, summer enrichment, the curriculum we need now, you name it—where there is room for debate, opinion and local differences.

We seem to be paralyzed by the window of policy shifts opened by a year of forced adjustments to habits of educational practice, plus a new administration in D.C. Reverting to ad hominem jabs at elected and appointed leaders—same old, same old—is wasting an opportunity. Better to throw out some new ideas.

That doesn’t mean we stop advocating. On the contrary, it means better, issue-focused arguments instead of poking at people who have not been on the job long, people who are trying to address life-and-safety problems and please a range of constituencies.

I have made similar comments on social media: Hey! The guy you just denigrated? He’s on our side!
This usually doesn’t go well: It’s my right to criticize!

And so it is. This is a democracy. It’s your right to condemn, fan-boy and flirt. But if you want to solve problems? As F. Scott Fitzgerald said:The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.