I teach English and Theory of Knowledge at Montgomery High School, and I support the proposed A-G course shift for all students in Santa Rosa City Schools because no student should be disqualified from applying to a four-year college by default.
Graduating students shouldn’t lose the opportunity to apply to a four-year college solely because of their course schedules, without regard to their achievement in the classes they took or their aborted potential achievement in the classes they didn’t.
Some argue that these students and their parents already have the final choice in courses. While this is technically true, the joined effects of unconscious bias and internalized low expectations deprive too many of an authentic choice and render our present system de facto tracking.
The material advantages of a college education are statistically well established, and to reinforce a demonstrable racial and socioeconomic split in who gains access to these advantages is anathema to the social justice aims of a quality education. While educators cannot magically redress deep inequalities in the larger society, surely we should be doing our best to shrink, not widen, that unjust divide.
College is not universally desirable, and I support a range of choices and experiences for all kids, but I know I am no arbiter of who belongs on what journey. That amounts to social engineering, or playing God with the social destinies of our kids. People have many different kinds of intelligence, but we shouldn’t pretend that we have perfected the measurement of any of these.
Some teachers argue that if we open the academic floodgates, we will set the most vulnerable kids up for failure. I don’t agree. High expectations are one of the most precious gifts we can give our students, and this shouldn’t be confused with a standardized one-size-fits-all model. As teachers we must be flexible with all students, and when we hold a rigid line between course levels, aren’t we buying into the notion that certain types of kids fit a predictable mold?
Each class I have taught in my career, whether classified as low, middle, high or mixed level, has been a mysterious blend of unique individuals, more than the sum of its parts, and my goal is to find new ways to engage each of them, but I have to get to know them first.
When it comes to seeing kids for who they are, grades can come between teachers and students. Struggling learners needn’t fail more, a worry I’ve heard expressed repeatedly. Teachers can reward effort and growth with a D for those who fall short of academic expectations. And there is no mandate to grant a UC qualifying C to anyone who hasn’t demonstrated the achievement of skills outlined in the A-G course guidelines. It’s an opportunity, not a guarantee.
When we lament the forbidding rigor of academic courses for some, we should be asking ourselves how we define rigor for our high-achieving kids, and why. Do burdensome homework loads, high-stakes tests and harsh grading policies serve the stated goal of critical thinking? Do these practices truly open inquiry, or do they merely narrow opportunity? We know they cause widespread stress in all our students.
Finally, we need to look ahead to the world tomorrow that might emerge from our classrooms today. Does anyone believe that exposing kids from different backgrounds to one another, creating opportunities for them to have rich joint learning experiences and deep dialogue, will do harm to our society and democracy? If not, can we honestly say we currently do no harm by segregating people when they’re young, and pitting them against one another in ranked groupings until we send them out into the world? What does that world look like now, and what kind of world do we want future generations to greet?