School plans sacrifice excellence

Are the Medford School District's freshman academies designed to meet students' individual needs? Is the program's purpose to help struggling students or to promote the pursuit of excellence?

Several Oregon high schools have created programs to comply with the Oregon Small Schools Initiative and receive funding from the Gates Foundation. Having spent 20 years teaching algebra to thousands of secondary school students, I'm concerned about what core courses are taught at North and South Medford's freshman academies.

Learning is a cumulative process; what students study in ninth grade directly affects future studies. Students' success in algebra requires solid math foundations from previous math courses plus good attitudes and work habits. I taught Algebra 1 to eighth-, ninth- and 10th-graders — depending on their readiness — often together in the same class. Many eighth-graders took Honors Algebra, and progressed to Honors Geometry in grade nine. One could find ninth-graders taking Algebra 1, Geometry or Honors Geometry. (Both of my schools included grades seven to 12.)

Similar patterns were found in language arts. Advanced-level students began taking Honors English in eighth grade, while others took regular English; they generally followed those paths throughout high school. Taking Algebra in grade eight and Geometry in grade nine allows for Advanced Placement Calculus, AP Biology and Chemistry. Honors English classes prepare students for AP English Language and Literature. It's well known that students who succeed in AP courses are better prepared for college; many earn college credits by passing AP exams in high school.

"Why can't we replicate excellence?" asked former President Bill Clinton at the National School Boards Association annual convention in San Francisco this spring. "If I were dictator, I would get with you and make some changes in that Leave No Child Behind Act." (Reported in Education Week, April 25). How I would love to enlighten Mr. Clinton. Education-based businesses and philanthropists focus on experimentation, and the No Child Left Behind Act focuses on remediation; the pursuit of excellence is not always a priority in public schools under pressure.

The Gates Foundation grants given to selected small schools impose pressure by setting specific policies. As one Medford School District administrator explained to me, the freshman academies are designed to "level out" students as they enter North and South high schools. The goal is to bring them up to a common level of achievement and not leave students behind academically. Thus, the course in basic math is eliminated and all students are expected to take Algebra 1, regardless of their readiness. Special tutoring is given to those needing it. Students who fail the first semester receive remediation.

What of advanced-math students who succeed in algebra in eighth grade, as many Medford students do? I was told they can be "blended into" geometry classes outside the freshman academies, a rare exception to the required autonomy of small schools. Since funding does not cover "multiple levels" of courses, Honors Algebra 1 is not offered in the academies. Yet Honors Algebra is often a prerequisite for Honors Geometry, which in turn leads to advanced level higher math and science courses. And while Medford middle schools offer Honors English to some eighth graders, there is no Honors English in the freshman academies. The continuity of the pursuit of excellence is broken.

Ideally, schools should meet the special needs of all their students. But the No Child Left Behind Act punishes schools whose lower-achieving students fail to reach proficiency, and awards no extra credit if strong students excel in advanced-level courses or in college admissions. Oregon schools, like others nationwide, face shrinking resources and rising demands to raise test scores; advanced-level learning is often sacrificed.

The Oregon Small Schools Initiative shapes policy by withholding funds if its rigid rules are not met. Who are the beneficiaries of this Gates-funded experiment? For our students' futures, freshman year is crucial. Is the purpose of OSSI to boost basic proficiency, or to promote the pursuit of excellence? Should it be both?

Betty R. Kazmin of Medford taught algebra in Los Angeles public and private secondary schools. She served on the board of education in Willard, Ohio and writes on education issues.

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