"The harder you work, the luckier you get."
I can’t remember where I encountered this aphorism or which corporate titan was quoted, but it’s a fitting lead-in to this posting, which offers a fresh take on Cheryl’s Removing Luck from the Education Equation of 25 April.
Among those who weather “tough luck” years or periods at JIS, students with mild learning or neurological differences and their families are, I suspect, overrepresented. Admittedly, I don’t have access to any formal research that might back up this hunch. It’s an impression developed in talking with parents at advisory forum meetings, PTA gatherings, and other school events. Should the community at large be concerned?
To some extent, it already is. Participants in the ownership perception audit commissioned by the School Council voiced the opinion that students with special needs should receive learning support that will enable them to flourish. I share this view. As a matter of fairness or equity, JIS has a responsibility to provide an excellent educational product to all students, particularly since everyone pays the same high fees.
Policy decisions are often envisioned as a “zero-sum game,” in which a concession won by one interest group – such as students with special needs – results in a loss for another interest group – such as students who don’t have special needs. I suspect that is why audit participants also agreed with the policy decision to have parents bear the cost of more intensive “Level 2” learning support, and were skeptical about opening school doors to kids with more serious disabilities. While I don’t have the knowledge or expertise to offer an opinion on the second issue, I agree in principle with audit participants on the first.
I say ‘in principle’ because ESOL students do not pay one penny extra for the services they receive. Perhaps JIS needs to review current policies and practices with a view to ensuring that these two interest groups are treated equitably. And in revising ends policy or answering the questions “Who does JIS serve?” “What does it produce for those served?” and “At what relative cost?” perhaps Council should set negative or proscriptive limits for the Executive along the lines of: “The Executive will not fail to set equitable policies for special interest groups within the student population.” Of course, Council would also need to define ‘equitable.’ For example, school resources might be allocated on the basis of the share of total revenues contributed by a given interest group.
But the far more important point I want to make is this: With careful attention to the underlying needs of different interest groups and creative thinking, policy makers can achieve winning outcomes for everyone.
In fact, JIS administrators have already taken an important step in developing such a “win/win” policy. Have you heard of the professional development program focusing on “differentiated instruction” (aka DI)? Now in its second year, the program seeks to build the capacity of teachers and staff to assess and actively respond to students’ diverse needs.
The blog has addressed the topic of JIS’ intense multiculturalism. But diversity assumes many other forms at the school. Every student comes to JIS with different background knowledge based in part on their cultural backgrounds, different readiness to learn the curriculum, different mother tongues and varying proficiency in English, different learning styles or preferences, and different interests. Some students are gifted, others have special needs or function below grade level in one or more subjects, with the majority falling somewhere in between. All students have the right to expect enthusiastic teachers who are ready to meet them as they are, and to move them along the pathway of learning as far and as fast as possible.
DI synthesizes and builds on educational research documenting best practices of the kind Cheryl has rightly focused our attention on. Remember the article she shared on formative assessment i.e. using homework, deskwork, discussions, tests, etc. to learn about student needs and strengthen instruction? It is a central element of DI. She has also begun to discuss the importance of standards-based, content-rich curriculum. DI uses standards not as the end or goal of teaching, but as a vital means for helping students to achieve their personal best. As one expert explains:
“The goal of a differentiated classroom is maximum student growth and individual success. As schools now exist, our goal is often to bring everyone to “grade level” or to ensure that everyone masters a prescribed set of skills in a specified length of time. We then measure everyone's progress only against a predetermined standard. Such a goal is sometimes appropriate, and understanding where a child's learning is relative to a benchmark can be useful. However, when an entire class moves forward to study new skills and concepts without any individual adjustments in time or support, some students are doomed to fail. Similarly, classrooms typically contain some students who can demonstrate mastery of grade-level skills and material to be understood before the school year begins — or who could do so in a fraction of the time we would spend “teaching” them. These learners often receive an A, but that mark is more an acknowledgment of their advanced starting point relative to grade-level expectations than a reflection of serious personal growth. In a differentiated classroom, the teacher uses grade-level benchmarks as one tool for charting a child's learning path. However, the teacher also carefully charts individual growth. Personal success is measured, at least in part, on individual growth from the learner's starting point—whatever that might be.”
“Joyful tidings!” you may say. The catch? DI is a significant departure from the way most teaching is conducted and requires strong and skillful leadership to be institutionalized throughout schools and school districts. As the same expert quoted above puts it,
“The reality…is that many…students will encounter a teacher who is enmeshed in a system geared up to treat all 1st graders as though they were essentially the same, or all Algebra I students as though they were alike. Classrooms and schools are rarely organized to respond well to variations in student readiness, interest, or learning profile.”
And indeed, some expert observers believe JIS needs to accelerate its efforts to institutionalize DI. As we all know, organizational change is very challenging. What’s in it for school staff? To borrow Cheryl’s metaphor, why should they shed that last 10 pounds? Or to use the terms of this posting, how will they “win” or benefit from this sea-change in school policy?
Here’s one compelling answer to the question: SURVIVAL! As in any organization, the school’s long-term health depends on its ability to respond effectively to changes in its environment. In the past, JIS has had a reputation as an elite school. During the heady mid-90’s, when foreign investment was high, the school could choose the “cream of the crop” from among applicants. When Indonesia’s economic and political crises hit in the late 90’s, JIS suffered serious declines in enrollment. To maintain its financial health, it had to downsize staff and begin admitting a student body that was more diverse, both academically and culturally. Long-serving faculty and staff may find it especially difficult to adjust to these changes, but the school’s future depends on it. The better JIS is able to respond to the needs of diverse students or constituencies, the better equipped it will be to “roll with the punches.” In other words, if JIS is able to provide an excellent service to many different kinds of students using DI, it will be better able to respond to the ever-shifting demographic profile of Jakarta’s expatriate community.
Pardon the length of this posting. The takeaway or “homework” for parents?
- Study the web link above and others to learn more about DI. The blog will continue to address this topic, by the way.
- Entertain the following possibilities: a) Even if your child enjoys school and receives good grades, he or she may fall well short of achieving optimal academic growth. b) The fortunes of your child's special-needs classmates may be the best indication of how well JIS is able to maximize the personal growth of all kids, including your own.
- Use all available forums and channels to express support for DI and to ask school leaders for reports on progress in institutionalizing it.
- Ask your child's teacher how DI is put into practice in the classroom.