April 2, 2009

Academic problems are not prostate cancer

I'm sure you needed to be reminded of that, but there's a question here (one I discussed in my talk today): Should there ever be a thing such as "watchful waiting" when a teacher sees a student having problems?

I think the answer has to be no. At her talk this afternoon, University of Pittsburgh special education faculty member Naomi Zigmond argued that special educators need to be relentless, a word she chose deliberately. Someone working with children who are nonreaders or have extraordinary problems in math cannot rest when students cannot perform important tasks or don't understand a concept. Yes, child development is an aid to education, but it is no guarantee, and for a young child, time is too precious to assume that waiting three or six months will magically make an academic deficit disappear. 

There is a political reason as well. There are a few all-too-easy arguments that critics of high-stakes testing can make, and all of the arguments within easy reach have horrid consequences: accountability ignores gifted children, or accountability lets parents off the hook, or some other statement that I just don't subscribe to. On the other hand, I think it is viable (and intellectually defensible) to say that accountability based on test-score formulas is worse than accountability based on concrete teacher responsibilities. But to make that argument, there have to be concrete teacher responsibilities, and at its base is the refusal to wait for problems to resolve themselves.

That doesn't mean that teachers panic if a child takes more than three minutes to understand Maxwell's equations. It means that when you have good-enough informtion that a child's achievement is stagnating, you change what you're doing. What's good enough? I'll tackle that another time, in short order...

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Tags: Council for Exceptional Children, Naomi Zigmond
Posted in on April 2, 2009 10:26 PM |