By Sally Torbey
Delay in de-laning Paly 9th grade English is unfortunateUploaded: Feb 11, 2014
The Paly English department's recent proposal to de-lane 9th grade English has generated a lot of controversy. Today, as reported in Palo Alto Online, Paly principal Kim Diorio announced in an email message that the pilot program has been postponed. There was no mention as to when it might be revisited.
The lack of support for this proposal from the school board and PAUSD parents is surprising to me. Differentiating within 9th grade English classes already happens successfully at Paly. Three of our children, each with different abilities, learning styles, and academic interests, took 9th grade English at Paly. Since they were all in the TEAM program, their 9th grade English classes were not laned, but differentiated within the classroom. Being in a diverse mixed-ability class was a positive experience for them. The course was reading and writing-intensive with ample opportunity for discussions and class presentations, and a great basis for their future studies in high school and beyond. Our kids benefitted from a wider range of voices and perspectives in discussing literature than they would have had in a laned class. One of our students later wrote for a Paly publication and two of our students went on to AP English and writing-intensive college majors and careers.
The Paly teachers and principal made a very convincing case at the January 28th school board meeting for a single lane of accelerated 9th grade English. The current laning of 9/9A is not serving the needs of lower ability students. In clustering these students together in a lower lane class, teachers are stretched to ensure each student gets the support they need. In recent years, Paly has implemented a number of successful strategies for supporting struggling students, and the English teachers feel they will be better equipped to meet these students' needs in accessing the available support systems if these students are evenly distributed throughout the 9th grade classes, rather than clustered in lower lane classes.
Ironically, while the lower lane has some students who are struggling because of ability, the majority of students in the lower lane are self-selecting away from the accelerated English class, despite every indication that they are capable of the level of work. Some students seem to be choosing the lower lane not because of lack of ability, but because they are taking high level math and science courses and they want an easier English class to balance their workload. This is a larger school issue, as it would be preferable if 9th graders could take appropriately challenging courses in all subject areas, and still have enough hours after finishing homework to eat, exercise, and sleep. There are also students who self-identify as lower ability when they are not. None of these groups of students are served by laning, as they are capable of more challenging work in English class.
There was discussion at the board meeting about students and parents desiring choice in class selection, and yet poorly informed choices do not serve students. Spring of 8th grade is too early to make a fully informed choice in choosing a high school lane of English that might label students as having insufficient skills, and lead them away from taking higher level humanities courses or participating in the stellar journalism program. There is no downside to waiting a year before sorting students by ability. After giving students a year of high school classes, and an additional year of maturation and growth, Paly English teachers can better assess students and their educational needs. In the meantime, all students in 9th grade, regardless of ability, are well served in a mixed-ability English class.
At the board meeting, Ms Diorio related a conversation with one of the district English teachers, who described how in English class "the content area lends itself naturally to differentiation". The teacher also commented, "You are talking about literature, themes, and our culture. To have greater diversity leads to a more natural conversation, and different points of view on which students are able to capitalize." As my kids experienced in their mixed-ability classes, it is a richer environment for learning for students of all levels. It is my hope that the Paly English department continues to educate parents and the school board about the benefits and effectiveness of a single lane of 9th grade English for all students.