Some people insist that a school district’s focus on excellence is a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach. It’s completely the opposite. Even among the heated jingoism of social media commentary, this one point merits consideration.
We should begin with the word Excellence. This is a term that gets tossed around enough to empty it of all objective meaning, but at its core within an educational context it references higher-end achievement. First graders will know that ‘Excellent’ written across the top of their daily work is something to brag about.
Quibble with the priority of academics in an academic context all you want, this is what the word means.
Social, Emotional, and Physical metrics have their own independent significances. Educational institutions attend to these through a great variety of means, but are far less designed, equipped, or empowered to do so.
Reconceptualizing or retooling schools to boost these capacities further is a valid but separate debate.
The Port Washington School District has unveiled a plan for its commitment to, among many other goals, “Identify and Support Student Needs at All Levels.” This is good. This was announced within days of Superintendent Michael Hynes sharing on social media a meme encouraging us all to “Normalize sending kids to trade school after high school without making them feel like they’re less than 4-year University kids.”
Again, unobjectionable. That “making them feel like they’re less than” is a snide coloring to the academically stronger students in Port Washington schools, but people have their prejudices and they’ll tend to slip out from time to time.
The apparent point of the meme, cross-posted on Dr. Hynes’ Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, is that there should be no distinction between students. All should be grouped under a fully normalized standard with no regard for their academic activity, individual interests, or post-graduation plans. This is one operating theory. It is also, undeniably, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach.
Port Washington Schools don’t have to be this way.
What if “Identify and Support Student Needs at All Levels” actually took all levels into account? The focus on trade schools is essential for one distinct population: fit a curriculum to serve those students, scaffolded with life skills, civics, and STEM training to meet the needs of our blossoming century and provide a life enabled and fulfilled by those opportunities.
An equal focus on community college for a thick bell curve of middle-tier students should follow: skills-based for an aspirational demographic focused on adaptability and innovation while sparking the habits of lifetime learning long after graduation. The final grouping, the one all too often dismissed these days with an offhand ‘no need to worry, they’ll be fine regardless,’ is of the kids who actually like academic rigor.
“All levels” includes them too. They deserve a curriculum that pushes them to strive rather than relies on them to shore up a heterogenous average and then abandons them to their own devices. They need tiered reading groups and variably paced math pods on the elementary level. The high school and middle school should offer even more Advanced Placement and Honors classes and the opportunities to sit in classrooms where intellectualism is normalized too.
If a student doesn’t want to take those classes, they shouldn’t be made to “feel like they’re less than” those who do. Those who want to take those classes shouldn’t be made to feel like they’re less than those who don’t.
Show me a meme that declares that.
I applaud Port Washington Schools for its embrace of all levels and for endorsing a vision of academic excellence keyed to the individual identities of students and the great diversity of our community.
Let’s reject the one-size-fits-all approach that leaves the rarest students on the ends of the spectrum to fend for themselves in classes where they cannot feel at home. For graduates aspiring to trade school, community colleges, or on through the Ivy League, every Port Washington child deserves a place tailored to specific needs. I hope to see soon the new curriculum that this vision demands.
I hope to never see the consequences of a Port Washington School District that’s given up on excellence. I’d hate to think it was all just a meme.