Cape Elizabeth weighs alternative teaching styles to close ‘achievement gap’

Posted Nov. 27, 2013, at 12:07 p.m.

CAPE ELIZABETH, Maine — The Cape Elizabeth School Board on Tuesday discussed ways to close what is commonly called the “achievement gap.”

The board, in a workshop in the high school library, looked at a variety of strategies for getting students up to state-defined proficiency levels, including differentiated instruction, which encourages teaching to a variety of learning styles.

Superintendent Meredith Nadeau and Director of Instruction Ruth Ellen Vaughn championed the philosophy, noting that students benefit from varied instructional methods and require different entryways to classroom material.

They stressed that differentiated instruction has been shown to increase all students’ results and compares favorably with pedagogical methods like gifted and talented programs.

“It provides an opportunity for kids to be with their peers and share what they know with that group without it being elitist or separatist,” Vaughn said.

“The workforce isn’t only people who were together in (gifted and talented programs),” Nadeau said. “The workforce is quite diversified.”

Vaughn also discussed the importance of performance-based learning — in which students act or create, as opposed to just reading and internalizing — and the benefits of a more nuanced assessment system that does away with letter grades.

She conceded that such an assessment system is not likely to be in place for the 2014-2015 school year.

“Culturally, I don’t think folks are ready for that,” she said.

During a review of school department data, writing exam results for fifth-graders jumped out. The number of fifth-graders scoring below proficient in writing has declined slightly over the past three years, but remains close to 50 percent.

The department has begun taking steps to combat the problem. Over the summer, 15 Cape Elizabeth teachers trained with Lucy Caulkins, founder and director of the Reading and Writing Project at Columbia University’s Teachers College, Vaughn said. Pond Cove Elementary School teachers have since been encouraged to incorporate writing throughout the curriculum, in a variety of genres, rather than focusing on it as a separate field of study.

Vice Chairman Michael Moore suggested looking at campaigns that encourage parents to read to their children and adopting them to help instill writing habits at home.

“Using the personality of the community” could be an effective way to reinforce writing practices and raise proficiency, Moore said.

Data also showed that between 25 percent and 30 percent of the high school’s juniors have scored below proficient in science over the past three years, although Nadeau was quick to note that those struggles are part of a national trend.

“That’s one of the reasons people have identified the STEM crisis in the United States,” Nadeau said, referring to the widely held belief that American students are falling behind their foreign peers in the fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.

Vaughn led the workshop, giving a presentation titled “Gap Analysis and Action to Date.”

She began by identifying four “vulnerable cohorts”: special education students, socioeconomically disadvantaged students (defined as those eligible for free or reduced cost lunch), English language learners and those not achieving a score of at least proficient on the New England Common Assessment Program or Maine’s Comprehensive Assessment System.

Chairman John Christie asked whether it is realistic to hope every Cape Elizabeth student will achieve proficiency across the board.

“Do we think it’ll be everyone at the same moment? No,” Nadeau said. “Do we think we can do better? Yes.

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