Karin Chenoweth visited two large, suburban high schools recently, both serving significant numbers of middle-class and working-class African-American families. Chenoweth, the author of How It’s Being Done: Urgent Lessons from Unexpected Schools, explains that at both schools, there’s been a lot of “assumptive teaching” going on. That means
…teachers assume a great deal of background knowledge among their students and have not done the essential work of determining what their students really know, what more they need to learn, and then figuring out how to teach them.
At one of the schools, teachers and administrators “know that their long tradition of teachers teaching in isolation with no accountability for the success of their students is part of what nurtures that “assumptive teaching,” Chenoweth writes at Britannica Blog. The second school, however, seems less willing to change its ways.
Some of them visibly recoiled when I said that highly successful schools with significant percentages of minority and low-income students achieve success by collaborating on careful plans of instruction mapped to state or college-preparatory standards, complete with common formative assessments and data systems so they can track how well each of their students is doing and ensure that each of them gets the help they need.
Chenoweth, one of our best and most knowledgeable chroniclers of classroom practice, clearly looks askance at ”assumptive teaching.” But it’s worth asking if the lack of a coherent curriculum isn’t the thing that should go instead. With no common body of shared knowledge in elementary and middle school, high school teachers can’t reliably know what content and skills students arrive with. Thus every student is a blank slate and must be constantly assessessed and reassessed to determine what they know. Student mobility further complicates matters. The teacher can take nothing for granted.
Indeed, student mobility may be the best argument for a common curriculum in elementary and middle school. The deleterious effects of moving on student achievement is well-documented, and highly mobile, low-SES students suffer disproportionately. If there were some reliable commonality of content from grade to grade and school to school, at least within districts, students might spend less time catching up and more time learning.
The same is true for assumptive teaching. Time spent amassing an inventory of student skills and background knowledge is time not spent learning new things. “Meet the children where they are” is a standard teaching homily. Isn’t is merely making a virtue of necessity? In the absence of a common curriculum, standards and assessments we have to meet them where they are. We have no idea where they have been.