"Blend." That's the new word in trend-setting California for locating a new low in public education.
Last week, during the third week of instruction, one of the second-grade classes at Local Elementary School was "blended" with a third-grade class. Now, second and third grade students share the same classroom, instructor, and instructional time even though they are both held to two different sets of standards. Everyone I know who teaches at post-secondary institutions is familiar with the general notion of a "blended" classroom. We get a diverse array of students with different backgrounds, abilities, and experiences, who respond at different rates to the material that everyone gets in class. We meet them and their needs and work to expand their skills and knowledge.
Based on my limited observation, this is also the case in a traditional grade school class. Every classroom has kids who read or crunch numbers beyond or behind their peers; others have stayed up late playing video games, and others just daydream. Because of No Child Left Behind and its implementation through State Standards Tests, the grade-school teachers that I know work to get each student to some abstract grade level that is presumably measured by those tests but they also work to expand the skills and imagination of students in ways that can't be measured by tests.
"Blended" classes are not these traditional classes that unite students approximately based on age and ability. In fact, "blends" are not new to California but there are a lot more of them this year because state-lawmakers have proved themselves totally unable to comprehend fiscal and social responsibility. Thus, my local second-grade became a 2/3 blend a couple of weeks after the school-year had started. And, to clarify further, a blended class does not track each child individually, mapping their progress and teaching them how to self-motivate and take charge of daily and weekly assignments. This is not a Montessori-style of blended classroom. Instead, one teacher is responsible for teaching two different, state-approved, grade-level curricula to two different sets of students in one class every single day (until they take their State Standards Test in the Spring). In other words, "blending" is a great business model; when measured in raw numbers we California residents get more grade-schoolers through our public institutions while we spend less educating them. But, as we're all well-aware, business should never be allowed near education.
We learned last week, after nearly a full week of "blending," that the 2/3 teacher is "excited" by the coming year. She will scurry between second and third graders throughout the day, shift the third grade to another classroom for social studies, and get the windfall of having an "aid" (read: part-time, no benefits, minimum wage). She will now have students in her class who range in age from 6 to 9 years old. And she has a bigger class too. Twenty-four second graders this year and six third-graders (she had a total of 17 second-graders last year) . But she is still held to the grade-standards set years ago for smaller classes. This "excited" second-third grade teacher offered the very telling explanation that (degree-carrying and certified) teachers "are a luxury" in California's public education system.
Before the current school year California was ranked 51st in the nation for its spending on public education (behind all other states and Puerto Rico). We thought California had hit the bottom before we discovered that the bottom had fallen out of the state economy. Now, California is probing the depths beyond paucity as it "funds" public education, and teachers, we discovered, have become a "luxury."
I can't help but worry over where this is headed: how will California continue to secure federal funding when its students fail to meet federal standards because the students simply cannot pass the tests? How many times will those students who stick with it have to repeat grades? Will all California public school graduates be 22 or older when they finally finish? Where can these "kids" go to college (at similarly strickened California Universities)? And what kind of professions could they possibly enter? Has K-12 education in California become something that only the rich can afford (through private schools)?
Grade-school teachers are a luxury that California has to force itself to indulge.