This is a post that can not be written without a better understanding of how Exeter structures its school year. First off, they are on a 3 term schedule; 3 ten week (approx) terms per year. This is a FABULOUS schedule, and I can speak from experience. It is a similar schedule to what Knox College (where I attended college) uses .
The benefits of the 3 term schedule are many, but some of the best are the sense of urgency it places on the learner and the ability to be more flexible in scheduling. The sense of urgency is terrific. You have 10 weeks in your class, and you are counting down right from week 1; “9 weeks left, 8 weeks left … oh crap, finals are next week.” You are never allowed to kick back and think, “nah, I have time, I don’t need to worry about that project / assignment / test yet.”
The second benefit, flexibility, is the one thing that truly is what I want to discuss here. I asked our instructor how many new learners Exeter gets each year. I was thinking that they probably didn’t have many transfers in after the first year, but that was not true. The Freshman class starts around 250 each year. Then, each year, approximately 50 learners are added to the class until the Senior class graduates with around 400 learners. [Of course, these numbers are not set in stone, they were given as an example only.]
That means that Exeter has a huge problem each year. The Freshman class is coming in with a wide range of ability levels, and then every year after that they get more learners who should be at one level, but in reality may be way way below that level or even above that level. This then is their dilemma, how to place the learners in the correct course for their level of ability.
First off, they have a strong system of placement exams for the learners. Wow. Imagine that, a learner placed into the class they should be instead of the class that all Freshman or all Sophomores should be in. Of course, given Exeter’s commitment to sharing what works, they have put some old placement exams online for everyone to see and use. Sweet! [Turns out, they weren’t old placement exams, but an internal site that was made public on their end.]
Secondly, they teach all three of the Math1 and Math2 classes each term. If Math1 is broken into 3 pieces, which I will call 1a, 1b, and 1c, then during term 1 of the Freshman year, all three classes, Math1a, Math1b and Math1c AND Math2a, Math2b and Math2c are taught all 3 terms. Wow.
This means a learner might be placed into Math1c as a freshman during Term 1, not every learner is required to start with the first Math1a class. This is HUGE! Now you don’t have to worry about the bored learner sitting in class causing problems waiting for the material to catch up to them.
Okay, can this be used in the public schools? After all isn’t that the point of this? I am not sure.
This kind of system works for a private school (and Knox is a private school as well).
because the system is not set up to provide an education for farm laborers. You do know that is why we have long summers off, right? Because the kids in school were needed to work in the fields during the summer. That hasn’t been true for 30 years, but we still have that long summer break. Sue provided a link to the myth of the summer break below in the comments. It is worth reading and following up on.
It certainly could not be adopted because of the extremely underfunded nature of public schools. We are lucky to have 1 math teacher per 30 learners, while a private school can charge as much as they need to in order to cover the extra teachers to teach the same course every semester and hold the ratio down to 1:12.
So the short answer is no, we can’t do it like Exeter can. That is a cop out though. How can we do something similar?
How can we personalize the instruction so learners who are advanced can forge ahead?
How can we implement and use placement exams to tailor the instruction?
Kahn Academy is getting some traction on this, even though the videos contain mathematical errors and mistakes because it is a way to personalize instruction. Can we, as innovative, driven math teachers figure out a way to do it better?
I am willing to bet yes. Once we are willing to throw away the books and embrace the standards, then we can simply say, Johnny knows standard 1, 2, and 3, so an A on those, but he needs to work on standards 4, 5, and 6.
Next we need a way to assess well, and finally we need a way to locate those standards out all of the standards that are part of the problem sets.
Once we have these elements, then we can at least try to individualize.