Sinkers and swimmers: student experiences with curriculum differentiation
Erwin, Eileen Mary Heinonen
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American comprehensive high schools are faced with the genuine dilemma of a democratic education: offering equal opportunities to students while recognizing individual differences. In attempting to accommodate a diverse student population, schools have made compromises in quality and have set less challenging expectations for many students. Consequently, not all are benefiting from positive educational experiences. This dissertation was concerned with student experiences with curriculum differentiation. It was a descriptive case study whose major aims were to determine: 1. The characteristics of the students profiled in each of the curricular programs; 2. The role curriculum differentiation played in each student's experience. Fifteen high school freshmen from a variety of curricular programs at one Massachusetts high school were interviewed and videotaped. Students were asked questions designed by the researcher. In addition, student records were analyzed, and feedback was sought from students' grade 8 and grade 9 teachers through surveys and interviews. Seven years later, a follow-up study was conducted to determine if students' perceptions of their high school experience had changed. Three groups of students existed within the school: the high achievers, the achievers, and the under/non-achievers. The high achievers combined innate ability with effort to maximize academic success. The achievers met the school's standard of achievement in varying degrees with the biggest range of ability and effort; some students maximized their potential, while others did not. The under/non-achievers did not meet the school's standard of achievement; they combined varying degrees of ability with a lack of effort to produce academic failure. The high achievers benefited the most from their high school education. They reported challenging teachers and rigorous curriculum. The achievers had mixed experiences. Achievers who pursued upper level courses had more positive experiences than those who pursued middle or lower level courses. Achievers who required or pursued special programs benefited from individualized attention but often suffered from a weak academic program. The under/non-achievers did not complete high school. This study supports the conclusion that student choice, teacher expectations, and school indifference had an impact on student experiences. The experiences of the largest group--the achievers--suggest that schools must pay more attention to the average student and work harder to motivate all students to maximize their potential.
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