This whole set up reminds me up multiple professional developments where teachers and administrators look at a pyramid. At the base of the pyramid is the content and work every kid should be able to do and understand. The center is content and/or work that is more complex and/or involved. Some kids might not be able to get this, some might. The top might be really difficult in some way and maybe only a few kids will be able to get it. it sounds to me like that is being implemented really badly in the classroom. I am not sure if the teacher has misunderstood it, an administrator, some board member or maybe there is a massive fail on all parts.
Sharnita, you may have hit the nail on the head here. The handout we received at the open house about the layered curriculum has a pyramid on the front page. I wish I could paste it here for you. The bottom of the pyramid is the C-layer work with this description: "Students demonstrate a basic understanding of the material through rote learning (facts, vocabulary, skills)."
The B layer is in the middle of the pyramid and has this description: "Application of ideas gained at the C layer."
The A layer is at the top of the pyramid and has this description: "Critical thinking and analysis of real-world issues."
I see what may be a misunderstanding of pedagogy at the A layer of this pyramid (evidenced by use of the phrase "critical thinking"), and I think I understand the pedagogy because I use Bloom's taxonomy in assessing my college students' work. From what I can see in this pyramid, each layer represents demonstration of critical thinking, with "basic understanding" at the lowest level, "application" at the middle level, and "analysis" at the highest level. It is not that students at the B and C layers aren't using critical thinking skills. It's that they aren't using the same level of critical thought about the material that students at the A layer are displaying.
It appears that the goal is to have all students demonstrating at least a "comprehension" level of critical thought, to correlate this model with Bloom's. Assignments become increasingly complex through the B and A layers. Some students will advance to the "application" level, and some may advance to the "analysis" level.
The problem with this model as it is applied in this classroom is that all students don't have equal access to the resources needed to achieve the A and B layers. In addition, it does not appear that the classroom has sufficient resources (e.g., microscopes) to ensure all students have equal opportunity to achieve the A and B layers. From that standpoint, I would argue that the measure of critical thinking in this case may not be valid. We cannot say that we are measuring what we think we are measuring. We have external factors at play that may influence students' demonstration of critical thinking skills.
I have given my approach to this problem quite a lot of thought over the past few days, and everyone's suggestions and insights have been very helpful to me. My plan is to meet with the principal to discuss my concerns. At the beginning, I will present my concerns in the bigger picture (my paragraph just above regarding equal educational opportunity) and the possible effects on students who are of lower socioeconomic status as well as those with parents who have a lower level of involvement. I then plan to narrow my focus specifically to DS and his/our experience with the work in this unit.
Whether it is DS or any child in this class, the issue is the same: Do the students have equal opportunity to demonstrate the critical thinking skills required to earn an A? If they do not, then I believe this curriculum as presented in this classroom may not provide a valid measure of learning.
For anyone who might be interested, here's an example of a layered science curriculum that I found online for 7th graders at another middle school. https://docs.google.com/viewer?a=v&pid=sites&srcid=ZGVmYXVsdGRvbWFpbnxtcnNjbGFya3NsaWZlc2NpZW5jZWNsYXNzfGd4OjcyNzliMDVkNTJlOTlkZWI
This example is comparable to the one used for the current unit in DS's class, but there are significant differences. This example indicates the location where students are expected to conduct the work (method column), and deadlines also are reasonably clear. The number of points possible to achieve full credit for each layer also is provided. Another difference in comparison to the curriculum in DS's class is that there is just one assessment at the end of the unit rather than an assessment at each layer. In DS's class, students are not allowed to progress to the next layer until they have completed a quiz at the previous level. If I'm reading this example correctly, it appears that these students have 14 days of work time. Ten work days include in-class exercises, and each layer is represented in class time. This is not the case in DS's class because class time is not specifically provided for each layer. In this example, it appears that students who progress through the C-layer work fairly quickly may have four in-class days to complete upper-layer work. In theory, students in this example could complete the four C-layer assignments labeled "homework/individual work time" at home or during a study hall during the first week of the unit and move on to B-layer work. None of the homework/individual work assignments at any level require resources beyond pencil and paper, which means that students should not have to make special trips to the classroom outside of class time. This would, it seems, minimize the impact on students of lower socioeconomic status and those with less parental involvement.