I’m not so avid about AVID, but it raises some questions

I was in a meeting the other day led by my principle. We were discussing a new configuration for our Learning Assistance, soon to be Learning Resource Teacher (LRT), position. I found the description of the new method a little odd and contrary to what I think research and past experience would say. Maybe I’ve become one of those teachers who’s been around long enough to look at new initiatives and say “Hmmm, we’ve seen this before!” Of course I hope that I’m still optimistic enough to see if there’s a new twist that might resuscitate the formerly dead idea. Anyway……

He said the new configuration would be based on the idea that the LRT would, amongst other things, pull kids out of their classes when necessary and teach kids skills that would help them succeed in their regular classroom session. The reason this struck me as odd was because research I’d read tells us teaching critical thinking skills in isolation and not embedded in subject matter simply doesn’t work. Why would it be any more successful when it came to skills like note taking? It certainly sounded like many other past programs which had failed.

When I stated this concern, my principal, a good bloke who I really respect, asked me if I was saying AVID didn’t work. I said “of course it wouldn’t work.”

Confession time…I’d heard of AVID before but really had no idea what it was. I just responded based on the assumption that it was something like I’d seen before. Oops. After I figured I better find out a bit more about this program I keep hearing administrators and district staff talk about.  Having said out loud that it didn’t work I wondered if I’d put my foot in my mouth. Half an hour of Google scholar searching didn’t seem to offer much other than the programs own website and research directly linked to AVID. Not much objective material to go on it seemed, but what does the organization claim about itself?

AVID, turns out it means Advancement Via Individual Determination, is a college prep program that advocates skill building electives in a school where the skills are infused in regular classes. It works from the premise that all students can achieve college entry and sets the bar high. It claims to have a high rate of success in getting high school students, especially groups underrepresented in post secondary, into university. But there were certain things that made me wonder if the reasons people think it’s successful, assuming it is, are actually the reasons why they are.

The first thing I noticed, as stated above, the skills were not really taught in isolation but rather the skills learned in the elective skills class are, in the true AVID school, used in all other classes. Therefore they are not taught in isolation. However since our school district is not apparently going to impose this method on all teachers the skills will likely be taught in isolation so why would we expect the skills will be successfully transferred out of the pullout classroom into the mainstream? Since this hasn’t been successful in past variations I have big doubts it will be this time.

Much more likely I thought, was that the AVID site emphasized how they make a big point of letting students know they expect all students to be university students and taught them as if this goal was a given. The importance of this seems clear when we ask ourselves a simple question. Why do advantaged kids go to university? For one they go because they are advantaged. They have the means. But another big reason is because this goal is simply an expectation, often unspoken, in privileged homes. University is seen as a pathway to upper echelon success and frequently has been so for the family in previous generations. Disadvantaged kids likely don’t have this expectation laid out for them. Even the AVID people say the very idea of university education may be something these kids never saw as a realistic opportunity for themselves. So when they enter a school that consistently tells them they can and are expected to go to university, that they can and will be expected to do the toughest courses in all subject areas, wouldn’t this alter how they saw their future?

Like I implied, my musings here are not based upon research and firm knowledge. However, if we assume the claims of success made by AVID are valid then why would we suspect it is due to, or can be replicated with, the type of program that has been so dismal a failure in the past, skills taught in isolation. Why is a basic reason the types of students who traditionally go to university go to university overlooked in favour of the hoped for return on a failed idea? I suspect it’s because as teachers we like to think we can teach students to be successful and we tend to think of teaching in terms of content rather than attitudes. Educational planners like things you can build a course around. Attitudes don’t make good courses.

By the way, the other thing this made me wonder about is dedicating the school to be a university prep program. Is that what we want? The careers people would go mad. Many in this area already think we overemphasize academics as it is. Personally I think the basic idea is wise even though there are other excellent paths forward besides attendance at university. The utilitarian approach we’ve taken to academics since the re-emphasis of apprenticeships and career education has harmed the school and students but that’s something to write about another day.

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