As a doctoral student in the 1970s, Walter Polka (EdD ’77, BA ’68) wrote his dissertation on the need for individualization of school instruction. “I had fine professors at the time,” he recalls, “who helped me to see that, yes, all children can learn, but not all at the same time, in the same way or at the same rate.”
In the years since, scores of other UB graduates have reached the same conclusion. In 2012, at a showing of the education documentary “Race to Nowhere,” a small group of them came together. That informal network of acquaintances later evolved into an advocacy group dubbed the Partnership for Smarter Schools.
Now, a product of that partnership—a book co-edited by Polka and John McKenna (EdD ’08), with contributions by a host of other UB alumni [see photo]—is pushing back hard against decades of school reform efforts they say are stifling both students and teachers through excessive standardization.
These folks would know. The authors, each experts in their fields, represent a range of perspectives, from education professors to school administrators to PTA leaders. “The common philosophy that bound us together, and inspired us to write the book, is that differentiation is in the best interest of students,” says McKenna, principal at Fletcher Elementary School in Tonawanda, N.Y.
“We’re not against standards. We’re against standardization—having everyone complete standards at the same time,” stresses Polka, a professor at Niagara University and retired superintendent of the Lewiston-Porter Central School District. “And we don’t just lay out criticisms. We identify what we think are better options.” For example, they call for revamping standards to be specific, measurable, attainable, responsible and timely—in short, SMART.
McKenna notes optimistically that New York State is in the process of making modifications. “Everyone is hopeful they’ll be positive,” he says. Meanwhile, the authors are promoting the book around the country. To drive home the differentiation message, Polka often starts his talks with an analogy from his early UB days.
“I was 17 when I took my driver’s test, just a month before I started classes,” he says. Polka used his uncle’s Ford Falcon; his other option, a 1956 Packard, was big, bulky and difficult to park. He says he passed the test precisely because he was able to take it at a time and in a way that met his particular needs. “It’s got to be individualized,” Polka says.