Wednesday, November 18, 2009

I Say NO to More School! - Teacher Perspective

Last month, I wrote a commentary about President Obama's thoughts that we, as a nation, should consider lengthening our school day and year. I spoke from a parent's perspective, since I have two elementary age children.

Now I want to look at it from a teacher's point of view. I have been teaching elementary school for 18 years and have taught to the very wealthy and the very poor. I am against adding time to our day and year. I truly feel there would be nothing to be gained by increasing our children's time in school. TIME is not really our issue. Most time in school is not being used efficiently; so to add more inefficiently used time will not provide any real growth.

In order for a student to progress at a good pace, I believe they need three things:
  1. A teacher who is competent in the subject matter
  2. Pre-requisite skills for the learning that is taking place
  3. A commitment by the student and/or parent(s) to learn the material
Most school reform movements will address my first item, but you will NEVER hear anything about the other two. Worse yet, most school reform believes that changing the structure of the day, or the curriculum, or how we house children, or how we assess or deliver instruction will be the key. I have watched for 19 years as legislators, districts, and school boards have tweaked these items... it never delivers.

The reality is, most teachers are competent to teach their class. As much as the anti-unionists would have us believe there are scores of clock-punching lazy teachers being protected by unions, it simply isn't the case... and teachers are certainly not what is driving the condition of our schools.

I believe our largest failing pertains to pre-requisite skills. The truth is that up to two-thirds of the students in a given classroom do not belong there. The subject matter is simply too advanced or too easy for the student.

In an inner-city environment, such as I teach in now, the subject matter is too advanced. But in American schools we have a "ready-or-not, here-you-go" view of class advancement. Whether or not a student has the skills in place to move on... we move them on. Students are placed by age, rather than what skill they are ready to acquire. I have used this example before, but it would be like if I wanted to switch careers and decided to go to medical school. The registrar at the University looks at me and says, "Well, normally we would put you on a pre-med schedule to get in your sciences.... but if we did that, you would be in class with a bunch of twenty year-olds. You look like you are about 40, so why don't we put you in 2nd year medical school ... that way you would be in with classmates closer to your own age." To be on a class track that I am completely unprepared for could not be more demoralizing.

Consider also what it would be like for the professor, trying to teach surgical skills to folks who failed Biology 101 or couldn't stand the sight of blood... along with students who were ready to move on to their next year of medical school. Does that sound chaotic and wrong? In my class I have an even spread of Harry Potter readers, down to See Spot Run. My students are expected to be taught, and later tested on, the division/conversion/and reduction of mixed numbers - yet many struggle to add 13 and 7 in their head.

Anti public education folks will often point to studies that show that our students do worse the longer they are in the system. I believe this is because of our determination to advance kids by their age rather than their readiness.

I believe this also has a negative effect on my third category - student commitment. The longer a student, who is not ready, gets pushed to higher and higher levels... the more their commitment wanes. This of course brings out the misbehavior that is more and more prevalent in our classrooms. How frustrating it is to be pushed on to the next level, when you felt completely helpless in the previous one.

There needs to be a fundamental shift in the way we approach education in our schools. Simply lengthening the time in a bad system will only increase everyone's level of frustration.


curmudgeon said...

Andrew, I have said many of the same things. I think the level of violence in our community has everything to do with a lack of parental involvement. The lack of progress in our educational system is the same. A committed parent who demands accountability from both the school and the student and who is accountable themselves make the difference.

ejb said...

Knowing the population you are teaching well and these "reforms" that will supposedly make all the difference, I agree with you. I would also add the number one thing a student needs to progress at a good pace is support at home. I mean, every year can't you hand-pick the students who have support at home? I always could. That is where it really rests. In the home. As much as a child without support at home can progress during the year with a competent teacher, how much of that progress is lost over the summer or even over a weekend when no support at home is given. Student progress really all comes back to what's happening at home. And most definitely NOT by adding more hours to the school day or year.

billiec2000 said...

This was an excellent post. I home school my son, who is 7. If he were in PS, he would be in 1st grade, due to his birth date. Other children his age are in 2nd grade. When people ask what grade he's in, I tell them what they want to hear based on his age. It doesn't matter if we haven't "finished" all the curriculum. "Grade level" is not my concern. (I tell them that, too.) I would rather he learn the material thoroughly, enjoy learning, and follow his interests, when it seems that many fall into the trap of rushing through curriculum for the sake of passing the kids on to the next grade.

Andrew said...

Hi Billie and welcome! I definitely think that when someone has the ability to homeschool their kids, and can do it well, it really is the best option. I have two children, and my wife & I have homeschooled them on and off over the years (one presently is HS the other is PS). I say my wife and I, but truly it is my wife who leads the charge.

I do feel the PS does well for some. In fact, I think it could work well for most if we would make some changes. However, there is a lot of inertia to keep things as they are.

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