Sunday, October 24, 2010
In our public schools, we teach children according to their age rather than what skill they are prepared to acquire next. This is something that negatively impacts schools in poor areas more so than in wealthy areas. When I previously taught in a wealthy area, I might have 3 to 7 kids who were not on "grade-level". So in an affluent area, putting kids in classes according to age works more often than it doesn't. For those who are below grade level, there are usually resources made available to that 20% who are struggling.
In poorer areas, it is not uncommon to go into a classroom where few, if any, children are on grade level. In my case, children who are reading and operating at a "3rd grade level" are given 6th grade texts, 6th grade assessments, and 6th grade instruction. When those "3rd grade level" students fail at 6th grade level assessments, the public and politicians demand higher "standards" and the firing of bad teachers.
What this has translated to is an insistence that, even more, we teach what is required at our grade level.... whether the child is ready or not. For example, according to my pacing map for the year, I need to presently be teaching the addition and subtraction of mixed numbers and improper fractions. Now if you can remember how that works, there are about a dozen pre-requisite skills that need to be in place in order to be able to learn and practice this skill. The vast majority of my students have less than half of those pre-requisite skills in place. I believe even the casual observer would recognize that there is no point in going ahead with this instruction for most of my students; yet I do. I am required to. It would take weeks, perhaps months, of backtracking (assuming the students were willing) to fill in the gaps that exist in order to get my students ready to learn the addition and subtraction of mixed numbers and improper fractions. This is time I will not get. We will plug along... and then I will carry the blame in the public eye when most of my students fail at this skill on their exit test.
Research shows that there is a narrow learning curve just ahead of where a student presently resides. For example, out of 100 words of text, most students need to understand at least 95 to maintain interest and comprehension. To go much further out than that will take most students to a "frustration level"; at which point they will disengage from the learning process. Larger and larger portions of our children are being taught at a frustration level rather than an instructional level because of our insistence on placing children according to age.
So why do we continue on this road? I think change is hard, and it costs money. For the most part, America seems more inclined to pay for clean-up at the end rather than prevention at the beginning. I also believe that our win/lose mentality hobbles us. We tend to think of education as a completely linear event; it is a race to be completed. So we begin to use competitive words like ahead and behind. To be "behind" others is bad, and to be "ahead" is good. What the student actually "needs" becomes secondary.
This leads to mindsets that do not want to address things as they are. I was at a meeting to discuss why Title-One schools like mine are behind. When I raised the issues I have addressed here, the presenter looked at me and said "So, you want to put poor kids on a track that will leave them behind?!" Ultimately, the presenter is content to have a student spend years in academic frustration, so that no child is left "behind".
The reality is that 12 year old children have vast differences in ability and readiness that occur for many reasons. Some are innate. Children are different. Some students will gravitate toward the abstract, while others long for the concrete. One enjoys the symmetry of numbers, while another prefers the lilt of poetry. Those inclinations affect their engagement and commitment to a subject.
Beyond that is the item no one seems to want to talk about - what is going on at home? It is a simple fact that, on average, a child who is read to and reads from his earliest ages is going to be ready to advance earlier and faster than a child who does not pick up a book until his first day of kindergarten. The students of parents who go over homework and are aware of what is happening in their child's education are going to be more successful overall than students left to their own devices.
Amid the mass variety of circumstance, desire, and inclination - we stick them all in the same classroom because of how old they are.
Posted by Andrew at 10:34 AM