Sunday, October 24, 2010

Age Instead of Readiness

The following RSA video is excellent!  Particularly because the speaker touches on a drum I have been banging for years, but no one else seems to care about.

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.


Shelley said...

Thanks for your insights. How frustrating, both for teachers and students :(

Don said...

WOW! I like this type of thinking. I've always said we're doing it wrong. We're handicapping the kids. I just could not verbalize a better way. I hope, beyond all hope that THIS way catches on.
I know you must be frustrated being forced to do something which you know, from experience, simply doesn't work. Frankly, I'm glad I no longer have to deal with educational hierarchies. Thank you for your efforts to change things.

Anonymous said...

We just had a conference with Logan's teacher regarding his 'lack of interest', 'inability to learn', 'playing games with me', 'he's not mature enough' and 'at this level he should be doing 25 math problems in 2 minutes, reading 100 words a minute, so on and so on.' I agree with your post. The difference in our situation is that Logan's teacher has been teaching at that same school 40+ years, and I really feel that she doesn't know how to adapt to different teaching styles based on the different learning styles of children these days. Perhaps I'm wrong, and she is just frustrated and doing what needs to be done. I will however say that during our PTC she basically told us that if he doesn't change, then he will be a 16 year old dropout and in trouble. He's 7. I say all this because the last paragraph of your post you talked about what goes on at home. We have read to both Kyle and Logan since birth, I sit with them every night to do homework and on top of that I have started setting aside an extra hour each night for Logan to almost 'homeschool' in the four subjects that he has. I am very hopeful that this will make a huge difference for him. I do not want him to fall through the cracks in the public school system and become disengaged simply because he has encountered one teacher that appears to have given up on him.

Anonymous said...

I really hope that didn't come across as disrespectful to teachers in general. I am just a very frustrated momma that feels that we did indeed get a 'not so great' teacher.
Debby :)

Andrew said...

Not disrespectful at all. The inability to adapt the situation is very frustrating for parents (and teachers as well). I don't know if the material is too hard, or too easy for Logan - or if it is an "approach" situation; but in any case, his needs aren't being met. I can say that, from a teacher's perspective, the common thought that teachers need to differentiate for all of their students is unrealistic. In a class of 26-36, with up to 6 different subjects, and students having significantly varying levels of need... the best teacher will still be ineffective at meeting many of the students' needs.

I don't know how things are at your school, but if you really feel you have hit a road block, moving Logan to another class might be considered. I have seen kids drowning in one class begin to thrive after being moved. It isn't always a case of bad teacher or bad student... sometimes it is just bad chemistry, and a change of scene works wonders. :)

BTW, as to that paragraph, I mean that generally speaking. I get kids who receive no support, yet breeze through everything; and kids who get oodles of support yet it is all they can do to keep their heads above water. But, generally speaking, support is going to play out better than no support.

Hang in there, and don't hesitate to be a squeaky wheel. Nothing gets a school moving more than a parent marching into the office. :)

Chad said...

I stole the video and posted it on facebook.

Anonymous said...

I think the problem is that from age 5 to 18, teachers move children along that are not ready to be moved along. I remember when my daughter was in kindergarten and the teacher said she was having trouble with her ABC's but she was moving her along to first grade. So I worked with her over the summer to get her caught up to the other kids. The teacher didn't seem to mind moving along kids that were not ready. Very frustrating. So yeah by the time they reach 12 years old, if they have not been getting the help they need, then of course they are not going to be ready for 6trh grade reading material. Home support is vital in today's education system if you want to be sure your child is not being overlooked by the system. But yeah, it has to suck when you get 12 year olds that have been swept on to you when they obviously need help.
Jimmy V

Andrew said...

Jimmy - I think it may often be the case that teachers get numb about moving kids on who are not ready. It may vary somewhat from state to state, but having a child repeat a grade practically takes an act of congress. It is possible, but really difficult to do. Even then, it really is not addressing needs... what if the child only needs extra time in one subject? At some point I blogged about Grades being divided into 3 parts and a child would move through them or repeat them as needed... in this way a child wouldn't need to digress an entire year's material, but only a third. They could also test out of sections or use summer school to repeat or take extra "thirds". Schools have to become more fluid.

Anonymous said...

Andy, I must say that is a pretty good idea dividing the grade into thirds. But parents need to be as involved as possible. That is a big problem. You have 6th graders who read at a 3rd grade did they get through 5th grade reading, 4th grade reading? My daughter also had trouble with math, losing a good portion of the learning over summer break and having to catch back up again in the fall. So I got her a math tutor for over the summer. She wasn't in love with the idea but she stopped falling behind in math. Parents need to step up and care because otherwise the kids will be moved along through the grades and eventually left behind in the workforce, which nowadays nearly requires college for a decent chance at success in the country.
Jimmy V

Andrew said...

".how did they get through 5th grade reading, 4th grade reading?"

They didn't, they get moved on through. The why involves poverty and immigration. At any given time, there are 25-35 primary languages spoken at my school. Almost every classroom has refugee students whose exposure to English and sometimes even school is recent. I will have students dropped off in my class who can't speak or read English. They have little education, but because they are 12, they go to 6th grade.

Poverty brings in its own troubles. One third of my students miss up to a third of the school year through tardy and absenteeism. It isn't always neglect. If both parents are working minimum wage jobs and one of the kids get sick, it often falls to one of the older children to stay home and tend to the sick one... Few of my students have attended my school since kindergarten. It is not uncommon for me to lose up to half my students throughout the year, and have that many move in. Poverty is mobile.

Your investment educationally with your child is not normative in poverty areas. Most of the parents of my students don't speak English and are often uneducated themselves. So our students come to kindergarten with a fraction of the vocabulary and knowledge of a suburban student. Your child has a massive vocabulary advantage compared to a student of poverty and that gap widens every year. Though my students can speak English, and most people would think very well, it is shallow. They know what fight means, but would have no idea what quarrel, bicker, or pit means.

Our nation's schools are paced according to what works for a decent suburban student. A student who has a rich vocabulary environment, who is exposed to educational experiences, whose parents are invested to some degree in their education and provide them with structure, healthy meals, and bedtimes. Children of poverty are missing out on one or all of those items. This has no small effect on children of poverty, but (for varied reasons) inner city schools are not allowed to take these needs into account or address them.

So, the students can't keep up, they are unprepared, but we move them on.

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