Wednesday, August 30, 2006

Are Elementary Schools Doing It Wrong?

No, this is not meant to be a loaded question. Usually when there is a question in a title like this, it is done in an accusatory manner, but this one is not meant that way. As should be obvious from the name of my blog, I am a proponent of public education, but I was involved in the blogging equivalent of a fist-fight the last few days with a couple of people who did not have a very high opinion of it. I came out of it feeling a little like Apollo Creed must have felt after his two fights with Rocky Balboa.

When Rocky took on Apollo Creeed, he went after his area of weakness. His manager, Mick, kept screaming, "The body, the body, the body!" The two bloggers who I was battling with both landed a few shots to my ribs by focusing on the teaching methods of our elementary schools, especially elementary math programs. Since I am a high school social studies guy, that is not exactly my area of expertise. It's tough to make a convincing argument when you're put into that situation, so this was quite frustrating for me.

SteveH said this: I see most of the problems of low expectations, bad curricula, and poor teaching methods in the lower grades. Unfortunately, this means that many students are not properly prepared for the better high school tracks. ...

Is this a matter of personal educational opinion? Not when one can clearly define that schools are using bad curricula. This is perhaps easiest to see in lower school math. Lower schools (K-8) seem to live in a separate reality with no ounce of outside (like AP courses or even high school) influence.

He later complains about mainstreaming: Many lower schools are centered around full-inclusion and no separation by ability, not even in 7th and 8th grades. Kids who are autistic are mixed in with the best students in a child-centered, thematic approach to education. This is usually handled with enrichment for the better students, rather than acceleration of material. The best students will overcome this (in spite of what the school does) and get into the honors tracks in high school. It's the average kids who are hurt the most.

Although Rory would not describe himself as a public education critic, in one of his recent posts, it was apparent that he was not very happy with the math program at his children's school:

When I was a child, the multiplication tables were drilled into me... commited to memory. (My daughter's) 3rd grade teacher taught the multiplication facts by teaching children to skip count, to use some finger trick with the 9's, and all kinds of other tricks, everything except to just memorize them. Unfortunately, learning long division and factoring requires that you know the tables by heart. Luckily were able to take advantage of NCLB provisions and get her extra tutoring in math where her multiplication tables were redrilled into her. We take part of the blame for not realizing how the schools were shortchanging her, but we learned our lesson.

KDerosa blasted our teaching methods in general:

I contend that underachievers are caused by bad teaching. Studies like Project Follow Through clearly support my contention. When teaching improves, we get a lot less underachievers. It's like magic, I tell you.And, believe it or not, it also works without all the problems in society being cured.

I assume by KDerosa's reference to Project Follow Through means that he believes public school teachers should be using Direct Instruction, and I'm also assuming that he means that this is most important at the elementary levels.

Over the last month I read two E. D. Hirsch books. Hirsch is a college professor and the father of the idea of "cultural literacy." He is a critic of public education, but he is not one of those accusing us of laziness and incompetence, so I find myself more open to what he has to say. His criticisms center on theory, and although they are directed at all of us, they focus most on elementary school education.

Hirsch's most important point is that reading ability is based on general content-based knowledge, and he says that we are teaching too little content (history, science, language, etc.) too late. He believes we need to be teaching more content earlier through story telling and our reading programs. He argues that we have focused almost entirely on the de-coding aspects of reading, and kids spend a great deal of time reading stories and answering questions about generic, content-free junk that is actually boring to the kids. As a result, our kids do fine on tests internationally in the early grades, but they start to fall behind after about fourth grade when background knowledge becomes a factor in the reading tests.

Hirsch also argues that our early elementary teaching methods result in disadvantaged kids falling farther and farther behind. Lower class kids get less general knowledge from their families, especially in the area of language, so when schools start focusing more on content in the later elementary grades, they are hopelessly behind, and failure leads to frustration, which leads to more failure. The knowledge gap that disadvantaged kids face gets wider and wider and wider. He says that in nations where they focus on content in the early grades, the gap actually narrows.

I would love to hear from anyone on any of the complaints I've recorded here, and I would especially like to hear from elementary teachers. I am a believer in public education, but when our critics start focusing on what our elementary schools are doing, I am out of my element. Hirsch's ideas make sense to me, but I'm not about to jump on his bandwagon before I hear from elementary school teachers, because they are the ones who are actually in those trenches.


Blogger rory said...

Dennis, I don't necessarily think that the two points of view are mutually exclusive. It seems to me that they would/could complement each other. Of course, I disagree with Hirsch’s argument as I understand it. Our kids fall behind other nations in all areas, not just reading. Personally, I feel that there is too much content being taught in the elementary schools and not enough basics. My 3rd graders don't need to know who the 3rd president of the United States is, but they do need to know how to read directions or perform multiplication or division.

8/30/2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Rory,

The thing that KDerosa and E. D. Hirsch have in common, is that they both want a more traditional approach in school. When it come to math, it sounds like you do, too. And when it comes to something like learning the multiplication tables, I agree with you.

I have mixed feelings about Hirsch. On the one hand, he says that it's important for kids to learn what he calls "taken for granted" information. He says that when articles and books are written, the authors take it for granted that the reader knows certain things. For example, if an author mentions the Civil War, he assumes the reader knows thats the war that ended slavery, so he doesn't explain that. But if the reader doesn't know that, he doesn't understand what he's reading. That's what Hirsch says is happening to a lot of Americans. They aren't getting that "taken for granted" knowledge, so their reading comprehension is very poor. On this, I definitely see his point.

I don't think you'd disagree with him that much, because he's saying that when reading is being taught, you could get more content by having stories about George Washington or Abraham Lincoln (at a child's level, of course) instead of a story about Billy the Frog.

But Hirsch has compiled a list of what he thinks every high school senior should know, and I think the list is ridiculous. You can tell it's been put together by a college professor. I can't believe that someone writing an article would "take it for granted" the people knew some of the things he has on that list. For example, one item he has is "sic transit gloria mundi." I don't know about you, but I haven't got a clue on that one.

8/30/2006 7:16 PM  
Anonymous MellowOut said...


sic transi gloria mundi=Fame is Fleeting

I agree that students need to know the concept of the phrase in its English form, but as far as the latin goes, I had to look it up. It would be interesting to see you break down his list in a future post. I agree with the man's basic theory, but I wonder how he picks and chooses what is general knowledge and what is not. Some people might see a child not knowing who our third U.S. presidehnt as a travesty, seeing as he was Thomas Jefferson, one of the more important founding fathers to know about. I have to agree, though, that the "new" ways of learning multiplication drive me insane. I tutored a boy who didn't know anything beyond his one times because the teacher taught him some ridiculous finger-counting method. (He was from a private religious school, by the way.)

8/31/2006 8:41 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mellowout, thanks for admitting that you looked it up. For a second there, I thought you were showing off. : )

8/31/2006 12:06 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I am puzzled by the multiplication table thing. I seem to recall that in the 3rd grade I got a multiplication table that was filled in, and I just sat down and memorized it. I mean that doesn't even involve teaching. I just got a handout and I memorized it.

It's amazing what kids don't learn. I was a therapist for kids and I had to teach one kid how to tell time because no one had taught him.

8/31/2006 12:29 PM  
Blogger "Ms. Cornelius" said...

I agree with Hirsch that students are not exposed to enough reading material with actual merit. I hated teaching from "readers" because the kids had too many gaps in their background knowledge. Please consider:

In the past week ALONE, I have had to explain to my AP/gifted students the meaning and background of the following:
Achilles' heel, Trojan Horse, (Really! Didn't they see Troy?) "following a trail of bread crumbs," "pay the piper," "Pax Romana, "dining with tax collectors," Moses, and a load of vocabulary words like vassalage, acquiesce, and "quid pro quo" -- which I did not expect them to know.

These are not stupid kids. They just have not been exposed to these idioms and stories-- and part of it is that they weren't exposed to these stories at home. Everything is not the responsibility of the schools. But we have to deal with what we have.

As to the multiplication, someone before 7th grade still thinks that rote memorization is always bad, bad, baddity bad bad bad.

8/31/2006 3:46 PM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

So what's the solution? National standards? On day 1 should every teacher in the nation turn to page 1 and say the same things and ask students to create performance pieces in the same way?

I see many teachers everyday who are giving 110% to teach every student at their level, please every parent, please every administrator, please every politician, please every journalist, please everyone in the ivory tower,and it's still not enough. We still hear we are doing it wrong? Someone dropped the ball. It's the teacher's fault.

Think about it....every year as we begin the year I ask students to create a writing piece so I can get an idea regarding where little Bob or Sue is at. I know that first grade, second grade, and third grade all taught my new students that every sentence begins with a capital and every sentence has end punctuation. I know that these same students have been taught to indent each paragraph. However, 95% of my new students this year wrote sentences lacking capital letters including the word "I" and no end punctuation. 50% failed to indent their paragraph. Shouldn't it be automatic by year four? Does their failure to perform mean they weren't taught? Does it mean they weren't taught following the "correct" method? OR Does it mean they are resistant learners?

Public education is a wonderful thing, but the main problem with public education is that it is public. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a solution, and for some reason we think we have to pay heed to all of them.

8/31/2006 9:32 PM  
Blogger rory said...

elementaryhistoryteacher, If your exaggerated solution for implementing national standards were to be proven effective by a valid study, then I would be all for it. The problem with public education is not that its public, it’s that it is too easily influenced by ideals and social agenda i.e... Kids naturally learn, let’s just turn them loose, if we teach them to do multiplication on their fingers they will eventually internalize it... bla, bla, bla. There are studies out there, there are successful programs, but unfortunately they run contrary to what the established educators believe. Therefore the studies are ignored and the system perpetuates itself.

And why are national standards such a bad idea anyway. We have federal regulation on everything else, and ensuring that our children have a certain minimum level of knowledge is not such a ridiculous idea.

9/01/2006 5:30 AM  
Blogger rory said...

p.s. to answer your rhetorical question. If your new students couldn't peform at the required level in that significant of numbers then its a failure to teach them, not a failure to learn.

9/01/2006 5:32 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

The thing that KDerosa and E. D. Hirsch have in common, is that they both want a more traditional approach in school.

This isn't accurate. Traditional techniques weren't much more effective than more modern methods. We've come a long way from that.

9/01/2006 7:11 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Hirsch's view is based on cognitve load theory. Read about it here and you'll see why modern pedagogy doesn't work.

9/01/2006 7:17 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Public education is a wonderful thing, but the main problem with public education is that it is public. Everyone has an opinion, everyone has a solution, and for some reason we think we have to pay heed to all of them.

Actually, the problem is that we too often follow the stuff that doesn't work. Just pay heed to the stuff that works and it becomes a lot easier. Clearly whatever was being "taught" in your school wasn't working. And, yes, when a student hasn't learned it means that he probably wasn't taught effectively, especially at the elemtary school level before the peer effect takes over.

9/01/2006 7:25 AM  
Blogger rory said...

The whole concept of minimally guide instruction always makes me laugh. I performed a scientific experiment of my own this summer. We bought several of those student summer workbooks that are meant to help the kids keep up to speed during vacation. On several days we used minimally guided instruction by saying "Hey kids, here are some workbooks, why don't you use them, they are fun." On other days we used direct instruction, by sitting down with the kids and making them do them. I can say unequivocally that on the MGI days they didn't learn jack shit compared to the DI days. :)

9/01/2006 7:41 AM  
Blogger elementaryhistoryteacher said...

Rory, please understand that I too feel national standards would not be a terrible thing as long as there is bona fide research to back the implementation up. What I do disagree with is the theory that as you walk down a school corridor you should hear the same things, at the same time, being taught in the same way.

I'm sorry you had such a terrible time with your daughter learning her multiplication facts. I wholeheartedly agree with you about mimimal guided instruction. I'm not up to speed regarding any research on the subject, however, I have never seen that approach work with something like multiplication facts. Many concepts must be mastered through rote memorization or practice, practice, practice.

Regarding my comment concerning the problem with public schools is that they are worded it much better than I did. I agree with you that public education is too easily influenced by ideas and social agenda. That very idea is what I meant.

I am concerned about your experience with ideas such as "kids learn naturally...let's just turn them loose." As a parent of two I would say that might work up to a point, but it certainly isn't the philosophy I would want my child's teacher to follow. In my experience I come into contact with many educators who don't take the word of those in authority when it comes to research. Many of my colleages review research on their own, read various journals, and take matters into their own hands to stay current with educational studies. However, I'm sure you realize if the powers that be in a system want to implement a program or procedures that is contrary to research the teachers rarely have veto power.

As far as my new crop of students go I would like to suggest that it is not a matter of not being taught. How many ways can you tell a child to capitalize the first letter in the first word of a sentence? I have found that the solution is a matter of accountability. It's amazing how many students magically begin crafting their papers by indenting, using proper capitalization, and using end punctuation when I begin to take points for infractions.

Kderosa,I agree with your statement "pay heed to the stuff that works and it becomes a lot easier.

9/01/2006 1:41 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Rote instruction is not an effcient means of teaching. It is far more efficient to teach in a way that children can generalize information from what is taught than to really on rote instruction. But, what most teachers think is rote is, in fact, not rote instruction. Repetition and practice is not necessarily rote. Even simple math facts such as the times tables can be taught more effciently using techniques that allow children to generalize and not just learn by rote. though as a matter of necessity, there will be much practice and repetition involved in learning all the times tables.

What I do disagree with is the theory that as you walk down a school corridor you should hear the same things, at the same time, being taught in the same way.

This is a bit of an overstatement. i don't know of any instructional program that doesn't recognize that some kids learn faster than others and can proceed at a faster pace with less error correction.

But, having said that the object of efficient instruction is to find how kids learn similarly and to use these similarities to teach in a similar manner. It is not efficient to find differnces betwen children and then focus instructionally on those differences. This is a good blurb on that topic inconnection with phonics instruction:

Have you ever heard of someone saying that all kids are different, and that they learn in different ways, and that phonics should be just one of several approaches to beginning reading that can accommodate all those interesting differences among children? Have you heard that more than two thousand times or less? If less, do you sleep a lot?

How is it that we educators can make the most mundane statements about the most obvious facts, and do so as if we were being so darn profound that we belong in the Mensa Hall of Fame? All kids are different. Oh, really? Gosh, I hadn't ever noticed that before. Up until now, I thought they were all the same. I thought that's why we put name tags on the desks of all first graders, so we could tell them apart. Oh, guess what? All snowflakes are different, too.

But every snowflake has something in common with every other snowflake, too. And that's the important point about children: their differences, and their similarities. Phonics has nothing to do with differences among children, or for that matter, similarities. Phonics just describes relationships that exist between oral English and English orthography. Those relationships are completely independent of differences among children. If I were trying to teach a tree in my yard how to read, I'd have to acquiesce to relationships between oral English and orthography, in spite of the fact that the tree differs from any child far more than any child differs from other children.

If you've ever read Engelmann and Carnine's Theory of Instruction, you'd know just what the "stimulus locus analysis" is all about. Realities of instructional content aren't affected in the least by differences among children. It's utter nonsense to say I'm going to modify the realities of content to accommodate differences among learners. What??? Let's say a bunch of kids try subtracting the bottom number from the top. Should we just tell them to not worry about it? Change the content? Change mathematics? It's been done, but it always leads children down a destructive path.

Do kids really learn in different ways? Yes and no. The question isn't a very good one to begin with. I'd rather ask, in what ways do all children learn in a similar fashion, and in what ways do they learn differently? Here's something that varies considerably among children: plain old ordinary memory. (I reject out of hand, for the record, that kids don't have to remember anything in order to learn.) Take something as simple as what sound to say when you see the letter "r." You can give some kids that information and never have to repeat it. You can repeat that with some kids for what seems like an eternity, and they still seem to have trouble. Do I favor accommodating that difference? You bet I do, knowing full well just how difficult that can be.

On the other hand, all children every single child in the world generalizes upon the same fundamental bases: similarities and differences across examples. If there is some other basis for generalization, I've never heard of it, haven't read about it, and can't imagine it. Is there any logical possibility of classifying things upon some basis other that similarities shared by all members of the class? Every letter "r" shares something with every other letter "r," regardless of the size or font or color of one another. When you find an "r" that doesn't, you've found something that isn't actually an "r" at all.

9/01/2006 2:20 PM  
Blogger Elizabeth said...

I'm trying to think of ways I can "generalize" from 2 x 4 equals 8 and 6 x 9 equals 54....

Come to think of it I was taught some tricks to remembering these things; I didn't just take the sheet home...but no one pretended there was some great point or idea behind times was just something you needed to know to do calculations. I think teachers take themselves too seriously a lot of the time.

9/01/2006 5:54 PM  
Blogger rory said...

You might not be able to generalize from 2 x 4 = 8 and 6 x 9 = 54, but my son did figure out how to generalize from 5 x 8 = 40 and 3 x 8 = 24 and 8 x 8 = 64 he then figured out for that all he needed to do for any multiplication problem was to break it down into smaller known parts and add them together. For example... he figured out that 12 x 8 = (10 x 8) + (2 x 8).

9/01/2006 6:35 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Ok, learning the times tables are about as bad as it gets. I'd suggest looking at chapter six of Designing Effective Mathematics instruction for learning single digit multiplication.

"The activities we have identified for building mastery require a sequence for introducing facts, coordination of relationship activities with memorization activities, intensive ans systematic review, specific performance criteria that define when new facts can be introduced, record-keeping procedures that allow the teacher to monitor each student's mastery of facts, and motivation procedures.

Relationships are taught via fact families: series of plus ones (3+1, 4+1, 5+1, etc.); plus fours; plus doubles, and as sets of three related numbers that generate four facts such as (3, 5, 15):


The commutative relationship between each pair of multiplation facts greatly reduces the memorization load on students. Instead of learning each fact individually (rote), students can be taught that if they know one fact, they also know the reverse.

See also this for more info on generalization.

9/01/2006 8:28 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Holy Moley! I drove to the Twin Cities immediately after school on Thursday, and I am now on my son's computer. 18 comments! I am in heaven! Thanks to all of you for participating in this dialogue.

KDerosa, I really feel like I am at a disadvantage with you. I have been going back and forth with you, and you are obviously no dummy. I disagree with you, but I'm impressed by your arguments and your knowledge. I think public education does a good job, and you don't, but I find it hard to argue with you. You know that I am a high school social studies teacher in northern Minnesota, but I have no clue about your background. I clicked on your name, and got nothing. Would you mind filling us in on your background? I am really curious!

9/02/2006 3:05 PM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

Dennis, if it makes you feel better, I don't limit my criticisms to just public education. The problem is larger than that.

If there is one field where credentialism is meaningless, it is education. Education credentials are used to appeal to authority, yet no authority exists due to their inability to educate a majority of the populations. My background is sufficient that I understand and can analyze the issues, but it is not formally an education background, if it makes a difference.

9/03/2006 9:08 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

KDeRosa, I hope you don't think I was questioning your "credentials" to speak on the subject of education. As I said, I'm impressed by your arguments and your knowledge. It is simply a matter of the more I know about people, the better I feel when I respond to them. I know Rory is a concerned parent, and that helps me to understand where he's coming from. We share a common experience. The same is true when I have dialogues with Elementary History Teacher. Deb Sistrunk isn't a teacher, but she's spent time in classrooms, and she's worked a lot in urban schools. I know that she has had experiences that I haven't had, so that helps me, too. When I respond to you, I feel a little blind. Obviously, if you don't want to reveal anything about your background, that's fine.

9/04/2006 11:23 AM  
Blogger KDeRosa said...

I am a patent atoorney which means I am both a lawyer and scientist/engineer. My job is to obtain patents for inventors which requires me to be able to quickly review and understand all manner of technology and scientific research and get up to speed quickly to advocate for the inventor.

I am also a parent. My oldest son just started first grade yesterday. That is the reason why I got interested about 8 years ago or so in this whole education mess.

9/06/2006 10:16 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

ok, i think the biggest problem lies not so much in the public school system as much as it does with the "adults" that refuse to teach their children how to treat others and how to use their words if they feel they have a problem before they get on the school bus!

I am w/ the teachers on this one!
It is becoming increasingly difficult to educate youngsters nowadays.

It would help immensely if parents and educators could resolve to work as one toward a common goal, giving the children great futures and showing them how to peaceably handle problems as they arise.

I personally am sick of everyone blaming the public school system for every little thing!
I can see if it were something big and they were actually to blame but, we as parents are our childrens first teachers, period!

If you're child is struggling with something, help's just that simple!

1/23/2007 10:12 PM  

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