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.