Tuesday, April 03, 2007

Education News - Reading and Reading and Reading . . . ad infinitum

In the last few days I've read two articles that have me thinking a lot about what is happening in classrooms today.

In the March 30 edition of Science magazine, an article entitled Opportunities to Learn in America's Classrooms appeared. Here is some background.
Here, we describe results from a study of elementary school classroom experiences for more than 1000 American children recruited at birth from 10 U.S. sites and enrolled in more than 2500 classrooms in more than 1000 elementary schools and 400 school districts. Our investigation approximates an epidemiological study of opportunities to learn in U.S. classrooms, although the sample was not nationally representative.
Funded by the National Institutes of Health, educational researchers spent thousands of hours in more than 2,500 first-, third- and fifth-grade classrooms, tracking kids through elementary school. It is among the largest studies done of U.S. classrooms, producing a detailed look at the typical kid's day (USA Today).

The results?
  • In fifth grade, children spent most of their time (91.2%) working in whole-group or individual-seatwork settings. Students spent little time (7%) in small-group instruction (two to five students).
  • In fifth grade, 37% of instruction was in literacy and 25% was in math; in first and third grade, more than 50% of instruction was in literacy and less than 10% was in math.
  • Science and social studies activities occurred in 11 and 13% of intervals in fifth grade, respectively.
  • The average fifth grader received five times as much instruction in basic skills as instruction focused on problem solving or reasoning; this ratio was 10:1 in first and third grades.
  • Teachers in fifth grade spent 17% of their time instructing students on managing materials or time.
For anyone who teaches, or spends large amounts of time in classrooms these days, the results are not surprising. They are, however, very depressing/discouraging/frustrating. Take your pick, or add your own word.

I routinely spend time in classrooms where teachers tell me that science and social studies are not taught every day because there simply isn't time. In many schools these days, teachers have a block of time, usually 15-30 minutes, devoted to both of these subjects, where a unit in science is taught (perhaps for two weeks), and then a unit in social studies is taught. For any teacher who wants to integrate the curriculum, this makes integration extremely difficult, if not downright impossible.

Yes, I know basic literacy skills are important. But I can easily define mathematical and scientific literacy skills that are necessary for negotiating life in the real world. I now have students and teachers spending 90-120 minutes per day on reading, and 60-90 minutes per day on math, in large part because of NCLB. The short-sightedness of this is that in 2006, states were also required to begin testing and reporting science scores for students in grades 3 through 8. And as for social studies, wasn't it George Santayana who said "Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it?"

In March 2006, the Center on Education Policy reported that:
  • 71% of school systems admitted to reducing elementary school instructional time in at least one other subject to make more time for reading and math
  • 60% of the districts surveyed had policies that required teachers to devote a specific amount of time to reading
  • 50% of the districts surveyed had policies that required teachers to devote a specific amount of time to math
  • 97% of the poorest districts had policies specifying how much time should be spent teaching reading, compared with 55 percent of the wealthiest districts
How do schools make room for all this reading and math? They cut science and social studies. Perhaps most distressing of all is what I read regularly in our local newspaper. This year, the paper is following a first year teacher in one of the city (poor, urban) schools. Here is an excerpt that provides one picture of how these statistics are reflected in public school classrooms.
The schedule on Butler's classroom wall allots two hours each day for reading instruction, an hour for math and about 55 minutes for science and social studies combined. But many days, science and social studies lessons are compressed even more, into five- or 10-minute capsules at the end of the day.

"With science and social studies, that's about as much as you can get in, five or 10 minutes," Butler said after school one day. "Our main focus is reading and math."

On one recent afternoon, Butler's class discussed recycling.

They had already had a reading lesson, a math lesson and a trip to the cafeteria for lunch and the playground for recess. A Spanish teacher visited earlier in the day. Then the students settled down on the carpet for a quick science lesson.

They made a chart with columns for information they already know, information they want to know and information just learned.

By the end of the minutes-long lesson, they had filled in the first column with a list of items that can be recycled, such as metal and glass. In the next, they listed questions, such as "How do we recycle?" and "Why do we recycle?"

Soon, it was time for the students to pack their book bags and get ready to catch their buses. They left the recycling chart on the board, with its final column -- for information they had learned -- empty.

And just before they left for the day, the students settled back on the classroom rug for a little more reading before heading home.

"Kids this age -- first grade -- I don't think their focus should be science and social studies," Butler said. (Read the article in its entirety.)
I'm speechless. Since when is science not important at the first grade level? Many science educators have believe that elementary school science is important because of the interest it has the potential to engender in students at an early age (NSELA article). What happens when we begin to quash this natural curiosity? Will there by any students left who find joy and beauty in science? Who are inspired by it? Who want to learn more? I can say the same things about social studies. But really, where do all these rhetorical questions get me? In the end, I am one lone voice shouting into the storm of insanity. I feel like the old woman in the Wendy's commercials yelling "Where's the beef?" However, my mantra now is "Where's the science?"

I suppose this is why I quietly build my lists, in the hopes that some teacher, somewhere, will think about bringing a little science and social studies back into the curriculum. Perhaps the way to begin is through reading and sharing the books I love so much.

1 comment:

  1. Well, obviously you made me think, and made me greatful that at my age/certification type (1-8 and permanent, not a subject-based license) and in my corner of the world/district/school I still have the power to make decisions based on my students' learning.

    Have you ever read Borderland's blog? (http://borderland.northernattitude.org/) He also makes me think, on quite a regular basis.

    And I should also say a HUGE thank you to YOU for all you are doing to raise up a new generation of teachers in the midst of all the anti-teacher/anti-public school poison that rains down on us daily.