The first month of school is now over for my son who is in first grade. Let me summarize what has transpired in the first 1/9 of the school year so far. Bear in mind that most of my information comes from a six year old with the attention span of a flea.
My son attends school in a district that most people would consider to be an excellent school district. One that consistently ranks in the top 10-20 of Pennsylvania's 501 school districts. Standardized test scores are high. Yet in any given year about 20% to 35% of 11th grade students are below proficient in Pennsylvania's state exam. Not surprisingly, the sub-proficient students are disproportionately comprised of low SES and minority students. Clearly, something is wrong.
The district adopted a new math curriculum this year, Everyday Math. The district also uses a combination of Kid Writing and a home-brewed program for reading.
So far, as best as I can tell, there is little going on in the way of academics. Not only is the academic content low, but the pace is slow.
In math, for example, they've only taken home about three homework assignments. One assignment asked them to draw pictures of things having numbers, like a clock or calendar. Another asked them to find a picture that told a math story--there are three dogs and two cats in this picture, how many are there all together.
He's learning about math, instead of learning math. Clearly, the focus is on "understanding," and not on developing proficiency in basic math skills. There are opportunity costs associated with this high constructivism approach as well. Time spent on these contrived exercises is time lost in which basic math skills, like addition, could have been taught and practiced. Another problem is that these homework exercises make it much more difficult for parents without math skills to help with homework. It's not merely a matter of monitoring practice; parents have to actually understand the lesson and teach the math, if not actually do the homework.
This is a triple whammy for low performing kids. First, they need more guidance to complete the homework. Second, their patents likely have lower math skills and are less likely to give effective guidance. Third, they need more practice to master the topics--practice they aren't getting because they are wasting time doing these silly exercises.
As a point of reference, in the same one month period, I got my son through half a year of level B of Connecting Math Concepts (technically a 2nd grade curriculum, but really a 1st grade one) in about a half hour a night. He is now able to set-up addition and subtraction word problems, do multi-digit addition with carrying, tell time, measure, add and subtract distances, skip count by 2, 5, 10, and 25, add and subtract U.S coins, read data from a table, read and manipulate a calendar, and knows place value manipulation up to a hundred. During that time he's probably worked at least a thousand actual math problems and is starting to develop some real procedural fluency with simple addition and subtraction facts. All of this took very little actual teaching on my part.
I hesitate to call what's going on reading since there is so little actual reading going on. The kids were given a DIBELS test and broken up into reading groups. Whether they were broken up by ability, I do not know. Teaching consists mostly of letting kids pick out books they like and letting them "read" them independently. If the kids can't read yet, they can look at the pictures. That's nice.
Again, we see a pedagogy that favors higher performers. Kids who can read already, practice their reading skills. Kids who can't read, practice their picture viewing skills. Which kids do you suppose will make more progress learning to read this year?
Occasionally, each group is called up to the teacher and each kid gets a turn reading. When a kid comes to a word he or she doesn't know, the teacher writes it on the board and teaches the word. I suppose if the word is phonetically regular, the teacher gives a little mini-phonics lesson. If the word is phonetically irregular, I believe the kids will soon get "word rings" that they'll use to memorize these irregular words. This is about as close to rote learning as you can get. And, as far as the phonics goes, this is the wrong way to teach phonics. It is neither systematic nor explicit. It is haphazard, implicit, and on an as-needed based on whatever particular book the kids happen to be reading that day.
Again, this is fine for the kids who know how to read and know many of the phonics rules. It's only a matter of filling in the few gaps that remain. But what about the low performers? This is just not an appropriate way to teach them. Moreover, the teaching burden gets shifted to the parents (who are also likely low performers themselves) who are supposed to be reading with the kids every night. What do you think is actually happening during those reading sessions? The parent is most likely reading to the kid as opposed to the kid doing the reading. Reading to a child has its uses, but it is of limited value when it comes to teaching the mechanics of reading.
Contrast this with what we do with my son every night. During his reading time, we do a lesson in Reading Mastery (He's about to start level 3--third grade). In each lesson he has to read a 300-400 word story that is selected to be right at the edge of his ability and is carefully scaffolded to always include new words he's just been taught. Then he does an independent worksheet in which he has to answer comprehension questions, answer deduction questions, and has another 100 or so word story to read and answer questions.
Then we do a fifteen minute spelling lesson in which I try to undo the damage that's being done every day in Kid Writing where he is permitted, encouraged actually, to guess the spelling of words he's never been taught to spell. The less I say about Kid Writing the better.
Add in recess, lunch, gym, music, art, and a smattering of science and social studies and that is his typical day at school. It's all very child centered and fashionable. I am almost grateful that it is because it makes the real teaching I have to do each night less painful for him.
Fortunately for my district , I am compelled to pay for this education via taxation because if I had a choice in the matter I wouldn't pay for it on my own.