October 9, 2006

Report from the First Grade Trenches

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.


Anonymous said...

I don't envy you. My son graduated from high school well over a decade ago, so my experience is very different from yours.

I remember back when I was in school we had SRA, which I really liked because it let me read at my skill level, rather than keeping everybody in the class at the same place.

I believe SRA is still around. There was something about colored pencils, I really don't remember what. That was quite a long time ago.

Anonymous said...

SRA was color-coded by levels so kids wouldn't know who was ahead. Of course, we all figured out the progression of colors.

I don't think I learned anything from SRA, but I was reading at the end-of-high-school level in elementary school so it was hard to find a challenge in schoolwork. I read a lot of books in class.

If your son gets way ahead in reading and math, you'll need to suggest strategies for him to maintain his sanity in class. I suggest surreptitious reading.

-- Joanne Jacobs

Anonymous said...

"I don't think I learned anything from SRA, but I was reading at the end-of-high-school level in elementary school"


KDeRosa said...

I consider myself lucky that my first three teachers in K-2 where ancient fossils from the pre WWII era.

I remember doing a lot of phonics families -- mop, top, stop, pop, cop, etc. I think we did Harcourt in 1st grade; this would have been early 70s.

We were tracked by third grade and we must have had quite a few good readers because my teacher piled on our spelling lessons by giving us SAT prep words to learn. Even then, I remember the pace being undearably slow. In sixth grade I switched to a school that didn't track and was bored silly.

Anonymous said...

"I think we did Harcourt in 1st grade; this would have been early 70s."

Oh my God, where's my wheelchair?

We were at the height of the Cold War and doing duck and cover in grade school. Brylcreem, fallout shelters (we had one at the school, and we did drills).

Anonymous said...

I enjoy reading your posts. Sounds like you are homeschooling. :) I think a child whose parents are involved in his learning (whether or not the school is effectively doing its job) will have a distinct advantage over those whose parents.

TL in Florida

Anonymous said...


**over those whose parents are not.

TL in Florida

KDeRosa said...

I think the technical term for it is "after-schooling." I would prefer not to, but I frankly do not trust my school district, based on past performance, to lay an adequate educational foundation.

Anonymous said...

DIBELS is good stuff. It's out of the University of Oregon. Now, whether the results were used to create homogeneous or heterogeneous reading groups, is a whole other story.

Anonymous said...

You are doing a great job working with your son. It is a shame that he has to spend all day doing such unchallenging work.

I wonder if he will start acting up in class at some point out of sheer frustration and boredom. After all, boys have a harder time going along with irrational or pointless exercises and school is full of them.

Why don't you homeschool him? Why should he spend these precious years in an unchallenging environment when he has terrific teachers at home?


Cheryl van Tilburg said...

Hi Ken. Your post breaks my heart, not just because of your personal story, but because of how common it seems to be in schools.

I just heard a principal say yesterday to a group of parents and teachers, "If you don't feel your children are learning the right things, by all means, feel free to teach them at home yourselves." Thanks for the permission, friend. That's just sad. No discussion. No debate over what constitutes a great curriculum. Just a "good luck" and a pat on the back.

But then again, it shouldn't have come as a surprise, as the same principal said this earlier in the meeting: "Our job isn't to teach kids information and facts -- those change too fast in the internet age. Our job is to give kids the skills they need to function in this fast-paced world." Yikes. It's going to be another long year.

Good luck with the reading and math. You're a superstar parent.

KDeRosa said...

I don't want anyone to get the wrong idea. My school district does a decent job at everything but academics. And it's oh so childcentered that the kids do have fun all day long, their just not learning as much as they could or should be.

With respect to academics, you just have to know how to compensate for the weaknesses. In this case, my school district does not do the basics well, so we pre-taught them. So, in reading he's able to take advantage of the whole-language guided reading program he's in since he knows most of the phonics rules and many high frequency irregular which will enable him to read the highly non-decodable yet "leveled" books he'll be reading. I look at iy as just additioanl practice for him which is a good thing even if it's a poor way to teach reading.

He'll be able to capitalize on the education he receives, but I pity the kids who haven't been pre-taught at home and/or who will struggle to read in this school environment.

Anonymous said...

"If you don't feel your children are learning the right things, by all means, feel free to teach them at home yourselves."

Didn't anyone call him/her on this? Actually, in our town, about 20-25 percent of the kids go to other schools. Parents have tried. They get the smile, head nod, and no change. Kids leave. Parents (who would help force change) leave. Those who are left are either clueless, love the system, or don't want to rock the boat. In our small town, it is taboo to even provide constructive criticism. If you write a letter to the editor, be prepared to get trashed. Parents just quietly go away to other schools and get labelled as elitest. It is interesting, however, to get some off-the-record feedback from teachers that perhaps going to a private school is the best thing. The excuse is that the kids in private school are all "pre-selected", so they can do more. This, however, is tacit admission that the public school can't or won't do more for the able or willing kids, but they won't come out and say that publically.

"Our job isn't to teach kids information and facts -- those change too fast in the internet age."

Yikes-ditto. Has the times table changed lately? How about the capital of Vermont? Of course, he/she is lying. They teach facts and he/she knows that nobody thinks their job is to just teach mere facts. This is just an arrogant statement to get parents off of their backs. Learning information and facts takes time and hard work - both filters that spearate kids by ability. Since they would like to treat all kids as equals (tracking by age), they have no choice but to reduce the importance of content and skills.

One school administrator told us that many kids can read (and do other things) by Kindergarten, but they all average out by fourth grade. I felt like telling her that the reason is that the school doesn't allow the better kids to get ahead.

Our public school sounds just like Ken's school. After first grade (where he did next to nothing), we put him into a private school. Still a lot of the same fuzzy ideas about education, but there are higher and (somewhat) more specific standards and they do (try to) listen. They also go at a faster pace. Still, I have to work with my son after school in all subjects. Some parents grit their teeth and put their kids back into public school and make up the difference. This is a yearly reevaluation for us. It all boils down to whether we can make it work or not. The private school is NOT worth the price, but there is also a rather large NEGATIVE cost (to him and us) to putting our son back into public school. We are just trying to hang on until we can get him into high school. (Then, there will be a different set of problems.) At least high schools have honors tracks and are driven by external AP course requirements. It may not be perfect, but it is a whole lot better than K-8 schools that seem to be driven only by their internal "tra-la-la" ideas of happy, life-long learning and "conceptual" (no hard work) understanding.

Anonymous said...

I'd suggest some patience on your part. My daughter is in second grade and last year I felt many of the same concerns after a month. I volunteered in the classroom once a week and thought they were going awfully slow and I, too, was very concerned about the lack of attention to math. As with you, my daughter is a high performer and we work with her at home, so I wasn't as concerned about her success.

But as the year went on, the teacher picked up the pace. I also thought that "guess the spelling" strategy was strange, but it seemed to work for my daughter. She got better at spelling and writing each month. By the end of the year, I was pleased with the reading and writing instruction she got, although still a bit disappointed in the math instruction.

But now in second grade, I am impressed by how dramatically the pace has been picked up. Looking back I think I see how the school used first grade to set the stage and sort out some of the individual problems the kids were having.

In second grade now, I have been consistently impressed by the quality of instruction and quantity of work. Plus, expectations have been significantly raised for all kids.

My district sounds much like yours -- suburban and pretty high performing. I hope your experience bears out the way mine did.

Anonymous said...

"But now in second grade, I am impressed by how dramatically the pace has been picked up."

How do you know this will be the case elsewhere? Will you still feel the same way in third grade or in sixth grade if many of the kids in her class don't know the times table? Can you actually get a detailed description of a curriculum from your school? We can't, because there isn't any.

It sounds like a comment I got from a school committee member. She said she was sorry that our experience (in first grade) was so poor. This was meant to mean that the problem was with the first grade teacher and not systemic school philosophy, curriculum, and expectation problem. Of course, that is what I was talking about.