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It is not appropriate to suggest solutions without having to account for some examples of one’s own work. Prof. Arthur Ellis and I received a small grant from the Minnesota Department of Education to demonstrate the above concept. We were provided two urban schools, one in Minneapolis and one in St. Paul. We had no choice over the selection of schools or the volunteer teachers who would staff the program.
The daily curriculum was balanced so there was equal time for skill work and for conceptual learning — 90 minutes on communication skills, 90 minutes on problem-solving and inquiry, 15 minutes on the arts, 20 minutes of classroom meeting, 20 minutes on movement and physical education (even if there was phy ed weekly), 15 minutes on literature, 30 minutes of self-directed learning, and 15 minutes of evaluation and reflective thinking (about the day’s accomplishments and new goals). We included the same children (with a few who moved away replaced by a few who moved in) from kindergarten through third grade.
The results were rewarding. Reading scores were one grade above the control schools in the districts at the end of the first year and two grades above at the end of three years. Language acquisition scores were two grades above the control schools because the program required more vocabulary and usage. Problem-solving scores were five grades above the contrast schools. Parents were much more involved in their children’s learning, and the children were more connected with their community through resource people related to the curriculum.
When giving presentations to educators, a constant statement from experienced teachers dogged me. “My parents would never stand for a schedule that reduces skill time.” My reply was, “Set up an evening with your parents. I will come there and tell them that we will simply rearrange skill time over each day’s schedule. Some formal, much more applied. We will guarantee one or two grades above grade level in reading skills, two or more grade levels in language and a five-grade gain in problem solving. Who wants to join in?” Our parents were so excited they tried unsuccessfully to form a nonprofit group to keep the program going through sixth grade.
What happened at the end of the grant? The schools reverted to the old model because some noninvolved teachers felt it set up negative comparisons and because the principals, who supported the program, let the entire staff make the final decision. The project teachers loved it and continued to implement it individually within their classrooms. This idea has been shared with, but not picked up by, other districts because it deviates too far from the current instructional beliefs.
For three years it showed that we can alter the “achievement gap” in a whole new way. Students are treated equally in access to the entire curriculum. Students build on their strengths and, through more individualized teaching, overcome their weaknesses. The program provides a variety of experiences and learnings that allowed students to be successful and happy participants in this process we call public education.
Harlan Hansen is an emeritus professor at the University of Minnesota’s College of Education and Human Development and the author of “Sixteen Ways to Fix (or we’ll never fix) Public Education.”
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