Ted Kolderie’s June 9 article, “Different kinds of kids, so how about different definitions?” raises some very important questions about the various ways we can positively define and close the current “achievement gap” in public education. He asked for public dialogue. This is my response to establishing curriculum programs that are student-centered and that take into consideration the long-range goals of public education.
1. Start with kindergarten — the time when all eligible children enter public school. The Minnesota Legislature has finally approved the support of all-day kindergarten starting in fall 2014 (45 years after I made my first appeal on the topic to that body). While the early years are critical to the development of children’s growth, public education can best deal with those programs to guarantee fairness to all enrolled. Schools can offer suggestions to those dealing with pre-K issues — home environment, parenting skills, early education programs, health issues, cultural differences — but they must be initially addressed by other agencies within the community.
2. Dispense with all elementary magnet programs that specialize in areas such as math, science, technology, the arts, etc. These programs initially were established to meet diversity goals that busing could not accomplish. They still discriminate in other ways against children when quotas are filled and parents and children must choose other alternatives. When some parents have to settle for their third choice, the program appears to work against itself. Children are much too young to be making specific interest and career goals this early in life. Save that for middle and high school.
3. Understand the world of success for children, and plan daily programs accordingly. In a study I conducted with Prof. Richard Kimpston on how 96 elementary schools in Minnesota allocate the percentage of time for the curriculum, the primary grades (kindergarten programs were not included because of the variety of scheduling in half-day programs) showed the following:
• Sixty-five percent of the daily first-grade schedule (excluding literature and library) were spent on formalized reading (37 percent), language arts (15 percent) and mathematics (13 percent). Conceptual learning commanded 10 percent of the day: social studies (5 percent) and science (5 percent.) The small remainder was for incidental time within the program.
• By third grade, formalized skills are reduced only 4 percentage points, and conceptual learning rises only 2 percent.
Herein lies a critical concern for closing the achievement gap. The assumption seems to be that kindergarten through third grade exist for teaching skills and that, starting in third grade, students can immerse themselves in the broader curriculum. But this is not supported in the data. At the sixth-grade level, the skills of reading, language arts and mathematics still fill more than half of the curriculum day (56 percent), while the conceptual skills of social studies and science rise only to a meager 21 percent. Where do students who already know the skills have many opportunities to apply them?
Now, imagine that you enter kindergarten as a child who is performing at a low reading level. What are you looking for the school to provide? It’s obvious — two things: one, an opportunity to be successful every day and, two, an opportunity to see how the skills fit into all areas of learning so you can more easily understand your need to learn them. Under that time scheduling, your opportunities become slim.
4. Therefore, provide all children with a strong, broad liberal arts education from kindergarten through fifth or sixth grade. Balance the curriculum so that all children are allowed to be involved with and learn the entire curriculum. Children who can’t read can still be part of an experiment in science. They can still interview, with assistance, resource people. They can still, in a group, make graphs. They can learn how to generalize a concept to another situation. They can learn how to live with each other despite differences.
Literacy, language and number skills can be applied to real situations rather than to inane problems so that higher-achieving students don’t have to be involved in learning skills they have already mastered. Lower achievers can master the skills as needed even if it takes a longer time to accomplish. Classroom management and discipline is taught and practiced within the program through examining and finding solutions to children’s interactions with each other and within the group.
5. Program the middle and high schools to provide opportunities for students to continue the current liberal arts program and to also select course choices that fit their individual interests and potential careers.
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.”