Elementary schools try ‘platooning’

Starting in first grade, students have more than one teacher in low-performing elementary schools in Maryland’s Howard County, reports Fawn Johnson in National Journal. One teacher specializes in math and science, another in reading, spelling and social studies.

“Departmentalization” — also known as “platooning” — gives teachers more time for lesson planning, says Superintendent Renee Foose. “You ask teachers what they want, and they always ask for more time,” she says.

Specializing reduces teachers’ stress, according to a Valdosta State study. It’s not clear that it improves student achievement.

I think hiring math-science specialists, at least by third grade, could strengthen teaching in elementary schools. And maybe it could draw more male teachers.

Hire math teachers in K-5

Americans stink at math but we can fix that, writes Hung-Hsi Wu, an emeritus math professor at Berkeley and the author of Understanding Numbers in Elementary School Mathematics.

Elementary teachers — generalists required to teach every subject  — are dependent on math textbooks that don’t teach “learnable math,” writes Wu.  “It is not realistic to expect all of them to summon up the superhuman energy to learn mathematics at the expense of all their other duties.”

Common Core Standards place even higher demands on  teachers’ content knowledge, he writes.  The solution is “to require K-5 math classes to be taught only by math teachers.”

Wu suggests that Mark Zuckerberg, who’s giving $120 million to Bay Area schools, target a few districts willing to train math teachers to teach K-5 students.

A few elementary schools already hire math or math/science specialists, though I don’t know of any that start in kindergarten.

Many elementary teachers don’t see themselves as “math people.” Should we hire teachers who understand and like math in elementary schools?

Turnaround … not so much

“Turnaround” schools didn’t turn very far, despite billions of dollars in School Improvement Grant (SIG) money, reports the U.S. Education Department. Two thirds of low-performing schools showed some improvement;  one third got even worse. What Ed Week calls “mixed results,” Andy Smarick labels “disappointing but completely predictable.”

Twenty-five percent of schools made “double-digit” gains in reading and 15 percent in math, which could mean a 10 percent gain from a very low base, Smarick points out.  “They are schools that went from really, really, really low-performing to really, really low-performing.”

“Single-digit” gains — as little as 1 percent — were reported by 40 percent of schools  in math and 49 percent in reading.

Yes, it’s only the first year, but the first year is the easiest, writes Smarick.

 Historically, schools subject to “turnaround” attempts are so low-performing that improvement efforts often see early gains. These schools are in such dire straits that initial quick-win efforts like instituting a school-wide curriculum or bringing a modicum of order to classrooms will bring about a bump in performance. The problem in the past has been sustaining and building on the gains made in year one. I can’t recall a study of previous turnarounds that showed so many schools falling farther behind after interventions.

Some SIG schools were improving before they received the grants, but then slid back, notes Ed Week.

 Twenty-six percent of schools in the program were on a trajectory to improve their math scores, but declined once they entered the SIG program, while 28 percent of schools where math scores had been slipping began to show improvement after getting the grant. In reading, 28 percent of schools that had been showing gains before SIG actually lost ground once they got the grant. A smaller percentage of schools, 25 percent, had been showing sluggish improvement in reading before the grant and began to improve once they got the funding.

So it looks like a wash — a very expensive wash.

Focus on elementary schools, where there’s a chance of success, suggests RiShawn Biddle on Dropout Nation. Students are too far behind by middle school.

Unless the schools engage in intensive reading and math remediation with students, simply engaging in some curricula changes  (and offering some additional training to laggard teachers) will do nothing to help these kids onto the path to college and career success.

Districts rarely pick SIG’s strongest turnaround model, which calls for “shutting down dropout factories and failure mills, and then replacing them with traditional public and charter schools,” Biddle writes.

No time for science in elementary school

California elementary schools are neglecting science to focus on reading and math, concludes a study, High Hopes — Few Opportunities, by WestEd, Lawrence Hall of Science and SRI. Furthermore, only a third of elementary teachers say they’re prepared to teach science well.

California set rigorous science standards in 1998, but science counts for less than 6 percent of a school’s score on the state’s Academic Performance Index. English counts for nearly 57 percent.

Unlike most districts, Fremont Unified has funded a science resource teacher at each elementary school, reports the San Jose Mercury News, which visited Fremont’s Brookvale Elementary School.

On Monday, fourth-graders at the school excitedly dissected the dried, regurgitated remains from owls’ stomachs, part of a lesson on the food chain. Seeing skeletons of birds and mice that had been swallowed whole teaches what owls eat and what other animals and bugs are in the ecosystem, (resource teacher Puja) Chhagani said.

However, 60 percent of districts hire no elementary science specialists. That leave science science instruction to classroom teachers, most of whom say they’re unprepared for the job. More than 85 percent of elementary teachers received no science-related professional development in the past three years.

While 44 percent of principals think it is likely that a student would receive high-quality science instruction at their schools, the study estimated that only 10 percent of elementary classes offer high-quality science learning.

On the National Assessment of Education Progress, California’s fourth-graders ranked at the bottom, along with students from Alabama, Mississippi and Hawaii.


My old school

I discovered a YouTube video of my old elementary school, Ravinia School,  with footage from the ’50s. I started kindergarten in 1957.  The video shows the Robin Hood mural by the office and kids playing on a piece of playground equipment that was taken down just before I was old enough to try it because some kid broke a collarbone. (I’m still bitter.) Ravinia now has 300 students; at the height of the baby boom, when I was there, we had more than 500.

Starting science early

The sweet spot for science learning is kindergarten through fourth grade, argues an Education Week commentary.

Countries that routinely outperform others in education are teaching science before their students even learn to read and write, by using classroom activities that demonstrate scientific principles. All of these activities take advantage of three fundamental aspects of science: observation, inference, and verification. These concepts can be easily taught in primary school through carefully designed activities and a common language, namely, measurement. Children who understand that measurement is simply a comparison to a known standard have the necessary foundation for learning more-advanced science concepts in later years.

Primary teachers will need training in scientific concepts, the authors add.

“Broad and full of holes” is Common Core’s description of a framework for national science standards released by the National Research Council.

The NRC’s insistence on vague, big-picture thinking about science has created a document that is practically useless. To provide a “broad description” of science knowledge, the writers identify core ideas so general (e.g., “What is energy?”) that it’s possible to imagine any quality of standards, curriculum, and assessments (everything from excellent and clear to shoddy and vague) spinning off of this framework.  When it comes down to it, the NRC document’s just a list of stuff.  And maybe not all of the most important stuff, either.  We’ve caught wind of concern among some of the nation’s most prominent scientists that sections of the framework are not current with the latest science.  And by “latest” we mean knowledge that has already been around for a hundred years or more. 

This is just the first step toward science standards. It’s not part of the common core standards initiative — and Common Core isn’t the group pushing the common core standards.

Engineering starts early

Engineering is catching on in elementary schools, reports the New York Times.

Supporters say that engineering reinforces math and science skills, promotes critical thinking and creativity, and teaches students not to be afraid of taking intellectual risks.

“We still hear all the time that little kids can’t engineer,” said Christine Cunningham, director of Engineering is Elementary, a program developed at the Museum of Science in Boston that offers ready-made lessons, for about $350 each, on 20 topics, and is now used in all 50 states, in more than 3,000 schools.

“We say they’re born engineers — they naturally want to solve problems — and we tend to educate it out of them.”

STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) programs are in favor, and high-tech businesses want Congress to fund K-12 engineering education. But some question how much students are learning.

There’s nothing new about projects like building Lego robots or designing an egg drop, says Janine Remillard, an associate education professor at the University of Pennsylvania,

“Ideally, you want them to come away with knowledge that goes beyond that problem,” Professor Remillard said. “They could just go through the motions and end up with a robot that can do a particular thing, but the next problem they face will be a new problem. This is where good teaching comes in.”

In Glen Rock, N.J., a high-performing district near New York City, teachers “plan multiday projects, often built around classic and popular stories like the Three Little Pigs, and take students step by step through the engineering process: design, build, test, evaluate.”

First graders were recently challenged with helping a farmer keep rabbits out of his garden.

In teams of four, they brainstormed about building fences with difficult-to-scale ladders instead of doors and setting out food decoys for the rabbits. They drew up blueprints and then brought them to life with plastic plates, paper cups, straws and foam paper.

Then they planned to test their ideas with pop-up plastic rabbits. If the fences were breached, they would be asked to improve the design.

“It gets your brain going,” said Elizabeth Crowley, 7, who wants to be an engineer when she grows up. “And I actually learn something when I’m doing a project — like you can work together to do something you couldn’t do before.”

The kindergarten class designed wolf-proof homes for the three little pigs.

Elementary specialists

The one teacher elementary classroom is on the way out in Palm Beach County, Florida.  Third through fifth graders will have four diferent teachers for reading/language arts, math, science and social studies. Some schools will use specialists for first and second grades, and even kindergarten, reports the Sun-Sentinel.

Administrators say subject-matter experts will improve learning. Parents want proof the middle-school specialization model works for young children.

Via Core Knowledge Blog.

I used to tutor at East Palo Alto Charter School, which uses math-science specialists starting in mid-elementary school.  Teachers who lack a strong math or science background can focus on teaching reading, writing and history. EPAC typically meets or exceeds state averages despite a high-poverty, all-minority student body with many English Language Learners. The math scores are especially strong.