In the 1980’s, my teacher prep college courses stressed an emphasis on these aspects of learning:
Differentiation: designing teaching for groups of students who have shown they need similar material and approaches;
Whole language: allowing students to discover skills at their own pace through teaching with literature rather than basal readers;
Mainstreaming: placing special needs students with their non-disabled peer group for at least 80% of their school day.
On a surface level, mainstreaming and whole language may sound rational, particularly to a lay audience of non-teachers and taxpayers. It is only when one pierces the veneer that one can see the pitfalls in these approaches to teaching. The third, differentiation, is the only one that stands up to scrutiny well. It makes a lot of sense to meet students at their level of need. The only problem is that we are not doing that yet. We say we are doing it; we believe it is important to do it; we want to do it.
But we cannot. Yet.
Why can we not? It’s because, over the last 40 years that I have been paying attention to education, only two out of the three aspects of education necessary for successful learning have been put under the microscope and changed:
how we teach (our strategies) and
what we teach (our curriculum).
That third aspect that has been successfully shoved under the carpet for decades?
It's how we put students together in class groups. Examining this seriously has been a non-starter with education elites and teachers’ unions for generations. The outcome of education over the last 10 years, however, has shown we can no longer ignore this massive elephant in the living room.
So how are students grouped in their elementary classrooms, in most of America’s public schools? They are purposefully mixed in groups that will mimic the world they enter at their high school graduation:
High, medium, and low cognitive abilities;
Students who care about learning with students who don’t;
Behavior issues with those who adhere to policies and procedures; and finally,
Those who ‘can’ with those who ‘cannot’. This last bullet point meshes with the idea of mainstreaming, mentioned above.
The education elites wholly believe this mingling of students is to their overall benefit: cognitively, emotionally, and socially. But here’s the rub: the people espousing these views don’t actually work in classrooms. They don’t see the results of their ideological slant.
We teachers, however, do.
We see that students on the far right of the intellectual bell curve dumb themselves down in order to fit in with their social peer group.
We see that in mixed ability work groups, the ‘high functioning’ students do not assist their lower functioning counterparts so that everyone learns successfully, as the experts assure us has happened “over and over” in study groups.
We see that it is not possible, let alone feasible, to meet the needs of our learners when the cognitive levels can range from first to eighth grade in a typical 5th grade classroom.
But the power structure continues its insane adherence this idea that does not work:
placing children in purposely mixed classrooms is ideal for all learners.
It is not.
We must change the paradigm of how we group children for learning. Anything less just continues the pattern of paying lip-service to the idea that we care about education.
Here is the plan I have spent years considering and molding:
Increase the ratio of adult-to-child in every elementary classroom.
My plan is to assign three adults to a classroom of 20 students in grades two through six. (In grades K and one, the cap on students should be 15.) One adult will be a fully certified teacher and the other two will be para-educators with at least two years of college, either at a four-year institution or a community college. The two paras must also pass orientation training on the school’s mission, strategies, and curriculum prior to being placed in a classroom with children.
Why is it important to reduce class size and implement a team approach to teaching? Because currently, differentiation of instruction and assessment is mostly only talked about and documented. There is no proof it is happening, and most teachers (by union stipulation) are allowed to operate behind closed doors. Yet meeting a child where his needs lie has been shown to be the most effective way to help him learn. Experts agree on this. Why won’t they agree to set up an environment where it can really happen?
In addition to reducing class size and increasing adult interaction with kids, it is necessary to place children in learning groups (i.e., classes) that meet their needs. This means making classroom assignments based on the outcome of testing. If we did that, children and their guardians would take testing more seriously. If a parent knew that his child was going to be placed with other kids who ‘can’, or, placed with other kids who need a lot of remediation (for whatever reason), he would be more apt to support the strategies we use to try to make children care about their education. At present, many of my students operate from a standpoint of ‘I don’t really want to participate unless it’s “fun”.’
We also must adjust how we assign teachers to classrooms. No teacher is a master of everything: some are good at working with challenged learners; some are good at working with gifted learners; and some are good at working with the middle of the bell curve. But we don’t assign teachers to groups they have demonstrated success with. Their unions won’t allow it. We assign teachers randomly to the purposely mixed groups we have created. The rationale for this is to make teaching ‘fair’ to all teachers. But how is it ‘fair’ to students?
Address social-emotional learning by placing students in mixed groups for non-core classes.
These non-core classes include art, music, physical education, mealtime, and recess. This means that some students will leave their core classroom while others remain. A schedule such as this would further improve differentiation for those left behind. The para-educators will be responsible only for classroom instruction, not for supervising things like lunch and recess. Working with students in a classroom is a different skill set than supervising children at play.
Recess should involve structured games of kickball, softball, and other outdoor activities, in addition to use of playground structures. Often, students develop sedentary school lifestyles because they do not feel welcome to participate in outdoor activities. Structuring these activities with an adult to supervise them helps defeat that possibility. Schoolyard aides will be given training for how to achieve this meaningfully. Currently, recess time at many schools seems to be a free-for-all where the children run amok, and the aides gather to gossip. Recess is not just play time; it is an important way to socialize, develop healthy styles of interaction, get physical exercise, and rejuvenate. At our model school, the adults will be as involved in recess as they are in classroom teaching.
Make core class groupings across a school year fluid.
This means that if a child experiences significant growth, he can be moved to a classroom that better addresses his needs. Likewise, should he regress, he moves to a classroom that addresses that. Every part of working with children should be centered on what they need, not on what the adults want. The non-core class assignments for art, music, and P.E. can remain the same. The allows for continuity in some of their learning, as well as their social interaction and emotional growth.
Install closed circuit TV cameras in every classroom.
This idea is probably the biggest non-starter for the education elites and the teachers’ unions. But why should that be? We know that everyone makes better decisions when they know they are being filmed. Every government building now has cameras; most businesses also employ their use. Why should schools be different?
The use of CCT (closed circuit television) is a critical component for combatting student malaise and poor behavior, as well as proving to parents the demeanor of their child in the classroom. Currently, argumentative parents can diffuse learning, as principals are unwilling to fuss with them about what was reported by the teacher. Most parents are not argumentative, but there are enough that it poses a problem for everyone. The same can be said about students: most may be well-behaved, but there are enough who are not that it sucks the oxygen out of a learning environment.
Students who become behavior issues are removed from the classroom immediately by a discipline team who monitor classroom activities. Imagine what teaching and learning will be like for everyone else when one child who is having a bad day is removed without the teacher even stopping her own instruction. A counselor simply enters the room and removes the student, who is then counseled about his choices and given an alternate learning environment in the short-term. Parents can be called in and shown the video of their child’s classroom antics; this will make disciplinary actions a lot more effective and a lot more streamlined.
Cameras are also useful in evaluating teaching performance. No longer will we need convoluted evaluation systems that rely heavily on teacher documentation. Anyone can watch the teaching to determine if curriculum is being followed and if ‘best practices’ are employed. Teachers will be free to teach!
There is more to my plan for redesigning our schools, but the above bullet points detail specifically how to make classroom learning effective rather than more-of-the same thing we’ve been doing for years: spinning our wheels while supplying drivel to the masses about how we want all children to learn.
The truth is that we are do not want all children to learn, not when we ignore the most obvious way to improve their chance to achieve: changing the classroom itself.