Commentary

Time To End Denigration of Elementary Schools

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After the family, the elementary school is the most important institution in a child's life. What is learned in elementary school provides the foundation for all future learning. Yet in terms of attention and status, elementary schools and educators occupy the lowest rung of the educational ladder.

Even though elementary schools are the most universally attended educational institutions--between prekindergarten and 8th grade, a child attends school for more than 9,000 hours, more than twice the time spent in high school--the attention to, and regard for, elementary education is inversely proportionate. Simply stated, something basic is awry in the way we regard the different levels of schooling in the United States.

The reasons to rethink our attitudes toward elementary education are compelling. First, elementary-school practice provides models and techniques that could easily serve as a basis for improving education at all levels, as a number of recent commission reports on high schools suggest. These studies suggest:

  • Emphasis on teaching students rather than on teaching subjects/disciplines.
  • Flexibility in scheduling. Elementary teachers can spontaneously choose to spend extra time on topics that excite the interest of the class, making up what was "missed" in the required teaching schedule at a later time.
  • Responsibility for monitoring individual performance. Each elementary student is assigned to a classroom teacher who watches his or her progress in various areas and learns what that student's capacities and interests are.
  • Familiarity with subjects across the curriculum. Elementary teachers are expected to be responsible for and familiar with more than one discipline so they can help the student integrate concepts and make connections between different curricular areas.
  • Variety of instructional approaches. It is accepted that lecturing may not always be the approach of choice, or that sitting at desks is not always the best plan. Teachers recognize that learning and teaching are not always interchangeable.
  • A clear curricular progression. In elementary schools, one concept builds on another so that a student is encouraged to see interrelationships, make connections, and integrate concepts.
  • Respect for student commitment. Students tend to be more involved when their sense of "ownership" can be reflected in the recognition for, and sharing of, their work and when teachers demonstrate that they also are active learners.

In addition to elementary education's value as a model for structuring secondary education, elementary schools play an increasingly important stabilizing role in the lives of children. We are all aware of the rapid changes in family structure, alterations in traditions, influence of the media, and the impact of new technology on the lives of children. Extended school days and years, as well as a push to have 4-year-olds begin formal schooling, indicate a broadening of the expectations for elementary schools.

Yet the widespread and pernicious patronizing of those involved in elementary education has demoralized and eroded the spirit of even the finest and most dedicated elementary-school teachers and administrators. As our society denigrates those who work with young children, a self-fulfilling prophecy emerges. Teachers begin to question the validity of their work. And children sense this erosion of spirit and adopt negative attitudes toward school.

This situation is particularly unfortunate at a time when there is a critical need to attract more good people to elementary education. In 1983, the Bureau of Labor Statistics predicted that half a million more kindergarten and elementary teachers will be needed by 1995--an increase of 37.4 percent over 1982--because of a steady increase in births since 1976.

How did this situation develop? Why do we denigrate and neglect elementary schools? How can this attitude be reversed?

From my observation, it appears to be counter to our national ethos to value the places where our youngest students learn. We say we understand the crucial importance of the elementary school in providing the foundation for all learning, but we do not act upon it. Somehow, it's as though we view elementary schools only as places to prepare children for future schooling--as necessary but insignificant prerequisites--rather than as important places in their own right. We tend to view levels of schooling as a hierarchy rather than as a continuum. In fact, sometimes it seems that the saying "children should be seen and not heard" has been changed to "children, and those who work with them, should be seen and not heard." Perhaps this explains why the reformers have overlooked elementary schools as obvious models for some of the changes they'd like to make in secondary schools.

Fred M. Hechinger asked in a September 1983 New York Times column, "Why, at a time when issuing prescriptions for school reform has become a growth industry, is attention focused mainly on high schools? Part of the reason is that ... most of the leaders for the school-reform movement are college and university people, and their contact quite naturally is with high schools." As an excuse for the lack of attention to elementary schools, this is sadly inadequate. Yet Mr. Hechinger's statement reveals, by implication, another key to the puzzle: No one has yet emerged as an elementary-school spokesperson with the national stature of a Theodore Sizer or an Ernest Boyer.

Elementary educators seem to be reluctant to speak up, to request their fair share of the foundation and corporate funding that so readily goes to university-based research on elementary schools. They also lack representation as members of commissions and task forces. By not championing their own cause, elementary educators perpetuate this passive denigration and condescension.

Something is urgently needed to attract intellectual attention to, and popular interest in, elementary schools. A task force of professionals who have an impact on the lives of elementary-school children, such as pediatricians, teachers and teacher-educators, psychologists, and producers of children's television programming, needs to be assembled to study and articulate the fundamental role elementary schools play in children's lives. We need to begin to change the way we, as a culture, look at the value attached to working with children. Ideally, this task force needs to create a vehicle that will command the kind of public notice and regard accorded "A Nation at Risk." And unlike previous task forces and commissions, it must include elementary educators.

Last October, we were tantalized with the hope that such a group would be assembled when former Secretary of Education Terrel H. Bell called for a task force "to look into the condition of our elementary schools." Sadly, this promise languishes unfulfilled as Secretary of Education William J. Bennett assigns priority attention to higher education.

It has been observed that elementary educators often reflect some of the characteristics of the children they teach. These teachers frequently are a hopeful and optimistic lot. There is, however, a limit to such hopefulness and we are approaching it.

After the intensity of interest and attention to education during the past two years, the continued neglect of elementary schools is all the more dramatic and disappointing. When neglect, or at very best, disdainful respect, is the habitual response to those who are entrusted with the formal schooling of our young, something basic is awry. Today, it seems that those people and institutions responsible for the nurturance of human potential during its most formative years are viewed and treated with low regard rather than veneration. It is way past time to reverse this, but still not too late.

Vol. 04, Issue 31, Page 24

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