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Elementary Schools 'Opening the Door' to New Methods

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CORVALLIS, ORE.--Youngsters in Alice Glass's mixed-age classroom of 3rd to 5th graders can choose from among a slew of enticing projects and activities, but there is one choice that is clearly not an option: boredom.

Children appearing aimless know they will be asked not only "what are you planning to work on next,'' says Ms. Glass, a teacher at Lincoln Elementary School here, but "what are you doing to contribute to your education.''

"What I spend time teaching them is that it is up to you to make responsible choices,'' she says.

The fruits of student projects are evident throughout the room: a fish pond pupils fabricated from a rubber pool; a doghouse they built for their class pet; and a bicycle-repair shop they run with the help of a local mechanic, for example.

Working individually or in groups, students concentrate intently on computer games and treasure hunts that require research across disciplines; write letters to friends and faculty that will be posted through a school mail system; tackle math exercises involving beans, blocks, and fraction boards; and redraw maps to reflect world changes.

The reforms taking hold at this Oregon school reflect a nationwide movement toward a new vision of the elementary school: one that centers on giving children of all abilities opportunities to construct their own knowledge, at their own pace, through concrete experience, investigation, and collaboration.

While such approaches are nowhere near becoming standard operating procedure everywhere, examples of the vision--or at least pieces of the vision--can be found in most states and school districts.

"We see movement in virtually every part of the curriculum in terms of organization and having a vision of how kids learn,'' says Sue Bredekamp, the director of professional development for the National Association for the Education of Young Children.

But obstacles to transforming the elementary school are formidable. Reformers cite large classes and tight budgets, and they worry that teachers lack the training and time needed to plan and work together.

Traditional testing and grading have also impeded reform, and some scholars, warning that not all of the changes are backed by research, fear that failed reform experiments could reinforce more rigid instructional styles.

But the consensus and enthusiasm for reform are growing among early-childhood and subject-matter experts, teachers, and administrators.

People "are at least agreeing on what not to do--not a lot of workbooks, teacher lecture, rote memorization,'' Ms. Bredekamp says.

Robert Slavin, the director of elementary programs at the Center for Research on Effective Schooling for Disadvantaged Students at Johns Hopkins University, agrees, "We are seeing elementary schools making a lot of changes in a very short time.''

The kinds of steps being taken to make learning more meaningful, notes Karen Eason, an instructional facilitator for the Lincoln school, do not look much different from what good teachers have always done.

Teachers in traditional settings "started deviating as they saw that children didn't fit'' prescribed "scope and sequence'' curricula, she observes. "But they were not supposed to do that, so the teachers who did that shut their doors.''

As the reform effort at Lincoln unfolded and teachers' "deviations'' became accepted practice, she explains, "our doors opened.''

"I feel like I've gotten out of prison,'' Ms. Glass, who has taught at Lincoln for 14 years, says.

New Receptivity

To escape from that "prison,'' Lincoln and other schools are shunning grade levels that march every child of the same age through the same drill at the same time and grouping pupils in ways that allow them to move at their own rates while working cooperatively with peers of different ages and abilities.

They are also keeping children with the same teacher for more than one year; promoting a view of teachers as children's guides and co-investigators; and integrating subjects around themes and principles.

The tools of their trade have also changed, from textbooks to literature and from worksheets to materials.

"A lot of the ideas aren't new,'' says Harriet Egertson, the administrator of the child-development office in the Nebraska Department of Education. "It's just that there hasn't until recently been the receptivity for implementing that kind of change on a large scale.''

Several national groups, including the National Association for the Education of Young Children and the National Association of State Boards of Education, have helped to set the tone with reports and statements on "developmentally appropriate'' instruction. On a separate, but in many ways complementary, track are reforms being advanced by curriculum groups on how to teach and integrate specific subjects.

Such reforms center on "understanding, appreciation, and application of knowledge,'' says Jere E. Brophy, a professor of teacher education and the co-director of the National Research Center on the Learning and Teaching of Elementary Subjects at Michigan State University.

Those seeking reforms in both Chapter 1 remedial-education and special-education programs have added fuel to the movement to integrate children of all abilities. And discussions on the reauthorization of Chapter 1--Congress is set to vote on the program next year--have also focused on downplaying rote skill mastery and encouraging more hands-on learning and problem-solving.

'Ripple Up' Effect

Elementary school reform has also gotten a boost from the policy debate, propelled by the first national education goal, on how to insure that children are ready for school.

That debate has also focused attention on how to ease children's transition from preschool to school and how to harmonize elementary teaching with successful early-childhood practices.

The influence of state and locally funded preschool programs is also filtering up to elementary schools.

In Florida, says Mary E. Bryant, the director of early intervention and school readiness for the state education department, "we are seeing a 'ripple up' effect'' of the state's $63 million preschool program for 20,000 disadvantaged 4-year-olds. "Kindergarten teachers are saying, 'That's how I want to teach,' '' she says.

In Missouri, which is pursuing early-years reforms through an effort called Project Construct, "people coming to training sessions are saying we should be doing this with older kids,'' says Ruth Flynn, the state education department's early-childhood-education director.

Evidence of Trend

Other evidence of the elementary-school-reform movement abounds:

  • Kentucky mandated in its landmark 1990 reform law that all schools establish multi-age, multi-ability K-3 primary units by 1994. A recent report by the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence, a citizens' advocacy group there, concludes that schools generally have made "tremendous progress'' in implementing the mandate, but notes wide variation in schools' progress and teachers' enthusiasm.
  • Oregon is also promoting--though not mandating--statewide reforms in the schooling of younger pupils. The changes at Lincoln, notes its principal, Dan Hays, "fit like a hand in a glove'' the themes of a 1991 law directing the state education department to explore nongraded primary programs. (See related story, page 28.)
  • California is working on many fronts to prod reform. "It's Elementary,'' a 1992 state education department task-force report calling for a "thinking, meaning-centered curriculum,'' has been the touch point for several training activities and the formation of an alliance of professionals and schools pursuing elementary reform. The state's curriculum frameworks, detailed standards for K-8 content, also stress hands-on methods, cooperative learning, and problem-solving.
  • Missouri's Project Construct, a framework for teaching children ages 3 to 7, is being used to help train teachers and develop performance-based assessments. A Project Construct center at the University of Missouri at Columbia is working to promote the framework in Missouri and other states.
  • Drawing on materials developed by the Ministry of Education in British Columbia, Nebraska and Iowa have drafted a 700-page guide, due out this summer, to help educators implement multi-age grouping and other reforms.
  • In 1990, the District of Columbia schools launched a series of early-childhood-education reforms, including demonstration schools, mixed-age grouping, revamped report cards, and extra training for lead early-childhood teachers.
  • In an initiative Pittsburgh set in motion five years ago, 14 schools are experimenting with similar innovations, and another 10 to 12 will be added next year. The project, which aims eventually to include all 52 elementary schools in the district, allows schools to decide how best to implement reforms set out in a district vision statement.

Local Innovation

Other school systems are working at the grassroots level within their communities to chart reforms.

The Lincoln Unified School District in Stockton, Calif., for example, has launched a plan developed by several hundred students, parents, educators, and community representatives to transform schools into "thematic learning centers'' staffed by interdisciplinary teams.

Even in schools that have clung to traditional methods, individual teachers are being inspired to try new approaches.

To bring the history of slavery to life for her pupils, Sandy White of East Linden Elementary School in Columbus, Ohio, designed an integrated unit on the Underground Railroad that inspired children to read period literature, research documents and letters, interview and write about local citizens, and re-enact events.

While Ms. White's school has sent her to conferences and allowed her to stray from standard texts and methods, she takes the initiative to pursue reforms herself and buys her own materials when necessary.

"I'm out on my own on this,'' she says. "We're a pretty traditional school, and I get bored easily.''

Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins says the movement toward school-based management deserves part of the credit for emboldening teachers and schools to try such reforms.

"Even the most hierarchical districts are more likely to give more autonomy to elementary schools and allow them to choose different innovations,'' he says.

Mixing and Matching Standards

Programs developed by researchers focusing on how children learn are also helping to spread the reform message. Such efforts include Reading Recovery, a program imported from New Zealand, and Success for All, a program overseen by Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins that focuses on early reading skills but includes other innovations to bolster the academic success of disadvantaged youngsters.

The National Science Resources Center, which is operated by the National Academy of Sciences and the Smithsonian Institution, has sponsored leadership institutes for school districts, developed science and technology units, and helped districts set up centers to supply schools with such items as batteries, insect specimens, wires, pendulums, and magnifiers.

Another example is the Cognitively Guided Instruction project at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, which helps train teachers to apply research on how children learn mathematics.

The National Science Foundation and the International Business Machines Corporation have joined up to fund Project Impact, a program in which University of Maryland researchers are working with the Montgomery County public schools to promote teaching methods based on the standards developed by the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics.

Such subject-matter standards for what children should know and be able to do have helped spur reforms. But for schools trying to incorporate all the content groups' proposals, notes Frances Haley, the former executive director of the National Council for the Social Studies, "how to decide what to do in a five-hour day is very tough.''

To address that issue, a coalition of curriculum groups is working to develop an integrated pre-K to grade 4 curriculum framework. The group, which met in January, includes the N.C.T.M., the N.C.S.S., the National Council of Teachers of English, the National Science Teachers Association, and the International Reading Association.

The Coalition of Essential Schools, meanwhile, is beginning to explore how its principles, which so far have been applied to high school reform, could be applied to elementary schools. The group is sponsoring a conference on the topic this month with the Center for Collaborative Education, a network of New York City public schools active in the coalition.

Assessment 'Frustration'

Moves away from standardized tests and toward "authentic'' assessments that measure what young children can do by observing and documenting their work are also spurring changes in the classroom.

Teachers in several Michigan communities who are piloting an assessment system developed by University of Michigan researchers say, for example, it is altering the way they approach children. (See Education Week, Jan. 20, 1993.)

Performance-based assessments being tried in Kentucky, Vermont, Maryland, and Arizona are also intended to redirect teaching.

In Georgia, the backlash against a statewide kindergarten-testing policy widely denounced by early-childhood experts has sparked reforms that are drawing praise from earlier critics. (See Education Week, Nov. 15, 1989).

But some still see standardized testing as an impediment to reform.

"The biggest single remaining frustration for teachers is that we are still grading and still giving standardized tests,'' says Karen S. McIntyre, the director of early-childhood education for the Pittsburgh public schools. "It feels so very inconsistent with the total approach.''

In some cases, Ms. Bredekamp of the N.A.E.Y.C. notes, "people are afraid kids' test scores will go down'' if they introduce new methods.

Tynette Hills, the coordinator of early-childhood education for the New Jersey Department of Education, adds that some teachers' reluctance to abandon traditional methods has been "reinforced by the recent interest in standardized tests'' stirred by moves to set national standards.

Because many districts now see standardized tests as the easiest way to meet Chapter 1 requirements, experts note, pressure to use such tests could also be eased if the assessment provisions of the compensatory-education program are revamped.

Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins contends, however, that standardized tests are "diminishing as a barrier'' as administrators de-emphasize their importance. "People are waiting for the new authentic assessments,'' he says, "and, in the interim, they're not paying as much attention'' to test scores.

Training Needs Cited

A more critical barrier, many say, is the need for better training for teachers and administrators.

One of the problems, notes Linda Espinosa, the director of primary education for the Redwood City, Calif., schools, is that, despite innovations by isolated programs and professors, teacher education schools on the whole have not shifted their approach to support elementary reforms.

"If we ever got all this sorted out, there would be different training for teachers of different levels with different kinds of concentrations of subject matter and pedagogy,'' Mr. Brophy of Michigan State says. "What elementary teachers learn in training would be different in terms of both content and how to teach.''

To address that, some states are eyeing teacher-licensing reforms.

The N.A.E.Y.C.'s new National Institute for Early-Childhood Professional Development is urging states to adopt early-childhood certification covering the period from birth to age 8, Ms. Bredekamp notes.

As part of a measure establishing grants for innovative K-3 programs, Iowa recently enacted a law expanding its early-childhood certification for elementary school teachers to cover the birth-to-age-8 range. The law also requires that principals study child development from birth to early adolescence.

Tennessee has also recently adopted birth-to-age-8 certification, and the idea has been proposed in Pennsylvania and New Mexico.

Oklahoma offers a pre-K-3 certification, which it recently made mandatory for kindergarten teachers.

Florida law also requires principals with pre-K programs in their schools to have six credits or 120 staff-development hours in early-childhood education, and many districts now require that of principals whether or not a school has a pre-K program.

But Samuel G. Sava, the executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, worries that, despite a "great deal of discussion'' about such reforms as multi-age grouping, there is "very little clinical experience offered in universities to help teachers understand how children function and work best in that environment.''

Classroom Support

Participants in a meeting last summer sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York to explore strategies for early-grades reform stressed that teachers must also receive grounding in specific subject areas during their pre-service training.

Promoting a more inquiry-based approach to history is a problem, for example, when teachers "don't have the historical backround,'' says Elaine Reed, the executive secretary of the National Council for History Education.

Besides improving teacher education, Ms. Espinosa and others cite a need for mentors to advise and support teachers in the classroom.

They note that, even when teachers are trained appropriately, some schools do not reinforce the approaches they have learned.

"There probably are not many education schools that aren't promoting the teaching of literacy through whole language,'' notes Ms. Egertson of Nebraska. "But when they come out of that base and are handed a basal reader, they don't have their training supported.''

Many experts, including some leery of Kentucky's ungraded-schools mandate, also warn against moving teachers into new territory too fast.

Veteran teachers trained in "skills-based teaching,'' Ms. Hills of New Jersey notes, need "opportunities to explore'' before adopting reforms.

Shifting from "highly structured lessons and textbooks'' to individualized, hands-on methods, adds Mr. Hays, the principal of Lincoln Elementary here, should be seen as a three- to five-year process.

Social, Fiscal Challenges

Mr. Sava also contends that elementary schools are "feeling the pinch'' of assuming such responsibilities as providing preschool and full-day kindergarten, mainstreaming disabled children, keeping schools safe, working with other agencies to meet children's social and health needs, and educating parents.

"Most of the changes in elementary schools are not in areas people tend to talk about,'' he asserts.

Even in states at the forefront of reform, educators say some of their plans have been squeezed by fiscal constraints.

Some also cite a need for more reform-oriented classroom materials.

"It's not that highly creative teachers can't do it,'' Ms. Egertson of Nebraska says. "It's just that it takes an enormous amount of work to adapt the materials available.''

Others, however, cite signs of progress. California's curriculum frameworks, officials there note, have influenced text publishers, assessments, and other materials.

Yetta M. Goodman, a regents professor of language, reading, and culture at the University of Arizona, also contends the whole-language movement has helped spark an "explosion'' of children's literature.

In the science arena, notes Douglas Lapp, the executive director of the National Science Resources Center, insuring schools access to the right kinds of tools requires "some careful planning and rather complex logistical operations.''

"It is very important that districts build a capacity for maintaining and recycling materials,'' he adds.

Questions on Research

Despite enthusiasm for many of the reform ideas, it is unclear how widely and faithfully they are being translated from theory to practice.

"There is a lot of reform impacting large numbers of students,'' says Tom Carpenter, the associate director of the National Center for Research in Mathematical Sciences Education at the University of Wisconsin and one of the researchers involved in the Cognitively Guided Instruction project. "But it's still a pretty small percentage.''

In analyzing the characteristics of K-12 schools in a study on restructured schools, one researcher notes that he has found "a lot of variation in the integrity with which these criteria are being implemented.''

"We have not seen nearly the progress that might be inferred from all the rhetoric we hear,'' says Fred M. Newmann, a professor of curriculum and instruction with the Center on Organization and Restructuring of Schools at the University of Wisconsin.

Some also question the degree to which research backs the reforms.

"A lot of the change is vulnerable, because it may be that when the research base catches up, it is not going to support each kind of change in detail,'' says Mr. Slavin of Johns Hopkins, who also cites "remarkable parallels'' to the receptivity to new ideas found in the early 1970's.

"There is a sense that the innovations this time around are much better,'' he says, but if the reforms do not track with research, "people may make mistakes, so we may have a long period of relatively rigid instruction.''

Lilian G. Katz, the director of the ERIC Clearinghouse on Elementary and Early Childhood Education at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has argued that research on practices fostered by multi-age grouping, such as mixed-ability grouping and cooperative learning, shows "the potential benefits can be substantial.''

The difference between now and the previous cycle of interest in nongraded classes--which some associate with the failed open-classroom era--is the data base supporting it, she maintains.

But even methods backed by research--such as cooperative learning--are not always applied in ways the data support, Mr. Slavin notes.

'Importance of Purpose'

Mr. Brophy of Michigan State also fears that the "developmentally appropriate'' philosophy could be used to justify inappropriate readiness testing or tracking policies.

"If it gets understood in the wrong way, it's going to be just another label for the old idea of holding kids back,'' he says.

Even in mixed-age settings, others note, children may be grouped by ability for some activities.

" 'Developmentally appropriateness' and 'nongradedness' are not good and bad in and of themselves,'' says Joseph Renzulli, the director of the National Research Center on the Gifted and Talented at the University of Connecticut. "It has to do with importance of purpose in bringing kids together.''

Another concern of Mr. Brophy's is that the play-oriented focus of the developmentally appropriate philosophy could be used as "an excuse for replacing a lot of effective reading and language-arts instruction with a lot of sand play.''

To counter critics' view of the movement as "something not intellectually challenging,'' Michael Levine, a program officer with the Carnegie Corporation, cites a need to connect groups promoting "healthy child development with those focused on making sure kids master the things they need to succeed at school.''

Recent guides issued by such groups as the N.A.E.Y.C., the Bank Street College of Education, and the Council for Basic Education attempt to address the issue by offering content guidelines for what model programs should teach children.

A shortcoming of the content specialists, Mr. Brophy concedes, is that they have tended "not to take developmental differences into account'' between age groups.

Maurice Sykes, the director of early-childhood education for the District of Columbia schools, stresses the need to launch strong research-based approaches--such as his district's demonstration schools--as laboratories for innovation.

But reform should not be held hostage to more studies, he and others say. "I believe we know all we need to know about teaching and learning'' to move forward, Mr. Sykes says.

While embracing new approaches, though, some caution against sweeping away all of the old.

Many of the reforms mandated in Kentucky were aimed at "kids who were failing and dropping out,'' argues Linda Keller, the principal of Dixie Elementary Magnet School in Lexington, Ky., but "there were a lot of things in traditional schools that were very successful with the majority of children.''

The more training teachers get, she says, "the more successful they will be at selecting an appropriate curriculum or method with a particular child.''

Even where steps toward the new vision of elementary schools are halting and piecemeal, Mr. Slavin suggests, the changes apparent in educators' attitudes are significant.

"Even if people are teaching in the old way, they know they shouldn't be,'' he says. The hope, he adds, is that, "eventually, their teaching may catch up with their perceptions.''

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