‘An Unfortunate Apartness in the System’

November 08, 2019 13 min read

Education Week: For the past several years, educators and the larger society alike have been exhorted to worry about the quality of high schools. Most of the reform activity by states and districts has been directed at the secondary-school level. Should we be equally concerned about the earlier levels of schooling-preschool, primary, and elementary education? Are there comparable problems and issues at these levels that deserve our attention? In short, how would you characterize the state of elementary education in the United States today?

Benjamin Bloom: Let me respond to that by describing the turning point in my career. It was a book entitled Stability and Changes in Human Characteristics, in which I pulled together a thousand longitudinal studies where individuals were followed over different lengths of time. The greatest shock to me was the finding that the correlation between achievement in grade 2 or 3 and achievement in grade 10 or 11 was the correlation of .85. That means, if I took 100 children in a particular school and ranked them at grade 3 and then ranked these children once again at grade 11, only about 10 percent of the children would get out of order. The other 90 percent would retain almost their same rank.

One can look at this and say evidently genetics built in something which shows up by grade 2 or 3 and there is nothing that can be done to change that. Most of my research over the last 20 years has been asking to what extent can virtually all children reach much the same level of learning.

Through one-on-one tutoring and the use of mastery learning and other alternatives, it is possible to bring virtually all children to a level where they are in the upper 20 or 30 percent of whatever distribution. Part of it is the home environment, but much more is the school.

If we do not solve the problem, the process of learning, in the elementary school, the children are almost doomed. When we follow these children and we ask about their view of themselves, if we take the top 20 percent in grades in terms of achievement in grades 1 and 2, and the bottom 20 percent in grades 1 and 2, and we look at them, they look almost the same in terms of their self-image, their feelings of adequacy.

If we then follow these children at grades 3 and 4, we find now that these two groups separate. And children in one group are less sure of themselves and those in the other are very sure. By grades 7 and 8, there is an enormous chasm between the top 20 percent and the bottom 20 percent. The top 20 percent love school. There is nothing they can do wrong. But by grade 7 or 8, you have convinced the bottom 20 or 30 percent that school is not for them, that they must get satisfaction outside the school with drugs, alcohol, gangs.

And a number of colleagues have followed this in various sub-communities in Chicago, finding that the destructiveness of the schools to the bottom third of students is very great, such that it is almost impossible to rehabilitate these children to now love learning. They have gotten so much experience that they are low and weak, and so on.

My main point in all of this is that the first three to five grades are central in the entire educational career and clearly in the life-long career of people. If we neglect it, we will pay for it very dearly. And we are paying very dearly.

Patricia Browne: Everything is centered on the high school instead of on the beginning, where the foundation is laid so that children will be successful at the high-school level. We could do a lot to erase some of the problems that we are seeing in high schools if the people who are writing all these reports would concentrate on where it all begins.

Dennis Gray: Maybe we should count ourselves lucky that the elementary schools have been ignored in the current reform movement.

If elementary schools were to be treated to the same kind of reform initiatives that are going on at the secondary level now, all you would have is more reporters around, more attention, more money, more programs--but no fundamental change in the way of doing business. And that is not going to help kids very much.

Allan Shedlin: I worry, too, that drawing attention to the elementary schools will attract a bunch of reforms and regulations, but we can’t afford not to talk about it and see what the elementary school has to offer in improving other levels of schooling. There are things going on at the elementary level that need to be shared at the middle-school level, at the high-school level, and that indeed can inform practice all the way up to the collegiate level.

Ms. Browne: There is an unfortunate apartness in the system-from the primary to the intermediate to the junior-high-school level, and then to the high-school level. There is no smooth continuum where one level builds for the next. That is one of the main problems that we are facing as we try to deal with all the educational-reform methods. There is no continuum. Terry Peterson: Public attention may help us reduce some of that fragmentation, which I agree is a tremendous problem. College professors love to blame high-school teachers, who love to blame middle-school teachers, who love to blame elementary-school teachers, who blame the kindergarten teachers. With the proliferation of associations, every group has its own little narrow interest. People don’t talk to each other.

Lorraine Monroe: Having taught in high schools and junior highs, I understand that loss of continuum. And I concur that we have to draw attention to elementary school and what it means profoundly in the lives of children in terms of success in life--economically, intellectually, and in every other way. If we don’t, we’ll be talking about high-school dropouts forever.

The reason we talk about high-school dropouts is that they are so obvious. They are in the streets. They are big. They are dangerous. But they don’t drop out in 9th grade. They begin to drop out around the 3rd grade. Their bodies don’t drop out but their minds begin to, either because they are not challenged, or are already behind, or because of so many other problems that we haven’t yet addressed.

Mr. Peterson: To heighten the excitement and interest in elementary schools, one has to go under the public limelight, even though it is painful. We do need more resources and we need to use what we have better, and we will lose tremendous support in the long run if the public is not involved and engaged in the debate. You do run the risk of overregulation when you open up to public scrutiny. The trick is to find positive ways in which you can engage the public, the decsionmakers, because they are going to have to put up the dollars.

Mr. Gray: I am certainly in favor of public attention on elementary schools. I am also in favor of paying attention to lessons we learned going through the current phase of secondary-school reform. those lessons teach as much about what not to do as about what to do. I am concerned that we not repeat all of those mistakes when we look at elementary education--which I think we are destined to do, unless we are more thoughtful about it.

My position is: attention, yes; limelight, yes; public clamor, yes; but not the same way we are doing it with the high schools--not by adding to graduation requirements while making no fundamental changes in the relationship between teachers and students and knowledge to be learned.

E.W.: You all seem to agree on the importance of elementary education and importance of paying attention to it. But how would you assess it? How would you grade it?

Patricia Carini: We try too hard to characterize education in the United States. I don’t think we can do that in elementary education. That is too big a task. It leads to global judgments. It leads to a lot of emphasis on statistics. It doesn’t give any respect to the diversity that we need in our schools because we serve different populations under different local conditions. I am concerned about a general tendency towards standardization and conformity.

So if the outcome of increased public attention would be those kinds of things--conformity, standardization, global judgments, and attention distracted from the scene of education, which is a classroom--then that would be unfortunate.

E.W.: What is it about elementary education that could be improved upon?

Ms. Browne: One thing we have to look at is the teacher training. For instance, when I was trained, I learned a lot about my subject matter and I was well trained in subject matter. But in terms of taking the theory and applying it in practice, that is something that needs to be strengthened overall in teacher training.

Ms. Monroe: One problem that bothers me a lot is the leadership of our schools. We don’t have enough leaders who permit creativity with accountability. If we did, it could revolutionize any public educational system.

Samuel Sava: I don’t feel that we are doing such a a terrible job in elementary education. Probably some of the best teaching in the nation takes place at the elementary level.

The schools that seem to provide the best educational services to youngsters are those that have strong principals who work with their teachers as colleagues and in teams.

When somebody comes in and says you can take a Marine sergeant and make him or her a principal, that is bad. The principal should know something about the hard work of teaching in a classroom. The principal should know something about how children learn, how they develop. They should have read the 17 books of Ben Bloom.

The idea of the principal going off alone for one kind of inservice training and the teachers going off alone for another kind is passe. We know that the kind of inservice-training programs that still go on in major school systems, where they bring teachers into a gymnasium for a one day, is junk. That should have been done away with 50 years ago. If you want to be a proficient principal, stop that nonsense and begin to work with your teachers. Being a principal is more than managing a school.

The best schools are also those that have strong ties with the home and recognize the major changes that have taken place in our society.

But we have failed to communicate this to legislators, governors, and the public. When I testified before the National Governors’ Association, this was new knowledge to them. And without this knowledge, they have set up reward systems that tear the school apart, rather than setting up recognition and reward systems at the state level that use the individual school as the entity to bring about change.

Mr. Gray: We are starting to get some answers to what I think is a legitimate question: Are we doing something wrong in elementary schools? And it is not in all schools or all classrooms. There are pockets of mediocrity, and there are pockets of excellence. It is fair to talk about both. Sam Sava has identified some of the pockets of mediocrity--inservice training, for example. Failure to use what we know is another. Perverse incentives is another. Work sheets, over-reliance on work sheets, would be another.

I would add classroom situations that encourage passivity of students’ brains instead of active engagements. Two of the basic subjects that I am concerned about, science and geography, are pockets of mediocrity in many, many schools, where kids just don’t learn much in those subjects, mostly because their teachers are ill-prepared. The preservice professional training of teachers has been criticized, and I think one place where that really shows up clearly is in reading.

When we have people in grade 10 who can’t read, how can we think that elementary schools are doing their job successfully as a class across the country? It simply isn’t the case.

My knowledge of elementary-school classes is visiting them, not having taught in one myself. But I see in my visits to schools I many, many teachers who have absolutely no technique at all. They do not have command, mastery, or knowledge of any single technique for teaching reading. They know a little bit about the teaching of reading. They know about basal series and so forth, but they have never had the opportunity in their professional preservice or inservice training to learn the technology of at least one. They may have to deviate from it with different kids, of course, but not to know any seems to me to be little short of irresponsible on the part of the system.

Mr. Shedlin: I think that is a fair summary. But clearly, there is some reluctance I to characterize the state of elementary education in the United States, mainly because it would be unfair to characterize it in the global way.

We frequently use the words “education” and “schooling” as synonymous.

I see schooling as one of the educative forces in a child’s life. The home and television are two others. So it is important that we acknowledge that we can confuse those things sometimes.

Ms. Carini: Schooling has to do with that with which you can instruct. It often has to do with small measurable skills. Learning and education have to do with a whole lot more; they have to do with the person becoming an active thinker.

Mr. Shedlin: In terms of what isn’t working, the best thing to do when looking at elementary education is to look at what is working and to learn from that, because there is no one, single thing right or wrong.

There are places in New York City where we have everything working against the children in terms of their socioeconomic situation, their home situation, and so forth; yet the kids are learning. Exciting things are going on in schools. And it is really important perhaps for us to spend some time I focusing on what are the characteristics of I those settings, those classrooms.

Mr. Peterson: I would argue that the state of elementary education in general is quite good. I don’t see problems as much as I see opportunities. There is a lot more opportunity in elementary education right now than perhaps in any other level of schooling.

But there are also some not-so-good schools. What do you do about them? We know a lot about effective teaching in elementary schools, but we have situations where a lot of teachers aren’t very effective. What do you do about that? Involving parents is a worthy goal. But because of families where both parents are working and the growth in single-parent families, it takes a lot more effort now to bring the schools and parents together. What can we do about that?

We are going to have to tackle some of these tough issues. That is where legislators and governors come in. Certainly, some aren’t familiar with schools, but many have been in far more schools than I have, including my boss.

One other problem bothering me is the at-risk child. That problem is more critical now because of what we know about the makeup of the world of work down the road 10, 15, 20 years. Perhaps in the past, society could afford to have children come out of the system with real problems, because the labor market could absorb them some way eventually. But I don’t know if that will be the case in the future.

Ms. Monroe: From my perspective, if you don’t have a good educational leader, whether it is the superintendent or the principal, you are not going to have an effective school.

The leader has to convey to teachers that they are doing a powerful, worthwhile thing that no one else can do. And that teachers can touch people’s lives the way no other profession can. It is a powerful, powerful occupation. And people don’t honor it enough.

Thus, without strong leaders and without good teachers who are honored and rewarded, we won’t have effective schools. And without effective schools, we are not going to have a society where it is safe to walk the streets without being armed or having a lot more police.

A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week


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