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‘It’s a Complex Structure, We Must Deal With That’

April 16, 1986 19 min read

Education Week: Does the structure of the elementary school interfere with the kinds of objectives and purposes that many of you have outlined: building self-esteem, instilling self-confidence, stimulating a love of learning, teaching independent and critical thinking?

Patricia Carini: There needs to be room for each school to assume its own structure that can be reworked and is understood to be reworkable by everybody who is in it--in order to serve the strengths and capacities and possibilities of the children who are there.

We need to be wary of any kind of structure that works against wholeness. Tracking, for example, creates crazy scheduling problems, so we end up running the school to meet the schedule. Tracking is part of structure. It is just a nicer way of talking about segregation. It sounds a little better. But uniformity works against spontaneity and becomes a habit of mind.

We should work very hard to have the primary unit be the school and work against any kinds of things coming along, however handsome they look on the outside, that are going to work against wholeness of the learning experience and a whole view of the person.

Benjamin Bloom: I am not quite sure that I think that each child should have a teacher and only that teacher. But in all of the research we have been doing, we find I that although the teacher is teaching a I group of children, the teacher always has some time for each member of the group during a particular day.

I don’t think. we are going to go to one-to-one schooling in the future. There are some great advantages to being a member of the group. But if you are always a member of a group of 30 and are never seen by yourself or in a smaller group, it is not good.

Patricia Browne: Which brings in the point of smaller class size. The only program that I’ve seen that really benefited children and teachers was a project called “Prime Time.” Indiana put funds into school systems to give 1st-grade teachers an 18-to-1 ratio. I was fortunate enough to have a Prime Time project classroom. And I could not go over 14 students. This was last year. And during that year, I didn’t have l one transfer. I didn’t have anyone who left the class. It was just an amazing year for me.

I am used to class sizes of 25 to 30, but with this smaller class, I was able to do so many things that I have never had the time to do before. I was able to diagnose weaknesses, to build upon the strengths of a child. I was able to take assignments home and really. give them thoughtful review. I was able to have a personal relationship with each one of my kids. Parents were in and out of the classroom all the time, because they felt wanted, because I had time for them. I even had time to get through each subject during the day.

I was able to integrate black history into the entire curriculum. We talked about Phillis Wheatley and Michelangelo. We talked about Benjamin Banneker, just because I had the time.

Test scores went up because I had time to work on individual problems. I had time to take Becky in a reading group by herself. And it was not degrading to her because all the children were pitching in and helping her. And when she made progress, it made them feel good.

It was a feeling that I shall never forget. At the end of last year, when I went home in June, I was not depressed. I did not feel defeated or frustrated, because I knew that I was able to give my creative best. And I was able to try different approaches with children. Of course, my principal’s support and other things contributed, but mainly it was because I only had 14 children.

I don’t care if research says or does not say that class size makes a difference. Common sense tells us that class size makes a difference. And I am here to testify to it.

I could talk about that forever. And I guess they never should have given me that experience because I know it is possible now to reach every child.

Dennis Gray: That sounds to me like a movement of the current system in the direction that Ben Bloom was saying would be impossible to achieve completely, which is one-to-one instruction.

By cutting the class size in half, Pat Browne was able to double her attention to the individuals in the class. That is not an issue of structure, except in an architectural sense--having enough rooms to double the number of classrooms. It is an economic question. A structural one would have to do with how the classes are organized. The prevailing assumption is: one classroom, one set of students, one teacher. That is the fundamental elementary-school structure.

There are other ways of accomplishing what Mr. Bloom talks about, which is to give kids a chance for one-on-one instruction and group instruction, or both. And those other ways are not predicated simply on reducing class size. Those other ways are predicated on altering the structure by dint of sheer addition of dollars. That is what is needed to do that.

Lorraine Monroe: I am not so sure that I wouldn’t call class size part of structure, but I guess it is a question of semantics.

I like the idea of pupils staying together for three or four years, where there is time to allow children to grow within a framework of years. That seems a concept we ought to think about.

E.W.: Is one teacher, one room, the ideal situation?

Terry Peterson: There is no one way. There are going to be a lot of alternatives. But I think class size is a structural barrier to doing some things.

Mr. Bloom: There has been a lot of experimentation, exchanges in teaching between two or three teachers: I will do the arithmetic, you do the reading, and so on. And my recollection of all of that work is that it always appeared that in three or four years it came back to one teacher and a group of 20 or 30 children. It is almost as though this is the bedrock. You come back to it sooner or later because you give up working with each other.

Mr. Gray: Terry, you must know what the price tag is on statewide reduction in class size.

Mr. Peterson: I know that because we did it in South Carolina.

Mr. Gray: You probably have the formula memorized for the per-capita.

Mr. Peterson: We spent probably $100- million in the last eight years reducing class size-to 1 to 20 in all classes in grades 1 to 3, and to 1 to 10 or 11 in programs for 4- and 5-year-olds. I am not saying it is the answer, but it certainly is one that has to be looked at and considered in the mix of school-improvement initiatives.

Mr. Bloom: Class size is what you become accustomed to. The Japanese are doing a hell of a lot better than we are with 45 to 50 children in their classes in 1st, 2nd, 3rd grade, and so on. How does the old saw go? The right class size is two less than you are now teaching, if you can determine which two to get out of the class.

Ms. Carini: The issue of class size is a fascinating one because behind it lies a full discussion about the quality of relationships and how you want different sorts of relationships to occur for children in the interests of their education.

I have heard teacher friends from the major urban centers say that teaching 1st grade with 35 kids--forget it, it is just too hard. You have to stretch every minute. And yet, I have also heard teachers talk persuasively and interestingly about not wanting so small a group that certain relationships cannot occur among the children.

There is something to be said for keeping groups of children together. And not just arbitrarily interrupting them and passing them around from room to room or tossing them here and tossing them there. That doesn’t do any good.

Any group of people is more comfortable and works better together if they can feel located. That is, if they can feel they have a familiar space that they can work on and share, and where they have a place to keep their things, and where they can talk with other people whom they have had a chance I to get to know. A whole lot better questioning occurs in any group, if there is some understanding that the other person knows what you are talking about.

People need the opportunity to have some individual recognition and they get that by being able to contribute. So we have to have organizational possibilities that allow people to be contributing members. People don’t think they are members of a group unless they contribute to it. And there is a big difference between being in a class and being in a community.

If you are a contributing member, then you know you have done something there. And there are ways to have that happen. And that happens better sometimes if the group is more diverse and a little larger.

So that taking advantage of diversity and of continuity of time seems to me to be as crucial as class size.

Samuel Sava: But it is really the individual school and not the class or the individual teacher that can make things happen. That is the unit we should keep focusing on. If we start talking about class size alone or organization alone, we go right back to the mistakes we’ve made year after year. Instead of trying to take the school apart and say, if we just fix this right here, we should look at the school as the unit to provide education for elementary-school youngsters. And we should recognize that we are not going to come up with a brand-new structure for elementary education; we are going to start with what we have now.

Allan Shedlin: One of the frustrations of not being able to give you clear answers and formulas for some of the things that you are asking us, is that the elementary school is a complex structure. It is time that we began to deal with that and to appreciate it.

One of the problems in structure that worries me is the increasing move to departmentalize at the elementary level. It is happening lower and lower. When I ask a principal of such a school, I get the answer: ''We are only departmentalizing in reading.” Well, there ain’t no such thing. You can’t departmentalize in one area. If you departmentalize, it then means departmentalization in all areas. And you are breaking up the group.

If you structure your school that way, you then lose all opportunity for the teacher to know about the child’s skills and predispositions, strengths, and weaknesses in the various areas. You lose all opportunity to make connections between the curriculum. Most important, you are losing the possibility that there is a single caring adult in the school who knows a lot about an individual child.

Mr. Sava: If all you do is take the day and departmentalize it and say, now we are going to teach you about geography, or social studies, you have lost the whole purpose of what it is that you are trying to do. You might even have lost an opportunity for a teacher who was very interested in geography to use that interest to teach reading.

We need a large block of time to enable children to master basic skills. And if we need to use the entire K-8 years for this, fine, let’s do it. But we tend to want to departmentalize, to break this out and break that out. And that is where we get into difficulty. Sometimes we are our own worst enemies because we want to specialize in this and we want to specialize in that.

Ms. Monroe: People should be trained to know lots of different ways to run a school or a classroom so that you do what is appropriate for the clients. Maybe there is a magic teacher who could do wonderful things with 25 kids and another one who works best with only 11. You need to know who can do what. You need to train people to do all kinds of things.

I agree with Sam Sava that it is at the site that things happen. It is not the state. It is not the district. It is the local principal saying, “In this building, we can have three or four different kinds of structure and make it work.”

Mr. Gray: What stands in the way of exercising whatever maneuvering movement you have, or being an autonomist? One thing, I think, is a habit of mind cultivated over many years in the current generation of leadership in schools that change occurs best in periods of growth.

People of my generation grew up in a culture of growth--population growth, financial growth, et cetera, et cetera. And when faced with the necessity to hold a steady state or to cut back, we don’t have the mental habits to make those kinds of decisions very readily. We think that they are possible only when we are growing.

Another factor is the politics of equalization. When you are paying for education with public money, there is a very powerful political reason to give the same dollars to everybody, even though the job you asked . them to do may be very, very different in its demand for resources, the clientele, the location, the market, and so forth.

Then there is a psychology of conformity in any big bureaucratic institution, illustrated initially for me when I first joined the Council for Basic Education and talked to my predecessor, George Weber, who did the seminal school-effectiveness study in the early 1970’s on inner-city schools and teaching children to read. He found four inner-city schools with low-income minority children that were successfully teaching reading as well as were the middle-income nonminority schools in the same jurisdictions.

He ended up isolating and putting a spotlight on four successful schools, successful principals. The upshot of which, George told me, was that within a few years, those principals were hounded out of the profession by jealous rivals. That is what I mean by the psychology of conformity.

In some cases, union contracts are an inhibitor because they lock leadership into certain molds.

And a fifth reason is that even with the best will and the authority to go ahead, there are a lot of school sites that are just not very good at engineering change. They don’t know how to go about it.

If one tries to change a bad habit, one really has to have a new habit. You have to know how to get from here to there. And it is not just having the will to do it, it is knowing how to do it, knowing some of the tricks of changing.

The same is true for institutions. Change is a technique that can be learned. And we don’t spend much time or money on teaching it.

Joan Jeter-Slay: We just pressed very hard to get rid of a reading program that administrators said publicly, in the newspapers, was teacher-proof. Now what does that mean? That was a quote. I looked at that and I thought how I would feel as a teacher. And I don’t think teachers could have themselves gotten rid of the reading program, but the fact that the parents were so opposed to it made the difference. Realistically, when you start talking about change at the local site, it can’t happen with just educators. You need parents, business, and outside people to force that change.

E.W.: There seem to be problems for children passing from kindergarten into 1st grade, and additional problems in going from the earlier grades of schooling to grades 3 or 4, where textbooks and content areas are introduced. Are these problems related to structure?

Mr. Gray: They are a problem for kids because schools begin giving kids a message that contradicts their experience with life. Their experience with life tells them that things are connected. Then the school turns around at some point and tells them things aren’t really connected; they belong in all these neat little pigeonholes. And they all have names. One is called geography and one is called history, and so on. And that there are books in those pigeonholes, too. You have to master a quota of those books.

E.W.: Is that a mistake?

Mr. Gray: It certainly is a mistake.

E.W.: What brought about the growing use of the “pull-out” classes that many of you have expressed concern about?

Mr. Gray: They are the way we deal with the so-called needy populations: by targeting them and applying aid to them in the form of pull-out programs. And there are political and economic reasons for doing that. You don’t have enough money. You want to have the money go where it is going to do a lot of good. A better way would be to regard the school as a four-year unit, as a building block, and make that unit responsible for educating the children they have.

And if money is going to be targeted on remediation, remediate the teachers. Give specialized help to the teachers so that they can do their job better with the population they have. Rather than spending the money directly on the children, spend it on training of teachers. The kids stay in the group, in the unit, but the teachers change the way they behave.

Ms. Carini: Pull-outs are a reflection of the fact that we emphasize deficiency and weakness too much. Federal funding has been tied to deficiency; that is, you get money if you don’t do something well or if you are weak and if you can be described as handicapped. That has been a scourge on the land. The earlier screening and identification of children as having problems and a proliferating nomenclature to describe what they have is spreading.

It spreads into regular classrooms because you have fewer and fewer children who are deemed able to be there. You segregate other children out--they are mainly male and mainly minority--and you put them in special classes. And the wheels don’t turn in the other direction. You end up labeling children with names they never get rid of. And that does a terrible disservice to the person.

There is nothing so horrible, for example, about not being a fluent reader until you are 8, unless it has been identified. If it has been identified, then you don’t learn it. It is prejudicial in every respect to do that.

Ms. Browne: But when they come into the classroom and are a discipline problem, teachers don’t have time to find out what the real problem is that is producing this action. All we see is that it is disrupting class.

School systems and financial crunches are taking away social workers, like ours did not too long ago, to go into their home and find out what kind of pressures this child has. Because you can’t teach a hungry child. You can’t teach a child who has been up all night because four or five brothers and sisters sleep on the same bed. You can’t teach a child who is used to seeing violence in living color in their home environment and their neighborhood environment. It just makes them tend to be a little violent themselves. So you have all of this coming at you.

Ms. Slay: In Chicago we have something called pre-second. In poor neighborhoods only, parents think their kids are moving from 1st grade to 2nd grade and they aren’t. Imagine their surprise when they finish 2nd grade, the kid has never been failed, and he is now going into 2nd grade.

I have parents all the time saying, “How can he be 15 and never failed? How can he be 15 in the 8th grade?” And it is a part of this pulling kids out. But I don’t think anybody sits down with a plan and says, “O.K., this is the way we are going to get these people,” but that is what happens.

Ms. Monroe: Children are of a whole piece and we keep chopping them up. Everybody also talks about the elementary student, the middle-school student, the high-school student, the college student, and the graduate student. It is the same kid moving through the system. We are dealing with these same people. And yet we divide ourselves up as teachers and say, “I don’t know about the 6th grade. I only teach the 7th grade.” It is time for us to break that kind of structure.

Ms. Carini: And that kind of habit of mind.

Ms. Monroe: People should begin to talk from bottom and top, the 6th-grade teacher talks to the 7th-grade teacher and the 5th-grade teacher.

I think I am going to go away converted, thinking that maybe we ought to treat grades 1 to 3 as a unit where kids stay and get to know each other. And one or two point persons stay with these kids and get to know them. Keep the children together and develop mastery learning and peer learning. So kids are not promoted to the 2nd grade or the 3rd grade, but are moving through skills as a group.

Ms. Carini: What seems to me to be important is that we let a group of children stay together from, say, age 3 or 4 up to age 8, keep as much continuity of teaching as we can through that, have that be in a certain sense a contained group open to other people entering but not segregating them out from it. That is the structure that I feel most strongly about, not removing kids from classes for remediation, or breaking into friendships, breaking into good possibilities for kids to become powerful thinkers together. I feel positive about inter-age groupings as well, keeping those groups not so narrowly defined.

Ms. Monroe: Then when they make that jump to the 4th grade, we ought to have a transition, because we lose kids either in their bodies or their minds when they transfer from one level to the other.

Mr. Bloom: So you would hold the children together for three years?

Ms. Monroe: Yes, because have we done any better by holding them back?

Mr. Bloom: I would hate for it to be as rigid on this side as it is on the other. I agree it would be good if the kids got to know each other, helped each other, and became a family for a while, but you shouldn’t make it as rigid as it is now or you distort it.

Mr. Peterson: My children’s elementary-school experience has been a variation of that theme, and it has had fabulous results. It is not quite the same, maybe a third cousin of what you are describing, but it really does work wonders.

On the other hand, you do have to be careful of rigidity and be concerned about pullouts. But even pull-outs are not always bad. My son had a severe reading problem in the 2nd grade and went to a remedial-reading pull-out-and did fabulously and has ever since.

Ms. Monroe: There is that flexibility.

Mr. Peterson: Yes. And there may be another structure involved here--the structure of how you get funding into a school. If the school site is where the action is, I think a lot of the complaints about structure aren’t the result of state requirements, but of district or system requirements.

The key, then, may be to allow the school site to have funding. Let expenditure decisions be made at the school site. Have money available for teachers and principals to help them do the kind of changing that Dennis Gray was talking about.

If you have no room to maneuver, if you don’t have a way of pulling people in to make decisions, and you don’t have money, it is tough to do anything except what you are currently doing.

Mr. Gray: I think we passed over an important point relating to structure. We all seem to have the importance of the school site as the basic building block. But there is no way that the school site alone has all the resources. I am not just talking about money but about knowledge to do the kinds of things we are discussing. Information comes from all corners of this country. Sam Sava was talking about how we don’t use what we know.

Well, the fact is that in most schools I advise at, people don’t know what there is to know. And they need a lot of help in finding out what is known that could help them in I practice, to say nothing of the help they would subsequently get in translating that knowledge into practice.

So we have knowledge all over everywhere that is lying unused-mostly because it is not even recognized as knowledge as far as people in the classrooms are concerned.

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


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