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With Little Fanfare, The Spotlight Shifts

By M. Sandra Reeves — November 08, 2019 37 min read

Mr. Goodlad, in his study, A Place Called School, says that for “the regularities of schooling” to be changed in America, a “critical mass” of people and groups in the society must first see the need for change. Then, he says, people both inside and outside the schools must “detach themselves sufficiently from their cultural surroundings to recognize other possibilities.”

Little public excitement followed the announcement by U.S. Secretary of Education William J. Bennett last October that 1986 would be ''The Year of the Elementary School.” Even less has been generated by a growing list of major studies in the field--from Mr. Bennett’s own review to projects by several universities and such groups as the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Governors’ Association.

Even some elementary educators have yet to be moved by the sea change in reform. At a February conference sponsored by the Elementary School Center in New York City, many in attendance said they had never heard of the new studies and expressed surprise on learning that the year had been dedicated to them.

Once the sine qua non of American education, the elementary school no longer stirs the collective imagination. It has become, some say, the great neglected given of the system, a staging ground on the way to high school and college.

All but overlooked has been its crucial, ground-breaking role for subsequent learning--a role that has prompted this year’s renewed attention.

”After the family, the elementary school is the most important institution in a child’s life,” says Allan Shedlin Jr., executive director of the nonprofit E.S.C. and a member of Mr. Bennett’s 21-member advisory panel on elementary education. “Between prekindergarten and 8th grade, a child attends school for more than 9,000 hours-more than twice the time spent in high school.”

Others note that if instruction in the earliest years of school is deficient-particularly in the areas of reading and language acquisition-students may never reach their true potential for learning.

“Language development is central to education,” says Ernest L. Boyer, president of the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. ''This is the optimum period for language development, and it is hard to compensate in later years.”

Nonetheless, it was the perceived “crisis” in American high schools that gave dramatic focus to the first round of reform, providing a target clear enough and backing strong enough to produce a flurry of state-mandated remedies.

‘A Wide Gulf’

No one expects the same rush to action to emerge from the elementary-school study. Here, most experts agree, the path toward reform will be less clear-cut. The focus will be not so much on finding the solutions to easily discernible problems, they say, as on a fundamental re-examination of the way children learn.

To improve instruction at this level will require not merely an adjustment of standards and procedures, these experts note, but also the transformation of deeply ingrained structural arrangements and changes in the assumptions and practices that undergird the curriculum.

It will require, says Benjamin S. Bloom, professor emeritus of education at the University of Chicago and professor of education at Northwestern University, a “loss of innocence” on the part of teachers and administrators about what aids and retards the learning process.

Research has shown, he says, that much of what is labeled “individual differences in school learning” results more from particular school conditions than from innate variations in capability. Yet many educators remain for various reasons ignorant of this new knowledge and its implications, he says.

“There is a wide gulf between what we want in education and what we do in education,” he writes in All Our Children Learning.

Yet, says Mr. Boyer, “The elementary school is not an institution in deep trouble.”

In a recent newspaper interview, the former U.S. commissioner of education said that an ongoing examination of 20 public schools nationwide--part of his research for a forthcoming study of the early elementary grades-had so far yielded “mixed” evidence on school effectiveness.

Mixed Appraisal

Other educators agree, maintaining that the serious problems of some elementary schools are offset by “pockets of excellence” throughout the system.

Findings from the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress would seem to validate--with important qualifications--this mixed appraisal. They showed that, in general, American schoolchildren were reading better in 1984 than they were in 1971.

But among younger students, whose scores had risen steadily during the 1970’s, a leveling off of progress occurred between 1980 and 1984--possibly, Executive Director Archie E. Lapointe of NAEP speculates, due to the shift of attention away from elementary schools and toward high schools that began in the late 1970’s.

Moreover, a significant gap between the scores of black and Hispanic students and those of whites showed the continuing inability of schools to provide adequate services for at-risk students. The average black and Hispanic 17-year-old in 1984 was reading only slightly better than the average white 13-year-old.

And some 6 percent of all 9-year-olds, or 184,000 children, had not mastered even the most essential reading skills, making them likely candidates for future school failure.

Similarly “discouraging” findings, according to NAEP, have emerged from its 1984 examination of students’ writing skills.

But whatever their assessments of current school quality, educators agree on one vital fact: Social changes are putting enormous new pressures on the elementary school. “Schools are now having to do much of what homes used to do,” says Mr. Boyer, articulating a view shared by teachers and administrators nationwide.

‘Drastic Changes’ Ahead

In fact, the rapid and unprecedented alteration of the American social structure--a phenomenon Uri Bronfenbrenner, professor of human development, family studies, and psychology at Cornell University, has called “the unraveling of the social fabric"--accounts for much of the urgency with which some educators approach the current study of early learning.

“Changes as drastic as the Baby Boom await us,” writes Harold L. Hodgkinson, former director of the National Institute of Education, in a recent study of the demographic changes spawned by altered life styles, economic forces, and immigration patterns.

“Where baby-boom era educators had to struggle with quantity,” says Samuel G. Sava, executive director of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, “we must struggle with diversity-not just today but for decades to come.”

Among the unsettling statistics, he says, are these from the U.S. Census Bureau. Of every 100 children born today:

  • Twelve will be born out of wedlock, six of them to teen-age mothers;
  • Forty will be born to parents who divorce before the child is 18;
  • Five will be born to parents who separate;
  • Two will be born to parents of whom one will die before the child reaches 18; and
  • Only 41 will reach 18 in a “normal” household with two parents.

In addition to having the highest divorce and teen-age pregnancy rates in the industrialized world, Mr. Bronfenbrenner adds, the United States is also the only industrialized nation in the world in which almost a quarter of all infants and preschoolers live in poverty.

''The facts about this generation are tragic, but they are chillingly real,” said Donna Shalala, president of Hunter College, at a Columbia University conference last month on child welfare. ''There are 14 million children living in poverty in this country.”

It is a generation whose numbers will soon swell the enrollments of the nation’s elementary schools, adding new strains to the longstanding tension between equity and excellence.

According to projections from the U.S. Education Department, preprimary-through-8th-grade enrollments will grow by 14 percent between 1985 and 1993, adding some 4.5 million pupils to elementary classrooms.

It is because the progress of these children through the elementary grades has such crucial bearing on their future adaptation to school and society that hopes for the current rethinking of elementary school run so high.

Says Milton Goldberg, staff director for the National Commission on Excellence in Education, whose 1983 report on high schools, ''A Nation at Risk,” touched off the examination of schooling: ''Without reform in the elementary schools, reform in high school may not be effective.”

Indeed, according to research by Mr. Bloom and others, what is learned in the so-called primary grades of elementary school-kindergarten through grade 3--will, with preschool experiences and home influences, effectively determine the level at which a student performs throughout his education and beyond.

Writes Mr. Bloom in Stability and Change in Human Characteristics: “From conception to age 4, the individual develops 50 percent of his mature intelligence; from ages 4 to 8, he develops 30 percent, and from ages 8 to 17 the remaining 20 percent. ... We would expect the variations in the environment to have relatively little effect on the I.Q. after age 8, but would expect such variation to have a marked effect on the I.Q. before that age.”

‘Pernicious Patronage’

But an appreciation of the impact of learning in this period has been slow to emerge. According to Mr. Shedlin, the public, and even many within the profession, dispense respect and attention in a manner inversely proportionate to the educative task.

''The widespread and pernicious patronizing of those involved in elementary education has demoralized and eroded the spirit” of teachers and administrators, he says.

Mr. Sava adds that until the reform movement’s recent shift of focus, many in the elementary ranks feared that the continuing preoccupation with high school would “perpetuate the myth that elementary school is not important.”

But others suggest that the roots of demoralization run much deeper, involving longstanding struggles to balance goals that are often in conflict. Without formulating a clear-cut vision of what, precisely, the elementary school should accomplish, they predict, the current spate of commission reports and studies will do nothing to upgrade the field’s second-class status.

Past as Prologue

If history teaches anything, say the authors of An Education of Value: The Purposes and Practices of Schools, it is that there never was a “golden age” in education. Americans may sentimentalize the one-room schoolhouse of a by-gone era as a place where better teachers dispensed basic skills in an atmosphere of undiluted purposefulness, they say, but the historical record tells another story.

''The range of criticism, the persistent efforts to reform education from the early 19th century on, suggest that Americans have never been satisfied with their schools,” write the authors, Marvin Lazerson, Judith Block McLaughlin, Bruce McPherson, and the late Steven K. Bailey, all of the Harvard Graduate School of Education.

Disillusionment flowed naturally from the social context of early schooling, they suggest. Divided by religious and ethnic differences, by slavery and social biases, and by the expanding nation’s constant population flux, 19th-century Americans were “a people caught between competing beliefs in individualism and community.”

The schools were asked both to reflect and refract these competing values, an impossible task that, in one way or another, has remained the dilemma of elementary schools throughout their history.

The first public-school systems, fashioned in the afterglow of the Enlightenment, sought to embody the new nation’s democratic ideals.

In 1784, for example, the citizens of Boston pledged that the city’s schools would serve “the Benefit of the Poor and the Rich; that the Children of all, partaking equal Advantages and being placed upon an equal Footing, no Distinction might be made among them in the Schools on account of the different Circumstances of their Parents, but that the Capacity and natural Genius of each might be cultivated and improved for the future benefit of the whole Community.”

That noble sentiment served as the basis, five years later, for the nation’s first comprehensive state school law. But it did not, in reality, assure the truly common school.

Because so much of education’s purpose in the new land involved the handing down of values, devising a curriculum often pitted the various religious and ethnic groups against one another, education historians point out. Some denominations broke with the system entirely to form their own schools. For others, the answer lay in local control--and schools in insulated from the offending morality of other groups.

Decentralization has always aided and abetted the crossed purposes of the American school system. Says one leading educator, ''We demand local control, but want national results.”

In addition, says the philosopher Mortimer J. Adler, an essential strain of elitism in the system has always belied its democratic goals. In his book, The Paideia Program, Mr. Adler notes that, although Thomas Jefferson helped advance the notion that universal education was essential to a democracy, he also espoused a two-track system, one that would differentiate the labor class from “those destined for leisure and learning.”

Not until 1916, Mr. Adler writes, when John Dewey published Democracy and Education, did a leading educator champion a democratic system of public schooling that would offer all pupils equal access to quality.

Dewey believed that, in addition to teaching academic skills, the schools should be responsible for such social functions as the acculturation of new immigrants. His thoughts were a leading force in the progressive-school movement, which traced its roots back to Jean-Jacques Rousseau and saw education as a pluralistic phenomenon.

But the country’s growing industrial needs in the early part of this century led to the simplification of many of the movement’s chief ideas, which stressed learning by doing and the need to draw learning experiences from real life, led by the child’s needs and interests.

In reality, historians say, the “vocational education” advanced by the progressives often became another, more sophisticated, two-track system.

Confusion of Purposes

In the latter half of the century, efforts to make equal educational access a reality have often compounded the confusion of schools over what their mission should be. They have found themselves not only places of learning but also the nation’s primary instrument of social change.

“Schools have been called upon to serve as a stage to carry out desegregation, mainstream the handicapped, and provide the emotional support once expected of families, churches, and social agencies,” said Patricia A. Graham, dean of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, last month at the annual meeting of the National Association of Independent Schools in Atlanta.

The schools are not multipurpose institutions, she argued. Their job is academic teaching-to help all children learn.

But is the mission that simple? When Harper’s magazine convened a forum of nine prominent Americans to discuss “How Not To Fix the Schools” (February 1986), the list of possible roles to be filled by the schools included the following: “promote social justice,” ’'produce vigilant citizens,” “make people functionally competent and employable,” “equip people with a taste for lifelong learning,” develop “personal empowerment and civic engagement,” “control children” and perform a “custodial function,” ’'build character,” and “develop values.”

Said Walter Karp, an author and contributing editor of the magazine: “If you went to the state legislature and said that the schools should produce inquiring, idealistic, active students with self-esteem and self-confidence who have been encouraged from the moment they start school to think for themselves and understand their liberties, those politicians would faint dead away.”

The increasing expectation that schools will be comprehensive, says John I. Goodlad, professor of education at the University of Washington and director of the Center for Educational Renewal, has overtaxed their capacities and made failure and dissatisfaction inevitable. “Schooling and education are not synonymous, however much we may link the two,” he writes in A Place Called School. Other institutions--from homes and churches to the media, museums, and places of work must relieve schools of learning activities they have little expertise in providing, he says, leaving as the central function of school “education in the most fundamental sense.”

Significantly, one of the characteristics of high-quality schools cited in studies by both the National Association of Elementary School Principals and various effective-schools groups is that each school has a written statement of its goals and purposes.

But the schools’ realization of their limitations must also be brought home to the public, Mr. Goodlad concludes. “So long as our expectations for education are comprehensive, and we continue to equate schooling and education, there is little possibility that our schools will be satisfactory.”

Readiness Uncertainties

When a young doctor named Arnold Gesell surveyed the school scene of 1919, he saw a system in which nearly one out of every four 1st graders could not master the material necessary for promotion. The problem, he determined, was not that these failing children lacked the intelligence or the drive to learn. They simply were not ready for school.

That year, he suggested that school children be required to pass a ''psycho-physical entrance examination” before starting school.

“No feature of public-school administration is apparently under less control than that of school entrance,” he wrote. ''We virtually place a premium upon failure by insisting so speedily on academic standards of promotion.”

Both a physician and a psychologist, Dr. Gesell went on to become a pioneer in the new field of child development, later founding the Yale Clinic of Child Development. And in the 1960’s--more than 40 years after he had suggested it--a test for general school readiness bearing his name was adapted from his work.

But Dr. Gesell’s primary recommendation--that a child’s developmental age, not his chronological age, govern when and how he is taught--has not yet been widely adopted.

For example, according to researchers at the Gesell Institute, as many as one-third to one-half of the children in any elementary grade are not developmentally ready to master the academic material or meet the social expectations of the age group. In classrooms grouped according to chronological age, they say, the range in the developmental ages of the children can be as great as two and a half years.

“Children who fail as a result of improper developmental placement are for the most part normal children,” write teachers at Massachusetts’ Northeast Foundation for Children in A Notebook for Teachers: Making Changes in the Elementary Curriculum. Such children’s only disability, they say, “is a school-induced disability.”

The possibility of creating a more loosely structured experience for children in the early grades is a suggestion that has surfaced often in recent years. But for most public schools, charged with educating massive numbers of pupils in as cost-efficient a manner as possible, the traditional graded system based on chronological age has seemed the only manageable option.

Many Learning Styles, One System

To many child-development specialists, however, arbitrary grade placement is just the beginning of the problem. Schools frequently compound the damage for developmentally young children-and assure inadequate learning for others-by using curricula and teaching materials that are not age-appropriate, they say.

In addition, they add, teachers often fail to make allowances for the vast range of individual differences among children.

“Children come into the world with their brains wired for many different learning styles,” says Melvin D. Levine, director of the Clinical Center for the Study of Development and Learning at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, “but elementary schools usually stress only one. Differing cognitive styles are acceptable in adults, but not in kids.”

Dr. Levine, a pediatrician, recalls that early in his practice he was struck by the large numbers of elementary-school children he saw who were “chronically success-deprived.”

In time, he came to appreciate that lag times in the development of some of the key biological functions related to school performance explained some of their difficulties. For example, he says, the development of working memory, which is crucial to learning to read, may be delayed in some children until well after the age of 7, making them able perhaps to understand a paragraph, but not a complete story.

Even when a child’s development is normal, however, the methods and materials of his particular classroom may make it difficult for him to truly grasp the information being taught. The common practice of using textbooks to teach 1st- and 2nd-grade courses in science and social studies is one example development specialists cite. Research has shown that words and pictures are not adequate to convey to children of this age group information about the world around them. They learn primarily through experience and observation.

“In American education, we often forget what we know about children,” says Chip Wood, director of the Northeast Foundation for Children. “We would never require a 5- year-old to hit a tennis ball with regularity and strength, or punish a 4-year-old for telling tall tales. But we do require a 5-year-old, who is still sorting out the world, to make letters that make little sense to him; we ask a 6-year-old, who can only count, to sit quietly at a desk doing adding and subtracting in a workbook.”

The Key: Developmental Stages

Some of what educators know about children is instinctive, but other information has come from the relatively young fields of child development and educational research. The Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget began to revolutionize the learning establishment in the 1930’s with his theory of the cognitive and intellectual development of the child.

He showed that development proceeds in biologically determined stages that always follow one another in the same sequential order.

The young child reasons differently than an adult and is often incapable of understanding logical reasoning, Piaget said. He first learns about the world through interaction with it, by constantly collecting and classifying information, making predictions, and building on what he knows.

According to Piaget, the child has an internal need to create order; he does not need an external stimulus to learn, nor will he be able to enter one developmental stage without gaining the knowledge in the stage that precedes it.

Though some researchers now question the rigidity of Piaget’s stages of cognitive development, there is little’ disagreement over the existence of biologically determined sequences of growth. Other researchers-including those behaviorially oriented, such as Gesell, and those more biologically oriented, such as several groups now studying brain growth-have in fact refined, validated, and enlarged the concept.

But despite this growing base of knowledge, many of the most elemental decisions about schooling, such as when children should begin school, what should be taught at various stages, and how school years should be grouped, are often made without reference to it.

Says John I. Goodlad: “The organization of schooling appears to proceed as if we had no relevant know ledge regarding the development of children and youth.”

For example, according to Conrad E. Toepfer Jr., associate director of the Center for Curriculum Planning at the State University of New York at Buffalo, school curricula are devised in ways that fail to take new discoveries about brain growth into account.

From birth to age 16, he says, children experience predictable spurts of brain growth, followed by alternating periods when growth levels off and reaches a plateau. During the spurts of growth, Mr. Toepfer notes, the brain grows by from 5 to 10 percent, and students are able to learn new and higher-level thinking skills more easily.

Yet schools continue to give children virtually the same amount of new information to assimilate and the same number of skills to master each year, he says.

Mr. Goodlad argues that school structure should be changed to do away with traditional grade levels and link related age groups in a “continuum” of three phases, eliminating what he calls “soft spots” in the present hierarchy.

He would lower the entrance age to 4, and create a primary phase covering ages 4 to 7. He would also eliminate the “substantial repetition and slow progression of subject matter in the upper grades of elementary school and into junior high” by creating a second phase covering ages 8 to 11. Finally, he would put the “years of great change and stress"--ages 11 to 15--together in a third phase.

Such restructuring to capitalize on similar developmental phases and meet the special needs of various age groups has been a frequent area of experimentation, producing such separate-building solutions as the junior high school and the middle school. But there is little unanimity on which, if any, of the configurations produces the best results.

In some systems, the inability to settle on a single plan has led to a profusion of school options. In March, for example, Philadelphia officials announced the most recent of several “mini-reorganizations” of district schools. The system now has nine different grade arrangements, officials said.

Curriculum ‘Shove-Down’

But more disturbing to some researchers is the phenomenon they refer to as “curriculum shove-down” or cognitive “sifting down"--the increasing tendency of schools and parents to require greater and greater academic content at younger and younger ages. It is reflected not only in the rise of preschools and what have been called “academic kindergartens,” but also in the growing experimentation with opening schools to 4-year-olds.

“Children at 4 and 5 have a genuine need to play,” says Anne K. Soderman, assistant professor of family and child ecology at Michigan State University, “and the quality and quantity of time they spend playing, are later seen (or observed to be lacking) in their creative thought, ability to make decisions, and potential for coping with stressful situations.”

She and others attribute recent reports from the American Academy of Pediatrics noting a dramatic increase in “stress-related” symptoms among young children at least partially to the fact that children are being asked to perform at levels beyond their developmental capacity.

Some researchers argue that there are few empirical studies that support the concept of a new primary structure for children at ages 4 and 5.

On the other hand, comment James K. Uphoff of Wright State University and psychologist June Gilmore in the September 1985 issue of Educational Leadership, many studies indicate that pushing children into schools too soon may be harmful. “Being bright and being ready for formal schooling are two separate issues,” they write.

Moreover, say the researchers, intelligence seems to have had little to do with the results. ''The less bright but older and developmentally more mature pupils were able to do more with the ability they had than were the brighter, younger students,” they write.

In fact, the Grosse Point, Mich., school district abandoned its early-entrance program for very bright children in the 1960’s, after data from a 14-year longitudinal study showed poor social adjustment and below-average school performance by a large proportion of these gifted children.

Just ‘Another Panacea’

Starting school earlier is just looking for another panacea for the ills of education, says Edward Zigler, director of the Yale Child Development Center. “We keep asking schools to do more without adequate funds to do anything well,” he says.

Others suggest “that the rush to enroll children in schools at earlier and earlier ages is not an educational phenomenon at all, but a direct consequence of the growth in the number of working mothers. A report by the U.S. Labor Department released last month showed that some 25 million children now live in families in which the mother is away from home at least part of the workday on a regular basis.

According to the National Association of Elementary School Principals, the number of 3-year-olds enrolled in preschool more than quadrupled between 1967 and 1981-- from 273,000 to 891,000--and 4-year-old enrollments nearly doubled--from 870,000 to 1,442,000.

There is evidence, however, that certain well-structured and comprehensive preschool experiences may provide low-income and other at-risk children with experiences that help prepare them developmentally for school.

But, according to the High/Scope Educational Research Foundation, only 29 percent of the nation’s poor 3- and 4-year-olds are enrolled in preschool programs that provide educational services, and not all of these are of the quality necessary to produce benefits.

There is also a growing recognition among educators, however, that stories of classroom failure are not simply the results of the socioeconomic problems that children bring to school. They also reflect gaps between research and practice.

“Our failure to apply in the classroom what we have substantiated through research is evident in the wreckages we attempt to mop up in our secondary schools,” says Ms. Soderman. Boys outnumber girls by 13 to 1 in remedial classes and by as much as 8 to 1 in classes for the emotionally impaired, she notes. Yet research has clearly shown that boys may be from 6 to 18 months behind girls in moving through the structural changes involved in early cognitive development.

Equipped To Teach?

“We now know how to help virtually every child reach his or her full potential in school,” wrote the late Stephen K. Bailey, former president of the National Academy of Education, in describing what he called the “revolution in our understanding of the factors directly influencing learning.”

Without large expenditures of money, without new equipment, without sharp reductions in student-teacher ratios, he said, “we can provide the conditions that will enable most students to learn most of what is taught.”

Can we? The “we” in that equation includes primarily classroom teachers and parents-two groups whose influence research has shown to be central to a child’s progress in school. But both, whatever their positive educative powers may be in theory, today are viewed as incapable in many instances of creating Mr. Bailey’s “conditions” for learning.

Though the idea that “what is wrong with the schools is the teachers” has been discredited as mostly myth, the current scrutiny of the profession and the findings of recent research have uncovered weaknesses in the training, practice, and treatment of teachers that many believe are clearly linked to the institutional problems of schooling.

At the same time, the nation is entering a period in which mass teacher retirements and rapid enrollment growth will combine to produce a renewed teaching corps in elementary education.

The U.S. Education Department projects that between now and 1993, more than a quarter of a million new teachers will be needed in elementary-school classrooms. Assuming that reform moves at the state level can mitigate such disincentives to joining the profession as low pay and lack of advancement potential, colleges of education may have a rare opportunity to effect real change in the lower grades.

But many observers say that under present teacher-training standards, that is not likely to happen.

The Commission on Reading of the National Academy of Education, for example, said in its report last year that “prospective elementary teachers do not acquire an adequate base in either the liberal arts and sciences or in pedagogy.” It noted that although the teaching of reading and the language arts is critical in these grades, elementary teachers-to-be “get only a fleeting introduction to the knowledge required for teaching reading.”

“Elementary-school teachers are generalists,” the report said. “The temptation is for teachers-in-training to take a smattering of everything and end up not knowing anything in depth.”

Most critics and many practicing teachers agree that, especially in the amount of time allotted to actual classroom observation and training, the current teacher-training curriculum is deficient.

Others charge that a deeper deficiency permeates the whole program: a failure to adequately integrate new knowledge gained from educational research.

Elliot W. Eisner, professor of education at Stanford University and a former official of the American Educational Research Association, found in an informal poll of his education-school colleagues that few could cite instances in which they had actually used research studies in making decisions dealing with their own curriculum planning, teacher evaluation, or institutional assessments.

“If educational researchers do not use research findings to guide their own professional decisions,” he writes in the March 1984 issue of Phi Delta Kappan, “why should we expect those less informed to use research findings to guide theirs?”

One problem, he says, is that too much educational research has distanced itself from the classroom, giving actual teachers advice they must intuit from experiments on “pigeons playing ping pong and rats running mazes.”

The Teacher-Learner Relationship

At least some researchers, such as Benjamin Bloom, have made the classroom setting their laboratory in recent years, producing the body of knowledge Mr. Bailey characterized as revolutionary. But their insights, too, are failing to make their way to new and practicing teachers.

What Mr. Bloom and his colleagues have shown is that there are alterable factors in the teacher-learner relationship that can be studied and improved. For too long, the University of Chicago professor says, research about learning concentrated on the factors that provided a means to predict student achievement; now, he says, headway is being made in areas that can actually alter the achievement level.

For example, where research might formerly have examined the role of time allocations for various subject areas, or the time spent in performing certain tasks, new research looks at the time a student is actually engaged in learning-the time on task.

And the research of Mr. Bloom and others has suggested that not only does time-on-task have a higher correlation with achievement than time allocated, but it, unlike the fixed measure, can be increased through a specific sequence of learning tasks.

In a similar fashion, most of the research on teaching has, until recently, dealt with teacher characteristics. Now, says Mr. Bloom, the focus has shifted to the quality of teaching itself. Characteristics are inherent and can rarely be changed, he says; teaching quality can.

By observing teachers in the classroom, researchers have been able to spot the unintended cues and reinforcements teachers give their students and the impact different types of interactions have on learning. The value of such studies comes mainly as a feedback mechanism in inservice training, Mr. Bloom says. But the overall shift in focus to teaching quality may, he suggests, give educators a clearer picture of the kinds of training that could improve both teaching and learning.

Many Disabilities Are ‘Environmental’

Teaching methodology, however, creates only one of the “conditions” for learning. Another growing body of research suggests that teachers cannot compensate for the losses in motivation and encouragement a child suffers if his parents are not somehow linked to the learning process.

The Harvard University psychologist Jerome Kagan told a recent Washington seminar of the Federation of Behavioral, Psychological, and Cognitive Sciences that “80 percent of reading disabilities are purely environmental"--the result of a child’s spending the first five years of life in a home that did not stimulate language development and provide motivation for learning.

In Developing Talent in Young People, edited by Mr. Bloom, several researchers discuss the findings from a study of gifted young artists, athletes, scientists, and musicians. A common denominator in the backgrounds of the prodigies, they say, was a “child-centered family” that encouraged their talent development and stressed the value of achievement, self-discipline, and the productive use of time.

In addition, the findings from two decades of cooperative research studies in 22 nations have shown that, in each country, the major factor accounting for differences in learning among students was home environment.

Such findings have led some education theorists to propose a new, broadened concept of elementary schools as “community” centers of child-development information and child care for parents, and before- and after-school services for children, in addition to traditional schooling.

And in Missouri, a pioneering project called “New Parents as Teachers” has demonstrated that involving parents in a program of regular prenatal and neonatal screenings and informational programs on child development have significant positive effects on their child’s cognitive, physical, and emotional well-being So successful was the pilot effort-supported jointly by the state department of education and the Danforth Foundation--that key elements have been mandated and funded by the legislature.

Time for ‘Empowerment?’

But for teachers, and many who have studied the profession, neither the translation of research to practice nor a full partnership with parents may be possible without basic structural changes in the schools that give more autonomy to the teacher.

Bettye Caldwell, a researcher at the University of Arkansas’s Center for Child Development and Education, says, for example, that often the efforts of teachers to incorporate what they know into teaching practice are stifled by administrators’ blind adherence to official curricula.

Her views were echoed by many other teachers last month at the Education Commission of the States’ ''Teacher Renaissance” meeting in Washington. One of the most frequently heard comments that day was: ''We know how to make things better, if we could.”

Under the kinds of broad structural changes being proposed by many in the field, elementary teachers would have that kind of power. “Empowerment,” in fact, has become a new watchword in the field. At the moment, at least, it seems to be shorthand for an equal say in a system based on collaboration.

End to ‘Sameness?’

There is an obstinate stability about the American school system, says Arthur Blumberg, that seems to defy attempts to reform it.

Writing in Schools, Conflict, and Change, the Syracuse University education scholar says that despite decades in which ''huge outpourings of human and financial energy” have been invested in change, “it is hard for a person who even occasionally visits schools to escape the gnawing feeling that things are pretty much the same as they have always been.”

Likewise, the author of Educational and Organizational Leadership in Elementary Schools--Thomas J. Sergiovanni of the University of Illinois and David L. Elliott of the Berkeley, Calif., Studies in Education--say it would be possible to visit schools from Maine to California and not be certain of the state or region one was in from the course content and methods of instruction.

”All the rhetoric and special projects of the past few decades notwithstanding,” they write, “there has for most of this century been one nearly standardized national curriculum in the elementary schools of this country.”

According to John Goodlad, “Schools differ; but schooling is everywhere very much the same.”

At the heart of this sameness are traditional ways of ordering the elements of schooling--class time, coursework, students, and personnel--that, because they serve the vital interests of the institution, have been highly resistant to change.

Schools are “ontologically insecure institutions,” says Mr. Blumberg; they value peacefulness and loyalty. The only kinds of changes that receive broad support are those he describes as “additive or subtractive"-the adoption of a new technique for teaching reading, for example, or the removal of a constraining administrative procedure.

“The change that receive little support or encouragement are those that require reconceptualizing and restructuring some part of the system-for example, the curriculum or the manner in which school is organized,” he says.

But, says Yale University’s James P. Comer, it is precisely this attempt to fashion new and improved schools out of tired organizational structures and outworn methods that has helped create the current “crisis in education.”

Teachers who lack the power to make even the elemental decisions about instruction-what textbooks and materials they will use, how they will divide their class time among subjects, and what standards of evaluation they will use--rarely have the flexibility needed to gear programs and methodology to the individual child’s needs, other educators point out.

And curricula that are set in lock-step progressions and ruled by the content of standardized tests, they say, allow scant room for the teaching styles and innovations shown through research to aid comprehension and achievement levels.

“One nearly universal desideratum in all learning theories,” Walt Haney of Boston College notes, “is that to learn, an individual needs to receive rapid and specific feedback on what is attempted. This simply does not happen in most school testing programs.”

When emphasis is placed on test results, he writes in the October 1985 issue of Educational Leadership, “the beneficiary may be the test scores,” not general learning.

“What we should be doing,” says Columbia University’s Diane Ravitch, “is trying to infuse the curriculum with things that are fantastic, perhaps exotic.”

But some states are continuing to reduce what flexibility exists for principals and teachers. Minnesota, for example, has recently drafted a new set of statewide curriculum guidelines that would specify the precise number of hours to be spent on each subject area. Previously, broad area requirements had allowed each school to apportion the time for individual subjects.

Change for Structures, Not Procedures

Some educators suggest that only by rethinking priorities and reordering basic structures will schools be able to solve such dilemmas. Greater time and attention must be paid to staff development-for example, in giving teachers more instruction on how to use class time more efficiently, they say, And innovations in staff support systems may be needed.

In addition, others suggest that schools should give greater consideration to alterations in the current timeframes, such as longer school days and year-round operation, to make better use of facilities and lessen the constant pressure to “get through the material.”

But for many in the field the answer lies less in remaking the schedule than in reframing the hierarchy. Despite the fact that the average elementary school has fewer than 500 students and a staff of some 18 teachers, they say, it has adopted bureaucratic modes of operation that stifle creativity and often preclude the kinds of sharing and joint decisionmaking that promote unity of purpose.

“Education is fundamentally a cooperative enterprise,” says Samuel Bacharach, professor of organizational behavior at Cornell University. “Schools that build and sustain a culture of cooperation, that encourage the sharing of job knowledge, are precisely those schools that stand out from others and do a particularly effective job of educating their students.”

Benjamin Bloom suggests that the way individual schools operate can also teach students much about society’s values and human behavior.

During the past decade, he says, sociologists, anthropologists, and social psychologists have been studying the ways in which schools are organized and the relationships among administrators, teachers, and students. They are discovering that there is a “latent curriculum” that children intuit from observation and inference-and that the lessons it teaches are highly durable.

Whether or not the current “Year of the Elementary School” will be able to improve the quality of those and other lessons is now an open question. The discussion is only beginning, and so far the themes and priorities have yet to clearly emerge.

Mr. Goodlad, in his study, A Place Called School, says that for “the regularities of schooling” to be changed in America, a “critical mass” of people and groups in the society must first see the need for change. Then, he says, people both inside and outside the schools must “detach themselves sufficiently from their cultural surroundings to recognize other possibilities.”

Both the problems and the possibilities are awaiting definition. But change, says Mr. Goodlad, echoing the sentiments of many in the field, “will not be easy.”

With research and reporting by Assistant Editors Anne Bridgman and Lynn Olson.
A version of this article appeared in the April 16, 1986 edition of Education Week


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