Oregon Reforms Seen Redefining Roles of Teachers and Children

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CORVALLIS, ORE.--Carol Young, a 15-year veteran of the teaching ranks at Lincoln Elementary School here, remembers when her pupils sat in assigned seats and she spent hours drilling them on handwriting.

Today, Ms. Young and a colleague, Elise Bradley, team-teach a multi-age group of children in the 1st- through 3rd-grade age range who often get to choose where and with whom they work, what they study, and what materials they use.

They also work independently or in small groups on projects that have no fixed outcome, but, instead, are designed to challenge children at all levels to progress as far as they can.

"We're looking at broader goals as opposed to jumping through the hoops of individual skills,'' Ms. Young says. "Before, we lost sight of the big picture.''

Ms. Young says the shift marks a break from a system she and others felt was failing too many children.

"We worked hard enough and long enough to know that if it was going to work, it would have,'' she says.

The transition at Lincoln Elementary first came about through the work of a committee, launched by the Corvallis school district in 1985, of teachers, administrators, and parents who studied reforms, visited exemplary programs, and shared ideas.

Many of the school's teachers also took advantage of classes offered by various agencies and groups in "activity based'' approaches to reading, mathematics, and science; whole language and process writing; and integrated social studies.

They became versed in the theory of "developmentally appropriate'' practice advanced by the National Association for the Education of Young Children and learned new assessment methods from British Columbia educators brought in by the district for training sessions.

In the spring of 1988, the school board gave Corvallis's 10 elementary schools the go-ahead to adapt the study panel's recommendations to their own settings and needs.

The reforms were well under way at Lincoln when the state legislature in 1991 passed a reform law encouraging such innovations as multi-age classes, team-teaching, and cooperative learning.

The measure mandated that the state education department recommend models for "developmentally appropriate nongraded primary programs'' and design a new assessment system that includes performance-based measures.

In January, a state task force on primary reform issued a report recommending that districts be required to revamp their K-3 programs by 2000, encouraging the use of mixed-age groups, and offering guidelines for staff training, assessment, parental involvement, child care, and preventive services.

A Place in the Spectrum

Lincoln's vision of reform features multi-age classrooms spanning two or three grade levels in which the same teacher or team stays with students for two or three years.

Two-teacher teams have time to plan together when pupils go to music and physical-education classes, and they sometimes join with others in their section of the school to plan activities as "villages.''

Lincoln has also been moving away from pulling children with special needs out for tutoring; instead, Chapter 1, special-education, and bilingual aides are brought into the classroom to work with students.

Children routinely spend time in learning centers with varied themes and activities, and the community is drawn into the learning process.

Recently, for example, students staged a play at a theater on the Oregon State University campus, interviewed workers at a local highway project, and rode city buses to a grocery store to scope out food prices.

The school has stopped using letter grades, standard report cards, and national norm-referenced standardized tests. Instead, it now uses state criterion-referenced tests in selected grades and has increased the use of portfolios, teacher narratives, and student-led parent conferences.

In one project involving students of 3rd- to 5th-grade age, children rotate among four teachers to study such topics as pre-Columbian Native Americans, explorers, geology, and geography, and they use a variety of inquiry-based and creative approaches, including mapmaking, cooperative research, written and oral reports, skits, and murals.

Teachers' and students' own evaluations of their work are shared with parents and passed on to the middle school they will attend, Ed Curtin, a teacher at Lincoln, explains.

Even the physical-education program, notes Dominic Cusimano, its instructor, de-emphasizes competition and offers activities that "help kids find a place in the spectrum to develop their own skill at their own rate.''

"The joy for me is seeing kids succeed at things who didn't think they could,'' he says.

'Am I Doing This Right?'

Karen Eason, an "instructional facilitator'' at Lincoln, works with teachers one on one or in groups to model new approaches, offer feedback, and help teachers organize their schedules and guide student projects.

Her role, she says, was conceived to "recognize the change process and ... provide training on what to expect from themselves and others.''

Ms. Eason describes the teachers' adjustment to the changes as a "mixed bag'' of frustration and excitement. But the transition, she argues, has "revived in a lot of us the love of teaching'' by allowing educators to be guides rather than "gurus.''

For Ms. Bradley, a 12-year teacher with a more traditional background, the changes have meant "letting go of some of my needs and listening, observing, and thinking about children as individuals,'' instead of "teaching to the middle.''

At first, she admits, "there was questioning: Am I doing this right?'' But her confidence has increased, she says, as she sees even the most vulnerable children show "motivation, comprehension, and enjoyment''--and progress in reading and writing--when they are engaged in projects that capture their interest and imagination.

Insuring that children of varying ages and abilities master needed skills, Ms. Young notes, means asking, "What can I do every day to make sure they grow?''

Avoiding Burnout

The biggest challenges, notes Dan Hays, Lincoln's principal, have been "breaking away from history and tradition, shifting from paper and pencil to pertinent tasks, and getting parents to understand'' the theories behind the changes.

While parents offered advice and suggestions in the initial stages of the transition, he says, there was "dissension and polarity'' until some of the reform concepts caught on.

Even now, Ms. Eason says, "parents want some more clear expectations of what these kids should be able to do''--a task that Lincoln and other local schools are working together to address.

At the same time, she notes, staff members are still "in the process of figuring out the most organized method'' to accomplish numerous reforms without "burning out.''

While embracing change, Alice Glass, also a teacher at Lincoln, says her years of experience have taught her "not to throw out the baby with the bath water.''

Amid the choices and challenges in her classroom, her students still spend time studying multiplication tables and reading aloud together.

Patchwork of Progress

Mary Harrison Elementary School in the coastal town of Toledo, Ore., exemplifies a school in an earlier stage of making the transition between new and old ways.

The K-2 school of 250 pupils has seven classrooms that mix children in the 1st- and 2nd-grade age range and three kindergarten classes.

Like Lincoln, it promotes an interconnected approach to subjects and favors whole-language reading, hands-on math and science, integrated social studies, and heterogeneous grouping. Its physical-education and music programs also complement academic themes.

The school has also mainstreamed its special-needs students, and Chapter 1 and speech and language specialists, too, work mainly in the regular classrooms.

Mary Harrison also houses a Head Start program, and efforts are under way to coordinate some activities for children, parents, and teachers under a state Head Start collaboration grant.

The school is also trying new assessment methods and offers parents a choice between more and less traditional report cards.

But from class to class, there is wide variation in the degree to which teachers are putting the early-grades reforms in place.

One room is a patchwork of student art and writing, abuzz with pupils collaborating on diverse projects; another is quiet and neat, with all eyes fixed on a teacher directing the entire class through the same activity.

Ms. Fields, who took over as Mary Harrison's principal in September--becoming the school's third in a year--says her goal is a setting where "every child is taken from where they are [and] challenged to succeed.''

But some reforms have been stymied, she says, by a stagnant local resource base and Measure 5, a property-tax-limitation measure passed by Oregon voters in 1990.

Her district, Ms. Fields notes, has cut out elementary counselors and home visits to families and halved the number of hours worked by Chapter 1 and speech and language specialists. A pending proposal to cut full-day kindergarten back to alternate days, she notes, could also complicate plans to incorporate kindergarten into multi-age classes.

The school has not adopted team-teaching yet because "finding common planning time is a problem,'' Ms. Fields explains.

Schoolwide Commitment

Despite such barriers, the principal says, she and the teachers are trying to work out solutions. Prompted by parents, they are also seeking ways to extend multi-age classes into area elementary schools serving grades 3 and higher.

Teachers say they also feel constrained by classes that are too large and spaces that are too "hemmed in'' for multi-age groups. Another problem, they say, is the difficulty they have getting materials--notably in science--for hands-on projects.

While observing that most parents are supportive, Janay Kneeland, a teacher at Mary Harrison, says some question whether their children are challenged enough and why they are not getting more paper-and-pencil work.

But she and others are enthusiastic about the changes they see in children.

After accepting a job at Mary Harrison, Stacie Briggs, who had been teaching in a more traditional school, says she "spent the whole summer with a stomachache'' anticipating the adjustment.

Now in her third year at the Toledo school, she reels off the advantages, telling the story of a child she thought she was not reaching the first year who was bolstered toward success, she believes, by being able to return to a "familiar'' classroom.

Paul Bradley, a 3rd-year teacher at Mary Harrison, says that, despite parents' concern that older children may lose ground, their retention of knowledge "goes up to 90 percent'' when they coach younger peers.

While the most dramatic reforms may only be in "pockets'' of the state, says Anita McClanahan, the state education department's early-childhood-education coordinator, state policies and districts' innovations are steering Oregon schools toward a "much more child-centered approach.''

"In almost every school site,'' she adds, "more people are saying, 'I'm going to join you' than those who are saying, 'No way.' ''

Vol. 12, Issue 26

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