Early Childhood Opinion

Beyond the ‘Good Start’ Mentality

By Stanley Pogrow — April 19, 2000 11 min read
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Virtually the entire focus of school reform for improving learning, other than standards, is on grades K-3. The ingrained belief is that the most important thing is to get kids off to a good start, and that the best guarantee of their doing well later is to get them reading on grade level by the end of grade 3. As a result, huge amounts of money are pouring into kindergarten through the 3rd grade to reduce class sizes and pay for other special efforts to help students get off to a good start.

Primary reliance on early intervention does not provide the hoped-for long-term benefits.

Clearly, getting students off to the right start is important. However, primary reliance on early intervention does not provide the hoped-for long-term benefits. Research generally shows little or no impact from early intervention beyond the 3rd grade. Early gains are usually not sustained in later grades. Even in the few cases where there is a sustained effect beyond the 3rd grade (studies where experimental students continue to do better than comparison groups), this does not mean that the early-intervention students are doing well or making progress after the 3rd grade.

For example, the claims of the very popular and expensive Success for All schoolwide program are based on research showing that gains in the early grades are sustained in the upper-elementary grades. But as I have shown (Educational Researcher, October 1998 and November 1999), use of the “sustained gains” statistic masked the reality that SFA students made few gains after the 1st grade and entered the 6th grade reading three years below grade level. This is not success, but the same trajectory of failure we have always seen. The same problem exists for the most influential study supporting early intervention, the Tennessee STAR experiments with early class-size reduction. It, too, relies on sustained-gain analysis.

Much as a long-distance runner is said to hit a “wall"—most Title I students hit a cognitive wall as they proceed in school and the curriculum continues to become more complex.

As a result, there is no evidence—even in the latest research with the most current approaches—that early intervention has an impact on the classic trajectory of disadvantaged students’ falling further and further behind after the 3rd grade, even when the intervention is continued. Given this, the key to reversing subsequent decline it seems to me is to provide interventions in grades 4-8 that can continue to accelerate learning. The greatest need in American education reform is for better interventions for disadvantaged students in grades 4-8.

Actually, grades 4-8 are the biggest problem for all our students. International comparisons show American students doing well by grade 4, but poorly by grade 8. The problem is even more perverse for disadvantaged students. In the 3rd grade, 19 percent of Title I students achieve mastery of basic reading skills; by 6th grade, only 5 percent achieve basic-skill mastery. (The equivalent figures for math are 32 percent in grade 3, declining to 20 percent by grade 6.) I suspect that the figures for grade 8 would be even worse, as would the figures for mastery of advanced skills. (These data also show that for large numbers of students, achieving mastery by grade 3 did not lead to mastery later on.) All of my work shows that most of these students are capable of achieving at much higher levels.

The most widely used explanation for this overall national decline after the 4th grade is that our curriculum is a mile wide with no depth, and is too repetitive. If that is the case, adjusting the curriculum to make it more sophisticated will benefit those students who are already doing well in school and further disadvantage those who are not. The reason for this dichotomy is that, while the structure of the curriculum may be an overall problem for the nation as a whole, my large-scale experience and research with Title I and learning-disabled students indicates that their drop-off after the 3rd grade is largely the result of a very different process: the “cognitive wall.”

The idea that low performance in the early years determines the future is largely a myth.

Much as a long-distance runner is said to hit a “wall"—a point beyond which it is difficult for the body and mind to continue to drive forward—most Title I students hit a cognitive wall as they proceed in school and the curriculum continues to become more complex. Most Title I students appear to hit the cognitive wall (that is, to have extreme difficulty understanding the more complicated learning processes demanded) shortly after the 3rd grade. This cognitive wall limits the benefit that disadvantaged students reap from high standards, high-quality instruction, and other reform efforts. As a result, learning gaps widen again after the 3rd grade—regardless of the quality of early interventions or whether the students are at grade level in the 3rd grade.

The cognitive wall is not, however, a result of students’ innate ability. Indeed, most disadvantaged students are bright and eager to learn. The cognitive wall exists because they have not had sufficient prior experience in having discussions with adults about ideas, and therefore have no cultural sense of strategic understanding. I refer to them as “students who do not understand understanding,” a problem that results from a lack of sophisticated conversation in the home—and in school. These students do benefit from structured and aligned approaches in the early grades. But when the curriculum gets more integrative and open-ended after the 3rd grade, primary reliance on these same structured and aligned approaches actually retards learning. Something else is needed after the 3rd grade.

Almost 20 years ago, I started a program to accelerate the learning of disadvantaged students in grades 4-8, and to see if it was possible to do so by developing a sense of understanding.

It has become increasingly difficult to implement the type of focus intervention needed in grades 4-8 to accelerate learning.

The approach combined the use of visual information via the computer, which was culturally familiar to students, with sophisticated Socratic interaction (teaching and learning by asking), which was not. Three thousand schools and 500,000 students later, it is clear from the Higher Order Thinking Skills, or HOTS, program that it is possible to accelerate the development of most disadvantaged students after the 3rd grade—regardless of how far behind they are after the 3rd grade. In fact, our research shows that developing a sense of understanding simultaneously produces gains in a wide range of traditional academic measures, such as test scores and grade point average, as well as in problem-solving, writing, thinking, and social development.

In other words, the idea that low performance in the early years determines the future is largely a myth. What determines success later on is the existence of a cultural instinct of how to generalize, be metacognitive, and use automatically other key understanding processes—along with a desire to succeed. The latter is not sufficient. Our research is currently showing that when a sense of understanding is not developed, students invariably do poorly in subsequent grades. The cognitive wall remains intact.

At the same time, there is good and bad news about accelerating learning after the 3rd grade. The bad news is that overcoming the cognitive wall by developing a sense of understanding requires a very sophisticated and systematic learning environment that is sustained and properly sequenced. There is no way that the across-the-board schoolwide models that have been favored recently by federal legislation, states, and courts can provide the type of focus and specialized service needed. Nor is it typically possible to provide the intensity of thinking experience initially needed in the regular classroom. In addition, it takes several years for such interventions to produce the needed effect, whereby students are able to spontaneously learn higher- level content.

The good news is: (a) Most disadvantaged students can be accelerated after the 3rd grade; (b) the proper learning environment needs to be provided for only a small part of the day; (c) this service can be provided in most schools within available funding; (d) once students develop a sense of understanding, most forms of learning improve simultaneously; and (e) we can predict which disadvantaged students will benefit.

The biggest impediment to overcoming the cognitive wall after the 3rd grade is finding high-ability teachers to provide the needed services.

The type of learning environment needed to develop a sense of understanding is one that provides small-group Socratic interactions around general concepts. These interactions also need to be systematic enough to provide intensive daily and ongoing experience in engaging in the most fundamental of all thinking skills that underlie all learning, generalization and metacognition. Providing such a learning experience requires a highly skilled teacher using a very systematic and creative curriculum. Such skills cannot be taught; rather, they are acquired by a cultural process of repeated use around ideas that are interesting to students. It takes one to two years of such daily interaction to develop a general sense of understanding. Students are then ready for, and need to be exposed to, thinking in content coursework. (This runs counter to conventional wisdom, which says that thinking should be done immediately in content. This is true only for those not running up against the cognitive wall.)

Ironically, despite our success in accelerating learning after the 3rd grade, it has become increasingly difficult to implement the type of focused intervention needed in grades 4-8 to accelerate learning. The most obvious problem is the sole focus on grades K-3. The second problem is the bias favoring the one-size-fits-all schoolwide models, combined with the politically correct perspective of the ‘90s that all students should be treated the same. While I have shown in my Educational Researcher articles that research does not support the use of schoolwide models such as Success for All, the overwhelming governmental bias in their favor has made focused, specialized interventions politically incorrect.

A third problem is that administrators are responding to the pressures of preparing students for tests in the current accountability movement by simply pounding content into them. This repeats the mistakes of the past. Our research in the last accountability movement showed that developing a sense of understanding was essential for increasing the content acquisition of disadvantaged students after the 3rd grade and resulted in even higher test scores.

Grades 4-8 and K-3 are different worlds and require very different approaches and reforms.

The biggest impediment to overcoming the cognitive wall after the 3rd grade, however, is finding high-ability teachers to provide the needed services. Increased concentration of Title I funding in urban schools with the highest numbers of eligible students means that other schools generally do not receive enough supplemental funds to support a specialized teacher. At the same time, those urban schools receiving the large amounts of Title I funds find it increasingly difficult to allocate high-quality teachers to specialized functions because of the talent drain these schools are experiencing as a result of class-size-reduction’s opening up more positions in suburban schools. As a result, urban schools tend either to use available funds to reduce K-3 class sizes or to implement an expensive schoolwide model.

Another big problem is site-based management, whereby every school does its own thing. As today’s highly mobile students move between schools, this reform is making it impossible to obtain the interschool coordination needed to provide the type of sustained intervention that can develop a student’s sense of understanding. Despite the fact that 3,000 schools have implemented HOTS, for example, there are only two or three cases where it has been implemented on a cluster or feeder-pattern basis. What’s needed is a system that will make a three- to four-year commitment to provide the services to a cohort of disadvantaged students—a sort of gifted approach to the disadvantaged.

It is time to recognize that grades 4-8 and K- 3 are different worlds and require very different approaches and reforms. The moment we start to argue that a certain approach is best, kindergarten through 8th grade, we are sure to be half wrong. Also, disadvantaged and advantaged students require different, almost opposite, approaches for a small part of the day, until all have a sense of understanding and can compete fairly.

While effective early intervention is important, we need to stop overinvesting in grades K-3 (for example, by supporting substantial class-size reduction for more than one year and for students other than the disadvantaged). We also need to stop pretending that there are easy or across-the-board fixes. We must move toward much more specialized, focused, and sophisticated forms of help, and develop a more scientific basis for doing so—particularly for disadvantaged students in grades 4-8.

Unfortunately, the current, simplistic schoolwide and K-3 reforms, along with the ideological wars of the past decade, have taken us in the opposite direction. The cognitive wall remains stronger than ever—an impregnable impediment to school improvement.

Stanley Pogrow is an associate professor of education at the University of Arizona in Tucson, where he specializes in school reform and administrative and instructional uses of technology. He is the developer of the Higher Order Thinking Skills, or HOTS, program for Title I and learning-disabled students, and Supermath, a pre-algebra curriculum. He can be reached at stanpogrow@ worldnet.att.net.

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A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 2000 edition of Education Week as Beyond the ‘Good Start’ Mentality


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