kitchen table math, the sequel: palisadesk on instructional time

Sunday, March 7, 2010

palisadesk on instructional time

I have homeschooled and homeschooling family members, and we all see how much more rapidly children can learn in the 1:1 (or even 1:3 or 4) environment, with materials at exactly their instructional level. My sister was surprised how much her not-very-academically-inclined daughter could get done in the one or two mornings they worked on "school" per week. When they came back from their sailing odyssey, my niece had to take a test to ensure she was ready for fifth grade (had been a low average kid in third). She aced it -- was ready for sixth grade! And my sister admitted she was closer to an "unschooler" than a "homeschooler" and got serious about schoolwork in fits and starts.

Beyond that, although we think of the school day as 6 hours, it isn't 6 hours of instructional time in most places. My district's school day is 300 instructional minutes, although the actual time kids are in school is 8:30 to 3:00 -- six and a half hours. 50 minutes for lunch, 15 minutes each for morning and afternoon recess, and entry/dismissal times eat up that hour and a half, so we only have 5 hours of instruction, of which maybe 60% (if you're lucky) is dedicated to "the three R's." There are many interruptions -- PA announcements, assemblies, fund raising events. Students also have music, gym, library, art, science, social studies and health -- all important, too. The science and social studies are often incorporated into the literacy and math by very good teachers, but doing this well isn't easy, and the curriculum materials available are little help. Many teachers have to "write their own curriculum" because they don't have materials ready to hand. What a waste of time!

Then there's the whole issue of so many levels in one classroom. This means that inevitably some students' needs will be overlooked. My district is firmly committed to "differentiating instruction" and "full inclusion" of all but the most violent students, but they do not put their money where their mouth is. Every time I get the opportunity, I suggest to the higher-ups: WHY doesn't the district commission a cadre of experienced teachers/curriculum experts to produce units for different grade levels that match the curriculum and have differentiated reading materials, problems, activities and assessments? For example, a unit on explorers for fifth grade could have reading material from a first to a seventh grade level, map work, project topics and materials for kids from the very beginning level (they could learn the continents and make a globe model, for example) to challenge activities for the high achievers. They could have these for every major curriculum unit, and sell them to other districts and make money. Why are teachers having to write their own curriculum for 6 different grade levels in multiple subjects? It absolutely doesn't work. No wonder they use foldables.

So five hours of instructional time quickly gets whittled down. In classrooms with many levels, the actual teaching time at the student's level for those at the extreme ends of the spectrum (true for the gifted AND the very challenged) is only 1 or 2 % of the time available. No wonder that studies have found that students with the lowest level of reading skill read only about two or three minutes a day. Yikes!
How much time do pull-outs consume, I wonder - ?


Linda said...

Sorry, but this is just nonsense. Obviously homeschooling can be more efficient than working with large groups of kids, but only a seriously incompetent teacher has any students who are only working at their instructional level 1-2% of the time. Consider an activity such as writing; all students who are on task are working at their instructional level.

I seriously want to address this writer's implied assertion that you can be inconsistent and blow off homeschooling and kids will be fine because in public schools they waste a ton of time anyway. That may not have been her intention, but I fear that people may read her post and make that assumption.

For every kid like her neice, I'll pony up a few former homeschooled kids that that I'm working with at my school. (Granted, schools are mainly going to get kids where homeschooling has failed, but when it goes south- it is ugly.) We have formerly homeschooled kids who are several grade levels behind in math, reading, and writing. These are kids of normal intelligence from middle class or upper middle class families who are failing because they have not received adequate instruction (we have a bunch of them from other schools, as well, but that's a different post). Excellent homeschooling requires an investment in time and is a serious commitment. It also requires a relationship between parents and children that is conducive to productive work and acceptance of constructive criticism. A lot of parents do not have the skills to get their kids to do things they do not want to do.

It is a very unusual child who can spend their fifth grade year on a sailing odyssey and be ready for sixth grade. I have to question which test was given to determine that this fifth grade learning took place. Most of our former homeschooled parents didn't realize their kids were as far behind as they were because the benchmarks they were using were faulty.

I want to be clear that I am not derisive of homeschooling. I am pointing out that it should be given the respect for the major undertaking that it is. I also have to say, that some kids really are best taught by professionals.

ChemProf said...

Sure, homeschooling is a major undertaking, and it can fail spectacularly. We had a college student last year who had never learned any math, just been handed a textbook by her parents. However, I've also had students with zero math skills after thirteen years of public schooling. And by zero math skills, I mean student who could barely add or subtract whole numbers without a calculator.

However, I think you're wrong, Linda, in saying that a student could never be in his or her instructional zone for 1-2% of the day. Read what palisadesk is saying again - she is talking about someone at the top or the bottom of the ability curve. At the top, the student may well have finished your hypothetical writing assignment in a few minutes, and is now staring around the classroom waiting (again). Or that student may never be given a math problem or reading book that is actually at their instructional level. My sister spent her entire first grade year reading easy fun books (for her) on her own, because they didn't have any books in her classroom that were at her instructional level. At that age, she didn't seek out challenges, and just picked out books she liked. Other parents here can tell you about entire classes when their children were used as teacher aides. At the bottom is a student who isn't on task, because this student can't do the writing assignment and knows it.

The other thing to remember is that if we are talking about the extremes, say two standard deviations from average, we are only talking about ~4% of the population (2% in the top and 2% in the bottom), so in a class of 30 kids, you'd expect one kid in this category. And again, if they are in the top of the curve, it may not be obvious that they aren't actually learning anything all day long.

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lgm said...

>>only a seriously incompetent teacher has any students who are only working at their instructional level 1-2% of the time

You are dead wrong about this. It's not just the top or bottom 2% - it's every nonsped/LD child in a fully included elementary class that uses the whole class instruction model.

Perhaps you are not in an area or country that uses this model? If you were & you were an in-the-know parent, you'd be afterschooling math since you would know that the class will never cover the grade level objectives. I found this out the hard way, when my child's 3rd grade class spent the entire year on K-1 concepts and practicing fluency to mastery of the addition facts that the reg. ed. children had already mastered (as shown via nationally normed testing the previous year).

Perhaps you've heard of Kumon or Sylvan Learning Center? Perhaps your district sends out promo material for Johns Hopkins or another Talent search provider? These resources exist because the public school is not about to do it's job to educate ALL students at their instructional level.

I would homeschool if I had little ones now. Whole class full inclusion came in just as my younger arrived in second, but we took a grade skip so he wouldn't have to spend the entire year 'learning to read' or 'learning to add', culminating in 'exposure to the concept of subtraction'. It is beyond cruel to make a kid sit through instruction that is 2 or more grade levels below his instructional level - but that's what you get in whole class. Fortunately there are enough disruptions b/c of the removal procedures that kids can read their own books and move on with their lives.

SteveH said...

" public schools they waste a ton of time anyway."

You bet your boots they do.

Another way to look at it is not by time, but by effectiveness. It's not so much the time that gets whittled down, but the effectiveness. Kids can be involved with what appears to be "active" learning, but little is really getting done.

I teach my son math at home (not as a supplement) and we cover a whole chapter at a time. I originally started out doing one section at a time and found that I was done in 10 minutes, not counting his practice problems. Whether homeschooling parents have a clue or not is another issue, but KTM is not a place that attracts those who are looking for justifications to lower expectations. It's quite the opposite.

Coming from a sailing background, I know several families who have done the odyssey without major educational effort on their part. They just had to have a plan and stick with it. It was, however, very hard for their kids to go back to slow regular school. I will say, however, that the best time to do this is before the kids head to high school.

palisadesk said...

I didn’t make up that 1% figure – it comes from an observational study of gifted elementary students in a full inclusion situation. Observations over a period of a whole school year found that these students were engaged in activities in their learning zone (ZPD) about 1% of the time.

We recently had a student classified as gifted who scored in the top .05%ile. It’s likely he had not been engaged in his learning zone for quite some time. He was in a general ed fifth grade with children whose abilities and skills ranged from K-6 (excluding himself). He tested at an upper secondary level in language skills and vocabulary, despite being ELL, and at a middle school level in math. He was quiet and not a behavior problem. Most people did not think he was gifted.

At the other end ot the spectrum are children with developmental disabilities in full inclusion situations. One that comes to mind is a girl whose verbal IQ on the WISC was at the 0.3%ile, but who didn’t qualify for sped because she had one or two subtests of the non-verbal scale at the low normal level. However, she could not carry on conversation with same-age peers – limited language comprehension – could count and do math facts only to 10 (and this only with manipulatives), could not read or write. This is in fifth grade. It’s fair to say that 0% of what was taking place in class was in her ZPD. I managed to get her some pull-out instruction in language comprehension and basic reading skills, and that helped, but today in eighth grade she is still in a classroom reading at a first-grade level and not at all able to access the curriculum. Unfortunately this is not an anomalous case.

My point was, and I repeat it, that there is insufficient time (and resources) to teach students at the extremes of the ability spectrum effectively in full inclusion classrooms.

Even for average (or more average) students, a lot of instructional time is wasted in many classes. Don’t take my word for it, read Michael Pressley’s several published observational studies on effective teachers at various grade levels. He found a huge variation between the amount of time students were engaged in challenging work in some classes vs. others, even when these classrooms had been identified by their district superintendents as exemplary. Maybe I’ll look up some of his concluding remarks in Motivating Primary Grade Students and post them here – they were thought-provoking and insightful.

As for my homeschooled niece on her fourth-grade sailing year, she left a southern district which is not known for outstanding schools and later re-entered school in the Middle Atlantic states, where standards were higher. While on “sabbatical,” my sister used a mail-order curriculum for fourth grade that is well-known for its academic rigor. They completed this curriculum but in an off-again, on-again fashion. However, traveling as they did (no TV, no video games), my niece read a lot, write many letters to friends, and built up many skills.

When tested on the Stanford Achievement Test by the new school, she was over the 90th %ile, which translates into a grade equivalent of 7th or 8th the way norm-referenced tests are constructed, but showed sufficient mastery of written language, reading and math that the school said she was prepared for sixth grade. I don’t find it remarkable at all that a bright (not gifted) kid with intensive 1:1 focused instruction and practice could end up above grade level after a year. Very social children find it hard to apply themselves in many classrooms today – lots of visual and auditory distractions, many interruptions. Every classroom has at least a couple of kids who are underperforming because they struggle with task completion. They are not ADHD, they just need quiet and time to do their best.

momof4 said...

Steve: I think you are addressing the issue of efficiency. Even if one believes in the soundness/desirability of the heterogeneous, group-work, project-based approach (and I do not), it is far less efficient than the teacher-centered approach. It just takes longer for kids to learn the material when they are expected to discover it for themselves; it just wastes time.

Tex said...

Palisadesk, please post more on Pressley’s observations (and any other related studies) if you have time. That 1% figure really is astounding.

palisadesk said...

Kids can be involved with what appears to be "active learning," but little is really getting done.

SteveH makes a point which is also made by Mike Schmoker in an essay entitled The Crayola Curriculum – worth a read. In one of Michael Pressley’s books or articles, he discusses how his work on effective teachers evolved over time.

When his observational teams first started, they went into classrooms that were indentified by senior administration as exemplary and were positively impressed by the levels of student engagement they often found. Only over time, and after they looked at the correlation between classroom activities and student learning, did they refine their criteria to evaluate the type of engagement.

What sort of task were the students engaged in? Were they making shoebox dioramas as a “reading” activity, or were they engaged in activities that really stretched their minds and challenged them? He found many, many instances of the former once the team cued in to the nature of the tasks students were engaged in as well as the degree of engagement. Some classrooms that were busy and humming with apparently productive activity were actually not involved in meaningful learning opportunities, but with time-fillers.

Linda said...

I'm sticking to my guns on this one because we don't disagree. What is going on in many of our public school is malpractice. Those kids on the tails of the bell curve are never going to get everything they need from a regular classroom, but any decent teacher can do better than 1-2% for all but the most disabled students.

I'm glad to see a more clear explanation of how the fifth grader made such excellent progress. Kids who read and write make a lot of academic gains.