Absurdity and Pathos in Elementary-School Education

At the San Francisco Chocolate Salon, which I attended because of my interest in connoisseurship and gifts, I learned some sad truths about elementary-school education. A San Francisco public school teacher told me:

1. The curriculum is mandated. Tests are mandated. And they disagree. For example, you are forced to teach what a certain word means. You spend two weeks teaching that word and then the tests use a different word for the same idea.

2. There is no allowance for differing rates of learning. Some kids learn faster than others. Teachers are not allowed to adjust.

3. There are rules about what teachers must put on classroom walls. If a federal inspector comes around and you don’t have the proper material on your classroom walls, a note goes in your permanent file.

4. The Reading First program requires that reading be taught before everything else. Some kids are relatively slow to learn to read but they are able to learn in other ways. The effect of the mandate is that these other kids sit in the classroom baffled and unhappy and lose self-confidence.

5. The rigidity of the curriculum — which must be exactly the same for all students — squashes encouragement. For example, suppose a student is interested in bugs. You could encourage reading by giving the student books about bugs. This is a natural, effective, and easy way to teach reading. This way of teaching is not just discouraged but prohibited.

6. A friend of mine says that bookstores should be divided into “real books” and “other books.” Children’s textbooks, which are worse than anything in a bookstore, deserve their own category. A fifth-grade teacher got around the awfulness of the textbooks by putting real books in the center of the classroom tables and having children sit with their textbooks open around them. This allowed the students to read the real books but if the principal came by the teacher would not get in trouble because the assigned textbooks were open in front of the students.

Excellent posts about elementary-school education by Tyler Cowen and Alex Tabbarok.

9 Replies to “Absurdity and Pathos in Elementary-School Education”

  1. Seth, I’m a former teacher and current ed school student. When I read this blog, I always think of how exciting it would be to incorporate kind of self-experimentation into the secondary science or health classroom–and maybe some kind of group self experimentation. At the very least, you could have kids track what they eat and their moods afterward and try to determine the relationship. You’d somehow have to avoid encouraging kids to experiment with dangerous things, though. Any thoughts on this?

  2. That`s so sad. When I was in elementary school I was really good at reading so the teacher assigned me a report on rainbows to show for the class. I worked really hard on it and it gave me a lot of confidence to learn English.

    I was also in something called “expanded learning program” (ELP) throughout middle school that encouraged this kind of learning, but I always thought it should have been how they taught everyone. Instead it was criticized for being selective.

  3. Rob, it sounds too one-size-fits-all for me. I tried assigning self-experimentation to my intro psych students. I stopped after I decided too many of them were making up the data. I wasn’t delusional; a University of Pennsylvania student told me that no thesis gets written at Penn without at least some fraud.

    I think you can talk about self-experimentation and you can allow it. I’d never force anyone to do it.

  4. Depressing indeed, but I don’t doubt it. When I was in elementary school, I read the whole “Reader” in one day and spent the weekend doing the homework in the associated booklet so I would never have to look at it again. I got in trouble for not following instructions and the teacher took away my booklet and gave me a new one so I would have to do it with the other students. I also have memories of frequently getting in trouble for reading “real books” during lessons- and yes, I began hiding them in the text book as well.

  5. Let me just post one positive thought about SF Public schools. I have two kids right now in the SF Public school – and one more to come – and I do think every school and every teacher is different. While I do not doubt some of the realities that you bring up, we have NOT had this experience nor have any of our many friends in public school here in the city. I also don’t think this kind of rigidity is only present in the Public school. As we went through our “middle class progressive angst” when choosing a school for our kids, we looked at MANY private schools. Some where great, creative, etc while others were far more rigid and elitist that ANY public school could or should ever be. When it got right down to it, we choose public because we felt our kids worldview would have the greatest chance at expanding in this setting. Not for every family OR teacher, but has been great for us and our kids.

  6. This is terrible if true. And this is important enough to be worth checking — can others verify these claims? If true, they should be relatively easy to verify.

  7. Reyes-Chow, this teacher taught at a low-income school, where she said these problems were greater than at high-income schools where the students tended to have fewer problems learning to read.

    Robin, the teacher offered to send me some links backing up what she said. I will find out if the offer is still good.

  8. Well here are few links to get you started.

    Reading First

    Star Test

    CA standards (notice how kindergarteners need to know how to read…)

    The *only* two approved reading curriculums in CA are…
    Houghton Mifflin
    Open Court

    I am a total proponent of public school, I just believe that No child left behind (which is being abandoned in Houston where all these “reforms” began) has purposfully been destroying public school curiculum.

    This is a great article but the real problem is…
    “NCLB’s obsessive focus on raising test scores will mean an increasing emphasis on test preparation, undermining the higher order thinking skills all students need to succeed in work and life?

    The reason your public school is probably so nice is that it is not a star or reading first school that trades funding for curriculum constriction. Schools that have the majority or more of kids receiving free or reduced lunch (don’t start me on the crap they serve the kids daily) are eligible for these programs that cramp teachers, especially good teachers’ style.

    I adore the teachings of Dr. Mel Levine

  9. For a UK perspective check out my post relating the achievement of West Dunbartonshire in Scotland, which is about to eradicate childhood illiteracy after a 10-year project adopting a whole community approach, according to a report in the Guardian last week.

    There is also a link to a very comprehensive study of research into dyslexia and reading difficulties and its implications for the teaching of reading to both adults and children.

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