So what are we paying teachers for?

Watching kids’ programming, the airwaves are filled with ads for the website ABC Mouse.com. It looks like a neat concept, though my kids have never tried it. In various ads, there are different testimonials, mainly from parents, about how the website has made it fun for their kids to learn and how it has gotten them ready for kindergarten, etc. That’s all fine and good. The ads that bother me, though, are those with testimonials from experienced kindergarten teachers who say that by introducing the program into their classrooms, that the kids test scores have all risen dramatically. This may be the cynic in me, but the thought that comes to mind is, “Well, if it just takes a website to improve these kids’ education so much, why in the world are the kids going to school in the first place? What were you, as a teacher, failing to do, that a website could improve their education so much?”

I’ve been holding on to this study for awhile, wanting to comment on it, but as always, it seems like there is very little time to do this in. It comes from the Johns Hopkins School of Education, and is one of the very few studies focusing on public school students above grade level. Noting that there have been very few studies that look at this, one of the things the researchers endeavored to do first of all was to estimate how many public school students are at least one grade level ahead in math and reading.

Their estimate is shocking. Very roundly, they estimate that somewhere around 30% of kids in public schools are at least one grade level ahead. And while many school districts have “gifted” and “accelerated” programs, they also conclude that a lot of these kids are “invisible”, meaning that they really aren’t getting an education to fit their needs.

Really good teachers can teach kids at multiple levels in the same classroom. However, most do not, and as their performances are based on how many kids are at least *at* grade level (when there are performance-based systems), there is absolutely no incentive for the typical teacher to do anything with these kids. And, as Americans, we are stuck with the “social promotion” grade level scheme, there isn’t a whole lot of incentive for kids who are ahead to work very hard, because they won’t be rewarded for it.

Circling back to the first point in this post, I think it is amazing when parents take the initiative to teach their children all kinds of things before they start school, whether it be through a website or not. Little brains are capable of learning so much in these first years. However, I don’t see the point of getting a kid “ready for school” if the intention, in some way, is to get them far enough ahead that the teachers can be complacent about actually teaching them anything when they do get to school.

October Update

So how are we doing?

According to the laws of the state that we live in, we must have our oldest registered, informing the state that we are homeschooling her. It is also recommended that a certain number of hours be dedicated to lessons each year. They also recommend tracking these hours for one’s own reference.

I’m actually finding the exercise useful, being as it makes it easy to see what we’ve actually been doing. However, even with working a couple of hours six days a week, I’m not sure that we’ll actually hit the number of “lesson hours” recommended. The problem is, of course, the easier it is to work with the kids, the less time it takes to go through the work. For example, with Tabitha, a normal reading exercise usually takes her 15-20 minutes to complete. On a day when she’s being stubborn, it can take up to an hour. In terms of “lesson hours”, it looks better when she’s acting up, because then we have an hour of a reading lesson. In reality, though, she does better when it takes her the 15-20 minutes, because she’s actually listening well, and thinking about the lesson rather than expending her energy being upset and not concentrating. So, practically, I’m trying to make sure that she gets a number of thing in in a day, and not worry so much about the “lesson hours”.

However, it does get me to thinking – a LOT of what ‘education’ has become is the counting of hours rather than accomplishments. A school day these days typically lasts between 6-7 1/2 hours. If a child is in school, all of that gets counted, regardless of what was actually done. Now, I’m not counting lunch or ‘recess’ or any of these things as lesson hours, even though a regular school would be able to, which seems somewhat unfair. Furthermore, a teacher will have 30-45 minutes blocked off for students to complete a worksheet, for example, but if a student has it completed in 10, it still counts as 30-45 minutes of “class time”. At home, if that exercise took 10 minutes, I certainly wouldn’t feel right counting it as 45.

I’m somewhat surprised, though, at how much Tabitha and Asher actually enjoy their school time. This isn’t to say that it’s always easy, in particular for Asher who wants to wiggle a lot. They are learning a lot, and probably well ahead of where most of the kids are in the classes for their grades.