Classroom Practices That Need to Be Reconsidered

by Robert Pondiscio
January 19th, 2012

Teaching ideas whose time has come…and gone? Courtesy of yours truly and Alice Wiggins, who oversees the Core Knowledge Foundation’s Schools Department, here are common classroom practices that need to go away, be rethought, or curtailed:

1.      Data Driven…What?

An increasingly common feature in classrooms are data walls—bright, cheerful displays that show if students are advanced, proficient, basic or below basic in ELA and math.  As Rick Hess has written, schools have gone from not using data to inform decision making, to using data in half-baked or simplistic ways. Displaying decontextualized data is a prime example.  What exactly do we expect a third-grader to do with the knowledge that he or she is “approaching proficiency” in reading?  If data isn’t being used to drive instruction thoughtfully, what’s the point?

2.      Fiction Only Read-alouds

Fortunately, very few elementary school teachers need to be sold on the benefits of read-alouds.  They’re great for language development and exposing kids to rich vocabulary, since a child’s ability to read with comprehension doesn’t catch up with listening comprehension until about 8th grade. But if teachers aren’t devoting significant class time to nonfiction readalouds, they’re missing out on a golden opportunity to build background knowledge, which is essential for reading comprehension.

3.      Dumb Test Prep

Decrying test prep as a misuse of class time is a little like complaining that your kids are watching Fear Factor when they could be reading Chaucer. It’s true, but it’s not likely to change anytime soon.  But if we have to waste devote precious class time to test prep, let’s stop trying to teach and reinforce decontextualized reading skills like making inferences and finding the main idea that are content-specific, and cannot be mastered in the abstract.  More effective might be what Dan Willingham calls practice that reinforces the basic skills required for the learning of more advanced skills, protects against forgetting, and improves transfer.

4.      Reciting Lesson Aim and Standard

There’s nothing wrong with standards for planning and focusing lessons.  However, the idea of standards-based instruction is often misinterpreted.  Sure, students should be introduced to what they are about to learn, but having kindergarteners recite, “Through this lesson I will develop phonemic awareness and understanding of alphabetic principles” does nothing to support attainment of this standard or develop these students reading achievement.  In other cases, rather than using the standards to guide instruction on meaningful content, the standards become the instruction. Neither practice is an effective use of limited instructional time.

5.      Overusing Teaching Strategies

Too many classrooms seem to function on the principal that if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing.  Group work and differentiated instruction are two prime examples.  In Teach Like a Champion, Doug Lemov writes that group work is “as likely to yield discussions of last night’s episode of American Idol as it is higher-order discussions of content.”  Asking frequent, targeted, rigorous questions of students, Lemov believes, “is a powerful and much simpler tool for differentiating.”  Too many classroom practices are used based on a compliance mentality—students are in groups because “that’s what administration wants to see”—rather that because it makes sense for a particular unit, lesson or activity.  Like using data to drive instruction rather than as bulletin board fodder (see above) there needs to be a sound instructional strategy underlying pedagogical choices.  And let’s not even talk about learning styles.

6.      The “Theme of the Month”

It’s standard practice to organize instruction by “themes,” such as holidays, seasons, my neighborhood or foods of the world, for example.  Organize units around knowledge “domains” instead.  A teacher might use the theme “Our Great Big World” in kindergarten to invite children to explore the setting of a story.  But since every story has a setting, that “theme” is arbitrary and doesn’t coherently build background knowledge.  A domain-based approach to “Our Great Big World” might include teaching children about continents, countries, climates and land forms in a coherent fashion.

7.      Reading Comprehension Skills

We can’t say it enough and Dan Willingham said it best:  Teaching content is teaching reading.  The most overused tool in the box in elementary school is reading strategies.  Yes, there are benefits to reading strategies, but there’s no evidence that repeated practice yields additional benefits.  Comprehension typically breaks down and test scores plummet because of a lack of background knowledge, not because kids have failed to master reading strategies.

Prep Walk

by Robert Pondiscio
August 3rd, 2011

OK, maybe a little spelling test prep.  But that’s it!

(H/T: Bill Evers)

Take Our Children To Test Prep Day

by Robert Pondiscio
April 22nd, 2010

Take your children to work?  Please don’t, say some school districts. 

Today is the annual “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day,”  But, the AP reports, districts nationwide have urged parents to keep kids in school to get ready for high-stakes tests.  In Ohio, for example, students are taking the Ohio Achievement Assessment test today.

At schools where standardized tests aren’t being given, the exams may be looming. Student test scores have become increasingly important to public schools since the 2002 No Child Left Behind law was enacted, linking standardized test results to federal funding.  Because of the high-stakes testing we’re involved in during the spring, the kids need to be in school as much as they can,” said Ron Simpson, a spokesman for a regional education service center in Richardson, Texas.

A spokesman for the Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Foundation has heard the complaints for years and is unmoved by the pleas to move the date.  “Maybe they can do their tests some other day,” says George McKecuen.  “It’s always there on the calendar, the fourth Thursday in April.”

“The Bastardization of Reading”

by Robert Pondiscio
March 18th, 2010

Complaints about teaching to the test and narrowing the curriculum are nothing new, but a smart new blog called The Ed Skeptic has an interesting analysis on how test prep leads to a “bastardization of reading” in elementary schools–especially low-income schools.  Teaching and practicing test taking strategies is ”a more efficient input towards the goal of maximizing testing performance” than rigorously teaching academic subjects.  And that’s a problem.

Consider the test prep ritual, surely familiar to every elementary school teacher by now, of teaching children to read the questions and answer choices first, and then read passage itself, underlining key sections and phrases that offer clues to the answers.  Notes blogger Jennifer Page:

This read-questions-and-answers-then-scan-text-strategically approach isn’t natural, but it works.  Thing is, you can’t introduce this strategy to students the week before The Big Test, or only a few will use it.  You might be able to guess where I’m going here.  To achieve high performance on standardized tests, it is perfectly sensible for teachers to have students read 500-word passages instead of chapter books all year long, and to read them in a way that will get them in the habit of strategically attacking multiple choice questions.

“This is the bastardization of reading, folks,” she concludes, ”and it’s precisely the sort of classroom practice that is galvanized when school accountability is the end-all.”  Indeed,  Page correctly concludes that teachers who don’t maximize time spent on testing strategies are acting as “ irrational agents.”

It’s become to common to claim that testing hasn’t narrowed the curriculum (the problem is more accurately defined as an insistence on teaching reading as a content-neutral, all-purpose skill).   But Page’s argument is broader, and more troubling:  the focus on testing changes and subverts how children are taught to read.    She proposes making it illegal for Race to the Top Funds to be spend on commercial test prep materials to send a signal that “replacing the language arts block with multiple-choice practice is unethical.”  She also suggests we no longer test reading.  No, really.

I am very deliberately attacking the substitution of mind-numbing 500-word passages for novels.  For reasons that I don’t have room to discuss here, I’m much more optimistic that critical thinking in math can be measured by the multiple choice format and that testing math doesn’t lend itself to test score pollution in the same way that reading does.  If every school in America administered the same rigorous math assessment for grades K-12, dataphiles at state education departments would have one incredibly useful measure of how well students are doing (by classroom, school, district, state, region, etc.).  Creating such an assessment system, and eliminating the standardized test in reading, would promote the goal of meaningful accountability while delimiting that harm that strategic test preparation can do.

The view of people with classroom experience is too often marginalized in policy debates or mindlessly assumed to be echoing union positions, so mark The Ed Skeptic as a blog to watch.  “Dysfunctional school culture was frequently undermining my best efforts in the classroom,”  Page says in an email.  She is a former Teach for America corps member and elementary school teacher, now a doctoral student in political theory at Harvard.  “I began to think about how policy reform at the federal/state level could make a dramatic impact on educational outcomes.”

Speaking of the voice of experience, I’ve been inexcusably remiss in not heralding the arrival in the blogosphere of Walt Gardner, a 28-year veteran Los Angeles teacher, who has in recent years gained a reputation as the Isaac Asimov of letters to the editor, penning dozens of missives in every major print publication in the country.   But wait!  Wasn’t it Gardner who once said of education blogs, “I have an aversion to them because they too often become venues for rants rather than for reason…they seem to attract a disproportionate number of self-styled experts with dubious credentials who just want to ventilate.” 

Yes, well, plus ça change.  I’m glad he’s over his aversion, and that EdWeek has given a high-profile gig to a smart, independently-minded pro.

Cognitive Dissonance on NCLB

by Robert Pondiscio
August 4th, 2008

“I’ve always told people, I have the best job in the world,” writes Susan J. Hobart, a National Board Certified Teacher, in the current issue of The Progressive

Today, more often than not, I feel demoralized. While I still connect my lesson plans to students’ lives and work to make it real, this no longer is my sole focus. Today I have a new nickname: testbuster. Singing to the tune of “Ghostbusters,” I teach test-taking strategies similar to those taught in Stanley Kaplan prep courses for the SAT. I spend an inordinate amount of time showing students how to “bubble up,” the term for darkening those little circles that accompany multiple choice questions on standardized tests.

Yes, another one of those NCLB-is-destroying-education pieces written by a teacher.  I predict that by the time the sun goes down, a smart guy like Jay Greene will have a line-by-line rebuttal on his blog explaining why this teacher is all wet.  Why there’s no evidence that curriculum narrowing is occuring under NCLB.   I’m sure it’ll make perfect sense.  Heck, I’ll probably even agree with most of it.

Then I’ll remember my own 5th grade classroom, where I never had social studies textbooks–or time for social studies and science after our two hour ”literacy block” and 90-minute math workshop–but always had a fresh supply of shiny Kaplan test prep books every year.  Where my students rarely got art, music or gym.  Where we were trained by Teachers College to teach a unit on “test-taking as a genre” of literature.   I’ll also remember the school assemblies and pep rallies where we tried to get the kids excited about the tests and shared all our “positive energy.”  And I’ll remember one TFA corp member grad student, who was mandated to do two hours of test prep a day starting in September for the state tests in March. 

Did I just dream all that? 

I can do without the shrill rhetoric about the “assault on public education” and “one size fits all testing.”  Still, every time I hear a veteran teacher describing with sadness how the job they loved became a joyless grind I find myself thinking, “Yeah, me too. ”  How did this happen when testing, accountability and NCLB was what we were supposed to be doing all along anyway?  Was I simply caught up in one of the greatest cases of mass hysteria since the Salem Witch Trials?

Principal Apologizes for “Excellent” Rating

by Robert Pondiscio
July 23rd, 2008

The principal of Rocky River Middle School in Ohio is sorry.

His school made AYP, earned an “excellent” rating from the state, and passed the 2008 Ohio Achievement. But principal David Root gave Cleveland Plain Dealer columnist Regina Brett a remarkable two-page, single-spaced apology, addressed to students, staff and citizens of Rocky River, detailing the cost of those accomplishments. Among the things Root is sorry for:

  • That he spent thousands of tax dollars on test materials, practice tests, postage and costs for test administration.
  • That his teachers spent less time teaching American history because most of the social studies test questions are about foreign countries.
  • That he didn’t suspend a student for assaulting another because that student would have missed valuable test days.
  • For pulling children away from art, music and gym, classes they love, so they could take test-taking strategies.
  • That he has to give a test where he can’t clarify any questions, make any comments to help in understanding or share the results so students can actually learn from their mistakes.
  • That the integrity of his teachers is publicly tied to one test.
  • For making decisions on assemblies, field trips and musical performances based on how that time away from reading, math, social studies and writing will impact state test results.
  • For arranging for some students to be labeled “at risk” in front of their peers and put in small groups so the school would have a better chance of passing tests.
  • For making his focus as a principal no longer helping his staff teach students but helping them teach test indicators.

“We don’t teach kids anymore,” Root, a 24-year veteran principal, tells the paper. “We teach test-taking skills. We all teach to the test. I long for the days when we used to teach kids.”