We’re Lost But We’re Making Good Time

Jan 13th, 2012 | By | Category: Movement

By Dave Krupke

The title is one of the many famous quotes from Yogi Berra. I remember watching Yogi play for the storied Yankees of the 50s. Baseball was different then, as were many things. Life was simpler in the 50s, education was pretty basic, and many of us did OK. At least where I grew up in rural America, I would say most of us did OK . . .  because I do remember a few kids in my school who really had trouble learning and there didn’t seem to be any extra help for them.

My, how things have changed today. We have Title One, Learning Strategists, Literacy Coaches, Resource Teachers, Reading Specialists, Interventionists, RTI Consultants . . . just to name a few. Education has endured – or should I say that students have managed to survive – numerous shifts in educational philosophy in the 50 years since I was a student in school.

I was lucky enough to learn to read easily and have many fond memories of riding my bike to the library and going up what seemed to be an endless and steep staircase to the library – it was above the fire station – to spend hours at a time getting lost in books I would pull off the shelf and then sit on the floor trying to decide which ones to check out and take home. I didn’t have a backpack or a basket on my bike, so I had to ride one-handed back home . . . . no problem! Because of people like our town librarian, my 2nd & 3rd grade teachers, Sunday School teachers who told wonderful stories with flannel boards, and my parents, I grew up loving to read – still do. As a result, Amazon can be a “black hole”, especially when you see “other people who purchased this book also purchased ____” – yikes . . . that one looks good too!

Elementary school was all about phonics and what we now term as phonological awareness and phonemic awareness. Systematic teaching of those early literacy elements reinforced rules of form and function – still very important today. Late in the 20th Century, whole language surfaced and was touted as the “cat’s meow” . . . systematic teaching of phonics and spelling left our schools by edict from well-meaning administrators. It took a few years for people to realize that students – especially those who struggled with literacy – didn’t magically absorb rules for form & function just my being immersed in a rich texture of literature. An unanticipated outcome of whole language is a whole generation of young people who became teachers and, by the time they were in classrooms, were expected to teach phonics and spelling in a systematic way. Quite the challenge when those elements and structure weren’t part of your school experience!!

Now we have Core Curriculum, 21st Century Skills, instructional/curricular fidelity, value-added instruction, Common Core State Standards, and data-driven decision making, just to name a few. As a nation, there is a sense of urgency . . . no school district or school wants to be on “the list” or receive a D rating. Urgency can lead to doing things “faster” because we need to get to the place where our student achievement scores aren’t below the data line in the sand. Plus there is an assumption in education that the use of a spiral curriculum will provide consistent time frames for teaching and assessment – a rigid schedule by which we can fairly and consistently determine student achievement. We’re making really good time . . . but are we lost? Sometimes I think so . . . . but being an eternal optimist, there is always hope-on-hope that we’re not.

As a “value-added” part of some of my staff development classes, I make classroom visits. These visits give me the opportunity to stay grounded in how children learn and/or struggle, to observe/consult with teachers, and to keep my ear to the ground on the current educational philosophy in a particular area. Recently, I spent a good part of the day in a 1st grade classroom and was able to consult with the teacher during a “special” when the students were out of the classroom. This veteran teacher had a wonderful classroom environment – one that supported learning and affirmed student efforts in their thinking. That was the thumbs-up part.

What she shared with me was distressing. District administrators had told her that she was to stop teaching phonics and spelling the way she had for a number of years, and was to adhere to the “new” lock-step schedule of teaching that had multiple data-gathering points through the year. She went on to say that the dates of data gathering determined the rate at which lessons and units were to be taught so that data gathered district-wide would be systematically simultaneous and coordinated as it spiraled “to the top”!

Louis Rosetti, a nationally recognized authority on child development once said, “A sequence is not a schedule.” Lock-step, timed programs are specific sequences that are more mechanistic than humanistic. Somehow, our educational system seems to have lost sight of the consideration that it is better to teach students than to present and orchestrate programs. Programs don’t teach students . . . teachers do! In reality, didn’t we experience a year of Mrs. Arnold teaching math vs. a year of math taught by Mrs. Arnold????

Focusing on a single test score or a locus of scores as proof of effective teaching is a dangerous trend and NCLB has done us no favors in drawing the 40% line in the sand. Productivity, as evidenced by data, seems to be the gold standard for measuring educational effectiveness.  The data “proof” extends all the way from the number of correct words read per minute to how our high school students compare to high school students around the world in math and science to how high SAT and ACT scores are across the nation.

All of this data profundry seems to align very closely to a business/industrial model where efficiency and productivity are proof of a good product, rather than an educational model where learning comes from curiosity, experience and knowledge that has utility. In the passion to improve outcomes, it seems that educational leadership has forgotten that scores don’t make the learning . . . they show an outcome . . . a product.

Here’s a single question to wrap up – I made it multiple choice for your convenience.

The single most significant factor in student achievement is:

  1. The degree the teacher has earned
  2. The research-based curriculum
  3. Having up-to-date equipment & technology in the classroom
  4. Having the latest textbooks
  5. The relationship between the students and the teacher

The answer and best choice is . . . e. Student achievement is about people. Let’s all remember that the learning is in the minds of students and that self-esteem and attitude are fostered by relationships – the human side of education.

As Gandhi once said, “there is more to life than increasing its speed”. Let us not succumb to urgency by going “faster” in an effort to find solutions to student achievement challenges . . . for in going faster, we can easily turn education into a product-driven, mechanistic process and lose sight of the fact that learning is a human phenomenon.


© 2013  Dave Krupke  All Rights Reserved

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