2001-04-14 / Columnists

School Scope 0414

School Scope 0414

In years past, a visitor to the classroom looked to see how quiet the students were as the teacher directed the lesson. In those days, it was mostly what we now call "chalk and talk," because the teacher talked and wrote on the chalkboard. Chalk and talk was, at one time, the way to do it. Now, however, it has been discredited in exchange for the theory that students must be "engaged" in whatever is happening in the classroom.

It is amazing that generations of children learned and learned well in this city without being engaged. Today, however, a teacher who simply teaches his or her students without engaging them is liable to wind up with an unsatisfactory rating.

A visitor to today’s classroom will see the students talking and discussing, engaged in group work, engaged in making projects, engaged in editing each other’s English papers. They are fully engaged. Are they, however, learning. That is the question!

In my early days of teaching American history to seventh graders, I did one 42-minute lesson on the types of housing that was utilized by Native Americans in various parts of the new world, always careful to elicit the idea that the housing depended on geographical and cultural factors. By the end of the lesson, each student (who was paying attention) had in his or her notebook a chart that listed all of the pertinent information they needed to understand the concept that geographical and cultural factors dictated the way people live and to know the various types of housing that was available.

Today, that same lesson is taught over several days, with the kids working in groups (a geographical area for each group) to study the types of housing in their area. Textbooks are out, but the Internet and primary source documents are in. Each group would then make a model of the kind of housing used in their area and would make a diorama or other ‘multimedia" mode to depict the environment. They would then write a group report. There would be peer editing and a final draft of the report. Then the group would present their findings to the class and their work would be displayed on the classroom’s bulletin boards or in the hallway. This unit could take up to a week to complete. Because of that fact, most of the history teachers I know are still studying the Revolutionary War when they should be up to the events leading to the Civil War.

What’s the rush?

The eighth grade teacher is going to begin with the period of Reconstruction after the Civil War and that teacher will expect that the students have studied the events up to that time. That hardly ever happens.

There is no doubt that the students are more engaged in the lesson the way it is done today. There is a question in my mind (and in the minds of many other older teachers) as to whether the students are learning the concept that geography and mores drive the way a person lives any better over a week than they did with me in one day.

They are certainly busier and they may be happier. The classroom is also decidedly less in control. I am not sure that those should be the goals of education.

I am not saying that the students working and engaged are being disruptive. I am saying that it allows for more disruption and therefore less education.

Every teacher knows that disruption reduces learning.

That idea has now been quantified.

Edward Lazear is an economist at Stanford University and he set out to find if smaller class size really made for better education. It is a shame that it took an economist rather than an educator to do that study.

Lazear found some interesting things and Virginia Postrel reported them in the February 22 edition of the New York Times. NYC Teacher Norman Scott (norscott@aol.com), who writes a regular educational newsletter called "Education Notes", brought it to my attention.

Postrel writes:

"…the behavior of each student affects every other student’s learning, and the more crowded the classroom the more spillovers there are.

"…the key variable is how likely it is that students disrupt each other’s learning…small differences in behavior can have large effects on learning and big implications for class size. If each student behaves well 99 percent of the time, learning takes place 78 percent in a class of 25; if good behavior drops to 98 percent, learning takes place in onl7 60 percent of the time; at 97 percent, learning drops to a mere 47 percent of the time."

Extrapolate that to a class of 33 and the fact that the students behave only about 40 percent of the time and you can see how much learning goes on in many of our classrooms.

Scott’s comments at the end of the article are germane both to this argument and to the fact that, under the New Continuum, many disruptive special education students are going to be moved back in the mainstream classroom and you can see the problem being faced by teachers.

Scott writes:

"The data in Postrel’s article helps quantify the impact of…the point that soon, practically every classroom will have a potentially disruptive child added to the mix…The most important point is that our union leaders and many of our educational ‘leaders’ have not had the nerve to say what Schwach is saying and it is so obvious to everyone working in the schools."

Anybody who would like to see Lazear’s full 52 page report can do so as a pdf file at norscott@aol.com.

There are those who believe that things will improve with the new law that takes effect in September. Everybody is calling it a "tough new code of conduct," but it is mostly smoke and mirrors.

Teachers will be able to "remove disruptive students from their classrooms," under the new rule, but the principal often will have a veto power over the removal.

Then there is the question of where the kids who are removed will go. They will probably move from classroom to classroom. Student M is thrown out of teacher A’s class for continual disruptive behavior. What to do? Put Student M in Teacher B’s class. If that does not work, try teacher C and then teacher D.

Or, put Student M in an "in-house" situation where he joins with all of the other students who were thrown out of their classes for constant disruptive behavior. Then, find a teacher who wants to teach that class. Good Luck!

The solution prescribed by the law is a band aide where surgery is needed. Those students need to go to an alternative site such as a "600 School" of old. Those schools, however, are no longer politically correct.

We need people who know what is going on to speak up. That includes principals and superintendents. I cannot believe that they really do not know what is going on and what has to be done to rectify it.

The problem is, that our educational leaders listen to people such as Sy Fliegel, who is the executive director of the Center for Educational Innovation. He is opposed to suspension.

He says that the problem is not the disruptive students, but the teachers who do not know how to manage students.

That is pure bologna and Sy knows it.

Look to Roosevelt on Long Island. Roosevelt will soon be us.

Walt Kelly was right.

"We have met the enemy and he is us."


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