What I learned from 7th-12th grade teachers this week

Once again this summer, I am teaching science teachers science. It's my second year helping with this program and it's something I enjoy (despite the crappy timing this year). There's no question that it is an eye-opening experience for me and I'm as interested in hearing what they are seeing as they are in what I can tell them.

If you've been following along on twitter (#teachingteachers) you will note that there is reason to be concerned with the state of our schools. Although this program is limited to my state, I doubt the situation is hugely different elsewhere. A few things that surprised me the most, included:

- An urban area high school biology teacher remarked that he didn't think his students had read 6 pages in a row. Ever. In their lives. Perhaps there was some hyperbole there, but the fact that he could make that statement without any of the other teachers (from diverse districts) looking surprised, made me concerned. He reported that the majority of his students voluntarily take a 0 on an assignment to avoid reading a few pages. Not because they couldn't do it, but because they didn't want to.

- School districts are constantly adjusting how they teach different groups of students. The definition of terms like "honors" and "low performing" vary from one year to the next, leaving teachers constantly trying to teach the same concepts to a different mix of abilities. As one 7th grade teacher put it, her students range in ability from 2nd to 10th grade.

- Perhaps part of the reading problem can be traced back to the fact that many school districts in the state have gone text book free. On the surface one could argue that text books may not be the most dynamic reference text, but they have replaced them with... nothing. Teachers are now supposed to be finding their own materials, but following from the above point, that often means two or three readings on the same material, geared for different abilities. Add the fact that copy paper budgets were not adjusted to compensate, and school districts are running out of paper in February. I guess the assumption was that kids all have computer access at home? I don't know.

Beyond the computer access issue, however, the move from text book to "the internet" makes me uncomfortable for many reasons. We want kids to develop critical reading skills and the ability to discern what are dependable sources. ESPECIALLY at the middle school level, I don't see how taking away a text book achieves this in any way. Rather, my assumption is that it will confound the problem. Is wikipedia supposed to be their source for all "dependable" material. I sure hope not.

Perhaps I'm just not grasping the benefits of this idea, but it sure seems short-sighted to me.

7 responses so far

  • rs says:

    Nice post. At the elementary level, I definitely see the advantages of text-book free school for my own kids. They read a lot (my 8 year old can finish a book in a day) and have benefited from their teachers choosing wide range of subjects to study each year, ranging from "Dinosaurs", to "Eyes", to "Space and Planets". But I guess it all depends on the school, the kids and the teachers. No method can be completely foolproof against misuse. I don't know how it will go in later years, I am curious though.

  • lylebot says:

    Well, Wikipedia is probably more dependable than the typical middle-school level textbooks, which are heavily influenced by Texas politics.

    http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/2012/jun/21/how-texas-inflicts-bad-textbooks-on-us/?pagination=false

    Of course, the general problem with complete transition to "the internet" stands, especially as search engines like Google move more and more to showing you what your friends/peers are looking at rather than what's true and educational.

  • becca says:

    This one is really complicated. On the one hand, the textbooks are lousy (http://www.project2061.org/publications/articles/articles/asee.htm). I was only in 4th grade when I started noticing how bad they were-it's really hard not to notice.

    I've also been reading more about the trend for schools that serve more disadvantaged children to *feel* differently from those that serve more advantaged children. Specifically, schools serving more disadvantaged kids tend toward being more regimented, more drill-and-kill style instruction, more harsh penalties for disruptive behavior, and more standardized-testing fixated (cynically, it's the school-to-prison pipeline). In this kind of cultural context, it's hard not to be uncomfortable with anyone who would say "well, of course *my kids* don't need to spend all their time on textbooks, they have the internet and good labs and project-based inquiry and great schools... but it's an outrage that *those kids* don't have textbooks! While *they* can't learn anything at all without Authoritative Knowledge" (not saying you're saying this, proflikesubstance, just mindful that it'd be easy to slip into this mindset).

    On the other hand, I used to enjoy reading everything and it's hard for me to wrap my brain around students who have 'never read more than 6 pages'. I have a hard time, intuitively, believing that it could hurt to have access to textbooks. There's some small studies on ERIC about textbook-focused classes vs. inquiry-based classes, and I think the data are pretty clear you don't *have* to focus on a textbook to be effective... but those studies certainly don't address the "no textbook available". I wish I had some data on this.

  • JGB says:

    There are many issues in education, as a whole though the biggest problem is that efforts at improvement have disintegrated into a hodge podge of attacking different issues at different times. In other words there is no central guiding theory/belief to allow people to rationally prioritize different issues.
    On many levels there is a good argument to be made that things are largely working fairly well and the continued framing of massive problems only serves to reinforce the problem of everybody running around trying to fix everything without a long term plan.
    I bring this up as related because there are a wide variety of educational tactics (like getting rid of textbooks) that could work if they are done with an eye toward the whole picture. Instead we get a branded off the shelf 'solution' imported by this years administration, only to be somewhat replaced by a different miracle solution a couple of years later. A student could easily be educated under half a dozen completely different approaches by time they graduate high school.

  • [...] who just finished teaching a summer course for teachers, reports the following (boldface mine): Perhaps part of the reading problem can be traced back to the fact that many [...]

  • laurel says:

    I grew up in an area where pretty much all the kids went to public schools, only the super religious kids went to private school, I thought it was like that every where. I lived in 2 other states that were similar (except on the west coast I saw more kids going to Waldorf and Montessori for alternative educations- in my mind it's still in the same category as the folks that send their kids to religious provate school). Anyway, for my postdoc I moved to an area where public schools had very little support from the community (every school levy was voted down) and private prep schools were abundant. People that made modest salaries were sending their kids to private schools that cost >$20k per year. I knew multiple families that sent their kids to schools >1 hr from their house, which is just absurd. It seemed like this kind of system really exaggerates the haves and have nots. I did quite a bit of outreach and there was a night and day difference between the private school kids and the public school kids. I'm not sure where I'm going with all this, but your post really hit a nerve for me given what I've seen. It seems like many kids are not even getting an education, and there is little the teachers can do to improve the situation given the lack of resources.

    Public education is in trouble, I can see why more parents are turning to private schools but I just wish people could take a more holistic view and would support schools and help all children, not just their own, achieve a quality education.

  • [...] are things, however, that rolling stones miss out on. I am once again teaching teachers for a few days this week and many of them have lived entire lives within a few mile radius of where [...]

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