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Thursday, December 10, 2009

It all Starts in Elementary School

"In elementary school, they have one teacher for all their core academic subjects. They come to middle school and it's a huge change," said King teacher Sarah Grant, who teaches both sixth-grade math and science in the new program. "In middle school, a lot of the onus is on the student. They become responsible for their own work. Sometimes that can be overwhelming for them."

This quote is from a recent article in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the redesign of the middle schools in Atlanta. This article and quote struck me, especially as I am hearing negative news from the NYC schools and the poor results in the elementary and middle school math tests. I was listening to a report on the radio that had college math teachers explaining that students aren't learning math in high school and are stuck in remedial math courses. So if the students aren't starting out well in elementary school, how will high school fix it as we see remedial classes in college are not faring much better. Maybe it isn't the teacher's fault as much as it is the system in which we teach.

I was in a conversation with a math colleague and we were discussing how difficult it has to be to be an elementary teacher and to have to teach all the subjects. I was an English major in college and wanted to be an English teacher. If I wanted to be an elementary school teacher how would I prepare? I don't feel prepared to teach math and science and social studies on a proper level. How are elementary teachers supposed to teach all these key subjects? Not just teach them but instill a love of, the essence of the subject. I can instill a love of English and writing, but I know I can't do that for math. A math teacher needs to do that. So why don't we have subject classes in elementary school?

In education we have the trickle down blame game: the college professor blames the high school teachers who blame the middle school teachers who blame the elementary teachers for the ill prepared students. I was wondering why do we put the elementary students in a class with a teacher who teaches all the subjects? We know that early learning is key to a student's success. We spend lots of money and time on pre-school preparation, so why do we still put the children in a one room classroom? Maybe if the college math professors were in elementary school, and the scientists were in elementary school we'd have better results later on in the students' academic career. Listening to the college math professors moan about how badly prepared the students were was amazing and disheartening. Perhaps the elementary teacher didn't have an understanding of math and was ill prepared to teach math, not math but math concepts and the key to math that a college professor or a high school teacher can convey because that was hir major in college and perhaps the teacher has an advanced degree in it, whereas, the elementary teacher may have been an English major and math just didn' t happen for hir. Maybe the experiment they are doing in the middle schools in Atlanta can be pushed back to elementary sschool.

Why do we structure our schools as we do? Why are elementary schools structured as they are? Once again I'm looking at a system that has not changed in hundreds of years and we are just beginning to see some schools think out of the box. Why is it that the onus is finally put on the student in middle school. What is the purpose of elementary school as it is structured right now? I'm not blaming the teachers, I'm blaming the structure of the school. It is obviously not working so let's fix it and see some experimenting done. The poor test scores are not the fault of the teachers, they are the fault of the flawed school structure.

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