City Schools Refocus on Improving Reading
Ohanian Comment: Here's an example of how NCLB narrows the curriculum: all teachers use the same materials, lessons and grading standards. It's done in the name of having knowledge-based standards. Well, some years back, I warned what standards would do to you: One Size Fits Few: The Folly of Educational Standards. Now in Rutland, kids will all get the same stories--so so the vocabulary will be consistent.
City schools will spend more time teaching reading and language arts in coming years, a shift that is causing concern among some teachers.
The shift is in response to statewide assessments of the schools under the federal No Child Left Behind act.
For the past few years, the main thrust of school administrators has been to improve math instruction in the Rutland City School District, assistant superintendent John Stempek said.
But now, with a new math instruction program in place, an extra tutor for the neediest students and a lot of professional development courses for the district's teachers, Stempek said it's time to focus more on reading and language arts.
"I don't know that all the work we've done on math has hampered English and language arts, but we just haven't done as much there," Stempek said. "Now it's time, clearly, to focus on English language arts. But you can only do so much at one time."
Stempek said the district will try to build on the success of establishing an integrated math program, in which all teachers use the same materials, lessons and grading standards, by adopting a similar approach to reading.
"What we're looking at is for everybody to receive the same group of reading stories so the vocabulary will be consistent and we can judge fluency based on the same place," Stempek said.
Although Stempek said teachers still would be free to use favorite stories and lessons in addition to the program, some teachers worried that it will strip creativity from the classroom.
"Like anything, it has its pros and cons," said Kerry Coarse, a second-grade teacher at Northwest. "It takes a little creativity away from the everyday classroom by using so many different programs.
"If you focus on (the program) you miss out on the incidental learning. Sometimes that's lost and I think that's sad because discussion is where kids learn the most, participating and having those discussions," she said.
Cathy O'Rourke, who teaches kindergarten through second grade at the Pierpoint Learning Center, said she is worried that the emphasis on math and reading will pull resources and time from other subjects.
"I'm worried about the total emphasis on reading and math," she said. "A lot of kids that really struggle in those subjects are really strong in science and social studies. That's not all the kids need to know.
"We used to have time to make school fun for kids, and often with big programs you don't have the flexibility to do that kind of thing," she said.
However, O'Rourke said she does understand the necessity of making sure students are able to read and do math and acknowledged that the programs adopted by the district were making a difference.
"I use an 80- to 90-minute period per day to work on math and sometimes I still feel it isn't enough," she said. "But the kids know more math than ever now so I'm kind of tossed about it."
Michael Dick, chairman of the board of school commissioners, said he understands the dilemma facing educators and administrators.
"Personally, it's always a concern when you set up standards-based tests from knowledge-based standards you have to start teaching to the test," Dick said. "But with the variety of today's students, not all of them learn the same way. There's got to be a balance."
Drawing on his own experience as a dentist, Dick highlighted the limits of testing.
"There can be a textbook response, but each tooth has a person attached to it and you have to treat the person," he said, adding that he supports standardized testing as it provides a lot of good information. "I just don't want to see it become the only marker. It's not the only tool, but it's a valuable arrow in our quiver."
Stempek said the district will bring in a reading consultant later in the school year to help find a way of striking that balance.
"We really have to get a lot of brainstorming work done about what we're doing now that we want to continue and what we want to add," he said.
Contact Brendan McKenna at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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