What’s Hot and What’s Not In Education Today
By Judy Molland
From holding a kindergartner back a year to lengthening the school day, here are the education trends grabbing headlines and prompting debate as we head into a new academic year.
Are you planning to hold your child back a year? To provide what some believe to be an academic edge in today’s competitive classrooms, many parents are postponing their children’s entry into kindergarten until they are older in the grade than their peers. The practice is known as academic redshirting.
According to a U.S. Department of Education report in 2000, the most recent figures available, about 9 percent of first- and second-graders started kindergarten a year late. Experts say the trend has continued. When this happens, the age gap within one class is often 16 months or more, and that poses a challenge for teachers, who are also concerned that the older children may become bored and act out.
The trend to delay a child’s kindergarten entry, or even have a child repeat kindergarten, began with the ratcheting up of standards in the third grade and above to improve students’ performance on standardized tests. With greater emphasis on test performance, educators have noted, a gradual escalation in academic demands has made its way down the grades – all the way to kindergarten.
Some parents are opting to give their children a leg up by keeping them out of kindergarten a year beyond when they reach the entry age. But not everyone believes that redshirting is a good idea.
“The ones we’re holding out are the ones who need school the most,” says early childhood educator Cami Jones.
Meanwhile, a 2002 study by the National Institute for Early Education found that, on average, older children do not academically outperform their younger peers. Deborah Stipek, dean of the School of Education at Stanford University, also says that her own research has found there are no real social or emotional benefits to being older in a particular grade.
Let’s get started!” says 9-year-old Natalie, pointing her mother to a child-sized chair in her third-grade classroom, where she then leads a conference between her, her mother and her teacher.
In many districts across the country, this is an increasingly typical scene. Instead of inviting parents to that oft-hurried, sit-down meeting at the teacher’s desk, teachers are switching to longer, student-led conferences.
An Iowa State University (ISU) study surveyed 1,500 schools across the nation in 2001 and found that 24 percent of fifth-graders were leading conferences, says Donald Hackmann, a professor of educational administration at ISU. In a more recent study of 98 “highly successful middle schools,” Hackmann found nearly 40 percent had turned to students to explain their own learning.
Both parents and teachers speak enthusiastically about the advantages of student-led conferences over teacher-led ones. “Natalie was so proud to explain her reading progress to me in front of her teacher,” beams her mom, Martha.
From a teacher’s perspective, we were able to get a better picture of each child,” middle school teacher Keith Eddinger says of student-led conferences. “It forced us to sit down with each student and review strengths and weaknesses.
How do students like it? Literacy specialist Juli Kendall began implementing student-led conferences with her fifth-graders a few years ago. The students have given it rave reviews, she says.
Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, an education professor at Harvard University and author of The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn From Each Other, notes that there may well be issues that parents and teachers want to discuss without the student present. This would necessitate a separate meeting. Student-led conferences have generally been taking place in the spring, with many teachers still favoring a traditional parent-teacher conference in the fall.
K-8 Schools Replacing Middle Schools
Around the country, several urban school districts have started to abandon a traditional model of middle schools in favor of a combined elementary and middle school covering grades K-8. Cincinnati, Milwaukee, New Orleans and Philadelphia are among the districts that have been bringing their middle schools into K-8 schools over the last decade. Boston and San Antonio school districts recently joined this trend.
Many educators believe that combining the middle and elementary grades in one school makes the transition easier for students. Students already know the rules and expectations; they know their teachers and friends and where their classes are located. K-8 schools also tend to have more parent involvement and fewer discipline problems than middle schools.
“In most elementary schools, you don’t know where your child is going after grade 5,” says Principal Mary Russo, whose school became a K-8 school last year. “Teachers here know exactly where that child is going, and there’s a strong sense of accountability.”
But while there are many supporters of these schools, some parents point out the downsides: since the schools have much smaller groups of sixth- through eighth-graders, they usually don’t offer the wide range of electives typically found at a middle school. Some observers also worry that the transition to high school is much more jarring for students who have been “sheltered” at the same elementary school for nine years.
In addition, while some parents might worry that adolescents in a K-8 school would have a bad influence on the younger children, the National Middle School Association (NMSA) cites other concerns. NMSA is not against K-8 schools, but does not see them as a quick fix to middle-school problems of curriculum and instruction that have been blamed for many students’ lack of achievement.
Successful education for students in grades 5-8 does not depend on grade configuration so much as what goes on in the classroom,” notes Sue Swaim, the NMSA’s executive director.
Laptops for All?
It’s no surprise that by the fall of 2003, nearly 100 percent of U.S. public schools had Internet access, compared to just 35 percent in 1995. The ratio of students to instructional computers with Internet access in public schools also improved, from 12:1 in 1998 to about 4:1 in 2003.
But what of the laptop revolution? Although few states have specific programs to place laptops or hand-held technologies within schools, the percentage of students with access to such technologies is inching up. Currently, only Maine, Michigan and New Mexico have state-sponsored laptop programs for public school students, but statistics from Market Data Retrieval, which provides marketing information on education in the United States, show a gradual increase in the number of individual schools nationwide that provide students with laptops. In the 2003-2004 school year, 13.3 percent of instructional computers were laptops, compared with 12.4 percent in the previous year. That same year, 8 percent of public schools lent laptop computers to students for periods ranging from a week to the entire school year, while 6 percent planned to make laptops available for students to borrow in the upcoming school year.
Among private schools, many have started using laptops in the classroom, typically from about fifth grade on. The catch? Most often, students must pay for their own computers.
Lengthening the School Day
Is the school day getting longer? That depends on where you are.
Several charter schools in the Los Angeles area have lengthened both their school days and years to help at-risk students. The city’s Camino Nuevo Charter Academy features after-school enrichment programs running until 6 p.m. most days, and an extended school year of 195 days. Other public schools in the area are now on a year-round schedule to pack in more academics.
Across the country in Miami, new Superintendent of Schools Rudy Crew has created a School Improvement Zone for a group of 39 schools where academic performance is suffering. Kids at these schools now spend an extra hour in class four days a week, and have 10 extra school days per year.
In other areas of the country, classes run longer each weekday except Friday, when schools are actually closed for the day. Rural-area school districts in at least 12 states are experimenting with the shorter week to save money on things like transportation and heating.
Not everyone likes the idea of a shorter week, however. “My instinct is that it’s a trend in the wrong direction,” says Ted Sizer, former dean of education at the Harvard University School of Education. “Kids need a lot of attention in schools and to reduce the days they have per week doesn’t make an awful lot of sense.”
The Essential Conversation: What Parents and Teachers Can Learn from Each Other, by Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, Random House, 2003
Programs and Practices in K-8 Schools: Do They Meet the Educational Needs of Young Adolescents? by C. Kenneth McEwin and Associates, National Middle School Association, 2004.
What Happened to Recess and Why Are Our Children Struggling in Kindergarten?, by Susan Ohanian, McGraw-Hill, 2002.
For information on a variety of education-related issues:
American Library Association – 800-545-2433; www.ala.org
The Center for Health and Health Care in Schools – 202-466-3396; www.healthinschools.org
National Coalition for Parent Involvement in Education – 703-359-0972; www.ncpie.org
Parents for Public Schools – 800-880-1222; www.parents4publicschools.com
Parent-Teacher Association – 800-307-4782; www.pta.org