In December of 2014 Janet Barresi, Oklahoma State Superintendent of Public Instruction, responded to a report by the National Council of Teacher Equality regarding teacher preparation. This is one of the statements she made about our teachers:
“They need to be taught to look at and interpret data for each of their students so they can see what instruction works and what should be revised to help each student achieve academically. Elementary teachers need to be taught how to teach reading, using phonics and differentiated instruction for each student. This is job one.”
I read that statement three times before I could even begin to process all of the thoughts and emotions that it evokes.
First of all I have to tell you that the unique circumstances, challenges, and needs of kindergarten students are for the most part misunderstood and overlooked by anyone without direct knowledge and experience of this student population. That means that during my college years much of what I was taught was geared toward the upper end of the K-8 spectrum. During the fifteen years I’ve taught kindergarten (in three Oklahoma schools) much of what I’ve heard at staff meetings, curriculum workshops, and test preparation meetings has been prefaced with or followed by “of course this doesn’t apply to kindergarten”. So you have to understand that I’ve developed an “attitude” about defending my grade level.
Mrs. Barresi’s first admonition is that we must be taught to look at and interpret data for each of our students. That’s a great plan…once we HAVE data! Some of our kindergarten students come to us from local preschool programs that do formal testing and collect data. Others have attended private daycare centers that don’t do formal testing. Some come from out of state, and we may or may not receive any testing data from them. Some haven’t attended preschool. So we must begin the year by giving each of our students a “basic skills” test created by our kindergarten staff. Formal testing doesn’t begin until about October.
The purpose of collecting and interpreting this data is to “see what instruction works and what should be revised to help each student achieve academically”.
Young children do NOT respond to tests like older children. First of all, most don’t even understand the concept of testing. Second, how they respond to questions and tasks depends a great deal on their maturity level. Many tests given at the beginning of the year are simply not accurate because the child is not yet confident in their ability to even speak directly to the teacher, much less answer questions correctly. It might be November or December before I’ve given enough tests and collected enough data to accurately assess how a student learns and how to adapt my instruction to meet his or her individual needs.
Elementary teachers need to be taught how to teach reading, using phonics…
Too bad we can’t all agree that phonics instruction is the best method of teaching reading! Our educational system has gone through many changes over the years and some of them have been moderately successful. Teachers have been urged to embrace “back to basics”, “whole language”, “learning through play”, “phonics” and “Core Curriculum”, among others. During my college years “whole language” was touted as the primary method of teaching reading in early childhood. That lasted for a few years and then phonics rose to the top again. So within any district you’ll find teachers fully prepared to teach whatever programs were accepted during their college years, plus anything they’ve received further training in as part of their school’s staff development. And of course there will be some arguments about which method is best.
One year, early in my career, I was asked to be part of a “wonderful” new program designed to improve instruction, raise test scores, and solve a variety of problems. It cost our district thousands and thousands of dollars, required months of teacher training workshops, forced all of us to create new files and teaching tools, and was adopted for only ONE year because it simply didn’t deliver all that was promised.
…and differentiated instruction for each student.
For those of you who are not in education:
Differentiated instruction is the way in which a teacher anticipates and responds to a variety of student needs in the classroom. To meet student needs, teachers differentiate by modifying the content (what is being taught), the process (how it is taught) and the product (how students demonstrate their learning).
The best way to describe this concept is to quote James R. Delisle, author of Differentiation Doesn’t Work: “Although fine in theory, differentiation in practice is harder to implement in a heterogeneous classroom than it is to juggle with one arm tied behind your back.” I have to agree. He also states that “teachers are either not doing it at all, or beating themselves up for not doing it as well as they’re supposed to be doing it”. I fall into the latter category. While I agree with the intention of the concept, I disagree with the idea that it can actually be done successfully.
The problem with differentiated instruction is that our classrooms are now filled with more students and a greater variety of students than ever before:
1. The age range in a kindergarten class is from “barely five” to “almost seven”.
2. As mentioned before, the experience of students might be two years of preschool or none at all.
3. Students with major and minor disabilities are included in the regular classroom for as much of the day as possible.
4. Students may have vision or hearing problems that affect how they learn.
5. Many students have emotional or behavior problems that impact every aspect of learning.
6. Students can be auditory, visual, or kinesthetic learners.
7. Some students are gifted in language skills. Others struggle with every stage of the reading process.
8. Some students have supportive parents who help with homework, provide encouragement, and communicate with the teacher. Others have parents who participate in their child’s education as little as possible…either by choice or necessity.
9. Some students barely speak English and come from homes without an English-speaking parent.
10. Some students are eager to learn and some are totally uncooperative.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the idea. We’re asking teachers to “be all things to all students”. I currently have 18 students and each one is a little different. Yet I attempt to teach each and every one of them the same information and skills, as required by the State Department of Education. I’m doing the best I can, but on any given day someone in my group will not get what they need. We need to rethink some of our misgivings about dividing and grouping students and realize that in some instances being with others of similar strengths benefits them. We’ve already begun to address some of these issues with special education classes, computer classes, and reading tutors, but we may need to look at other specialty classes that would help students be more successful.
So, while I agree with some of Mrs. Barresi’s recommendations for teacher preparation, as usual much of it “doesn’t apply to kindergarten”.