Wednesday, January 5, 2011

The Problem with Public Schools, Time

So we, as a community, are left with something of a mess. When Johnny falls behind in reading, and the school is the primary instrument of closing that gap, it will be an uphill battle. The situation would improve dramatically if Johnny were invested in the work. But if he’s not--and all too often, he’s not, then the task is all the more daunting. Here’s why.

Suppose Johnny gets two daily classes (one regular language class and one intervention class) devoted to reading work all year. His school will have focused work time equivalent to two full weeks--roughly 340 hours--on Johnny’s reading. If Malcolm Gladwell’s claims (in Outliers) about needing 10,000 hours of practice to achieve virtuosity is even half right, it takes at least several thousand hours--spread out over years--to master and sustain even high level reading skills, the kind that involves analysis, interpretation, prediction, inference, response, etc.

Even if Johnny had the ‘double dip’ of reading classes for the remaining seven years of his academic career, that amounts to less than 2400 hours, all of which would not be completely devoted to his own reading practice. Clearly, any remediation of basic skills by the school really requires that Johnny continue to practice at home.

To hope for even those 2400 hours in school is a pipe dream, though. The schools just don’t have the personnel available to offer the small classes that allow the greater repetitions Johnny needs. When general education class size maximums are 32, and remediation program requirements (according to the curriculum’s producers) call for classes of 12-15, the numbers just won’t pencil. Johnny might get one or two years of double classes, but after that he’s likely back into the general language arts classes.

Add to all this awkward and confusing state and federal rules, tied, of course, to the money they each dangle before school districts, and sometimes the regulations can undermine an individual school’s interventions. Some programs of support, which might be funded by specific government regulations, require Johnny to qualify for that program. If Johnny really needs intervention, but doesn’t qualify for the particular program, which might be the primary intervention that district has opted (or is compelled by law) to undertake, he might just end up in a general language arts class only. Only 170 hours a year, with 32 students, and many fewer extra repetitions.
(This continues...several more entries under January's archive.)


Dave Eckstrom said...

OK, I've read the whole series and I have to ask, where on earth are you going with this? You are describing the frustration every caring and well-versed teacher feels every day, but with no type of prescription.

You say that teachers support your run for school board. I am a teacher, but I would not support you if you ran in my district, based on what you have said so far, because I don't have any idea what you plan to do about the problem, or even if you have a coherent understanding of the problem.

Andrew Milton said...

You're right...this series of pieces is short on prescription. I created it as an article giving 'ground level' description of some of the vexing school situations--written to inform, not prescribe. There is some more of that in later posts, but the best way to see my prescriptive thoughts is to look at my Notes on my Facebook page.

Of course, even these notes are inflected with some of the specific nuances of our local schools issues.

Thanks for writing, Dave. Your thoughts help sharpen my own thinking.

Andrew Milton said...

With respect to 'time' (though from a somewhat different angle), read
for instance.