What Makes an Elementary School ‘Essential’?

The problems that drive secondary schools to move toward more active learners, more intellectual depth, and a simpler, student-centered structure also show up in many elementary schools. How do the Nine Common Principles look when they play out in a younger setting?

You hear a lot of talk in Essential School circles about how elementary schools have got the right idea.

In the good elementary school, they say, the teacher has a couple of dozen students of diverse academic background, and enough time with them to know them well. She can coach kids through rich projects that come from the real world, without changing to a new subject area every time the bell rings. She can focus on doing a few things well-reading, writing, solving problems, making art, getting along with each other.

You can see parents in the good elementary school classroom; by high school they will largely have vanished. You can see kids’ work all over the walls. More than a high school, a grade school can often feel like a family, not a factory; even its average size is far less daunting.

When Theodore R. Sizer founded the Coalition of Essential Schools more than a decade ago, he first aimed his call for reform at secondary schools, from which his own experience had come. In imitating the discipline-bound patterns of the university, he argued, they had lost the simplicity and depth of their elementary cousins.

But before long, the Coalition opened its arms to the many elementary schools for whom Sizer’s Nine Common Principles rang deeply true. Today, about 20 percent of schools affiliated with the Coalition include the elementary grades, and the number is growing.

Yet ironically, as the national conversation about education evolves, Essential elementary school people are worrying more about the very issues that secondary schools confront.

Younger children suffer at least as much as older ones, they point out, from society’s low expectations about how well they can use their minds, and from a curriculum that privileges certain “ways of knowing” over others. Even in the early grades, many systems start to sort kids into those who have a bright future and those intended for low-level jobs in the workforce.

A barrage of national, state, and district mandates undermines a school community’s power to decide what and how to teach its children. (This typically translates into a push for classroom methods whereby the teacher transfers “basic skills” directly into compliant young minds.) Standardized tests, which young students must take in ever greater numbers, are crowding out the good grade school teacher’s habit of tailoring learning tasks to students’ genuine interests and needs while watching and documenting each student’s growth.

In the meantime, financial and societal stresses make it harder than ever for families to help their children learn. An acute shortage of well-trained teachers plagues big-city districts. And fewer systems are willing to buy their teachers the time it takes to reflect with each other on what works best for kids.

At the same time, Essential high schools are realizing that if students are to use their minds well in high school, their earlier schooling must build a base for that. “We’ve got to get it right in the beginning,” says New Mexico educator Marlis Mann, who has been instrumental in her state’s push to embrace Essential School principles from kindergarten through high school and college. “Otherwise, change is well nigh impossible at the upper levels.”

Not only in New Mexico but in Florida, Indiana, Missouri, and other states, just as many elementary schools are joining the Coalition as are middle and high schools. More districts are moving to create “pathways” that share a coherent educational pattern across the grade levels, and to bring their staffs together more for talking and planning. (See Horace, Vol. 11, No. 5, May 1995.) And to stimulate dialogue and collaboration among themselves, Essential elementary schools have also created a support network of their own, the National Elementary School Networks.

What to Teach and How?

But what does classroom practice look like in the Essential elementary school? What does using one’s mind well mean to a first or third grader? In curriculum, teaching practices, and assessment methods, Essential elementary schools tend to reply in strikingly similar ways.

“For me, to be ‘essential’ means that the children are engaged as workers with an intellectual focus,” says Marlis Mann. “They might start with a question like ‘What is a frog?’ and move on to explore reptiles and amphibians. They’d get lots of opportunities to develop skills in sequencing, classification systems, and strategies for problem solving.”

A child-centered classroom will adapt to the learning needs of each child, Mann observes. “For instance, American Indians don’t use singular classification,” she says, “and so these children look at an object in a more integrated way, not classifying it so readily by color or shape. We need to recognize this in the elementary grades and teach ‘bicognitively’. Kids may be changing their whole thought processes when they go from one language to another.”

The Essential elementary school’s curriculum typically centers on language-not only reading, writing, speaking, and listening but also the language of numbers, spatial relationships, thinking out problems, and expressing oneself through the arts. Focusing on language gives coherence and unity across grade levels to what students should be able to do. To lend even more cohesion, many schools come up with themes or strands that bring together different subject areas in an integrated fashion.

“Our curriculum starts with questions about what’s around us-the subway, the seaport, the native peoples who settled this area,” says Kathy McCullagh, who directs the Earth School, an alternative public school on the Lower East Side of New York City. “By exploring these things in ways that suit children’s developmental readiness, we can create a seamless, integrated day.”

Down the hall in Rosadelle Perez’s combined first- and second-grade class, for instance, students have visited the city’s Transit Museum, then built a classroom subway model from wooden blocks and meticulously fitted it out with turnstiles, wheelchair ramps, and mosaic tile murals.

The project involved practice in reading, writing, and arithmetic skills. But it also laid a foundation of how to learn that will continue, McCullagh points out. In third and fourth grade, Earth School students make a garden in the back alley, complete with compost heap; by fifth and sixth grade they are writing City Hall to protest the bulldozing of community gardens. “Their understanding grows,” McCullagh says, “as they build and recreate the objects of their study.”

Such a “constructivist” approach comes up again and again in talking to Essential School elementary teachers. For this reason, many use hands-on projects as a way to spark children’s classroom learning. Group projects, as veteran teacher and author Lillian Katz has written, give young students a context in which to apply academic skills, at the same time developing their initiative, their habits of inquiry, and their ability to collaborate.

As children develop and test out their emerging ideas, Essential elementary teachers also do a good deal of listening. “Kids have to make sense of the work themselves, often through discussion,” says Simon Hole, who has taught fourth grade at Narragansett Elementary School in Rhode Island for 22 years. “At this age they may not have the writing skills to express themselves very well, but they can talk about anything, at any level. They can use their minds well if we give them a chance and listen.”

Hole describes sitting with a group of 20 children on the floor in his classroom, for example, puzzling over the meaning of Alan Arkin’s book, The Lemming Condition. “Why does Bubber not feel like a lemming, which he is?” he asks. “The kids talk with each other about his choice not to jump off the cliff with the others, and about how that relates to themselves and the decisions they have to make.” If the language is too difficult,” he notes, “we read it out loud together.”

Every Student as Worker

Essential elementary school teachers place a premium on active learning, which often puts them at odds with the conventional grade school’s reliance on lectures, drill, and work sheets. As well as receiving whole-group instruction and individual coaching, students often work together in small groups whose members may be of different ages or at different academic levels but share interests, motivation, or needs.

Elementary schools have also been in the forefront of the reform movement’s move toward recognizing the individual character of each student’s learning style. As more children with special educational needs are included in regular classrooms, and as more students come to school with little or no English proficiency, teachers at the elementary level are faced with the particular challenge of making real the Coalition’s maxim that all children can learn. Every day’s work finds them at the center of the controversial debates-about inclusion, about bilingual education, and about high standards without standardization-that preoccupy policymakers throughout the nation’s educational system.

At Milwaukee’s Garfield School, a citywide public school specializing in math and science, the number of children in poverty has risen steadily during the last few years of “welfare reform,” principal Deborah Jupke says. “It’s an assault on the entire family structure,” she declares. “The school has to go beyond a narrow focus on the child, and focus on whatever impacts the whole child as a learner in the community. How can you do homework if you’re homeless?”

Calling on Martin Haberman’s research on effective teachers of children in poverty, Garfield emphasizes “caring teachers” who use every strategy they can find to engage students in learning. To improve continuity among grade levels and to know their students better, teachers are encouraged to stay with the same class for two consecutive years in the practice called “looping.”

The school routinely includes in its regular classes the 18 percent of its students with “exceptional educational needs,” and teachers are encouraged to find new ways to make that work well. In one fourth-grade class, Jupke notes, an exceptional education teacher and a regular teacher have teamed up with a “very mixed group,” taking turns instructing the whole group and working with small groups in rotation. In a recent research project, all students reported on the planets, working with materials adapted to suit their current achievement level.

“We find that all kids benefit from inclusion,” Jupke says. “The extra small-group attention gives any child a chance to pick up on skills that may still be weak, without dropping behind the class. They can encounter the same information, but perhaps in smaller chunks or with different entry questions.”

One of Garfield’s partners in the Milwaukee Elementary School Network is Escuela Fratney, a two-way bilingual school that draws English-dominant and Spanish-dominant students from around the city in equal numbers. “We teach reading in the dominant language until the beginning of third grade,” says principal Carol Schmuhl. “In addition, much of our content-area curriculum uses children’s literature and asks students to think critically about the issues they read about.”

Four broad themes unify the school’s multicultural priorities: “We respect ourselves and others,” “We share stories of the world,” “We can make a difference on Planet Earth,” and “We send messages when we communicate.” Partly because of this sustained focus, Schmuhl says, Fratney students do especially well on required social studies performance assessments.

“Our city and state curriculum and assessment requirements are quite compatible with the Nine Common Principles,” Schmuhl observes. “In fact, our staff members helped shape the district’s K-12 teaching and learning goals, which are moving toward more authentic assessment. The fifth-grade science assessment is an experiment for kids to figure out.”

Making Assessment Essential

“When you’re trying to keep the child at the center,” Kathy McCullagh notes, “you’ve got to use ways other than tests to get information about the child’s strengths, interests, and progress.” Some Earth School teachers receive training in the Primary Language Record, a detailed portfolio that documents their growing literacy. And the staff meets at least monthly to conduct “descriptive reviews” of children, student work, and curriculum and teaching practices. (Both these processes are described in Horace, Vol. 13, No. 2, November 1996.)

“We observe what our children know and can do through sitting beside them and watching,” McCullagh says, and then she dryly describes the battery of standardized tests her students nonetheless must undergo. “When the scores come back, they don’t reflect what we know about them.” In fact, when they send test scores home, Earth School teachers include a letter home to parents to put the results in perspective. “These scores are not a measure of everything a child knows,” it reads in part. “Tests are only a small part of what children do in school. When you look at your child’s scores consider them as one more piece of their work-like a painting, or a poem, or a research report.”

Even teachers whose districts use more open-ended standardized “performance assessments” find themselves frustrated by the tests. Limitations compared to richer observations of student work. When scores simply record that children do not meet grade-level standards at a particular grade, they complain, it is difficult to show actual student growth from one year to the next. In addition, they remark, it seems unfair to assess a child’s writing ability using just one prompt for one kind of writing on one day.

At the New Suncook School in Lovell, Maine, a group of such teachers worked out an alternative system of assessing reading and writing, with a small grant from the Southern Maine Partnership, a regional Center of the Coalition. First they used their existing standards to create clear descriptions of nine consecutive “stages” for reading and writing, culminating with the proficiency they expected from eighth graders.

In cumulative portfolios, students now submit, and teachers score, a writing sample demonstrating proficiency in each stage (or several samples, in the later stages). Their reading portfolios include a taped oral reading, a written reflection on a piece of reading (for the upper levels), and specific observations by the classroom teacher. Aided by a handbook of exemplars, teachers rate student work samples along the continuum of stages, making the portfolio into a ready record of prior achievement as the student moves on.

Spurred by the success of their pilot project across the district, the New Suncook teachers extended their method to assessing students. Mastery of content and skills using portfolios of work on interdisciplinary theme-based projects.

“As we try to ‘standardize’ authentic assessment for reliability purposes, we sometimes lose the child’s individuality in the process,” write Karen Johnson and Rhonda Poliquin in a detailed and useful booklet about their method. “The portfolios are a beginning step toward including both standardization and individuality in authentic assessment.”

Collaboration Around Kids

It’s rare, though, that elementary teachers get enough time together to carry out such an ambitious rethinking of their practice. Though they teach fewer students than their secondary colleagues, they are usually on duty all day long, without the planning and preparation period that can come with a less integrated day.

But other factors (not least, the high percentage of women in their ranks) make elementary school teachers among the most collegial in the field. And collaboration-with parents, with community agencies, and with each other-permeates most Essential elementary schools.

At Oakland Park Elementary School in Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the faculty has reorganized classes into multi-grade “families” that include teachers and students from kindergarten through fourth grade. “It’s not just a social system; we buddy up for all kinds of things,” says Pam Tindall, who teaches one of the school’s nine mixed-age classes of first and second graders. “My class regularly goes to read and write with a third-grade class. I can tell it has a big effect on improving quality-their work takes on much more importance to them.”

Oakland Park teachers meet regularly in family groups, grade-level groups, and study groups, discussing Coalition principles, comparing notes, and trading materials on ideas ranging from puppet shows to photo journals. Teaching parents is part of the work of teaching children here; at tables in the back of the school auditorium, a dozen mothers work on learning English or studying for the high school equivalency exam, with child care provided for their younger children on the premises. And the outside community has also joined the effort: local banks and restaurants share information and resources, and even the shrubs that line the walkways near a maze of portable classrooms were planted with the help of a nearby center for handicapped youth.

“My own experience with the Nine Common Principles shows that at first reading, elementary people say, ‘We already do that,'” says Simon Hole. “We personalize teaching and learning; we include all students, we’re generalists. But if we take time to examine the principles more deeply, we find we may not have looked hard enough at them. Do I have a sense of commitment to the entire school, or does it stay close in to the classroom or grade level? Do I really look at and expand my knowledge of what’s going on in alternative assessment, in learning theory? Or do I group my heterogeneous class into separate reading levels and teach them separately?”

Elementary teachers throughout the Coalition are asking the same questions. And as new bonds form between traditionally separate spheres of early and later education, their answers are beginning to cast a long shadow over the future of how their students learn.