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December 8, 2017

US 4th-graders earn a B+ in reading

American fourth-graders are good, not great, readers. But they clearly know their way around the Internet. At least that’s one of the lessons to take away from the latest international assessment of nine-year-olds’ reading ability.

PIRLs

Earlier this week, the International Association for the Evaluation of Educational Achievement (IEA) released the results of the 2016 Progress in International Reading Literacy Study (PIRLS). Our fourth-graders scored 16th out of the 61 participating countries and jurisdictions, although just 12 countries outscored us by statistically significant margins. The five top performers in descending order were Russia, Singapore, Hong Kong, Ireland and Finland.

Although we can’t claim number one status, our young students once again show they are more competitive internationally than either their 15-year-old siblings or their parents and grandparents, who barely register at the international average on tests of literacy. (As though the nation needed more evidence that we Baby Boomers need to get over ourselves.)

Yet the report was not without troubling signs. For one, the overall average was not significantly different from 2001, and we actually saw a decline from 2011 even while scores increased in ten countries. As we often remind CPE readers, one year’s data does not make a trend. But it does bear watching, particularly since the decline in this case was most pronounced among our low scorers, producing a widening gap.

As in past administrations of PIRLS, our fourth-graders performance is largely driven by their proficiency with reading literature. Only six countries outperformed the U.S. when reading for “literary experience.” In comparison, 14 did better than we did when asked to “acquire and use information.” The relatively weak performance in informational reading extends through adulthood in the U.S. — an issue CPE addressed three years ago in our report Beyond Fiction, which highlighted the importance of including non-fiction texts in the school curriculum.

Interestingly enough, however, our fourth-graders are really good at locating and using information online. For the first time in 2016, PIRLS assessed students’ ability to navigate the internet for information. IEA developed discrete web pages that students accessed through computer, and navigated through them to answer short multiple-choice or open-ended questions. (You can test-drive ePIRLS sample items here.) Out of the 16 participating education systems, only three — Singapore, Norway and Ireland — outperformed the U.S.

This begs the question: Why can our students read for information online, but aren’t as proficient in print? Hopefully, ePIRLS will prompt researchers to take a deeper look into this area. And while they’re at it, we need to know more about why U.S. schools seem to be able teach kids to read, interpret and analyze literature, but the skills aren’t transferring to their approach to printed informational texts. There’s an urgency to finding answers. Our nation has entered an era when consumers of information must increasingly rely on their own judgment and skills in order to discern fact from fiction. We need to figure out how to make sure our next generation is up to it.

CPE will soon be releasing a report that examines differences in the perceptions teachers in the U.S. have about their profession compared to their peers in high-performing Finland. The report, written by our research analyst Annie Hemphill, doesn’t specifically address reading instruction. But it does highlight some issues important to preparing and retaining good teachers who, after all, are a key ingredient in students’ academic development. So keep watching this space.






October 20, 2017

From rowdy to ready to learn: The cognitive, physical, and social-emotional benefits of daily recess

Any teacher knows the signs. It starts with a rustle here, a giggle there—and suddenly, the whole class is off task. Hopefully, the restlessness will kick in just before recess, and the kids will be able to run off some energy before returning to class refreshed. But many teachers across the country have had to find another approach—for many classes, recess may mean just a short break, or may only be scheduled on certain days of the week.

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As schools have emphasized the importance of literacy and mathematics in recent years, many schedules have been adapted to accommodate increased time devoted to tested subjects. Along with oft-lamented cuts to arts and music programs, daily recess has faced challenges of its own.

This month, experts have weighed in to reiterate what teachers already know to be true: recess is good for kids. It supports cognitive and social-emotional development, and helps kids return to the classroom ready to learn.

A study out this month adds more evidence to support the belief widely held by teachers that students will be more focused after taking a ‘brain break’ at recess. The study’s authors tested third-, fourth- and fifth-graders and found that the children had significantly higher measures of sustained attention after recess than before. Even students who did not participate in intensely active play and instead used recess as a time to socialize showed cognitive benefits, suggesting that the mental break away from the classroom is perhaps the most significant aspect of recess. Additionally, students build social-emotional skills by playing and socializing at recess in ways that complement their learning in the classroom. Active games and sports, role playing and imagination, and even chatting with friends develop skills like cooperation, problem solving, and sharing—all valuable skills that may not be directly taught in the traditional classroom.

The American Academy of Pediatrics has also expressed clear support for daily recess: not only is the mental break beneficial for students to recharge and process their learning throughout the day, but active play also comes with clear physical benefits. The CDC recommends that children get 60 minutes of physical activity every day, but few students meet this guideline. This level of activity helps build strong bones, muscles, and hearts, and improves memory and concentration. Because many students are not sufficiently physically active outside of school, providing an environment during the school day where students have the opportunity to play during recess helps every child meet their daily physical activity goals, encouraging them to build and benefit from a healthy body.

Teachers already know it, and the evidence supports it: kids are more able to focus after recess. But the benefits don’t stop there. Recess helps kids develop cognitively by allowing them a break to process what they’ve learned. Students who participate in active play build healthy bodies, and even students who choose to socialize during recess develop important social-emotional skills. When students start to become antsy in class, the mental break of daily recess can help them internalize what they have already learned and prepare to absorb new material.






June 29, 2017

Social and emotional learning, a teacher’s perspective

I was a fourth-grade teacher in Tulsa, Okla., when I decided to go back to school myself and study education research. I continued to teach and the difference in my instructional style after attending graduate school was like night and day. I attribute a great deal of my own personal growth as a teacher and the success of my class to simply addressing the social and emotional aspects of my students.

When I began my second year of teaching, I decided I needed to foster some social skills in my fourth-graders before I could really begin tackling the academic subject material. I remember feeling this might be a big risk. My class was below grade level academically, but I felt that not addressing the social and emotional issues was where I went wrong in my first year. As a consequence, my first year of teaching resulted in an out-of-control classroom that got in the way of numerous academic learning opportunities.

So, I began my second year by teaching my students how to talk to one another in a productive and nonjudgmental way. This may seem like something you would expect a nine or 10-year-old to be able to do, or a skill that they would simply pick up over time, but I felt that it was necessary to teach this as explicitly as one would teach multiplication.

During my first year as a teacher, I tried to limit student-to-student interaction because it often lead to arguments and disruptions, but I knew that this was a skill that all people needed in their lives. To directly teach this skill, we engaged in a lot of role playing as a class. Students would practice disagreeing about nonacademic subjects in a respectful way so that they could make the distinction between a subject disagreement and a personal attack. My goal was for them to be able to eventually talk about an idea and disagree about something, without taking it personally, and to be able to understand a different perspective.

To understand another perspective on a subject is a type of critical thinking, but also a form of empathy. So, when I designed the behavior system in my class, I wanted one of the first consequences to be a reflection sheet and one-on-one discussion with me and the student. Students would fill out a paper where they explained their behavior and the reasoning behind it. I would then ask them questions to walk them through the process to reflect on their choices and understand how the other student or students were feeling because of that choice. Then we would discuss different ways to handle the situation in the future so that the student could learn from his/her mistake instead of repeating it.

My second year of teaching was so much more enjoyable for me and my students, and I think a big reason was because of these changes.  Instead of simply reacting to behavior, I could anticipate it and address some of the underlying causes head on. That year, my students grew substantially in their academic subject knowledge, but hopefully they also left my class with skills like empathy, collaboration and self-reflection which are just as important for success.

Filed under: elementary education,SEL,teachers — Annie Hemphill @ 10:23 am





July 27, 2016

Elementary Teacher Specialization

We have all bemoaned the high rate of teacher turnover in the U.S. and wondered how to increase teacher quality.  Most proposed solutions are costly, though: increased pay, smaller classes, merit-based pay, housing for teachers in urban areas.  The National Center on Education and the Economy released a report last week that examines the training, hiring, and work practices of elementary school teachers in four high-performing nations, with implications for how the U.S. could improve its elementary teacher workforce.  The easiest to implement? Specialization.

Elementary classrooms typically are “self-contained,” meaning that one teacher has the same class of students all day and teaches Reading, Writing, Math, Science, and Social Studies.  However, some schools have a “departmentalized” structure, which looks more like middle school or high school.  Typically, 2-4 teachers will work as a team with the same group of students who rotate through the classes.  This allows teachers to focus their lesson planning on only one or two subjects.

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Departmentalized teaching provides multiple benefits:

  1. Reduced workload for teachers, which improves job satisfaction.
  2. Teachers have a deeper knowledge of the subject that they teach, which results in increased confidence and student performance.
  3. Students have the opportunity to know multiple adults and improve their organizational skills.
  4. Teachers collaborate more due to sharing students.

Even if elementary schools are concerned about changing their schedules, they can still ask teachers to specialize in a particular subject, making them the expert on their grade level team.  Doing so would still provide for deeper teacher knowledge and increased collaboration.

As a former teacher who started in a self-contained classroom and then was in a departmentalized structure for two years, I can attest to the shorter work hours, improved student achievement, and stronger collaborations provided by only teaching one or two subjects.  In fact, one of the reasons I left the elementary classroom was because my principal decided to return to self-contained classrooms.  Research tells me I’m not alone.







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