Let’s compete

Published by Lori Pickert on March 16, 2010 at 03:37 PM

One of the most remarkable things about American classrooms is how little real teaching goes on there. Over the past five years or so, I have spent at least three or four days a month in schools studying the relationship between classroom practice and school organization. I observe classrooms at all levels — primary, middle, and secondary grades — and in all subjects. One of the most striking patterns to emerge is that teachers spend a great deal of classroom time getting ready to teach, reviewing and reteaching things that have already been taught, giving instructions to students, overseeing student seatwork, orchestrating administrative tasks, listening to announcements on the intercom, or presiding over dead air — and relatively little time actually teaching new content.

When my fellow researchers and I code our observations for teaching new content, it is not unusual to find that it occupies somewhere between zero and 40 percent of scheduled instructional time. Over the course of a typical 180-day school year with a 6-hour day (subtracting an hour for programmed noninstructional time), this means that a student might lose somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of instruction per year (40 to 60 days) to just the daily friction of classroom processes.

Let’s compare two middle-grade math lessons taken from the Third International Mathematics and Science Study (TIMSS). The first, in a typical American classroom, begins with a problem-by-problem homework review focused on procedure and factual recall. It proceeds to a teacher-directed lesson with no discernible connection to the homework, and ends with a long period of seatwork focused on tomorrow’s homework. There are probably fewer than 15 minutes of instruction in new content in a 55-minute class.

The second lesson takes place in a Japanese classroom. The teacher begins with a brief introduction to the problem of the day including a short connection to the previous day’s work, followed by a combination of individual seatwork, pair work, and group problem-solving, which in turn is followed by students presenting their work and a discussion among the teacher and students of what the students have produced. All of the content is new. The class moves to another problem; the process is the same.

When American educators watch these two lessons they are shocked by the difference: Students in the Japanese lesson are fully engaged in new content for the entire class, while in the American lesson it is difficult to discern what the new content actually is, much less how much time is dedicated to it. Observers invariably comment on how respectful and comfortable students and teachers are with each other in the Japanese lesson, and how distant and incoherent the discourse is in the American classroom. They see that meaningful work produces meaningful discourse and meaningful results.

— Richard F. Elmore, Three Thousand Missing Hours, Harvard Education Letter

Go ahead and boo me. I fundamentally think that our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short. You’re competing for jobs with kids from India and China. I think schools should be open six, seven days a week, 11, 12 months a year.

— Arne Duncan, Secretary of Education, addressing middle- and high-school students in Denver

I promise this is the last one.

When I read Prof. Elmore’s Three Thousand Missing Hours, I thought about Mr. Duncan’s quote about longer school days/weeks/years.

One, why should kids be in school even longer if we aren’t treating that time as a precious gift and making every hour count? Schools say there’s no time for recess and no time for hands-on learning, but Prof. Elmore and his researchers found that

Over the course of a typical 180-day school year with a 6-hour day (subtracting an hour for programmed noninstructional time), this means that a student might lose somewhere between 200 and 300 hours of instruction per year (40 to 60 days) to just the daily friction of classroom processes.

Two, I am all for competition. Let’s be the very best. But who decided that our most important educational goal is competing with other countries for jobs? Why isn’t our most important educational goal offering the best education available on the planet?

Did anyone sit down with America’s teachers and ask them what they need to help them teach and help all children learn?

Did anyone sit down with America’s families and ask them what they want for their children? (If they did, and those parents said, “I want my child to be able to compete with China and India for jobs!”, I will eat my hat.)

Let’s compete. First, though, let’s choose the race we really want to win.



Comment by Courtney on March 16, 2010 at 05:19 PM

Oh, I think you just reminded me why I hated Math so-- so damn boring! I was always like-- huh? What are you saying!? And when I STARTED math I was an advanced learner. Not so when I finished.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 16, 2010 at 07:12 PM

the bit about the math reminded me strikingly of my high school math classes, all taught by the same teacher. the class was set up so that we did homework every night based on something we had never seen before, then we would review the lesson it pertained to the *next* day, followed by another homework assignment for something entirely new.

we wouldn't get back our corrected homework for days. you never knew what you were doing, what you understood or didn't understand, what you'd gotten right or wrong, and you were always working blindly on something you'd never seen before.

i learned to loathe math, and i still feel i don't understand math at all (and i develop a facial tic when i have to deal with it). in sixth grade, i loved math. entering college, i failed the math part of the entrance exam and would have had to take remedial math classes if i'd majored in science or engineering. all that, and guess what — i got A's in math in those high school classes, including trigonometry and calculus. i understood nothing, and retained nothing — well, except for a hatred of math.

i always thought that was a completely unique situation, but maybe that's too optimistic.

Comment by Arwen on March 16, 2010 at 10:55 PM

Nice. The whole thing is nice, but I think this part especially:

"Did anyone sit down with America’s teachers and ask them what they need to help them teach and help all children learn?

"Did anyone sit down with America’s families and ask them what they want for their children? (If they did, and those parents said, “I want my child to be able to compete with China and India for jobs!”, I will eat my hat.)"

gets to the heart of it.

Comment by Elysabeth Eldering on March 16, 2010 at 11:25 PM

Very cool and interesting post. I am not a homeschooler nor am I a teacher but I definitely agree with your bottom line - Let's compete to be the very best nation we can. We have a few year-round schools in our area and even though the students actually are attending school the same amount of time as the students who go from September to May (or June or whatever time they start), they are doing much better in school, as compared to having the whole summer off. I'm not for having school year-round exclusively - like 11 months out of the year, but I do think rethinkig the methods used to teach our kids is definitely a must for us to compete for better paying jobs and better classes of jobs.

As a parent, I never feel my kids really are accomplishing the goal of what teaching is supposed to be about because instead of instruction in the basic three R's, all schools are "teaching" everything geared to standardized testing which is foolish. They don't even teach math skills that are going to be remembered much past the next day, if that, and once they test it out, then it's long forgotten. Whoever thought of "long division" as a skill necessary for students was way off. Whoever thought that there is only one way to do math problems (when you know there have to be at least a dozen ways to get to the same answer) was very incorrect. Teaching the students means that they are learning something new, not reviewing and rehashing and revisiting the same old tired lessons every day.

I wonder if we compared homeschooled children to public schooled children in the United States and found that the ones that are homeschooled are probably better off and that the public schools could take a few lessons from the homeschoolers. I'd put some money on it.

I say we compete but not with other countries, we compete within our own country to produce the best teachers we can who in turn can teach the best students the world has known. E :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2010 at 12:14 AM

thank you, arwen. ;^)

elysabeth, i agree re: producing the best teachers. we have great teachers, mediocre teachers, and terrible teachers. we need to learn from the great ones, help the mediocre ones become great, and get rid of the terrible ones, e.g., ones like those sitting in "the rubber room":


Comment by Dawn Suzette on March 17, 2010 at 02:09 AM

In my past life as a high school teacher I could attest to the frustrations of "wasted time" but also on passing up on opportunities to use what is interesting to students to guide their learning.
I was lucky enough to teach subjects that were not deemed important enough for standardized testing but held great interest for students. Drugs and sex can really capture a class full of teens! This gave me a lot of freedom in my classroom and a great opportunity to foster a wonderful relationship with my students.
One of the things that was amazing to me was when I would get 11th and 12th grade students in my Child Development classes who did not have me for Health as freshmen. The reproduction unit fascinated them. As a matter of fact I had to expand this unit to make sure I answered all of their questions. In the end I was told that other teachers either did not teach that unit in Health or just gave them some reading about it and that was it. The teachers who were uncomfortable with the information just glossed over it! I on the other hand had fostered a relationship with my students to the point where they would ask me anything. They asked me questions you can't even imagine and we talked about the answers in technical and emotional terms, the social considerations and on and on... There was new learning going on all the time from the moment they sat down in their seats.
So how do you have a topic that is of total interest to the students and yet it does not get covered in some classes?
There were some topics that we talked about that were not as high on their list of interests but we discussed what they wanted to get from each unit and that is what we talked about.
I know this approach may not work for other subjects. Math is a tough one to spice up... I don't think word problems about STD's and number of sperm in an ejaculation would go over too well with the PTA. But the point is to be effective with the time we have with students and play to the things that interest them.

There are some amazing teachers in our schools. I think they are fighting against a culture that is focused on the wrong priorities. When you place sports and celebrities above education what can you expect?
Our youth are competing. They are just signed up for the wrong race.
And I don't think MORE school is the answer.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2010 at 02:37 AM

dawn, lol re: spicing up math with teen-related topics. !!!

i agree (obviously!) that working *with* student interests makes the best use of time — who learns better than a self-motivated person? who retains more?

there is an over-arching problem that students KNOW that school is not for them. (back to that preK dropout post a few posts back.) they know that it's not about what THEY want to learn, it's not about their interests or learning in a way that caters to their needs (like, say, starting school later for teens who biologically need to sleep in!).

once kids absorb that school isn't really for them, what is the point? there are those who are there to play the game and collect the grades/do what they're told and then there are those who just get through it investing as little as possible.

culture = parents, right? because no matter what society says about sports and celebrities, parents are the ones who have the power to impart values, expectations, and a powerful view of what is important and meaningful in life.

Comment by greenchickadee on March 17, 2010 at 06:18 AM

Preach it sistah! I've forwarded this comment to everyone I know in the homeschool, teaching, and political world. I can't say enough about the diabolical contrast that each of your authors present, and why is it that such an overwhelming majority follow the latter. Why?

Frankly, I think the same thing is happening with healthcare. We should be working on inventing something completely new and better, and basing it on what other countries and systems have done wrong, and inventing a new better version. Rather, we're trying to immitate failing systems and make "healthcare for everyone" a quick fix.

Public education seems to have always been about "new programs". Why not immerse ourselves in the best literature and research that our country (and others) have to offer, and then slowly, carefully, thoughtfully redesign education. I totally agree with what you're saying here. Totally.

And thus, I homeschool.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2010 at 01:33 PM

thank you, greenchickadee!

i agree re: health care; it seems we are rushing forward rather than spending time figuring out the best system for *us*. also, why can't we step ourselves toward our ultimate goal? in politics it seems like everyone feels they have to move at lightning speed, then it gets canceled out by the next party. health care and education are bipartisan issues -- we all need them -- and we should be working together from the outset so we can jointly commit to long-term, permanent change.

la dee dah, living in a dream world today...

Comment by Dawn Suzette on March 17, 2010 at 04:59 PM

"There is an over-arching problem that students KNOW that school is not for them."
This is so true Lori. I saw so many kids in my high school of almost 3,000.. yes! 3,000 kids... in what I used to call survival mode. Trying to make in through the day so they could get on to the things they loved to do after school. It was intresting to me one day when I heard some teachers in the lunch room complaining about a student. I asked who they were talking about. Once they told me I was a little shocked. He was a great student in my class and spoke out with insightful comments and questions. I even saw him on the street downtown with his friends and he ran across the street calling my name so he could meet my husband. BUT he was in a "band" and hung out with "those" type of kids... and was not intrested in "this" or "that"... the things those particular teachers found exceptable. It was a sad case of not meeting a student at his level and respecting the things that he found intresting. I would talk to him about his band and what gigs they were playing around town. It was not my kind of music but I knew that he loved it and it was important to him. That was all I needed to know... He did not need my approval just my interest. Then all of a sudden he was an active and productive member of my classroom.
I wonder what kind of student that English teacher would have seen if she had just asked to see a few of the songs he had written?
Thanks again for the disscussion Lori!

Comment by QueenBee on March 17, 2010 at 05:00 PM

Thank you so much for this post.
I've been thinking about it since I read it. We were contemplating a move to India last year and over and over heard that our American children wouldn't be able to cut it in Indian schools because of the pressure and pace. I'm certain the people offering this opinion were correct b/c as my children are homeschooled they've never dealt with that "pressure and pace" at all. I have to admit that for a brief moment I felt worried that I was doing an actual disservice to my children - leaving them unprepared for "the future." I mean, they haven't memorized the Periodic Table yet - my god! They helped me get my head on straight again when my six-year-old reminded me that she wants to be an Adventurer when she grows up and asked which is the best University for learning to be an Adventurer - you know with classes in choosing a destination, how to draw your adventures, and how to pick fellow travelers for the journey. Ah - that's right - we're after creativity not conformity.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 17, 2010 at 09:13 PM

dawn, imagine the difference in that kid’s experience at school if it *had* been about him! but he saved the best parts of himself for outside school, since school for the most part wasn’t interested in them.

thank you for sharing your story!

queenbee, i *love* that story. :^) i'm pretty sure the best school for an adventurer is homeschool. ;^)

from an interview between two reggio educators (included in "the hundred languages of children"):

Gandini: What advice could you give, after so many years of work, to teachers who work with young children?

Vecchi: I hesitate to give advice. Our research is really an adventure, often exciting and diverting, and how can I give advice about going on an adventure?


Comment by Lori @ Just Pur... on March 18, 2010 at 03:27 AM

I got stuck at the Sec. of Ed. saying school days need to be that long. If only the time was *quality* time and catered to each child's needs, school could be done in 2, 3 hours and the rest of the day spent getting to know people, God, nature. What a world it'd be! But I know most kids aren't in a good home environment, so those 21-22 hours left in the day would not be at all about people, God, and nature. Still, I hate to see kids in school soooo many hours each day, with homework on top of it.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 18, 2010 at 06:19 PM

you'd like to think that if they were in school that much, there would be no homework! good grief!

my school was open 7:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. and we had kids who were there for the entire time. because it was a mix of school (with plenty of self-directed learning), free play, open art studio, etc., i think it was a great day. i can see where if you work full time, it would be great to have your child in one place rather than shuttled here and there to cover the hours. but with school's history of how they've spent our kids' time in the past, do we trust them to have more of it?

Comment by Lisa on March 29, 2010 at 09:32 PM

Oh heavens! American kids learn CONTENT??? What would THAT ever do for their self-esteem!! We must teach them to feel good, to think about thinking and to think about doing. Like Professor Harold Hill's River City Boys Band, they are somehow supposed to emerge at age 18 ready to take on the world and all they've done is learn to feel wonderful......or not......... Bring back content!

Comment by Lori Pickert on April 3, 2010 at 04:42 PM

lisa, i think the problem with *content* is that core-content people take a hirsch-like view that you can somehow remove the important bits to know and then just get the kids to memorize them (briefly) and spit them back on tests … and that’s learning. when hands-on learning people say no no no, let them work with that knowledge and do projects, the core-knowledge people get up in arms because kids are doing “fun activities” instead of getting in their basic skills.

as usual, the baby is thrown out with the bath water ... in truth, kids can do *meaningful* project work in which they work with knowledge and actually *do* something with it. but there’s no denying that some “hands-on projects” are a waste of time. so they bat the ball back and forth and meanwhile the kids suffer.

the “everything your second grader should know” type of *content* isn’t for me — or my kids. we expect them to wade in up to their chins and come out knowing a whole lot more — and actually knowing (understanding .. retaining ..) what they’ve learned. a different kind of “content”.

Comment by Megan on April 26, 2010 at 01:57 PM

Hello from a Canadian Teacher!

Here in Canada, and many places in the United States, there is a shift towards "reformed mathematics" which uses a constructivist approach that focuses on students' ability to make their own mathematical connections rather than interpreting algorithms.

It is a really great movement and I encourage you to look into what reformed math has to offer!

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