A precious gift

Published by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2010 at 01:39 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.

I am increasingly persuaded that the use of time in classrooms is a measure of the respect adults have for the role of learning in the lives of students. I have also become aware of how profoundly disrespectful schools, and the people who work in them, are of the time and effort they extract from the lives of students and their families, without regard to the value this time adds to students’ learning and development. The way schools use time is a product of many choices: the way the curriculum is designed, the way the school day is organized, the demands of testing on instructional time, the daily routines that teachers establish in their classrooms, and the attention, or lack thereof, to students’ classroom experiences by adults in schools. It would be an enormous step forward if adults in schools treated the time that children and their families give to schools as a precious gift rather than an entitlement. The most valuable resource that schools have is the largely unexploited capacity of students to engage in high-level learning. It is the responsibility of adults in schools to make the best possible use of this resource.

— 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

Sorry, couldn’t resist one more.


Comment by sarah :: greenclogs on March 12, 2010 at 03:56 PM

Unfortunately, the second quote is the direct result of the first one. If time were well spent in the classroom, then school time wouldn't be too short. The solution isn't to add time and trust that more learning will happen - it is to rethink how time in the classroom is spent. It can't just be one teacher or one grade level that breaks the mold - it has to be systemic change, in order for children to understand a fundamentally different way of approaching their education. I'm not opposed to schools being *open* longer hours and more days, as long as it's not required that children be there. If schools are open as resource centers for open ended learning and exploration on the weekends and in the evenings and people of all ages can come together and learn from one another then that would be fabulous. My objection would be to adding more of the same, which is what would happen.

It always makes me sad to see the importance of a high quality education being boiled down to competing with kids from other countries for jobs. Is that really all we've become? Oh, and notice that it's not Japan any more - it's China and India now. Is he suggesting that our children go to school even longer so that they can compete for jobs in a low wage marketplace? Really? *bangs head on table and walks away*

Comment by Karen on March 12, 2010 at 04:17 PM

I am so saddened by the direction that education is heading... everything is reduced to a single number, and every teacher and administrator strives to increase that number, by hook or by crook, at the expense of the very children in their charge.

And, no one in the mainstream education field is listening to people like Mr. Elmore, who try to put the brakes on this runaway train. I don't know if you have ever heard of The Alliance for Childhood, who put out a paper last March called Crisis in the Kindergarten? It's about the time that Kindergarteners spend in school being instructed vs. the time they spend in independent play time, and I'm sure you can guess what their findings were. The people in the Alliance for Childhood are giants in the field of education, and they are speaking out against the use of time in school, which gives me some hope. Here's a link to their website: http://www.allianceforchildhood.org/

Thanks for this great post!

Comment by Susan Gaissert on March 12, 2010 at 06:29 PM

I just happen to know many teachers, and many of them do not impress me as people who like their job. They seem to resent the time they spend in school, so why shouldn't their students. sometimes, the entire public education system seems to me, as someone who is wholly outside of it, to be a vast example of The Myth of Sisyphus, as in, ain't no way that boulder is going up that hill.

Thanks for the post.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2010 at 08:24 PM

sarah, exactly. this to me is like someone who can't hit a nail with a hammer and after 100 missed attempts decides "OK. What we need here is ... a MUCH BIGGER hammer."

unfortunately, i don't think arne duncan has in mind the type of open campus learning community that you are describing when he says more/longer.

"Is he suggesting that our children go to school even longer so that they can compete for jobs in a low wage marketplace?" um .. yes. because as i said in the comments to the previous post, schools seem to be becoming places meant for the middle-of-the-bell-curve worker drones, not the innovators/inventors/creative thinkers/etc.

karen, i read a great quote today; i'll have to try to find it tomorrow morning and post it in this comment thread. basically it was an educator saying "we *know* what we need to do — we just don't want to do it."

there is a disconnect between common sense and what we see happening in schools. we *know* it's not right. we know that school lunches are unhealthy, that kids *need* recess, that standardized tests shouldn't determine what our kids learn. but...

susan, yes, and that metaphor works for the whole never-ending core content vs. 21st-century skills debate, too!

my husband observed this morning that educators seem to be playing a decades-long game of tug-o'-war rather than working together to make advances. everyone is pulling and sweating and grunting but the rope never moves!

Comment by JJ on March 12, 2010 at 09:44 PM

I am a teacher, my husband is a teacher, and we know a great many teachers. It disappointed me to read the quotes and replies on your site because I normally quite enjoy what I read here.

To begin, research has shown that the biggest factor in determining a child's success in school is the PARENTS. I hear a whole lot of blaming by parents, on this post and elsewhere, and little to no claiming of responsibility. It is very difficult to teach a child who doesn't respect school/the teacher, especially when that lack of respect is modeled at home.

I agree that our schools are not teaching children. However, teachers can not be the change when they don't have support from administrators/parents/communities, when they spend their own money for school supplies, when they get paid a ridiculous wage for an immense amount of work that includes nights and weekends, when they are told their students must score a certain number on a test or their job/wage will be affected, when their students must meet standards that are unrealistic, the list goes on. I know how little learning goes on in classrooms and I also know that it is not a result of my lack of desire to teach the students in my room. I know that a lot of teachers are in the same boat. We can only do so much on our own.

The students who make the biggest gains over the year and have the greatest love of learning, in my classrooms, are the ones whose parents are involved in every part of their education and teach them that love at home. If I try to teach a child the importance and joy of reading for pleasure and he/she goes home where there are no books, the t.v. or video game is always on, and the parents aren't encouraging reading why do you think that lesson will stick? Sure, some kids will prevail beyond what their parents have provided and learn those lessons, but a great many won't. The students who overcome learning problems, use their curiosity as opportunities to learn, read, excel, etc. almost always have parents that are guiding them along that path.

Let's talk about money. How do you expect a teacher to teach 30+ children of widely varying ability levels without breaks, aides, or all the supplies he/she needs? We aren't miracle workers! The position we are placed in forces us to put out fires instead of light them. I would LOVE to help cultivate an excitement about learning that extends from real life experiences and interests. But wanting it doesn't mean that it will happen or that I can make it happen. A great many things are needed in order for that to take place, including the support/respect/help of parents.

Yes, there are "bad" teachers, teachers who don't enjoy their jobs, who don't love learning themselves, but they are not the majority. The majority are working in a difficult, stressful, unrealistic situation. They love your children and want to teach them. So let the change start with you.

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 12, 2010 at 11:07 PM

jj, i'm sorry if you think i'm teacher bashing -- i'm not. i love teachers. i love good schools. i love my best friends who are teachers. i loved working in the classroom with kids.

i am *pro* good teacher. i have to say this a lot on the site, as i'm not shy about jabbing at the things that don't make me happy, and sometimes people think i'm anti-teacher or anti-public school, etc.

do you really see parents here blaming teachers? i don't. when susan says she has a lot of friends who are teachers who don't seem to like their job, that doesn't surprise me, precisely for the reasons you mention! long hours, lack of administrator support, buying your own supplies, crowded classrooms, disrespectful students, and on and on.

"However, teachers can not be the change when they don't have support from administrators/parents/communities..." *absolutely*. agree, agree, agree. *i* am not blaming teachers. please point out anything specific i said that makes you think that and i will gladly explain myself more fully.

"I know how little learning goes on in classrooms and I also know that it is not a result of my lack of desire to teach the students in my room." mrs. johnson, we are so on the same page.

re: money, what i was saying that money the schools already had needed to be spent differently. when schools say they can't afford for children to learn in a different way, i call bullcrap. would you disagree?

i need to grab a quote from "learning by doing" (about professional learning communities) that talks about how people (schools, administrators, politicians) throw up roadblocks to change by saying "yeah, but". yeah, but it would cost more money. yeah, but our kids can't handle it. etc. i would have administrators visit my school and tell me they couldn't afford such a nice classroom — when everything we had was bought at the thrift store or garage sales, when the kids were building and crafting with free recyclables, when we had to build our own light table for 20 dollars. they would say, "our kids couldn't handle so much freedom .. so much simulation." and i would say, "our kids couldn't either .. if we didn't introduce the process slowly and deliberately."

i'm tired of excuses (like money) — they have plenty of money. they just need to have the will.

i agree with everything you said, except — let the change start with *you*, in general. parents, yes. but also teachers. and administrators. and community leaders. this is what i learned from experience. parents can't make the change. they can't. teachers can't make it either. over and over again i've seen teachers who want to do things differently — but their administrators and peers are not only not supportive but hostile toward change. over and over again i've seen administrators who are on fire with passion to change their schools — but enough teachers balk that they can't make any progress at all. i do not believe that any one group can make the change.

my teachers and i used to sit around and say, who do you convince? do you convince the parents and hope they demand change from the schools? do you convince the teachers? but they don't have any real decision-making power. so do you convince the administrators? but if parents and teachers aren't on board...

i've looked at this problem for years, and the only thing i believe in is a complete sea change. what will bring that on?

Comment by Karen on March 13, 2010 at 12:55 AM

JJ, I am looking back on my comment and realizing that it was wrong of me to condemn "every teacher and administrator" with desiring high scores at the expense of children. Especially since, as an M.Ed. and with several years of public school teaching experience, I know firsthand how hard we teachers work and why we do it (it sure isn't for the money!!)

I left teaching to homeschool my boys because of my belief that public education is going the wrong way. In the school my son attended, numbers mattered more than kids. There is no other way to put it: every meeting, every fundraiser, every event that was sponsored or supported by the public schools in our town strove to "increase scores," not enhance reading enjoyment or stimulate intellectual curiosity, or promote civil discourse or any other reason for learning that might come to mind.

And, when I conducted a study about why people homeschool, the vast majority of respondents from all across the country stated that they felt their local public schools were going the wrong way, too.

I don't like the 'blame the teacher' mentality; I think that teachers are too often scapegoated. When I wrote about teachers and administrators looking for that high number, I was thinking more about the system as a whole. If teachers, any teachers, are going to keep their jobs, they must at least try to get high scores, and that is to the detriment of their students. Kids cannot be reduced to scores!

I started homeschooling as a reaction to my child's terrible schooling situation. But we keep doing it for so many, many reasons, all of which have to do with supporting our boys as they learn. I feel so lucky to be so involved with their education, and I would not trade it for all the world.

Comment by kort on March 13, 2010 at 02:44 AM

do you know Mental multivitamin, Lori? here's a recent post on the importance of teaching that you might like...


(and may i say how refreshing it is to read comments where people disagree and keep on talking. thanks for keeping the tone positive!)

Comment by Diane on March 13, 2010 at 03:30 AM

Wow! I, too, normally really enjoy what I read here, but this post is filled with sweeping generalizations, ones that do not fit the description of the teachers that I know. I find these comments overtly offensive. I am a teacher, and there is not a moment that goes by that I don't love my job and my students, despite the enormous obstacles I experience on a daily basis. To imply that most teachers disrespect their students' time and effort is just plain wrong, insulting, and totally unfair. As if teaching under the current school climate where funding has been cut and only testing seems to matter politically isn't hard enough, teachers are continually bombarded by unjustified comments like these. We continue to rise above, giving the best to our students DESPITE negativity like this. With all due respect, I usually embrace most of what I read on your blog, but this time I have to speak up.

Comment by jen on March 13, 2010 at 04:39 AM

Oh, Lori, I have to say that when I saw the first two quotes and that last one, I initially thought, "OH NO! Not another one of those mind-blowing-makes-me-crazy-to-think-about-it posts." But then I read all of the comments and went from laughing out loud at the first one to wanting to cry at your response to JJ (wanting to cry becuase you are so right about "who do you convince?")

And quite frankly, it all just made me glad that we are homeschooling right now. Haven't always and probably won't always be, but I am so enjoying the freedom that my children have - to learn ALL kinds of things, to relate to their peers in a less stifled way, to be influenced by people of all ages and places in life. And this post is challenging me to make wiser use of my children's time - to remember that I am a steward of it; I am not entitled to it.

So thanks! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 13, 2010 at 01:16 PM

karen, thank you for coming back to respond to jj! there are so many educators who now homeschool — really, a disproportionate amount among the people i know. it's good to hear your perspective.

i'm always taken aback when someone thinks i'm criticizing teachers...

kort, thank you for the link; i will check it out.

well, i can't force people to keep talking, but i certainly would like to encourage it! what i always enjoy about the people who comment regularly here are that they tend to tell their personal stories. they may say things that are difficult for someone else to hear, but it's hard to deny the truth of personal experience.

diane, please do speak up! did you read elmore's whole article? it's fairly damning of the wasted time in a student's day. i don't read it as blaming teachers, though — as we keep saying, teachers aren't the ones who decide how much time is spent doing administrative tasks, filling out paperwork, reviewing for standardized tests .. they aren't the ones who eliminate recess, and they aren't the ones who choose the food that is served in the cafeteria.

i've re-read the excerpt and i understand why you and jj (and presumably others) are offended .. but .. i suppose i would assume your response to be more along the lines of "yes, yes, YES!!! let's make big changes so i can teach the way i need to teach, the way i want to teach!" rather than "hey, it's not MY fault!!!" i certainly didn't mean to put any *teachers* on the defensive with this excerpt, although if arne duncan thinks twice about whether a longer school day/year is the solution, that would be fine. :)

re: "profound disrespect" that schools have for families, for me this resonates with the homework issue. the fact that students are in class all day yet have to do hours of homework each evening when they should be playing and socializing and spending time with family .. that's a pet peeve of mine.

but mostly i just thought the juxtaposition of these two quotes was too rich — the harvard professor who says schools are wasting students' time and the secretary of education saying he thinks schools should have so much more of it.

thank you for commenting and sharing your view!

jen, lovely, i was thinking i should post some kind of follow-up saying homeschooling families need to be just as respectful of their children's time. :)

thank YOU. :)

Comment by Cathy T on March 13, 2010 at 06:18 PM

Such a thoughtful discussion is ensuing. Love it that people are taking the time to think twice or more about what, where and how children learn. I too have a background in early childhood education and a masters in education. People laugh when I tell them I could be a principal but hs instead... I subbed in our local school system and did my student teaching there. I was told by other teachers not to rock the boat, not to have as high standards as I did (on my bulletin boards no less) because it made them look bad. Ack. With some teachers like this, it is no wonder that some of the best teachers leave this system for another one or ... bad moods/habits/beliefs are easier to catch than good ones.

My small town is part of a regional school system with another small town. We've gone through - not kidding!! - at least 11 principals in one school, 3 in another and I don't know about the third one and 7 superintendents in the last 10 years. Two elementary schools and one -12th grade high school. Very sad. I know pay is one reason staff have left but the towns people and the teachers themselves all have different expectations. As for homework, some want more, some less. BUT, the kids do very very well on the state's exams...

Why did I hs? I had (still have!) a son who I knew wasn't your typical student and will not do any work that is not meaningful to him unless totally forced. He would either be appreciated by a teacher or broken in spirit. Not something I wanted to find out since my husband and I knew we could hs him. And once we were off the school schedule, we just hsed the rest of them.

Last thought - I love that Jen pointed out that (as a homeschooler) "this post is challenging me to make wiser use of my children's time - to remember that I am a steward of it; I am not entitled to it." Love it, Love it, and my kids will love her for it too....

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 13, 2010 at 11:41 PM

cathy, i know, i love that too (what jen said) — it’s a privilege and we should treat it that way.

love your story; thank you so much for sharing it. again, i know *so* many educators who homeschool. i have a friend who was a teacher who is hs'ing and her husband is a principal. i asked if he gets grief for hs'ing and she said absolutely not — because teachers know better than anyone about the problems at school. and generally i find that to be the attitude among my friends — sharing the victories but very open about the problems.

your story about "don't rock the boat" and "have lower standards" reminds me of a post i read recently by a TFA (teach for america) young teacher who wrote about the advice always given to young/new teachers to "stay out of the teacher's lounge". i wish i'd bookmarked it!

thank you again!

Comment by Diane on March 14, 2010 at 03:31 AM

Thank you for your response to my post! I agree with everything you said! I do wish I could teach the way I want to teach, with all of my heart. Testing has removed the creativity and discovery learning that I so prized before NCLB. There is so much wrong with the "system" that I can't even begin to explain my feelings about being a teacher in today's climate. As a parent, I also understand the hijacking of family time due to at times exceedingly demanding homework assignments (and my daughter is just in first grade). I understand your perspective, and truth be told, I wish I could stay home and educate my own kids (primarily because I know between my husband, who teaches science and math, and myself, teaching English and reading, we would have the capability to do so quite effectively).

My one objection was to my interpretation that anybody would insinuate in any way that teachers (generlalized) would not want what's best for their students. I can't tell you how disheartening it is to care so much about my students, and to give my heart and soul every moment I'm in school to find the best and most interesting ways to educate, validate, and interest my students just to have society "teacher bash" on a regular basis. Frankly, it just makes me want to cry. I have a master's degree; I have been nominated teacher-of-the-year; and I have been personally told by students how much I have made a difference to them, yet I am bombarded by media that demeans and disrespects my profession on a daily basis. Thank you for your response to my comment. I am happy to see you do not blame teachers. There is not a lot teachers can do to change the current situation--we are being fired at from every side, yet continue to rise to the occasion. I only ask that you consider our perspective and, in fairness to teachers, occasionally praise us. It is a noble profession, and there are many of us who will settle for nothing less than the best we can give. I wouldn't want any less for my own two daughters.

By the way, I think homeschooling is incredibly noble as well, and I enormously respect the parents who have the circumstances that enable them to do so, and who do so with passion.

As for Arne Duncan, he's nuts! How about funding schools, lower class sizes, and technology in the classroom. Let's work smarter, not longer and harder! The government should put their money where their self-important mouth is, eh?

Comment by se7en on March 14, 2010 at 02:55 PM

I know this is all about teaching and schools and home schools but from a personal perspective, in days before home schools, I found school such a tragic waste of time that I eventually quit in grade ten... stayed registered in the system and wrote all the necessary exams to carry on till school leaving... I could do the required work in a fraction of the time. I wasn't wasting my days pretending not to want to do half the things all the kids were saying weren't cool - everyone was trying to bunk phys. ed. and I loved it... There were literally hours of each day that were spent in crowd control, not to mention busy work!!! Class assemblies, meetings to discuss student needs, teachers needs... whatever and yet we never had time to finish the required syllabus... Needless to say I flew on my own and went on to achieve at university without looking back (Thank goodness for progressive parents - or maybe just exhausted ones!!!). I think a lot of high schoolers are simply biding their time for the end of school, their hearts aren't in it and folk assume they no longer interested in getting an education. I guess school and education are not as related as we seem to think they are!!!

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 14, 2010 at 03:19 PM

diane, re: arne, ha! we really are on the same page! :^)

i'm glad we talked it out. ;^) i absolutely respect and revere dedicated teachers, and i agree with everything *you* said.

se7en, you said:

"I think a lot of high schoolers are simply biding their time for the end of school, their hearts aren't in it and folk assume they no longer interested in getting an education."

absolutely .. but you know, i think it's the same for the high-achieving kids who are loaded up with AP classes at the demanding high schools. they are biding their time as well, and i don't think their heart is in it either. they just fulfill expectations, but none of it sticks. (i'm generalizing again! ;^)

college seems to agree with everyone much more than high school, junior high .. because why? because there's more control, more responsibility, more choice, more individualization (at least you get to choose your major and pick from an array of classes).

now, project learning in my school for kids age 3 to 10 was much like that. they got to pick their main area of study (their project topic), then we filled in around it with other things they needed to learn to meet state standards (required courses). they had freedom, autonomy. they made choices, decisions, plans. they worked together in collaborative groups helping each other with the different parts of the project that they were focusing on, much as my college classmates and i supported each other while we each were working on independent projects.

so it is possible to make school more like college, a type of education that is much more palatable to most people. so why don't we do it?

Comment by shannon on March 14, 2010 at 04:50 PM

I think it's also worth noting that kids in the U.S. ALREADY spend more hours in school than kids in the Asian countries that normally outperform us in math and science tests. The U.S. has 1,146 instructional hours, Singapore has 903, Taiwan has 1,050 and Japan has 1,005.

This idea that more time in school is going to help us outscore anyone has absolutely no merit!

Comment by Sheila on March 15, 2010 at 05:08 PM

"college seems to agree with everyone much more than high school, junior high .. because why? because there's more control, more responsibility, more choice, more individualization"

I'm another homeschooler: we're doing it because my eldest had a truly awful first grade teacher, and then fell into really liking it (before that I thought HSers were all a bunch of nuts, lol). But I too would like to see parents taking more onus on themselves as the FIRST teachers their kids are getting. My friends (and work colleagues) are very nice people but as parents - ugh. Seventy percent of them want the schools to do everything: teach manners, teach math, teach initiative and drive. And look after the kids the rest of the time. Of those 5 things I can only see one that I would agree is really the school's responsibility. The other four should begin in the home environment, no?

My reason for quoting the above comment was this: kids do better in colleges and universities because they realize that it IS up to them - and not the schools. In a perfect world parents and early school teachers would be working together to instil this in kids from the beginning, but I'm with JJ in saying that the parents really are the bedrock on which all this should start.

Comment by JJ on March 16, 2010 at 03:01 AM

Lori, thanks for your responses to my comment as well as the others on this post. I think most of what I was feeling was addressed. I do see a lot of parents blaming/judging teachers. I think if something isn't working parents want to blame someone/thing and teachers often end up as the someone. But, even if the teacher has a part in the problem, this kind of attitude rarely leads to any solutions. It also removes any responsibility as well as any power to solve the problem from the parents/children. And I don't see much accomplished from this scenario. I would love to see more parents have a partnership relationship with their teacher, even if or especially if they are uncertain about their teacher's style in the classroom.

Mostly I wanted you and others to acknowledge that the problems with education are not solely the fault of teachers and the changes needed can not be accomplished by them alone. As a whole, from experience, I think teachers deeply care about students, their time, their families, and their education. Unfortunately many factors work against teachers' ability to teach they way they would like and the way students deserve. And ultimately nothing much will get done if we aren't all trying to change the way things are.

Comment by Alice on March 16, 2010 at 01:51 PM

"our school day is too short, our school week is too short and our school year is too short" I think most working parents would agree with this statement - but not necessarily the philosophy behind it. Simply, if the parents are both in work all day - who looks after the kids?

I don't know if it is such a 'lack of respect' of students' and families' time, or a lack of exchange. Does anybody ever ask our children, or us, what they/we want from the school.

Some parents want more homework - let them have it! Some of us don't want homework - don't give it! Ask the kids what they know, and what they want to know. Don't expect them to fill their work books with the kind of neatness and graphics that the teacher decides. Let their personilities show. School tries to make children equal - treat them all the same - uniformity.....why?

Where is the satisfaction in having 20-30 children with identical workbooks, wearing identical clothes, giving identical (memorised) answers?

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 16, 2010 at 03:34 PM

shannon, along those lines, check out the excerpt i'm posting today.

sheila, agree agree re: parents taking responsibility. sending your children to school does not mean that you are not responsible for their education! you have to be on the job 24/7, advocating for your child, forming relationships with the teachers and administrators, understanding what's happening, and doing your part. it should be a partnership, but often parents simply abdicate their responsibility. and a very important part of the partnership — the child — is left out completely.

jj, thank *you*. i'm glad we understand each other better!

alice, what you're saying makes me think about charters .. individualized education, more choice, allowing families to choose what they want. it's a very controversial topic, but i know if my boys were in public school, i would love to be able to choose among a variety of schools to find the place that fit them best.

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