Thursday, April 12, 2007

Public or private, school is boring

A new study in Science finds that schoolchildren in the US have only a 1-in-14 chance of experiencing a rich, supportive elementary classroom.

Researchers went to 2,500 1st-, 3rd-, and 5th-grade classrooms, tracking cohorts of students as they progressed through the school, to observe teachers and the typical day experienced by students.

Some of the findings:

  • Fifth-graders spent 91.2% of class time in their seats listening to a teacher or working alone, and only 7% working in small groups, which fosters social skills and critical thinking. Findings were similar in 1st and 3rd
  • In 5th grade, 62% of instructional time was in literacy or math; only 24% was devoted to social studies or science.
  • About one in seven (14%) kids had a consistently high-quality "instructional climate" all three years studied. Most classrooms had a fairly healthy "emotional climate," but only 7% of students consistently had classrooms high in both.
My first thought was whether the researchers visited both public and private schools. The USA Today article about the study (Science is available online only to subscribers) mentions that there were no differences between public and private schools. Could that be true? There is not any measure on which the classroom experiences in public schools differ significantly from those in private schools? This finding will certainly shock proponents of market-based education reform (i.e. private school vouchers). But it doesn't shock me. I've visited public and private schools in Milwaukee for eight years as a researcher at the Forum and found that the variety of quality in both public and private schools is extraordinary. So, I'm not surprised that when all that variety is averaged out, there aren't big differences between the public and private schools.

Interestingly, this finding is bound to be equally irksome for public school advocates like the teachers' unions. Not only are their members not doing enough to stimulate their students' brains, they can't even blame it on the pressure of working under the No Child Left Behind (NCLB) requirements. If NCLB were really to blame for this lack of richness in the classroom, you would expect to find some differences when observing in private schools, which are not subject to NCLB.

So, from my read, the findings mean that you aren't guaranteed an engaging and supportive teacher just because you're in a private school, and federal testing requirements aren't the root cause of lackluster creativity in the classroom. Teaching is hard to do well, period. If you're a parent, the lesson you should take from this is to visit your own children's classrooms frequently. If your kids aren't getting the higher-order problem solving skills, or the support, or the enrichment they need, you'll know it.

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