Back to Basics

Lately I have been lying awake at night thinking about basic skills. To be precise, I am wondering what you — or I — would do if we were in charge of getting America “back to basics” in education. Just what are ‘the basics’ anyway? Is that a place we’ve actually been and now have to return to?

For me, there are four basics in education — but more about them in a moment. Three events prompted this line of thought. The first was an encounter with a teenage girl, perhaps 16, at a skating rink. To get a locker, I had to give her \$10.50 but would get some money back when I returned the key. “So how much does the locker cost me,” I asked? She said that I would get \$6 back, but something about the way she said it made me ask my question again. She said she didn’t know — and she reached for a calculator. That girl is in school now, at a time when all systems are focused on math and reading, but she wasn’t able to work with a fairly simple problem that entailed some thinking, not just calculating.

A week or two later I discovered that a woman I know, who is about 40, has trouble writing a coherent page of prose; she went to good schools and a top university but cannot present a logical argument on paper. She went to school in the 70’s and 80’s, the height of an earlier ‘back to basics’ phase/craze, but somehow her writing flaws went undetected or untreated.

If ‘back to basics’ didn’t work for those two (admittedly random) examples, what’s ahead for the next generation, including my 6-month-old granddaughter, who has been living with us for the past week? What are the basics for her education, and the education of your young children and grandchildren?

“Back to basics” is a silly notion without some understanding of what is basic in the life of a child and where schools fit into the picture. So here are my four: 1) reading and writing; 2) numeracy; 3) creativity; and 4) health and nutrition. Our short-sighted leaders have in the past focused on ‘The Three R’s” of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic, which is euphonious but short-sighted.

Reading and writing are inseparable and are the first ‘basic.’ We read to gain information, and we write to convey it. While neither is a natural act and therefore must be learned, they belong together. I’ve seen first graders reading and writing competently and confidently in some very poor neighborhoods, so there’s no doubt that schools can handle that basic:

Numeracy (‘rithmetic) is also a basic skill, and the best teachers engage their young students in the joy of mastery of the mystery and utter rationality of numbers. They use Cuisinaire Rods and other manipulatives, they create puzzles and group challenges, and they allow students to make and learn from mistakes.

“‘Suppose we were going to repaint this classroom. What colors? How much paint? How much would it cost? How long would it take?” That’s a ‘real world’ problem that most kids would enjoy solving. Similar ideas were recently discussed on the Learning Matters podcast series.

I remember a teacher drawing two (uncut) Pizza pies on the board and asking her class whether they would rather have two pieces of Pizza or four? Everyone opted for four pieces, of course, at which point she divided one pie in half, the other into eight pieces….and waited while her 4th graders reconsidered their decision.

Achieving success in teaching these two ‘basics’ will require some changes: smaller classes in the first four or five grades, team teaching, ungraded classrooms, serious professional development, and appropriate technology. Our most qualified teachers belong in those classrooms, and they cannot have people looking over their shoulders at every turn.

The third ‘basic’ is creativity, as Sir Ken Robinson and others have reminded us:

I believe the earlier ‘back to basics’ movements failed because schools obsessed about The Three R’s to the exclusion of creativity, fun, art, music and physical education. The current focus on student achievement is making the same mistake. The problem is not the testing itself but far too much time on bubble-measured ‘education.’ Education Secretary Arne Duncan has said (including on our Twitter Town Hall) that 10 days of tests and test-prep in a school year is too much, but I will wager that almost every school district in the nation spends more time than that.

William Sanders, the pioneer in value-added testing, trumps the Secretary. “Three days max!” he told me recently, citing a study that indicated that the more time teachers reported spending on test prep, the worse their scores on value-added measurements!

We need courageous leaders at the Board and Superintendent level who will say ‘No more!’ to the excesses of bubble-testing, but I haven’t heard of anyone making a serious effort to even keep track of how much time is devoted to those exercises, let alone restricting the time.

Who benefits from the focus on test scores, since the evidence suggests it’s neither students nor teachers? Maybe we should follow the money. Testing companies like Pearson and CTB/McGraw-Hill are pushing hard to sell school districts ‘intra-course’ tests that — they assert — will help teachers modify their instruction. To Dr. Sanders, these companies are “preying upon insecure leaders” who are under pressure from NCLB to make what’s called ‘adequate yearly progress.’ This means more testing, not less, even though Dr. Sanders reports that these tests add less than 1% to overall scores.

My fourth ‘basic’ may push the inside of the envelope for some. To me, health and nutrition are basic components of a balanced education. In this case schools and teachers cannot get there on their own but must develop alliances. It’s disgraceful that the number of children living in poverty is increasing, and it’s outrageous that our political leaders at every level and in both parties are unwilling to raise taxes on the wealthy so that the safety net can be repaired.

It’s tough enough being a teacher as it is. Larger classes with increasing numbers of children who are undernourished or otherwise in poor health are not a prescription for a vibrant future, not for kids, not for teachers, not for the nation.

So that’s my view of ‘the basics’ in public education. It’s not about going back to basics, because we’ve never gone there. I think it’s time we did.

What do you believe?

Final note: I participated in a discussion at the Commonwealth Club of California in December of 2011; it was a panel discussion and lasted over an hour — but the participants and topics were great. The video is now online if you’d like to take a look: