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One Hundred Kindergartners, One Room, Three Teachers

The title of the article in the Detroit Free Press--Combined Kindergarten a Big Teaching Experiment-- is all most progressive educators in Michigan have to read before they hit "share." It's obviously more bad news about the Education Achievement Authority (EAA)--the failed statewide experiment in taking public education out of the hands of those most invested in its ultimate success: parents, communities, local taxpayers.

One room, three teachers (plus a part-time aide), and 100 kindergartners, more or less. On the day the reporter visited, only about 70 kids were present, which tells you something. Either there is an enormous attendance problem--already? In kindergarten?--or a class-sized cluster of miscreants were stashed somewhere else.

What we already know about the EAA (see here, here and here) makes the informed reader wonder about just such a dog-and-pony presentation, with camera-ready students, for the Free Press reporter and videographer. Possibly there is a major-league discrepancy between the number of kindergartners enrolled (and drawing state funding) and the number who actually attend school there on a regular basis?

One thing's certain: this is a very cost-effective way to manage 100-ish five-year olds. Three cheap teachers, a minimum-wage aide for two hours, housed in a library (which, presumably, means no media specialist)--what's not to like about the stripped-down edu-efficiency at work here?

This is not a story about class size, however. Overstuffed classrooms are familiar to Detroiters-- 33 kids in a class, any class, is actually on the positive side of normal, unfortunately. It's worth noting that the Tennessee Star study--still the benchmark research on class size--affirmed that we get our biggest bang for the small-class buck with students who are very young and disadvantaged, the exact profile of kids in this EAA classroom. If there's any situation in which small-group, personalized instruction matters, this would be it.

But I hate to see the discussion about this article--in which the reporter seems bent on presenting "both sides" of what can only be described as a risky experiment on young children--land on class size debates.  There are a number of more worrisome issues around describing this situation as a viable or even preferable model of teaching and learning in kindergarten:

  • Inexperienced educators speaking as "experts" in early childhood education in urban schools--a 30-year old lead teacher, and two newbie teachers, plus a cheerleading administrator.
  • Tracking students, slotting them into their high/middle/low educational destinies at age five, made possible by personal learning devices and re-grouping. Then applauding this as a way for some students to "fly."
  • Emphasis on continuous assessment (also made possible by technology), rather than the essential, experiential social, physical and getting-along skills kindergarten was designed to instill. One-on-one diagnostics in young children are notoriously unreliable, so most of this "internal testing" data is not even useful over the long term. In the meantime, what's happened to play, exploring and story time?
  • Re-branding the chaos of having 100 small children in one room (due, most likely, to staff and space limitations) as preferable policy.¬†

So why is the second-largest daily newspaper in Michigan buying into what is obviously high-grade baloney? As "big teaching experiments" go, this one is not based on anything resembling quality research on early childhood education. It's 100% propaganda. There were 50+ comments on the article this morning, and not a single one whole-heartedly endorsed MOOKs (Massive Outrageous One-room Kindergarten)--although one commenter noted that some of the same folks who stomped all over the "open classroom" concept of the 1970s are suddenly excited about classrooms without walls for kids in poverty.

And that's what I'm most worried about: the systematic sifting and sorting of poor children with few options (attending an EAA school automatically puts them in that category). Are they even getting a chance to learn to sit, attend, share their thoughts, form friendships, experiment with materials and fall in love with school? Or is it the first stop in a punitive assembly-line education?

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