And now we've been advised to develop instructional "platoons" in elementary school, the better to lock and load, pinpointing our achievement targets with more precision. We can become an elite teaching force, a well-oiled instructional machine, mowing down mathematical skills like Sherman marching to the sea, and all that.
In 2005, I was teaching music in a K-4 building. I ate lunch with the three fourth grade teachers, all of whom were smart and hip. I was consistently impressed with their ongoing conversations about How to Make Things Better for Fourth Graders. They shared everything--lesson planning, materials, moments of instructional illumination, things kids said in class. In the fall, they started dividing up the lesson creation process, with each teacher going deeper into one of three subjects in the fourth grade curriculum--math, science and social studies. They all taught reading at the same time, using the assigned building-wide program, but they were experimenting with flexibly sharing their students for mini-lessons around particular skills and topics.
were about 85 kids in the 4th grade, and their rooms were side by side. By the
end of September, the teachers knew all the 4th graders--and were convinced
that they could do a better job of instruction if they specialized in teaching one
subject, and ran the 4th grade reading program collaboratively, as well. They
drew up an elaborate plan--they called it "switching"--detailing
They didn't make it past the first 15 minutes with the principal, who emphatically said that parents preferred a single teacher for their young children--a teacher who would be responsive to a particular child's unique needs. It would also take valuable instructional time for the kids to move to a new class; when the teachers explained that the kids would sit tight, and that it would take approximately 30 seconds for teachers to move next door, the principal got huffy.
She said there was research showing that elementary students achieved more when they stayed with the same teacher all day. At the time, the K-8 movement (a reactionary response to the maligned "middle school concept") was taking root in urban districts, keeping kids together all day. And finally, she shot the plan dead by telling them that she was the decision-maker, and she was convinced that their plan was nothing more than a sneaky way to make their lives easier and reduce their personal workload.
They had a second meeting with the principal, and this time the union representative came, but no dice. Further--the principal had now noticed that the teachers were occasionally switching kids for reading and put the kibosh on that as well. One teacher, 28 kids, no switching--and that was that. Because I got to hear lots of lunchtime exasperation about this situation, I did a quick scan of research and found one or two old studies that supported the principal's position, and a couple that supported the teachers' position. What all the research does say is that the quality of teaching matters a great deal--and that teachers' relationships with students are all-important. No surprises. But no research slam dunk for either side of the issue.
course, that was just switching, not platooning, which suddenly seems to be all the rage.
There is now a widely accepted theory that elementary teachers' lack of
mathematical knowledge is the cause of our failure to rout and crush the
international competition on math battles--I mean tests. It's worth pointing
out that the research on this is mixed, too--but we're already on the march, strategically
selecting a few good teachers to lead the charge.
In the end, it's just another example of our national faith in tools and levers--rather than people--to solve problems. The fourth grade teachers in my school were willing to lead and invested in the outcomes of their simple plan. That should count for more than snappy language.