A Class Illustrates What Works
President Bush might learn a thing or two from a visit to the Benjamin Franklin School. EDUCATION: ON THE FRONT LINES OF REFORM
GLEN ELLYN, ILL.
THE Benjamin Franklin Elementary School looks like somebody's grade school memory. Outside the red-brick two-story building, children line up to wait for the bell. No spiked or wildly colored hair here. Glen Ellyn, Ill., is an upper-middle-class, conservative, and very family-centered place, says Principal Doug Craig, on his way outside to greet the children, as he does every morning. ``This is a throwback to the '50s,'' he says.
But walk inside the school, past the office, into the large classroom on the right, and old memories fast-forward into the 1990s. If President Bush wants to see what's right with education in America, he ought to see the team-taught classroom of Joyce Carey and Kathryn Keller.
``What story problem would have the solution 16 hot dogs?'' Mrs. Carey asks a set of eager listeners on a Monday morning.
One boy tells of a barbecue where three hot dogs are added to 13 already on the grill. Another student adds one hot dog to 15. Someone else gets mixed up and tells a tale about nine cowboys and how seven get wiped out. Rather than dismiss the story, Carey draws nine cowboys on the board, to the great amusement of her students, then shows what happens when you wipe out seven.
Joyce Carey is Illinois' new Teacher of the Year. And it's easy to see how dedication and a natural teacher's instinct pays off.
While the specific techniques of this teacher wouldn't apply everywhere, there are certain universal elements behind its success:
A flexible teaching environment. The 52 second- and third-graders in the class are divided into two main groups according to grade level, but there is a lot of mixing as small groups break off for specific activities directed at their needs. A student may join a small reading group for one week or the whole semester. The class is team-taught, so Carey and Ms. Keller are in repeated contact with all the students.
Dedicated teachers. It would take a sophisticated flowchart to describe the comings and goings of the Carey-Keller kids during the week. One has violin lessons, others leave for gifted-and-talented programs, speech assistance, or remedial needs. Carey-Keller spend hours planning. Typically, they get in around 7 a.m. and leave at 6 p.m. The pair has also incorporated handicapped students from a nearby school into the regular teaching. The idea, Carey says, is that by letting students learn cooperatively, they will teach each other.
Parental support. Virtually every parent in the district expects his or her child to go on to college or some form of post-secondary education, says Mr. Craig, the principal. Every day, many parent volunteers are at work in the school. And the community has been willing to funnel a lot of its tax money into the schools, he says. Last year, which was the first time that Carey and Keller taught the second- and third-grade combination, they only used parents for social activities, such as field trips. This year, Carey hopes to bring parent assistants into her classroom.
``It will be more difficult for us to decide whom to pick [rather] than not having enough volunteers,'' she says.
THE fact that these elements - flexibility, dedicated teachers, and parental support - make good schools is no surprise. The question is how to encourage these things.
The No. 1 policy has to be patience, Carey says.
``So many times, change is initiated in the classroom: `Let's do this, let's do that.' We do it for one year and we expect to see fantastic changes. And you're not going to get that.
``I would say to Mr. Bush and everyone involved: `Whatever changes you propose, we have to provide the economic backing, the professional backing for more than one year.'''
Nor should policymakers focus solely on the classroom, she says.
``My philosophy is: We are teaching the total child. ... So if you do that, you have to look at where the child starts. And that would be at home. Maybe part of this educational reform needs to look at services and agencies that can provide help for the future student.'' That way, students would come to school prepared, Carey says - fed, cared for, well-treated by society.
Finally, teachers should have maximum flexibility in the classroom, Carey says. In exchange, teachers should be held responsible for the students' achievements. ``The big question is: How do you measure?''
Craig points proudly to last year's results from the Iowa Test of Basic Skills, which show Benjamin Franklin students in the top 1 or 2 percent in the nation. But clearly, immeasurably more is going on in this classroom.
When one Carey-Keller student lost a family member recently, the teachers decided to tell the class in simple terms what had happened. Not only did the class go out of its way to help a classmate, a few students on their own wrote the surviving family member to express their sympathy.
``How do you measure that?'' Carey asks. No one, not even Carey, has answered that one yet.