Freedson: Stronger Early Education is Key to Access & Equity Policy

by The Village Green
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Last week the South Orange Maplewood Board of Education voted to adopt a new Access and Equity policy that represents a significant turning point for our schools. The policy will have among its many effects a lifting of the gates to higher level and AP courses at the middle and high school so that students, with their families, will be able to choose the degree of challenge they wish to pursue in each of their core subject classes.

I am thrilled to see this policy move forward but recognize that it presents many new challenges for our district in terms of curriculum and teaching, guidance, and communications. As the parent of a CHS 10th grader, having experienced the rich variety of programs and teaching talent at our high school firsthand, I believe that the following steps leading up to the implementation of this new policy will help bring the promise of our high school to every student:

  • Easy-to-access online availability of a syllabus for every core subject course at every level – on our high school and middle school websites. Each syllabus should describe the course content covered, specific learning outcomes, texts and assessments used, and pacing of instruction, giving students and their families the information they need to differentiate among available options and to find their most comfortable level of challenge. This move towards greater curriculum transparency will have the added benefit of encouraging better alignment of content and expectations among teachers teaching the same course, so that what students learn in a particular class will no longer depend quite so much on which teacher they get. It should also help ensure that both rigor AND support for student learning are present in every classroom.
  • Establishment of an open enrollment period of several weeks early in the school year similar to the “add-drop” period we now have on university campuses. This will allow students to attend classes at their chosen level, but to have the flexibility to move up or down levels to find the best fit.
  • Improved guidance, communications, and family outreach services. The district will need to better explain course options and clarify differences, provide information on family, community, and school- based academic supports, and encourage motivated students to stretch themselves towards courses they might not have previously considered.
  • Finally and most importantly, I hope that our administration will call upon our highly skilled and committed teachers – those who best understand the everyday challenges this new policy will present – to guide and inform decision-making and ensure the policy is a success. The vigorous support of teachers is absolutely critical.

These are some of the practical measures I hope the Board will expect to see from administration. However, access and choice alone cannot ensure students’ success in the rigorous honors and AP classes many will wish to pursue. In our district as around the country, achievement gaps among demographic groups start early and tend to widen over time. To translate access into equity, then, we must come together as a district and continue to strengthen our early education programs so that all of our students enter middle and high school with the foundational knowledge, literacy and math skills they need to reach their highest potential.

Our district recently put in place several early education initiatives that should produce long-term gains in student preparation and achievement. The first of these, a new full-day preschool inclusion program at the Montrose school in South Orange that is free to eligible families, will help ensure that a greater number of our children begin kindergarten on solid footing. The Montrose program will have the features of what research identifies as ‘high-quality preschool’ – an enriched and developmentally appropriate curriculum, teachers certified in early childhood education, a low adult-child ratio, and an eye on individual needs and learning outcomes.

A recent study of New Jersey’s Abbott Preschool Program showed that children from the state’s most disadvantaged communities who attended two years of preschool with these characteristics made significant gains in language, literacy, math and science that lasted through 4th and 5th grade! I believe we too are likely to see such impacts down the road, with the added benefit that our inclusion program will serve children with disabilities – a population we have not always served well. We must closely monitor the progress of this program, adjust as needed moving forward, and get the word out to ensure that as many district families as possible take advantage of this excellent new opportunity.

Another initiative showing signs of promise is our early reading intervention program for young children with reading difficulties. Now in its third year, this program supports children who are screened as reading significantly below grade level in grades K-3, providing additional small group support to help them progress more swiftly towards grade-level benchmarks. The provision of such interventions early on is key since children who are not reading on grade level by 3rd grade become increasingly less likely to catch up as the curriculum shifts its focus from “learning to read” to “reading to learn” in 4th grade and beyond. I urge the district to put in place similar supports for struggling readers in grades 4 and 5. Reading interventions for this older age group can also be very effective, provided they identify the nature of children’s individual reading difficulties and target instruction appropriately.

With our sights on better preparing all students for the literacy demands of high school, I believe we must take stock of our elementary language arts curriculum to understand what is working and for whom, and where we need to shore up. The Teachers’ College Reading and Writing Workshop model we are now using has its strengths. It gives children choice of what to read – a known motivator – and devotes significant time to actual reading and writing. Children are taught reading “strategies” that for some help to improve comprehension. They are also taught the author’s “craft” and to revise and edit their work like true writers.

But there are important things this program does not do. It does not offer the explicit phonics or word study instruction that most children need to become independent and fluent readers. The district has put in place the Fundations program to address this need in grades K-1 – an important addition. We do not have an agreed upon approach for grades 2-5, however, where spelling and word study should continue to be taught. Without ongoing support for these skills, many of our students’ reading progress will stall.

Nor does the Writing Workshop program promote systematic teaching of vocabulary, grammar, sentence structure, or writing mechanics. Certainly it is laudable for children to view themselves as writers and to find their own voice, but we are doing them no favors if we send them up to 6th grade and beyond without the ability to punctuate a paragraph or to match a subject with a verb. This should not be an either-or proposition. Children can learn to enjoy writing, write lengthy pieces on meaningful topics, AND be taught writing conventions. We must take an “all of the above” approach.

Finally, our current model does not ground children’s literacy development in rich and engaging content. Last year, my daughter’s very talented (and sadly, now retired) second grade teacher decided to end the school year teaching her 7- and 8-year-olds an interdisciplinary unit on Ancient Greece. For more than 3 weeks, the children investigated the original Olympic games, built models of the Parthenon, calculated values of ancient coins, and painted Greek design motifs on clay pots, all while reading engaging information books and writing about what they had learned. The final class presentation to parents was spectacular, both for the excitement with which children shared their beautiful work, and for the sophisticated language and literacy skills they had used in the service of their learning.

Sadly, this kind of curriculum integration around rich content is not the norm in our district despite evidence that young children love learning real “stuff.” They love learning about rainforests, medieval castles and life in other countries, and all of the big words that come with this content. Yet, because we currently teach reading and writing in isolation from other subjects – and use a huge portion of the school day to do so – social studies and science have been pushed to the margins of our elementary curriculum. This is depriving children of access to a key source of the background knowledge and vocabulary that is so critical to reading comprehension as they move into higher grades. This is truly an equity issue.

There are some signs of movement in the right direction, as outgoing BOE member Jeff Bennett and my BOE running mates Wayne Eastman and Madhu Pai have advocated for a more content-rich approach in our elementary schools. Some teachers are, of their own devises, creating precisely these kind of integrated learning experiences for their students. We should make the better integration of our language arts curriculum with content-rich subjects and the arts a priority in our elementary schools. When we do so, I believe we will not only engage more students in a love of reading and writing – particularly boys who are so often drawn to non-fiction topics and texts- but we will help better prepare all of our students for the challenging classes that await them.

Which brings us back to Access and Equity. The newly adopted policy that current BOE members Wayne and Madhu were instrumental in developing and advancing, calls on the district to engage in a “…Kindergarten through 12th grade curricular alignment” to ensure that all students have the requisite knowledge and skills to perform successfully in challenging high school courses. I applaud Wayne and Madhu, in collaboration with Dr. Ramos, for identifying the elementary school years as crucial to the realization of the access and equity policy goals. It is my hope that we will approach the implementation of this policy in a spirit that is truly self-critical and cognizant of the wide-ranging skills our students need to succeed.

Dr. Margaret (Peggy) Freedson is a South Orange resident, a member of the teacher education faculty at Montclair State University, and a candidate for South Orange Maplewood Board of Education.

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