When I met Edith for the first time and heard her stories about her kindergarten class, I realized that she is the poster child for what is happening in Florida education at the grass roots level. She is a slight woman in her early 30s, originally from Venezuela, an immigrant like most her students, who has been teaching for three years. She radiates the kind authority common to kindergarten teachers everywhere, and I feel certain her students adore her.
Her school is a “C” but constantly under threat of dropping to a “D” and triggering state intervention. The elementary school has three kindergarten classes of 36 with two teachers each, plus her class of 21 students and another teacher with about the same number. All her students but one are all classified as ESOL (English for Speakers of other Languages), which means they are conversational in English but not academically up to the level of a native speaker. Their home language is Spanish.
Her school day is 8:15 a.m. to l:50 p.m. They have 30 minutes that teachers can take as a recess block, although most prefer to take it as PE, plus lunch. There is time for social studies and science, an hour for Spanish instruction and the rest of the time is dedicated to reading and math instruction. There are no “electives” teachers. Edith must do her planning before or after school and integrate art and music into her curriculum herself, as well as teaching all other subjects.
Her language instruction is supposed to be based on the rotational model; however, one of the key elements of this model is computer instruction. Unfortunately, her computers are too old to load the current reading program, iReady. She has adapted her blocks as best she can but it is difficult since her students are not yet fluent readers.
iReady is a program that replaces the FAIR, a state mandated reading comprehension assessment. She is supposed to administer the test twice a year to assess her students’ achievement levels and identify areas where they need to improve their skills. She would prefer to assess her students in intervals of 15 minutes during the assessment window but there are only two computer labs at her school and she has to compete for computer time with her colleagues.
They take a 40-minute math and a 40-minute reading test twice a year in September and May. At the beginning level the computer reads the questions and the answer choices. As students advance, they will have to read and answer the questions on their own. Aside from the long testing time, other factors that may impede accurate assessment are students’ unfamiliarity with the program and the use of the keyboard and mouse. Competition for the computer labs means she cannot give her students sufficient practice with the program and the computers. She is also required to assess one-on-one her four lowest performing students’ letter and number recognition at least once a week. She has to do this without a teacher aide to help supervise the other students.
I asked her about the changes that have been introduced due to the new tests to be administered in April. Although technically called “Florida Standards,” they are almost completely aligned with Common Core. She says she has noticed the emphasis on students being able to use academic language such as setting, main idea, and character in literature, which is a challenge for children who do not yet read fluently or even completely speak English. They also have to identify the beginning, middle and end of a story. She teaches these topics by using art and having the students draw pictures of these different elements, displaying them around the classroom and holding class discussions about the stories they are reading in class.
Previously students were required to fill in blanks on worksheets with high frequency words. Now they should be able write their own sentences from a word list and they are allowed to use idiosyncratic spelling. She expects that her students will be able to read a short story, write a sentence using a high frequency word, identify about 30 high frequency words, and draw pictures to show the beginning, middle and end of a story by the time they leave her class in June. Ideally they should be able to turn their pictures into a coherent story, which some of them can already do and which she showed me on a cell phone video.
I asked her if she objected to the more rigorous standards and all the testing. She said no, she liked to know her students’ strengths and challenges as identified on the computerized testing because she felt this helped her address these varying abilities with her classroom instruction. She lamented, however, the focus on the lowest performing students, which did not give her enough time to work with those at the top. She does not object to reading instruction in kindergarten. She says that this is the age to start academics when the students are eager to learn, and that they have the rest of the day to play.
Hearing her stories, I recall imperfect memories of my own kindergarten experience 60 years ago plus various sub jobs over the years. Gone are naps and recess. Everything is tightly structured. In my time, kindergarten teachers had a morning and afternoon group, but Edith’s class is really a full day of instruction. There was an expectation that children would learn the rules and standards of behavior for school, but they were not expected to be able to read and write when they left for first grade; letter and number recognition were sufficient. I was taught to read in first grade, and it certainly did not hold me back academically. My interest in reading did not really take off until fourth grade when I developed enough vocabulary to read what I was interested in, and I eventually earned a master’s degree.
Edith’s story illustrates that students can learn these skills at a younger age. By using art, music and play, she can teach the standards in a way that make it fun for the children. Her situation also highlights the need for more resources, both human and technology. If the school expects her to do one-on-one assessments, teachers should have aides so the other students don’t lose instructional time. She needs up-to-date computers in her classroom in a 4-to-1 ratio, with various reading and math instructional programs and wifi access everywhere in the school. She should have her own computer with LCD projector so she can play instructional videos. The school needs enough labs so that there is no competition in scheduling computer time for assessment if the state continues to insist on multiple standardized testing on the computer.
And no teachers should be threatened with losing their job based on how their class does.