About Education: Essay #9 – My Thoughts for Improving Public Education

Yesterday, on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s educational blog, I had written a response to another poster who had asked a question of me regarding education. My response to that poster gives my thoughts, in a nutshell, on what would improve public education so that graduation rates would improve significantly beyond the present 69.7% in Georgia. I am reposting my response to that poster, here, so that readers of “Mary Elizabeth Sings” can also read my suggestions for improving public education.


“I will try to give you a response because you have raised valid concerns of me.

You must consider my background. From the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, I was an Instructional Lead Teacher for a principal (former Superintendent of Instruction) who had formed a continuous progress model school, without walls. It was based on mastery learning. Students advanced as rapidly as possible through 21 to 24 levels in reading and mathematics for grades 1 – 7, at their own rates to achieve mastery. We had to administer pre and post tests on each level in order to know if each child was properly placed. Monitoring all the children in the school in reading and math levels was a vital part of my job. Some children might advance only 2 levels in a year, and have spurt of growth the next year. Another student might advance 4 or 5 levels in a year. Children were neither bored or frustrated because our goal was to keep them all moving at their optimum levels of advancement according to their individual abilities to advance. All students were correctly placed at all times. Grade demarcations were not rigidly adherred to. On a given level  – say level 8 – a 2nd and 3rd grade student might be in the same reading group on that Level 8, in reading.

Next, I went to a major suburban high school in the mid-1980s, I had had this sophisticated instructional background behind me. Therefore, as the Reading Chair for that 1,800 population high school, I wanted to give the Nelson Reading Test in-house to all of the students so that teachers and counselors would have current test results for accurate placement for instruction. I worked with all English teachers to accomplish this goal. Over the years (I retired in 2000), invariably 500 receiving 9th grade students would score on the reading vocabulary and comprehension parts of that test in the range from 4th grade level to grade level 16, with 1/2 of those 9th graders scoring on 6th grade level and below. We had a sprinkling of students even on 3rd grade level in 9th grade.

Many teachers thanked me for this knowledge. The French teacher and Foreign Language Chair, said that it was inaccurate for counselors to place students who were reading on 4th and 5th grade levels in French I in high school. She said that they should be taking the Personalized Reading course for remediation before being assigned to a foreign language course. That is why so many had failed freshmen French I in the past, she said. Likewise, poor reading scores effect the students’ abilities to read accurately science textbooks and even math textbooks. The Mathematics Chair worked closely with me, and she found that beginning 9th graders, like beginning reading/English students, also had a wide range of mathematical skills mastered from the past upon entering 9th grade. Our reading program had schoolwide impact on all curriculum areas not only through our reading test results but also through my inservices to teachers (and parents) in how to teach reading in the content areas, thereafter.

From 33% to 40% of high school students presently fail to graduate with their classmates and many simply quit going to school. Many have been taught on their frustration levels for years, not identified as such. 90% of prisoners in Georgia are high school drop outs. As educators, we must not put “our heads in the sand” regarding precise instructional placement throughout every student’s tenure in school.

That being said, I believe in balance. I started out as a Drama major, became an English major, and later earned an M.Ed. as a Reading Specialist.  Thus, I believe in creativity in instruction as well as testing for precision so that we can turn around our poor showing with our high school graduation rates in Georgia. I am not ‘for’ or ‘against’ one mode of learning over another. We need both the precise and the creative in teaching. Teaching is both an art and a science. Perhaps, because of the pressure of ‘Race To the Top,’ an over-emphasis is being placed on too much testing – and testing for the wrong purposes, i.e. to evaluate teachers and schools, instead as a diagnostic tool to pinpoint instruction. Even in the model continuous progress school in which I served as ILT, social studies classes and science classes did not incorporate the continuous progress, continuous testing model that I described for reading and math advancement. Courses are varied, and we must allow for creativity in education as much as for testing as a diagnostic tool. Too much testing is used wrongly now, imo, as a punitive vehicle instead of as an enlightening aid to foster more excellent, targeted instruction.

Reading effects every subject area. We must find a way in traditional public education to stop the unacceptable graduation rate. I believe I have shared information that could help curb this unacceptable rate, if those in positions to change public education will heed my thoughts which come from years of firsthand experience in which we had excellent results. The reading program in the high school in which I served as a teacher and Reading Department Chair was – at one time – the largest secondary reading program in the state of Georgia. We had 3 fulltime reading specialists and 2 reading paraprofessionals who served over 600 students daily counting our before and after school programs, and the lunchtime reading activities also. Most of our students elected our courses and programs and were not assigned to them. Our community/school outreach was to all interested parents and to all 100 teaching staff members.

I hope I have addressed most of your inquiries of my thinking. We must reform public education so that we are not losing students who stop attending school and may, as a result, never receive a high school diploma. And, we must not allow schools to become places of fear for teachers and students because of the threat of tests to job security. Testing should be done for diagnostic purposes to enhance instruction, with teachers being a part of the process, and not intimidated by it. Teachers and students work best in a nurturing, creative environment. We must value teachers and treat them with respect and allow them some degree of instructional autonomy because they are professionals with unique knowledge not only of academics but also of human nature and of what fosters growth.”

In response to another poster, I posted the following comments on “Get Schooled,” January 30, 2013:

Other Poster: “Mary Elizabeth- that is not possible. I cannot teach to the varyin levels of 38 kids in my class. That is simply not possible. If a kid has mastered 40% of the 4th grade curriculum he hasn’t mastered much. And yes, I absolutely think he should repeat the grade.” (I had previously questioned the instructional wisdom of retaining a student who had mastered 40% of the concepts within the curriculum for 4th grade, although he or she had failed to have mastered 60% of the curriculum for 4th grade. I had pointed out that to make that student sit through another full year of being taught 100% of the curriculum, when he or she had already mastered 40% of that curriculum, did not seem to be instructionally sound.)

Mary Elizabeth: “Teacher/coach, what I am proposing is a paradigm shift in thinking about grade levels, which were created to place students in twelve lock-step curriculum requirement sets, with all the students advancing at the same rate. I am proposing, instead, a redesign of our public educational system to more realistically accommodate the naturally occurring variances in students in terms of their varied instructional levels within grades and their varied rates of learning new content/concepts. From 1975 until 1984, I was fortunate to be the Instructional Lead Teacher in a model school that practiced a form of this innovation design. The school had multiaged groupings of students according to their correct instructional levels in reading and mathematics, instead of simply by their grade level demarcations. (See the details regarding the specifics of that innovative school’s design model for the continuous progress of students from grades 1 – 7 in my remarks from the first post, above.)

I was not trying to suggest that you might form 38 different levels of instruction for the 38 students in your class, but instead that you might want to subgroup the 38 students into perhaps three or four different groups on certain days of the week so that your instructional plans might better accommodate where your students are actually functioning in your class. You had previously suggested that you had a student in your 10th grade literature class who reads on 3rd grade level. If you chart the reading scores of all of your 10th grade students in your 10th grade literature class, you might find that the range of reading levels is from grade level 3 to grade level 14. On certain days of the week, you might subgroup those students who read in the range of 3rd – 5th grade-level together; those students who read from 6th – 8th grade-level together; those who read from 9th – 11th grade-level together (probably the largest group); and those who read from grades 12 – 14 in reading together.

Moreover, If you were able to team with another teacher of 10th grade literature, you could combine groups of the same instructional demarcations, and therefore each of you would only have two grade-level reading levels of students to be responsible for, instead of four each. For example, you might work with the students from both classes in the reading grade-level range from 3rd – 5th grade (severely below grade level), as well as the group in the reading range from 6th – 8th grade level (below grade level), and your peer teacher might work with those students functioning on reading grade levels 9th – 11th (on grade level essentially) and 12th – 14th (above grade level).

If it is not possible to team teach with a peer teacher, perhaps you could work with an Assistant Principal to establish a Parent or Senior Volunteer Program in your school, members of which would receive training in minimal instructional/discipline techniques. These volunteers could function as aides to accommodate you with this subgrouping design on certain days of the week. Implementing subgroupings with this precision takes more planning, but this additional planning and implementation is preferable to trying to fit especially those students who read from grade levels 3 – 6 into your large group of 38 students for instruction daily. In that case, those severely behind students will certainly not master the material you are teaching to your whole class, unless they can have more individualized help. By subgrouping, you would also better accommodate those students who are far above grade level and may need enrichment activities so that they do not stagnate in their instructional development, nor become bored.”

I posted the following comments on “Get Schooled,” January 22, 2013:

“We must recognize, too, that the end result to competency-based education may well mean that, for some students, completing the criteria for a high school diploma may take more than the standard 4 years, but that that extra time given to these students to complete the criteria for a high school diploma is preferable to having students drop out of school, in part, because they had been trying (for years) to function, unsuccessfully, on their frustration levels – primarily because of the ineffective design of a school system’s instructional model.”

Earlier on that same blog, I had posted the following related to the same topic:

“Several sentences in this article concern me. I will address those concerns in a moment.

First, as an overview statement, I support testing students for diagnostic purposes so that instruction can be more precisely targeted to the each student’s correct instructional placement throughout the school year. If we had not used test results in the high school, in which I led the reading program, we might have erroneously placed some students in Personalized Reading who should have been correctly placed in Advanced Reading, and, likewise, we might have erroneously placed some students Advanced Reading who were not ready, yet, to take that course. Those misplaced students might have failed that course, as a result, and through no fault of their own, but simply through teacher/counselor error in placement of the student, to begin with.

Most people would never recommend that doctors should not order tests for their patients in order to formulate an accurate diagnosis of the patient’s medical condition. Likewise, citizens should support teachers’ using educational tests in order to assess correctly the accurate placement of the students and so that teachers can have the precise knowledge to teach correctly specific instructional skills to specific students.

Notice that the purpose of the testing that I suggested, above, is to use testing as a diagnostic tool to aid the teacher in ascertaining the correct instructional placement for each of his/her students. The English teacher, in the article posted, is a teacher in Seattle’s Public Schools who is refusing to give the MAP test. From the article, above: ‘(She) says teachers are never allowed to see the test, so she has no idea how to interpret her students’ scores.’ ‘So I’m not going to do it. But I’d be happy to have my students evaluated in a way that would be meaningful for both them and me,’ she says. From the article: ‘Instead of this kind of high-stakes testing, teachers at (her school) propose that student learning be judged by portfolios of their work.’

The English teacher says teachers are never allowed to see the test so how could that test help pinpoint her instruction as she teaches, from day to day?

The article above states that ‘(t)he MAP test is used as part of the teacher-evaluation process, and it’s supposed to help teachers gauge students’ progress.’ I suppose ‘gauging students’ progress’ means ‘after the fact,’ but ‘after the fact’ does not help teachers’ pinpoint their instruction in the process of their teaching.

When we had tested all of the 9th, 10th, and 11th grade students on the Nelson Reading Test in the high school in which I worked, we shared those test results with teachers, parents, counselors, and even students (when appropriate) immediately after the results were ascertained. In my workshops with parents after school, I further instructed parents in how to interpret their children’s standardized test scores, such as their children’s percentile scores on the CAT, so that these parents could ascertain their children’s academic progress from year-to-year. We used test results to inform and educate all, not to evaluate teachers.

Not to show teachers the test results until after the fact and to use the test results as a vehicle primarily to evaluate teachers is not the way to go in testing, imo. Did the Seattle school system, also, weigh each student’s IQ score before evaluating teachers on their students’ test results on the MAP? If the system did not also consider students’ IQ scores, then those administrators have done their teachers a disservice by not evaluating teachers comprehensively, nor fairly, because the degree of students’ progress has many variables, such as IQ, beyond teacher instruction, and especially if the teacher has not been shown test results, initially, in order to ascertain correct starting points of instruction for each student. (See my link below for more detail on this.)

In summary: In my opinion, testing of students should be used for the diagnostic purposes of determining each student’s correct placement in instruction, and as not as a single means of evaluating teachers. Teachers should be given a fairer, and a more comprehensive, assessment of their effectiveness than a single showing of test results of students, which should be weighed thoroughly and effectively against other variable factors, such as I.Q., if it is to be used in assessing teachers’ effectiveness.”



I posted the following remarks on the AJC’s “Get Schooled” blog on February 6, 2013:

“Notice how physicians can now pull up, on their computers, a patient’s developmental history in a matter of seconds. I would hope that educators would soon be able to do the same with their students so that their instruction would become more targeted to the actual instructional (or functioning) levels of their students, regardless of their assigned grade levels. If that state-of-the-art educational delivery system were to be implemented throughout Georgia, perhaps, then, nearly one-third of Georgia’s students would not fail to graduate with their peers.

I recognize that in an ideally designed continuous progress, mastery learning instructional format not all high school students would naturally graduate from high school within four years. Some may take longer than four years, and some may take fewer than four years, to fulfill the requirements for high school graduation. However, as things stand today, it appears that many students who fail to graduate within four years have simply been lost in the system (i.e., claiming to transfer from one school to another and never show up) and have, in fact, dropped out of high school, in part, because their correct instructional levels were not adequately addressed when they were attending school.”


I posted the following comments in response to another poster’s remarks on the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Get Schooled” blog, on February 7, 2013:

Poster: “I do not understand why kids are not drilled and drilled and drilled again with phonics, sight words in K and 1st grade. . . .How about shaming the parents into phonics drills at home?”

Mary Elizabeth: “I understand your concern, but please know that the teaching of reading requires a balanced approach. An overemphasis upon phonics can create word-by-word readers who, later, will read extremely slowly and dislike reading, as a result. I have witnessed this having happened.

We do want ‘fluid’ readers, as you mentioned, and you correctly state that sometimes ‘one forgets what one (is) read(ing) when they are [sic] trying to decode.’ The reading techniques of phonics, sight vocabulary, and context clues should all be utilized, in balance with one another, in teaching children to read. Having parents read to their children, also, certainly helps. Each child is different and must be approached uniquely.

Parents and teachers must work together in order to foster the optimum growth of each child, in the most positive ways possible. We cannot generalize for all students regarding instructional approaches. We must tailor the best instructional approach to each child’s unique instructional needs.”


This entry was posted in Balancing the Creative with the Precise in Education, Continuous Progress in Education, Mastery Learning, Teachers are Professional Worthy of Respect and Autonomy, Teachers' record keeping = to doctors', Testing in Education, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to About Education: Essay #9 – My Thoughts for Improving Public Education

  1. Pingback: More on Education – Differentiating Instruction | maryelizabethsings

  2. Pingback: Instructional Management of Many Classroom Groups through Hiring Instructional Lead Teachers | maryelizabethsings

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