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Sep. 28 2009 - 1:59 am | 76 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

Is elementary school what America does best?

This weekend the New York Times Magazine published its annual school issue. The three feature stories were about the link between preschool play and self-control, gay students coming out in middle school, and inner-city prep schools.

These all make sense, of course. We know that students who do not receive early childhood education are at risk to begin their school careers far behind peers academically and socially. Middle school is a time of major transition for all students, and more attention is being paid to how gay youth navigate this period of their lives. Urban schooling and high school are (and have been for some time) two of the most vexing issues in American education, with practitioners and scholars continually searching for ways they can be improved.

I was struck, however, by what I did not see. Not one of the feature stories, shorter stories, or columns focused on elementary education. But rather than worry that the Times had missed its opportunity to talk about some pressing issue in the world of K-5 schooling, I thought about the fact that as other portions of our education system are under constant criticism, we in the United States do elementary school pretty well. Research has shown that much of the achievement gap between different groups of students (e.g., lower-income v. higher-income) is present when students begin school, and drastic drops in student test scores–compared to one’s previous performance or when compared with students in other countries–typically do not appear until students are in middle or high school.

Too many variables are involved in a child’s entire educational and developmental experience from age 0-18 for this argument to be proven true or false, but I think it’s an interesting discussion to have.

Parents: What level of schooling were you most satisfied with when it comes to your children?

Teachers: What level of schooling do you think is doing the best job?

Everyone Else: Do you remember your educational experience being significantly better in grades K-5, 6-8, or 9-12?

I’d love to hear feedback from people who live/have lived outside of the United States as well!


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  1. collapse expand

    Actually, I remember elementary school being the worst part of my education. I was bored out of my mind for most of it. Things improved a LOT when tracking started in 5th grade and the academics in the honors classes were more appropriately challenging. High school was even better because I had a certain amount of choice in the classes I took.

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    About Me

    I'm a Teach For America alum and spent three years as a high school teacher on the west and south sides of Chicago. I've conducted research on turnaround schools with a team from the University of Virginia, consulted for school districts across the country, and done work with New Leaders for New Schools, the Consortium on Chicago School Research, and DonorsChoose.org. Currently I'm finishing my PhD from UVa's Curry School of Education.

    My work has been published in Education Week, the Phi Delta Kappan, and a number of academic journals, and I'm a co-author of the book Teachers' Guide to School Turnarounds. I also contribute monthly to GOOD, the website "for people who give a damn": www.good.is/community/MichaelSalmonowicz

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    I am a contributor for GOOD, the website “for people who give a damn.” You can read my June column here. Past columns can be found here.