Skills vs. Content in the Early Grades

Skills vs. Content in the Early Grades

For decades American schools have been engaged in a failed experiment, attempting to cram more content into a typical teaching day than humanly possible, asking children to learn overwhelming content at younger and younger ages without taking the time to build the foundation skills needed for learning success or behavioral success.  We’ve created anxiety-filled classrooms in which children are less likely to fall deeply in love with learning.   We’ve done this even in the early childhood years, which are the most important learning phase in the life of a child.

It’s not working.  By the beginning of fourth grade, the point at which we can accurately predict long-term learning outcomes, only 33% of American children are at proficient reading levels.  Only 17% of children who are eligible for free or reduced lunch are at proficient reading levels.

But most teachers are stuck, expected to “cover” a non-viable curriculum, a set of content expectations that cannot possibly be covered in the available teaching time, with students who may already have significant gaps in the development of fundamental skills for learning.  Let’s consider math instruction.  In New Mexico there are 19 process standards, 5 content standard strands, 17 benchmarks, and 26 performance standards for the teaching of math in kindergarten.

Teachers are expected to “cover” all this with every child, including the students with poor learning experiences at home and/or preschools, including the students who have not yet learned basic number concepts and skills.  The kindergarten math benchmarks in New Mexico include:

A.2 Represent and analyze mathematical situations and structures using algebraic symbols

G.2 Specify locations and describe spatial relationships using coordinate geometry and other representational systems

G.3 Apply transformations and use symmetry to analyze mathematical situations

Racing through content, without regard for the development of basic skills and the experience of joy during this early learning phase is a sure recipe for killing any chance to develop a love of learning.  Only 24% of American twelfth grade students are proficient in math.   Unacceptable!  Our choice to race through math instruction without building basic skills and success is killing the learning futures of our children.

Consider a different approach.  A rich and interesting math curriculum should include projects and activities, should allow students to move to higher levels of challenge as soon as they are ready, and should allow children all the time needed to develop essential skills.  To teach this way, teachers cannot race through the same lesson each day with all students.  There needs to be time for re-teaching and extra practice until essential skills are fully developed.  In kindergarten the Essential Skills Inventory identifies four essential math outcomes: Demonstrates counting to 100; Has one-to-one correspondence for numbers 1-30; Understands combinations (to 10); Recognizes number groups without counting (2-10). These are the non-negotiable skills which every child can develop if we give teachers permission to quit racing through ridiculous lists of non-viable content objectives.

Building foundational learning skills is not a race.  By slowing down the pace of instruction and allowing every young child to fully develop essential oral language, phonologic skills, literacy, numeracy, motor skills, and social/behavioral skills, we could improve the learning future of our children.  This is the approach used in the higher performing school systems in the world.  With these skills in place our children will have the capacity to be great learners throughout their entire lives.


—  Bob Sornson