So, we come back to the issue of time on task. Here in Florida we experimented with classes that tripled the time for low performers within the school day to work on reading and/or mathematics since these are the core skills needed and the subjects of accountability tests. We called these efforts immersion programs, and I personally presented the idea at the annual conference of The Education Trust in 1997.
In one case, a semester in a triple period math program with a great math teacher yielded a three-fold increase in mastery for the majority of the 42 sixth grade students participating, e.g., a half a year effort producing a one and one-half year of growth! In another pioneering school, 94 low performing ninth graders jumped reading skill and comprehension from seventh grade levels to mid-point ninth grade levels in one school year. A third school provided a school day schedule of two and one-half hours of reading in the morning with a great reading teacher, a physical exercise and science alternating period, then lunch, and then a two and one-half hour math class with a great math teacher. After that year, all but six of the original 70+ students made it to seventh grade from as low as third and fourth grade skills; and, of those six, three required a subsequent summer immersion to make it while the other three were discovered to have learning disablements that required exceptional education approaches. Immersion scheduling, we discovered, makes a real difference and can be implemented in any grade from fourth to ninth.
We had many schools ask us how we provided such lengthy classes for students who get antsy after 40 minutes? The strategy we used is not rocket science! We broke each immersion class into ‘threes’ such that one-third of the students worked with the teacher, one-third worked on computer remediation programs, and one-third did silent, individual work, and these three student groups rotated as often as the teacher found necessary.
Why is this notion of time on task not a mainstream strategy for low performing students?
I believe the primary reason is a lack of willingness (or courage) to change the traditional school day schedule for some students. And that schedule is the proverbial sacred cow. I also am sad to report that some decision-makers see continuation of low performance as the basis for expanding the pool of voucher-eligibles!
How sad it is to see schools ‘accepting’ the idea of grade retention for low performers rather than risk doing something non-traditional for them. This is particularly significant for fifth grade and eighth grade retention policies that create space and staff problems for such schools. Better to move those low performers to middle and high school and place them there as technically fifth or eighth graders and in immersion units until they show enough mastery to graduate from their elementary or middle school. That also is an innovative way to avoid overcrowding individual schools that few school superintendents employ.
Federal and state funding has focused on K-3 improvements.
That makes sense for the long haul. But, how about help to all of the low performers today in grades 4-10? Are we simply to hope that many will leave for good at the age of sixteen while counting on the new students from the primary grades to show the improvements? I hope not! Immersion programs do close the gap. Their time has come.