By Valerie Strauss Washington Post Staff Writer Tuesday, May 29, 2001; Page A09
Tara Allen began the school year planning to teach her fifth-grade class an important math unit on probability and the novel "Bridge to Terabithia," but she won't get to introduce either. Time is running out.
Daniel Dara Din, a freshman at the University of Virginia, is learning history he didn't get to study before he graduated last year from Chantilly High School in Fairfax County. "Drilled into my mind over the years were Virginia history, Colonial history and history up to the Civil War," Din said, "but there was no time for much of anything past World War II."
Time. There never seems to be enough of it, at least for the legions of teachers who realize with dismay at this time of year that there are too few days and too much left to teach. In classrooms from coast to coast, teachers are rushing to finish the curriculum; in others, they simply give up trying.
"Those people who say they do get it all done, I just don't how they do it," said Allen, of Bywood Elementary School in Upper Darby, Pa. "If you try to get to it all, then everything suffers. We never get to the Civil War, for example, and we are supposed to."
The end-of-school rush is hardly a new phenomenon, but educators say it is more frenzied than ever.
"We have a tendency in American education to continue to add more expectations and more curriculum," said Bill Kein, superintendent of the 4,200-student Mercer Island School District in Washington state. "It is easier to add than take away. So things are worse today than in the past."
Although many teachers say they complete everything during the school year -- Cynthia Mosteller, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Deal Middle School in the District, said that in 15 years of teaching, "I've never not finished the course" -- others admit having less success. The reasons, according to teachers, administrators and students:
* Despite efforts to create a standard curriculum, many teachers still have personal topic preferences and often dwell on what they know best, rushing through units on which they are less versed.
* Students don't learn at the same pace, and some concepts take longer for students to absorb than others. School schedules no longer build in much, if any, time for review or serious thought, educators say.
"One of the major things we aren't building into the school day and school year is time for reflection," said Chip Wood, of the Northeast Foundation for Children, a Massachusetts-based nonprofit organization dedicated to improving teaching. "Without that, students just rush from one thing to the next, the way us grown-ups do."
* Standardized testing now cuts into teaching time -- Maryland students in various grades take an entire week of such tests a year -- and teachers find it difficult to refocus students on learning after spring tests, for which the curriculum is geared.
Virginia students took Standards of Learning tests last week, for example, and said one teacher, who asked not to be identified: "Once testing is over, the students as well as teachers think that learning is over."
* There is more content than ever to teach, especially in subjects such as biology, where new discoveries have vastly changed the scope and face of knowledge. Yet nobody has narrowed the curriculum, and the proliferation of standards has not helped the situation either, despite a common assumption that those who draw up standards take into account the time it takes to teach them.
Apparently they don't. A 1999 study conducted by the Colorado-based Midcontinent Research for Education and Learning Lab showed that teachers would need twice the time now allocated to adequately cover all the material required by state standards.
In three states -- Colorado, Wyoming and North Dakota -- teachers would need 1,100 hours of instructional time to address the standards in four main areas, though there are 630 to 720 hours of instruction time available in a school year, the study showed.
"The challenge at the school level is discerning the most essential standards," said Douglas B. Reeves, of the Colorado-based Center for Performance Assessment.
But Lesli Adler, who teaches Advanced Placement biology at Montgomery County's Thomas S. Wootton High School, said nobody is doing that.
"There is not less information to know; there's more," she said. "History is in the same boat as science. . . . Look at national and state standards. All seem reasonable until you come under the burden of having to teach them all."
AP curriculum -- which offers high school students the equivalent of a first-year introductory college course -- is a case in point. "They say you don't need to teach everything, but they don't tell you what to leave out," Adler said.
Lee Jones, executive director of the College Board's AP program, acknowledges the problem. Several years ago, he said, in a bid to try to narrow the AP curriculum, he asked colleges and universities what they taught. In calculus, there was a consensus on how to refocus the material, but in biology, he said, answers were all over the map. Thus, nothing was changed.
"History and biology and chemistry to some degree are content-heavy," he said. "It's been very hard to find ways to kind of narrow or limit the course without leaving out the same thing the colleges and universities would think is important."
As a result, students wind up with knowledge gaps. Matt Randon is a senior at Robinson Secondary School in Fairfax County, and he laments that he has learned "the number of moles in a sample of uranium" but not "much about Martin Luther King other than a few bolded words in a textbook in elementary school and middle school."
Allen, the fifth-grade teacher, has learned to accept that she won't get everything done. She is using techniques that stress using the final six weeks of school for reinforcement of content learned and closure.
Time for new instruction is cut in half, she said, in part because her fifth-graders are so anxious about leaving school that it is hard for them to concentrate. So they are reflecting on what they learned and designing memory books to help them.
"You start to see them settle," she said. "They seem less anxious. It's more fun. And they seem to be more at peace, because you aren't making the last six weeks chaotic and frustrating by trying to rush."
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