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'The basics'

Posted: October 22, 2010 11:00 a.m.
Updated: October 25, 2010 5:00 a.m.

From time to time, especially when the budget and the costs of education are being discussed, a community member will inevitably ask me why our schools do not spend more time on “the basics” -- the three Rs of “reading, ‘riting, and ‘rithmetic.” These conversations always seem to harken back to the “good old days,” when things seemed simpler and in retrospect, seemed to work better and were cheaper. Unfortunately, the “good old days” are more myth than reality. Even with the greater perceived emphasis on the “three Rs” in the past, U.S. census data indicates that in 1960 just over 41 percent of the adult population had a high school diploma as compared to almost over 80 percent today. Further, the literacy rate of our country is actually higher now than it was 50 years ago. 

In response to increased accountability, the Kershaw County School District and school districts all over our state and nation have placed almost single-minded emphasis on “the basics” over the past 10 years. Admittedly, this emphasis has not resulted in decreased costs, which is why I think people tend to look at the past with fondness. This has a lot to do with the fact that our state and our country (unlike most other nations) endeavor to teach all students, regardless of socioeconomic level, readiness for school, handicapping condition, knowledge of English or other external circumstances that impact learning. This aspiration is critical to our long-term success as a country, but it makes things a lot more complicated and costly. 

While I’m not sure why there is a perception that “the basics” are not the priority they once seemed to be, my experience and observation of day-to-day instruction in Kershaw County is quite the opposite. I thought it would be a good idea to highlight concrete examples of how “the basics” are emphasized in our schools each day.

Data on student achievement in reading, writing and math drive instruction in these areas in our schools. Talk with any of our principals, and he or she will be able to show you both individual and collective data from state tests, MAP tests (an assessment used to track student progress throughout the year) and teacher assessments as well as how this data is used to improve instruction across the school and with individual students. Principals use this data much in the same way a football coach uses game video to improve team and individual performance. Our principals use a variety of methods to collect and monitor their school’s data, but one of the best examples can be seen in the “data walls” (visual ways to plot growth in test scores) that exist in a number of our schools.

Our schools’ emphasis on “the basics” is further demonstrated by the fact that reading, writing and math instruction take up half or more of the normal instructional day in grades K-8. A variety of instructional techniques and practices are used, including direct instruction by the teacher to an entire class, smaller group instruction based on individual student needs as indicated by test data and self-paced work using computer technology. Students needing additional help in reading beyond regular class time receive this assistance through extra reading time funded through federal Title I funds, state funding provided for this purpose, ESOL (English as a Second or Other Language) instruction and creative utilization of existing staff resources. Students receiving Special Education services receive additional support through resource classes. Schools also employ volunteer tutors and afterschool programs to provide additional instruction in reading, writing and math. 

Instruction in the areas of social studies and science can also support “the basics.” Students learning about a particular part of history often read a novel related to this area. There are numerous examples. My own particular favorite is fifth graders reading Harriette Robinet’s novel “Forty Acres and Maybe a Mule” as part of the study of Reconstruction. Hands-on work in science often includes use of math. This is a natural connection because so much work in science involves measurement. Connecting “the basics” to other areas of study helps students to better understand their importance in a very practical way.

All this being said, I would hope that our emphasis on “the basics” does not mean that other areas that are part of a well-rounded education -- such as the arts, gifted education and career and technical education -- are de-emphasized. While the budget challenges we have faced and will continue to face make this more difficult, we should not lose sight of the fact that a quality education should and does go beyond the “3 Rs.” 

I’m always pleased to talk with community members about this topic or anything else concerning our schools. My direct dial phone number is 425-8916 and my email is frank.morgan@kcsdschools.net. Citizens can also contact me through the “Ask the Super” link on the homepage of the district website. I also invite folks to read my “blog” and listen to the podcast I record after each school board meeting with meeting highlights. Both of these, and a whole lot more, can be accessed at www.kershaw.k12.sc.us.

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