Mike Schmoker on Projects

From a 2009 column in Education Week:

We’ve known for decades that large chunks of class time are spent on ill-conceived group activities, on settling in or packing up at the beginning and end of class. Moreover, there has been an alarming increase, at all grade levels and in all subjects, of what the reading expert Lucy McCormick Calkins refers to as classroom “arts and crafts.”

Recent studies confirm that this provides an especially ripe opportunity for recovering lost time. In their study, researchers Michael P. Ford and Michael F. Opitz found that in the critical early grades, about two-thirds of the typical “reading” or “language arts” period was spent on “cut, color, and paste activities.” Effective teachers eschew such activities (except, of course, in art classes, where they belong).

Many parents suspect that some of this goes on in schools, but they hope against hope that it is rare or occurs only in low-scoring or inner-city schools. Would that this were so.

I recently found these activities to be as, or more, prevalent in schools with their state’s highest academic designation. The fact is, students in most schools spend days at a time in academic classes on questionable group “projects,” on drawing and painting, making banners, castles, book jackets, collages, and mobiles. All of this is in addition to worksheets and movies.

Throughout decades of reform, we’ve never honestly confronted these actualities, or the more disturbing fact that such misguided activities supplant what experts such as the Center for Educational Policy Research director David T. Conley tell us are severely restricted in K-12 education: analytical reading, writing, and discussion in all of the disciplines. These are vital to students’ intellectual development and have been found to be the most critical factors for success in college and the modern workplace.

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