As of 2008, there were approximately 36 million children enrolled in publicly funded elementary schools across America. Elementary education is the formal grouping of grade levels for pre-kindergarten through 5th grade. Students usually enter Pre-Kindergarten at age 4 and if they remain on track, they enter the 5th grade at age 10 or 11. This early learning period for students is critical in the establishment of early learning habits, a solid foundation of basic skills, and positive attitudes toward lifetime learning. This article addresses the history of elementary education, offers a general overview of elementary education, and explains the role and training of the elementary teacher.
Keywords Achievement Levels; Alternative Certification; Elementary School; Highly Qualified; Inclusion; Phonics; Teacher Certification; Whole Language
History of Elementary Education
Since the first settlers landed on American soil, education has played a role in American history. Colonial children either received their instruction at home or in a small community school and there is hefty documentation of Colonial settlers even attempting to school Native American children (Nance, 2007). The focus of this early instruction centered on teaching children to read and write; arithmetic was also included. Most importantly, schooling became a priority of our nation from its birth and has been a national topic ever since.
Colonial schools were characterized by strict behavioral standards for the teachers and students. For most students, the church sponsored the education of the family and strongly influenced the values, beliefs and cultural attitudes that the students learned (Woytanowitz, 1976). Students were required to learn to read, compute mathematics, and demonstrate basic problem-solving through logic and reasoning. Their instructional supplies were limited, and a library of books was a rarity. Yet, it was believed by government leaders, church leaders, and parents that young children needed to learn to read so schools were an important aspect of colonial life for elementary aged students. As settlers moved from the east coast to the west, schooling made the trip with them. Most of this schooling was conducted by a parent (generally a female) in the traveling/settling group. Schooling was limited by insufficient supplies, the need for children to hunt and farm with their parents, and the short amount of time available for studies.
The first tax-payer funded public school was located in Dedham, Massachusetts, and which launched the concept of publicly funded schools throughout the colonial states. Many factors such as war, diseases, agriculture seasons, and slavery had enormous impacts on early schools. In addition, there have been a remarkable amount of legal issues related to public education, such as the legal separation of church and state, availability to all students, educating students with disabilities, and how to educate students. The prominence of legal and governmental involvement in the operations of public schools has been one of the most dramatic influences on public schools since their inception in the early 1600's. Today, public elementary schools are very popular with at least 66% of all students attending an assigned elementary school and over 9% attending private schools. This heightens the need for a challenging curriculum, acceptable scores on national standardized tests, and exceptional teachers to offer invigorating learning opportunities.
Curriculum in Elementary Education
Since the introduction of elementary schools in America, common threads have been evident regarding what should be included in the curriculum for these early learners. Since the early colonial schools, emphasis has been placed on developing basic reading, writing, and mathematical skills at the elementary level. Additionally, elementary schools have given a vast amount of attention to the physical needs of young students. According to Kartal (2007), early attempts to address the cognitive, physical, social, and emotional development of young students are very important in the child's healthy development. Schools should provide students with self-sufficiency skills, a safe learning environment, proper nutritional support, and healthcare in order to help the elementary student perform better academically and be able to fit into a socially harmonious society (Carlisle & Hiebert, 2004).
Primary and lower elementary classes are usually self-contained, meaning that students remain in one classroom all day and receive academic instruction from a primary instructor. This means that elementary teachers must be able to adequately offer instruction in all content areas, including reading, Language Arts, math, science and social studies. Teachers are generally allowed the freedom to manage the instructional time for their classroom as long as they are in compliance with local and state mandates. Students in these grades who are eligible for special education, gifted, remedial, or other services receive these services as either a "pull out" model, or while in the regular classroom. As students enter the upper elementary grades, they are typically assigned to a 2 or 3 teacher team. This allows the teachers to specialize in a curriculum area, better addressing the more advanced content needs of these learners.
Phonics vs. Whole Language
Generally, the question for elementary educators has not been what to teach, rather how to teach. For instance, public schools initially taught students to read using phonics, a method of learning to read through sounding out letters and learning what the combination of letters sounds like. In the 1970's, reading education started gaining a vast amount of attention through the research efforts of prominent educators and university professors. The traditional method of teaching reading through phonics was displaced in some schools with an updated method that insisted on students being able to recognize words through repeated exposure. This was called the whole language approach to reading instruction. These "reading wars" have continued throughout the history of teaching reading to elementary students since the 1970's. Emphasis is now being placed on spelling and sentence structure due to the demands of standardized testing. Educational experts that focus on standardized test scores consistently proclaim the importance of age-appropriate level reading skills for all students. It is suggested that students be able to read or master basic decoding skills by the time they complete kindergarten, so that they can improve their comprehension skills throughout their elementary years.
Curriculum changes have occurred in other academic subjects. Math has flip-flopped from traditional arithmetic to "new math" which relies on the development of problem-solving skills and concept application to resolve mathematical problems. Some educators strongly support the idea that elementary students should learn how to "process" problems, avoiding rote memorization, while others teach traditional facts, such as multiplication tables and long division. One great influence in math instruction has been computer-based instruction. Many computer programs are used to reinforce learned skills, others assess the students' present level of performance and then offer instruction from that point, and others serve as test readiness programs, placing emphasis on math concepts that will included in assessment.
A study comparing new primary mathematics curriculum to traditional methodologies found that the perception of teachers was that the newer curriculum was more effective than traditional methods. But the evaluation of student performance in this study did not support this perception (Gomleksiz, 2007). This study simply added to the controversy over which instructional methodologies are more effective as related to student achievement.
With recent importance placed on math performance on standardized tests, math instruction is reverting to ensuring that students meet the basic skills as indicated on the mathematical standards for their grade level. This means that teachers are generally combining the more recent methodologies with traditional ones in order to find the strategy that best helps students master math standards.
Since the 1960's there has been constant issues related to art, music, and physical education instruction at the primary and elementary levels. Many argue that funding should not be spent on activities other than academic areas, such as reading, social studies, science and math. Others argue that instruction in fine arts and physical education are vital supplements to academic subjects and help students better master academic areas. The amount of physical education...
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