What to look for?

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In 1994, the Southern Regional Education Board, an Atlanta-based research and policy group, issued a report that criticized elementary schools for clinging to “outmoded” practices that are harmful at any grade, but particularly inappropriate in the primary grades.

For instance, making young children spend most of the schoolday at their desks is bad because they are still developing motor skills and coordination; for them, sitting too long is more tiring and stressful than remaining active.

And because the pace of development varies widely in young children, it’s unfair to rely mainly on standardized tests to judge how well they are progressing.

“The benefits of high-quality preschool programs. . . can be lost very quickly when students enter schools that are not ready to help them sustain those gains,” the report states.

The report offers these pointers for judging the quality of primary classrooms.

1. Does the curriculum integrate learning in all areas through projects, learning centers and playful activities?

2. Do teachers and children work together to develop projects and activities that build on children’s current interests?

3. Are a variety of learning materials available, including objects children can manipulate and experiment with?

4. Do children spend large amounts of time working cooperatively in small groups?

5. Do teachers view parents as partners, welcoming and encouraging participation in their children’s education?

6. Is each child’s progress assessed primarily through observation and recording of work done?

7. Is each child’s progress reported to parents in narrative form and in comparison to his or her own previous performance?

8. Are children allowed to progress at their own pace in different areas as they acquire competence in those areas?

9. Do classroom groups vary in size and composition?

10. Are special-needs children integrated into the mainstream classroom?

11. Do teachers strive to provide a sense of continuity between projects, to help smooth children’s transitions between groups and/or activities throughout the day?

12. Do teachers communicate regularly with each other about individual children’s needs?

For copies of Getting Schools Ready for Children: The Other Side of the Readiness Goal, contact the Southern Regional Education Board at 592 Tenth St. NW, Atlanta, GA, 30318. Phone (404) 875-9211.