Several years ago, the Erikson Institute for Advanced Study in Child Development began working with four schools to improve instruction and assessment in the primary grades.

Erikson “truly changed the way we teach school here,” says Harold Zimmerman, principal of Murphy Elementary in Irving Park. For one, the school scrapped basal reading textbooks and equipped classrooms with large libraries of children’s literature. Primary-grade children no longer receive letter grades; instead, teachers write an extensive narrative report on each child’s progress.

Also, 1st- and 2nd-grade students no longer take the Iowa Tests of Basic Skills—a move that reflects the belief of many early childhood experts that young children should not take standardized tests before the 3rd grade. (Since school reform began in 1989, the Board of Education has permitted schools to decide whether to administer the Iowas to 1st- and 2nd-graders; required Iowa testing begins in 3rd grade.)

With all the changes, Zimmerman says, scores on the state IGAP tests are inching up, “but they’re certainly not where we want them to be.”

Now, Erikson plans to bring two more schools into the fold, creating a network of six—Carter, McKay, Murphy, Salazar Bilingual, Von Humboldt and Woodson South—that will serve as models of quality early education.

The project is being funded with a $500,000 grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation and a $300,000 grant from The Joyce Foundation. Also, the Chicago Annenberg Challenge gave the Erikson network the go-ahead to apply for an implementation grant.

Behind the project is one of Erikson’s guiding tenets: Early childhood education doesn’t end with preschool.

From age 4 to 8, children develop abstract reasoning and other thinking skills that are critical to achievement in the later grades. “Until that time [3rd grade], they’re still learning how to learn,” says Project Director Patricia Horsch.

To help children develop these skills, primary teachers need to “use a lot more concrete materials, such as math manipulatives, and do a lot more talking with children about what they’re doing, so that children make the connection from concrete to symbolic,” she explains.

Erikson’s goal is to create a cohesive early childhood unit at each school, with “more cooperation and communication between teachers,” Horsch says.

However, Erikson won’t push teachers to create an autonomous school-within-a-school. While many teachers want to improve their teaching, few want to take on the burden of setting up a separate school, Horsch says. “That’s just a lot of work. Schools need to decide what’s best for them. It’s that reflection on practice that makes a school good.”

With the emphasis on instruction and assessment, teachers should gain “a better understanding of where kids are [academically] and what they need to get them to move ahead,” she adds.

In math, for example, children will be asked to solve word problems as early as 1st grade, and teachers will compile portfolios of children’s work. In science, students will write, in detail, what they observed during a lesson or experiment, what they learned from their observations and what new questions the experiment raised.

Teachers also will receive training on ways to use technology in the classroom. Murphy already has forged ahead on that front; each classroom now has two computers and a printer, and every teacher has had 30 hours of computer training. In one project, a 3rd-grade class labeled the different parts of a computerized fish, scanned in photos and their own drawings to create a picture of a coral reef, and then made recordings to describe the exhibit. And students now create and maintain portfolios of their work on computer disks, which they and their teacher can review throughout the year.

Erikson plans to meet weekly with faculty at each school, and to bring teachers from all six schools together four times a year. Eventually, each of the six is to hook up with two more schools, creating a network of 18 schools where Erikson students will work as interns.

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