Wednesday, February 8, 2012

What Philadelphia 5th graders should know how to do

I recently came into possession of one the Philadelphia School District Parent Teacher Brochures, which breaks down the goals that each Philadelphia School District student should be able to meet by the end of each grade level.  Since I'm homeschooling my 5th grade daughter, I was particularly interested in the goals for fifth grade. And I was shocked, shocked, to find myself more baffled than enlightened after reading through these goals.

The language arts goals are all about process, purposes, and genres, with a developmentally inappropriate assignment thrown in in the form of a research project:

•Continue to build a reading, writing and speaking vocabulary
•Read to learn new information
•Read a wide range of stories, books and magazines for enjoyment
•Understand a problem or conflict in stories or books and talk or write about an appropriate solution
•Make connections between stories and texts that they have read and the world around them
•Tell and/ or write a summary that gives the main idea of what they read and the most important details or events
•Complete a research project including a written report
•Write stories with several paragraphs
•Write poems, plays, and reports
Not a word about specific reading skills (vocabulary level, sentence complexity, making deductions and bridging inferences within the context of the text) or writing skills (grammar and punctuation, sentence construction, paragraph construction).

As for the math goals, most are vague ("compute" and "find the relationships"), easy (locating numbers on a number line; comparing numbers; sorting shapes), and emphasize verbal explanations over mathematical performance. Four out of the 13 goals are about data and probability. Here the developmentally inappropriate goal (especially given what isn't covered here) involves algebra:
• Compute and find the relationships using whole numbers, fractions, and decimals
• Locate positive and negative numbers on a number line (integers)
• Explain to you what prime numbers, factors, multiples and compositie numbers mean
• Compare numbers (equal to, greater than, and less than)
• Collect, organize, display, and analyze data in a variety of ways
• Find mean (average), median (middle number), mode (most frequent) and range (difference between largest and smallest) of data
• Predict or determine all possible combinations and outcomes, such as, "How many outfits can be created with six shirts and eight pants?"
• Calculate the chance of a simple event happening
• Use a variety of methods to solve for unknown quantities in simple one-step algebra equations (solve for x)
• Sort polygons according to their properties and angles, such as triangles, rhombi, and parallelograms
• Define and compare perimeter (distance around) and area (amount covered inside) of shapes
• Understand properties of a circle
• Explain how they solved a math problem in their own words.
Not a word about which computation skills the child should develop, what sorts of numbers, fractions, and decimals the child should be able to do computations on (perhaps only the "friendly" fractions and decimals), and what level of computational fluency the child should have. Not a word about multiplication tables, long division, repeating decimals, ratios and percents, and multi-step word problems.

Turning to science, only one substantive topic is mentioned (solar energy) and goals pertaining to it remain vague ("build an understanding;" "recognize"). Most the goals pertain to process rather than achievement, many of them involving developmentally inappropriate activities that wrongly assume that children can function as little scientists:
• Develop skills that will emphasize the five senses while doing science
• Use prior knowledge when making observations
• Make predictions and hypotheses based on observations
• Design investigations with a control and one or two variables
• Gather, organize and display data independently
• Build an understanding of how solar energy is transferred
• Recognize that the sun is the main source of energy for people and they use it in various ways
• Design and conduct experiments with variables. Students should be able to explain cause and effect
• Study the relationship in an ecosystem that shows the relationship of an organism to its environment
• Conduct hands-on investigations to discover and understand their world
• Record observations in science notebooks
It would seem that, "goals" aside, the Philadelphia Schools are avoiding any commitment to help your 5th grader increase his or her vocabulary, reading level, sentence construction skills, or computational fluency with "unfriendly" numbers; or learn any scientific content other than a few vague propositions about solar energy.


C T said...

I'm not keen on encouraging my child to use all five senses in doing science. She's been growing fungus (obtained from swabbing between her toes...gross) in a Petri dish, and I think purposeful inhalation of its spores would be quite stupid.

John said...

This list makes more sense if read as a checklist for a cargo-cultist.

I intend no sarcasm. These guidelines seem to assume that knowledge and skills are demonstrated in an external and straightforward manner (much like compliance to ritual is) - rather than the reality that you need to actually trip kids up by changing how questions/problems are worded so they can't rely on rote responses, and have to think to answer.

Then you need to understand their mistakes and where they come from to further refine their understanding.

Also, regarding "5 senses" - what sense do I use to determine voltage across a circuit? We don't have one, so we build sensors - and anyway, shouldn't they also learn how senses lie, and their brain is trying to fool them all the time with cognitive biases?

Anonymous said...

I homeschool and I find these vague expectations completely useless in determining what my child actually needs to know. I come from Ireland originally, so I have started using the Irish curriculum standards as a guide. They are much more detailed, so I have a better idea of what is needed at each grade. Here are a couple of examples from a long list for 5th grade math:

"•divide a decimal number by a whole number, without and with a calculator
explore the concept of division of decimals with concrete materials, money and measurement
extend the algorithm in conjunction with place value 75.6 divided by 4."

"•estimate and measure the area of regular and irregular 2-D shapes
measure a wide variety of regular and irregular shapes using square units of onesquare centimetre and one square metre"

An example from science is:

"•identify and explore how objects and materials may be moved
by pushing and pulling
by machines using rollers, wheels, axles, gear wheels, chains and belts
by pouring and pumping
using trapped air pressure (pneumatics)
using trapped liquid under pressure (hydraulics)
using wind energy
harnessing energy of moving water
design and make a lifting device that uses levers and gears
design and make a windmill, water wheel or wind turbine to spin a coloured disk or turn a flywheel"

Mrsh said...

Senses do lie, as John said...gee, this smells like almonds, it must BE shall I taste it to be sure? As the person sips cyanide...

Kevin said...

Although I agree that this list of goals is vague to the point of absurdity, I don't see "developmentally inappropriate" goals.

Solving simple equations of the form ___+5=7 is indeed appropriate for 5th grade: the Singapore math books start those around 1st or 2nd grade.

Similarly, there is nothing wrong with 5th graders doing a "research project". At the 5th grade level that means looking up a few facts (about a favorite animal for example) and working them into a couple of paragraphs.

Note: I've been trying for over a day to post this comment using my Wordpress id. Since blogger and blogspot blogs have been failing at that for the past month, I'm unsubscribing from all of them—it is too frustrating not to be able to comment with my chosen identity.

There's been some good stuff on this blog, but I won't be reading it any more (at least, not until I heard that blogspot and blogger have fixed their problems with OpenID and Wordpress).