I explain all this to set the stage, and provide proper perspective, on something we found that does work. This program’s success rate is marvelous on its own, but all the more astonishing in light of how difficult it is to create something that produces results with a sizeable effect. It’s an emerging curriculum for preschool and kindergarten classrooms called Tools of the Mind. It requires some training for teachers, but otherwise does not cost a penny more than a traditional curriculum. The teachers merely teach differently. What’s even more interesting than their results is why it seems to work, and what that teaches us about how young children learn.
Ashley visited pre-K and kindergarten Tools classes in two relatively affluent towns that ring Denver; I visited both types of classes in Neptune, New Jersey, which is a comparatively more-impoverished township about halfway down the Garden State Parkway between New York and Atlantic City.
Most elements of the school day are negligibly different from a traditional class. There’s recess and lunch and snack time and nap time. But a typical Tools preschool classroom looks different—as much because of what it is missing as what is there. The wall calendar is not a month-by-month grid, but a straight line of days on a long ribbon of paper. Gone is the traditional alphabet display; instead, children use a sound map, which has a monkey next to Mm and a sun next to Ss. These are ordered not from A to Z but rather in clusters, with consonants on one map and vowels on another. C, K, and Q are in one cluster, because those are similar sounds, all made with the tongue mid-mouth. Sounds made with the teeth or the lips are in other clusters.
When class begins, the teacher tells the students they will be playing fire station. The previous week, they learned all about firemen, so now, the classroom has been decorated in four different areas—in one corner is a fire station, in another a house that needs saving. The children choose what role they want to take on in the pretend scenario—pump driver, 911 operator, fireman, or family that needs to be rescued. Before the children begin to play, they each tell the teacher their choice of role.
With the teacher’s help, the children make individual “play plans.” They all draw a picture of themselves in their chosen role, then they attempt to write it out as a sentence on a blank sheet of paper to the best of their abilities. Even three-year-olds write daily. For some, the play plan is little more than lines representing each word in the sentence. Still others use their sound map to figure out the words’ initial consonants. The eldest have memorized how to write “I am going to” and then they use the sound map to figure out the rest.
Then they go play, sticking to the role designated in their plan. The resulting play continues for a full 45 minutes, with the children staying in character, self-motivated. If they get distracted or start to fuss, the teacher asks, “Is that in your play plan?” On different days of the week, children choose other roles in the scenario. During this crucial play hour, the teacher facilitates their play but does not directly teach them anything at all.
At the end, the teacher puts a CD on to play the “clean-up song.” As soon as the music begins, the kids stop playing and start cleaning up—without another word from their teacher. Later, they will do what’s called buddy reading. The children are paired up and sit facing each other; one is given a large paper drawing of lips, while the other holds a drawing of ears. The one with the lips flips through a book, telling the story he sees in the pictures. The other listens and, at the end, asks a question about the story. Then they switch roles.
They also commonly play games, like Simon Says, that require restraint. One variation is called graphic practice; the teacher puts on music, and the children draw spirals and shapes. Intermittently, the teacher pauses the music, and the children learn to stop their pens whenever the music stops.
The kindergarten program expands on the preschool structure, incorporating academics into a make-believe premise that’s based on whatever book they’re reading in class. Overall, the Tools classrooms seem a little different, but not strange in any way. To watch it in action, you would not guess its results would be so superior. In this sense, it’s the opposite kind of program from D.A.R.E.—which sounded great, but had weak results. Tools has great results, despite nothing about it having intuitive, visceral appeal.
The Tools techniques were developed during the 1990s by two scholars at Metropolitan State College of Denver, Drs. Elena Bodrova and Deborah Leong. After pilot-testing the program in a few classrooms and Head Start centers, they put it to a true test in 1997, in cooperation with Denver Public Schools. Ten kindergarten teachers were randomly assigned, to teach either Tools or the regular district curriculum. In these classrooms one-third to one-half of the children were poor Hispanic students who began the year classified as having limited English-language proficiency: they were starting kindergarten effectively a grade-level behind.
The following spring, all the children took national standardized tests. The results were jaw-dropping. The children from the Tools classes were now almost a full grade-level ahead of the national standard. In the district, only half the kindergartners score as proficient at their grade-level. Of the Tools children, 97% scored as proficient.
Reports of the program’s success began to spread within the research community. In 2001, two scholars from the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers, Dr. Ellen Frede and Amy Hornbeck, visited the Tools classrooms. New Jersey was implementing free, public preschools in the neediest zones of the state. Impressed by what they saw, Frede and Hornbeck decided to test Tools in a preschool during its first year of operations, so that Hornbeck could compare the program’s efficacy to that of a traditional program.
The researchers chose a site in Passaic, New Jersey, that served children from low-income families; 70% of the students came from homes where English is not the primary language. The new preschool, created in an old bank building in downtown Passaic, had eighteen classrooms. Seven on one floor were set aside as a Tools preschool; as a control, the other eleven would teach the district’s regular preschool plan. Both teachers and students were randomly assigned to classrooms, and the teachers were instructed not to exchange ideas about curriculum between the two programs. At the end of the first year, the Tools scores were markedly higher on seven out of eight measures, including vocabulary and IQ.
But it was the kids’ behavior ratings that really sold the school’s principal on the program. From the teachers in the regular classrooms, the principal got reports of extremely disruptive behavior almost every day—preschool students kicking a teacher, biting another student, cursing, or throwing a chair. But those kinds of reports never came from the Tools classes.
The controlled experiment was supposed to last two years, but at the end of the first year the principal insisted all the classrooms switch to Tools. She decided it was unethical to deprive half the school of a curriculum that was obviously superior.
This wasn’t the only time that Tools was a victim of its own success. Testing of the Tools program ended early in two other places as well: Elgin, Illinois, and Midland, Texas. The grant money funding the research was available to study children at-risk; after a year, the children no longer scored low enough to be deemed “at-risk,” so the grant money to continue the analysis was no longer available. Bodrova is quick to credit the work of those schools’ faculty, but added, “When it keeps happening enough times, you start to think that it may be our program that makes the difference. It’s the irony of doing interventions in the real world: being too successful to study if it’s successful.”
Word about Tools continued to spread, and once teachers actually saw the program in action they became believers. Rutgers’ Hornbeck was eventually so convinced by her own findings that she signed on to be part of the Tools team, regularly training teachers in the program. After two teachers from Neptune, New Jersey, visited the Passaic school, they were so excited that they, too, implemented Tools techniques in a new preschool they were creating in Neptune.
Sally Millaway was the principal of that Neptune school. After success with the program on the preschool level, she convinced the superintendent to try it in one class at her next post, an elementary school. When word leaked out that Millaway’s school would be instituting a Tools kindergarten, the school district began getting letters from parents who wanted their children to be allowed to switch into the Tools program.
During that first year of kindergarten, Millaway had the sense it was working. But the true test would come in the standardized achievement exams all New Jersey kindergartners would take in April. A month later, Millaway got the first set of results over the fax machine. “It was unbelievable,” she said. “When I saw the numbers, I laughed out loud. It was ridiculous, beyond our imaginings.”
The average reading scores for the school district translated into the 65th percentile on the national spectrum. The Tools kindergartners (on average) had jumped more than 20 ticks higher, to the 86th percentile. The kids who tested as gifted almost all came from the Tools classes.