Teaching children how to learn. Overemphasis on basic skills neglects most important skill of all, says this Alabama school superintendent

She's a coal miner's daughter from west Alabama who vowed she'd never be a schoolteacher. But today, as superintendent of the public schools here in Selma, Martha Barton is making some widely applauded changes in a system that had lost much of its luster. She explains her initial resistance to the educator role: ``When I was growing up, girls were encouraged to be either schoolteachers or secretaries, and I didn't want to be pigeonholed.''

But she changed her mind. ``My goal was to help young people. I'd decided church youth work was the perfect career choice. Then one day it hit me. . . . There are more kids outside the church than in it. That's when I accepted a teaching job, and I haven't looked back.''

Looking back is not Martha Barton's style. She is more accustomed to setting precedents than following them. She came to Selma in 1983 as Alabama's first appointed female superintendent of schools. She came with her eyes wide open: She knew of the town's depressed economy. Many of its residents are on welfare. She knew that most of the affluent whites had abandoned the public schools, and that the 6,000-pupil system was in the grip of a basic-skills ``test mania'' that was sweeping the United States -- and especially Alabama. She was convinced that Selma offered an ideal proving ground for the instructional leadership she felt could improve public education in Selma and elsewhere.

During the past three years, Dr. Barton has been the force behind sweeping changes in Selma's schools -- mainly in the area of classroom instruction. She doesn't mince words defending those changes. ``In recent years there's been an overemphasis on basic skills, and it's been disastrous for young children,'' she says. ``The excessive drill and practice on isolated skills left many of them floundering. In the name of basic skills, schools neglected to teach the most important skill of all -- thinking.'' She looks out at the room filled with eager kindergarten children, scurrying to their work centers. ``Primary children, especially from disadvantaged homes, must learn how to learn. That's the fundamental purpose of early childhood education.''

In Barton's opinion, this purpose has been thwarted in recent years by an obsession with accountability that has led to a misguided reliance on testing. ``In Alabama, our children are being tested as early as kindergarten for comparison purposes. This has panicked many educators. In order to measure up to some mythical acceptable standard, teachers and principals have been force-feeding facts to young children. Very often this method backfires. We're seeing upper elementary children who [can pronounce] words but can't comprehend what they read, who don't understand basic math facts. Rote teaching can lead to learning disabilities. I've seen some of its victims.''

Barton's dedication to the teaching of thinking skills has led to the introduction of innovative instructional methods into Selma classrooms. There was the initial, but expected, resistance from some, but this is crumbling in the face of an enthusiastic response from children and most parents.

Mallory and Martha Reeves, for example, recently transferred their three children from private schools back into the Selma system. ``Our children had been in private schools all their lives,'' recalls Mrs. Reeves, ``and I went to see Dr. Barton when we were considering the change. I was interested in what the public schools could offer in the way of college preparatory classes. She talked to me about this, but I saw immediately that she considered every child in the system -- not just those who will go to college. Dr. Barton wants to help all Selma children achieve their potential.''

Reeves goes on to say that the public schools have helped her children. ``They are on their own now, where they can't phone home every few minutes. Nobody coddles them. I've watched them develop a sense of responsibility in the Selma public schools.''

One radical change has been the systemwide adoption of ``Math-Their-Way,'' a method developed by a Californian named Mary Baratta-Lorton for use with inner-city children. The method helps primary children learn basic math concepts through manipulative activities that teach patterns and estimating. It is being used by individual teachers in all 50 states and the Canadian provinces, but Selma's is the first systemwide adoption.

``We've been impressed with the interest it sparked at home with our eight-year-old,'' says parent Joan Byrum of the new approach to math. ``He's always ready to measure,'' she says with a laugh. ``He started off last year learning quantities and how to follow recipes. Now he's fascinated with cooking, and I consider this a direct result of Math-Their-Way. He says he's going to be a chef when he grows up.''

Reading drill and practice have been replaced by a language arts program that includes reading, writing, speaking, and listening. Language experience activities are common, with children being read to daily by a teacher, volunteer, or another child. Children engage in reading for pleasure each day and write almost daily.

Edie Morthland Jones, a parent, a school board member, and a former educator herself, praises Barton for a willingness ``to look at new approaches. . . . She's secure enough to look at a situation from every angle and then make impartial decisions.''

Primary children aren't the only Selma students mastering thinking skills. Middle school youngsters work thrice weekly with a program designed to help adolescents develop the flexibility needed for effective learning. Sixth-, seventh-, and eighth-grade pupils are encouraged to see relationships and make comparative judgments. For many activities there is no single ``right'' or ``wrong'' answer; when students justify their conclusions by examination of evidence, they develop confidence in their thinking skills.

Barton's influence has extended beyond the classrooms in her own system and into the offices of other Alabama superintendents. Several have become active in the School Executive Work Conference, which provides participants opportunity for professional development. Barton, one of the founders of the conference, solicits leaders who will focus on instruction, since it's her belief that superintendents must provide instructional leadership if school systems are to make meaningful changes.

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