Big questions get long-winded answers

A college friend of mine is sending her kids to public school for the first time - previously they either attended prestigious private schools or were home schooled. This is her question:

How do you feel about the argument that children don't need to be standardized, but rather nurtured in the best environment to bring out their individual strengths and then as they mature they may interact with the "real" world in a more authentic and empowered way? There are lots of articles coming out now about how single sex education is better for girls/women in every area of life b/c it allows them to be more creative and define leadership and intelligence in new ways...I feel the greatest WEAKNESS of our public education is the standardization...which includes treating every child and family as a cog in the wheel...if someone is just a number and has no real say over what they can think or do, why should they care? Maybe our public system needs to get radically creative and breakout into "wilderness" therapies and "vocational" schools in addition to the more academic lines for those inclined...why do we have to force children to be the same? I think it's making everyone nuts...many kids are coming into schools as a primary care-giving "facility" where they need meals, attention, guidance...I don't believe institutions can or should do that...but the teachers and administrators could if given the resources (time and space) help those kids find their own unique strengths and it is now, it's "fit in or die."

Elle is asking several questions at once.

Standardization vs. nurturing environment:
I believe that the best teachers can teach the planned curriculum, and do it in a nurturing environment. By nurturing, I don't mean hand-holding and kumbaya-singing. I mean teachers who are mentors. I want teachers who show that they care through connecting with children on an academic and personal level. (I'm speaking about Middle School specifically here - I expect warmth in a K-4 or even 5 classroom). There have to be some minimum standards, otherwise teachers can go off into a six-month long tangent or they could just not teach. (C had a science teacher who was so involved in a project that she didn't teach the curriculum in the classroom. In order to pass, C had to rote memorize the information. Many others didn't and failed tests.) On the other hand, "teaching to the test" is a nightmare - it does impede creativity and once the NCLB testing has taken place, sometimes it seems like the school year is over, with six weeks left.

It's been my experience that how teachers treat students varies WIDELY. We've had teachers that have made huge and very clear differences, especially to my son who struggles. Other teachers barely knew the basics about him after an entire school year, and his lack of improvement showed. Even when two experienced teachers flagged him for needing help, we got a lot of flack from the school. One supervisor finally insisted he get help, and in 5th grade he finally did. Since then, he's flourished. He starts Middle School this fall and I'm concerned about how will he do now that he's entering a huge school expecting a lot of independence. I actually requested (or insisted on) one of C's teachers. She's exactly what you are talking about: nurturing but challenging.

In K-6 C was very lucky in the crap-shoot known as placement. One teacher bored her, other than that she never had a "bad teacher" until sixth grade.

Single sex education:
I'm a HUGE proponent of this for girls, BUT kids - especially by the time they hit middle school - deserve a say in this. Even if it were available here (I think the closest all girls middle school is more than 30 minutes away), I don't know how I feel about it for boys, as I haven't thought about it much. One caveat about single-sex education is, that while girls come out of it BETTER prepared to deal with "a man's world" and can more easily identify sexism when they experience it, I came out of it (I attended a women's college with Elle) feeling like I didn't know how to deal with men. To this day I feel most comfortable with women, even though I do have male friends. I wish, in a way, that more men were teachers. There are too few male role models in the schools, outside of administration or gym/art classes. This is most true in K-4 classes.

Treating the family as a cog in the wheel:
I think this depends on the teacher. It's a lottery. Sometimes you win, sometimes you don't. I will say this: two years ago a friend of mine died. Her daughter was in the 7th grade. I was thoroughly impressed at the compassion and lengths the teachers/counselors and community went to help the girl get through this. Several teachers showed up at both the wake and the funeral. They worked with her to keep her academics up and her focus on school.

Another example is when N entered 6th grade he was on the same team that C had been on two years early. C and N are very different people. C is extremely well organized. N is not. At any rate - I e-mailed the team (since there are so many kids in the district, they get grouped into teams, that way the core teachers can work together with the various academic needs) to let them know how different the kids are. They never compared them - and N really thrived last year. I felt like he was in an environment that really met his needs and worked with him. In fact, I think he had a better rapport with his teachers than C did. They weren't all "warm and fuzzy" (some were) but they were engaged with him, followed up as unnecessary and challenged him. The one teacher who I didn't feel "cared" much or contributed much to his success wasn't very good with C either, so it says more about the teacher than the student. At this school, I definitely did NOT feel like a cog in the wheel.

Some of the cog-wheel dynamic comes down to the family as much as the school. Are families engaged in their child's education? Are they in contact (as needed) with teachers? Are they asking kids the right questions: what are you reading in school, how are the teachers, why did you get X-Y-Z grade (sometimes the kids don't study, sometimes they are careless mistakes)? Are they asking about how things are socially? But most of all, engaged parents know when their kids are learning and what they are learning and when they need help. And they aren't afraid to ask for it. My daughter doesn't want me contacting her teachers directly, but then the onus is on HER. If she isn't willing to get help, then I'd step in, but so far she is afraid that Mom will call (totally uncool) so she does it herself.

While I'm all about trying new things, like "wilderness therapies" (I'm not sure that I know what that is) I have been to enough budgetary meetings to know that most districts simply don't have the funding for this sort of thing. In our district, payroll and benefits make up about 75%  percent of the budget and everything else is very tight. We have lots of needs. More teachers would lessen the classroom burden, but that is for another discussion.

Also, I'm now very skeptical to alternative teaching methods because our school district had YEARS of "I'm ok, you're ok" no standards in Language Arts and a Romper Room math program, and you see the results in our standardized test scores. Our kids can't spell even though parents have been bitching about the Language Arts program for years. In an age where kids communicate through texting acronyms spelling is more important than ever because kids don't know when what they write is wrong. (No pun intended). When they write college application essays, colleges see if they have had proper training. Perhaps my kids won't be able to write quite as creatively (I disagree) since I may be limiting their exposure by attending a "regular school" but I don't want colleges to dismiss them entirely because they can't put a noun and a verb together with a three-syllable word and call it a complete thought. In terms of vocational training, here in Bridgewater, they have opportunities. But even then, they need to have standards of some sort. If you learn a craft, you need basic math and business skills so you don't go broke. C can sew and cook after two years in Middle School Home Ec (they don't call it that anymore). These are actually very useful skills.

Yes, there are a lot of kids who need "primary care" (as you call it) but as a society we have a right to free public education, and even in affluent communities, this is where those needs get flagged. How many kids are coming from neglectful or abusive homes that are only identified once a teacher has noticed something unusual? And if kids haven't eaten, they will be more disruptive in the classroom. The school breakfast/lunch programs cost relatively little and provide the minimum of support. Our kids who have "plenty of everything" work better with children when they are not hungry in school. I would much rather have a program that meets basic needs for kids who need it, than experimental programs to expand their horizons. Many kids who need guidance come from affluent families - and these services are open for all students. Don't believe me? If your kids get a "bad guidance counselor" you will see the difference and realize that your kids, too, need a certain amount of guidance.

I don't think it's fit in or die. I think that it comes down to individual teachers. Some are excellent at their jobs. Some aren't. Some can do a great job taking the curriculum and teaching it to students of varying levels, giving more challenge to some kids and extra help to others. But many teachers don't do this. Some administrators run excellent schools. Others don't. It's part luck, part geography, part society. Are parents keeping tabs on their district and then speaking out when something is off? I know I have been complaining about the lack of direct language arts teaching - primarily spelling - for more than five years. I am not the only one. And FINALLY they are putting in a pilot program. Others may rationalize "everything is written on computers with spell check so why is spelling such a big deal?" Spelling has to be taught in a direct way. Kids simply have to memorize some things in school. Spelling and basic math facts are two of those things. There may be other ways - out of the box ways - but I'm a bit of a (gasp!) conservative in this: rote memorization needs to be part of the process. How did you learn foreign languages? Memorization of spelling and grammar rules - AND using it authentically. The same goes for writing: good writing comes from rote memorization, PLUS reading well-written texts.

Well, "Elle" - this is the long-winded answer I was thinking of writing last night. It is more of a train of thought response than what I had wanted to give you.

There are definite pros and cons with a public education. As I said, I grapple with our decision often - but the truth is that the only way we can afford for me to be at home is if the kids are in public school. Also, we moved to this community based on the fact that we want our children to be in a public school. (We would have bought a much cheaper home elsewhere if we were going to go the private school route). I wouldn't consider home schooling, especially once they hit this age, which would allow for endless experimental educational methods. The truth is that I don't have the capacity to home school, nor the desire. That doesn't mean I don't care about my kids' education. In my case, I send the kids to public schools because I care. If I had unlimited funds, I would take a second look at private schools in the area (and at times, after BOE meetings or a meeting with certain teachers I have), but there is one thing they get in public schools: a chance to meet kids of varying backgrounds and deal with "authority" figures that they don't like. What better preparation for the real world can I give them?


Anonymous said…
Coming from a student who recently went through the public school system in NJ who has lots of friends in the private schools, public is better in the long run. Many private schools in NJ are known the produce students far below the average public school. What I mean is that many of these kids will have straight A's from their "nurturing" teachers, but when they have to take the SATs and ACTs, their scores tend to be well below what average to above average colleges are looking for.

And as far as vocational/magnet/charter schools go, I think they are one of the best things to happen in NJ education. I graduated from High Technology High School (one of the top ten schools in the nation). This education was a public one that far exceeded any private education my friends and family have received.
Kelly Graham said…
I've always had opinions about education, even before I became an unintentional parent.

My middle sister was dyslexic -- my parents put her in private schools. I was mostly homeschooled until I was about 10. I was too kinesthetic a learner, and too much of a self-motivated learner. I was way ahead of the kids in my age group and when placed in classes with them, forced to sit down for hours, I tended to be disruptive because I was bored. Most of my junior high years were spent doing independent study in libraries or the back of class rooms, because our standardized public education system groups children by age rather than ability. Which is a shame. Children need the company of their peers --- intellectually as well as developmentally.

For the most part, I think that any form of mass-education is a lowest-common-denominator end-game. The object is to achieve a certain minimum level of proficiency for all students, rather than an a maximized level. If a child is in 3rd grade and reading at a 9th grade level, oh well, great--no precious resources need to be used on that child. But if s/he is a 9th grader reading at a 3rd grade level, we've probably put a fair amount of money into remedial education. Worst of all, our educational approach does not foster a love of learning in children, and without that, education and achievement will always be sub-optimal.

The problem with a standardized education approach like we have is that there are several learning styles and the educational system only caters to two of them -- so those children who aren't visual/verbal learners are helped to flail a little less in the system, rather than having their educational experience tailored to their learning styles.

Now, living in the SF Bay / Silicon Valley Area, I've got hope for education, because so many of the techies here are now parents, and they are looking at ways to apply technology to education in order to customize and optimize the learning experience for each child in an economical fashion.

But bottom-line, I think it is up to the parents to stay involved with their children's education -- to inspire a love of learning new things in them at an early age, and then to make sure that their educational environment provides them the challenges and opportunities they need, in and out of the classroom.

Anonymous said…
As a public school educator, I think you hit the nail on the head with winning or losing the teacher "lottery" but especially about parental involvement.

The level of parental involvment is the key to ensuring that your children are getting the proper treatment in academics and relationships. This is how one gets a good education from a public school or from any school for that matter.

If you expect the school to do your job as a parent by feeding, clothing, imparting character & responsibility lessons as well as academic lessons and do nothing on your end at home, you will not have a child with a complete education no matter he/she attends school.
Anonymous said…
As a parent, I don't expect the teacher to feed,cloth, impart character or responsibility upon my child. I DO expect them to treat my child with a measure of the respect they wish to garner. Screaming at the children, purposely embarrassing them in the class room, barring them from participating in an event out of because they can, all these things piss. me. off. This year, gloves are off and it's on. I will be watching.

If you don't like teaching children, maybe it's time to find another job. My girls have had excellent teachers, but the truth is, since they hit Intermediate and Middle School, it's a real us/them mentality. It's a crying shame that so many teachers in these schools could use to take an "anti bullying" course.

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