Wednesday, December 10, 2008

If It's Good Enough For You, Is It Good Enough For Me?

When President-Elect Obama announced he was sending his children to Sidewll, the media carried the story for its requisite two-days, then promptly moved on to more pressing economic matters.

As a former teacher, a university professor who teaches teachers, a vocal critic of standardized schooling, and a future parent (June 26th-ish), I paid more attention to this story than most.

I had a number of questions.

What type of schooling does the president and his wife want for his children? Is that type of schooling good for all children? Would it be good for mine?

When I visited Sidwell’s website, and I compared that school and its curriculum to the public schooling available to 89% of American children, I found a serious disconnect.

Sidwell is nothing like the schools my child will likely to attend, especially not their K-4 classrooms.
Lower School welcomes children into an enriching, warm, and supportive environment. Here they come to feel at home in the world of school and in the role of student. The faculty works to instill a feeling of self-worth and self-confidence in each child while also requiring that he or she recognize the needs of others. The atmosphere is relaxed and informal with a balance between freedom and discipline.
Standardized education renders the above untenable. The curriculum has been gutted. Teachers are leaving schools and citing testing as the reason. Many are in a panic about the future of their jobs.

I say this based on comments left on the online petition as well as my own research into K-4 schools in my neighborhood.

From the petition
33954. Lisa Lynn Meunier I educate pre-service teachers and have pulled my own children out of the public school system. We will continue to lose outstanding educators to NCLB. A gorilla can teach to the test from a basal reader. Get multi-million dollar publishing companies out of public education. 47401

33592. Brooke Ahrens I have left teaching in the public schools because the mess that has been created by this legislation. After teaching in a private school, I have concluded that I will not send my own children to public school, largely because of NCLB. It makes me sick. I was a product of the public school system. 95125

33465. Misty McCauley As an educator, I am very frightened by the way that education is actually failing our children.

33460. Charlotte Mullins As an educator for 35 years I feel we undoing all the good things that have been done for sp. ed. students for years. It takes years of hard work to get students to the point they have self-worth and confidence in themselves. NCLB only reinforces negativity. 87114

33225. Maribeth Crutchfield I retired from teaching because of NCLB. The lack of understanding the process of teaching and learning was forcing me to attempt to educate children in a way which, after 30 years of teaching, I knew was just wrong. 37209

33177. Letitia Smedley It is killing us! 37214

33158. Beverly Singleton I have personally seen teachers stop teaching science and Social Studies just so they can teach double sessions of math and reading because the school must pass in those subjects to make AYP. I don't feel that one student should be counted more than once depending on what subcategories they may fall within. While we should have high expectations for all students, we must realize that not all students are able to meet the same levels of learning. Have you ever watched a fifth grade student that is on a second grade level of learning due to a learning disability take a standardized test on a fifth grade level? Trust me it is very frustrating, not only for the student, but for educators as well. I would like to give the legislators a test on something such as rocket science or advanced medicine and see if they could make the grade. Or perhaps we could give them a test in a foreign language and expect them to pass. This is the same as expecting ESL or special ed students to pass a test that is far above them 89701

There are literally thousands of comments such as these on the petition. Many of them tell the same story: NCLB crushes creativity, innovation, and freedom. Self worth and self confidence are not concepts of fundamental importance in most public school classrooms.

I want to compare Sidwell's K-4 program with what's going on in K-4 clasrooms across the country. The same case could be made for middle and high school, and perhaps, if I have the passion and the time, I'll explore those later.

In the Lower School:
[Sidwell’s] program is geared to the mastery of basic language arts and mathematical skills and encourages individual creative expression. Teachers use a thematic approach to learning, which gives students an understanding of the relationship between disciplines. Scientific and artistic exploration as well as physical activity are important parts of the curriculum.
NCLB’s effects on K-8 public schools in my neighborhood. (We surveyed 1200 teachers and received nearly 500 responses. Note this was the entire population and not a sample.)

Language arts: replaced by “reading” and in classrooms using DIBELS "reading" has been replaced by frantic chanting

Mathematical skills: static

Creative expression: a thing of the past

Relationships between disciplines: ignored

Exploration: over

Recess and P.E.: disappearing

I want my child, and all the children my child will grow and develop with, to use language arts and mathematical skills creatively, exploring the relationships between themselves, their worlds, and our future.

What does the past tell us about solving today’s problems? How can we use math and science to create a better world? What if language arts meant exploring and understanding who we are and where we are going?

At Sidewell:
The computer is used to enhance the teaching of many subjects. Students often visit the wider community on field trips and for service projects.
If my child sat in one of the dozens of public schools surrounding my home, she/he would not be using computers creatively, if at all, and he/she would unfortunately not be visiting the wider community on field trips or for service projects.

I would love for my child to be able to use math, science, and the language arts to enhance life for the wider community. At the 2nd grade level, students may be reading stories with senior citizens in nursing homes, and at the high school level, students may be designing, constructing, and maintaining solar panels for rooftops.

Importantly, I want all children similarly engaged so they become adults who are similarly engaged. It makes no sense for a very small segment of the population to have a robust education if the other 90% receives mediocre educatin at best. How does that help a community or a nation or a planet for that matter?

In the Lower School:
All classes, with the exception of one third grade and one fourth grade, have team teachers. Individual class sizes range from one teacher for every ten students in the lower grades to one teacher for every 16 students in some fourth grade classes.
Team teaching does not go on in the schools I visit. In 3 years I have not seen team teaching occur in the 30 schools I have visited. As subjects are isolated to making testing efficient, opportunities for collaboration between disciplines do not occur. To be fair, I am not sure that very much team teaching went on before NCLB. I certainly don't recall it from my school experience.

In the Lower School
Third and fourth graders have from one-half to one hour of homework each school day. Progress evaluations for all Lower School students are in the form of parent-teacher conferences and checklists and narrative reports, which are sent to parents in October and June.
No standardized test scores. No grades...(How will the Obama's know their children aren't being left behind!!??)...Rather there are conferences, checklists, and narrative reports.

I do not want my child reduced to a number. I want her teacher to tell me how he is growing and developing. Where are his strengths and weaknesses? What does she love to do and do best? How can we help him with both?

This amazing curriculum goes on:
The language arts program emphasizes reading, writing, and speaking skills and the use of these skills to understand and appreciate many forms of literary expression. Students explore the origins and meanings of words, experiment with different kinds of creative writing, and undertake simple research projects.

The math curriculum focuses on the structure of the number system, problem solving, spatial relationships, and the applicability of math to students' daily lives.
Both computation skills and conceptual understanding are stressed. Students use manipulative and concrete materials to gather information, make comparisons, and draw conclusions as appropriate for their ages.

The social studies program provides opportunities for students to learn about both historical and contemporary times. Students focus on individuals, families, and communities; the environment and ecology; cities, states, and countries; cultural heritages; historical periods; and ancient civilizations. Both the uniqueness of individuals and the richness and diversity of cultures are emphasized.

The science program is experiential and small group based. Students from prekindergarten through fourth grade meet once a week in the lab to conduct experiments, explore, and investigate concepts in the environmental and physical sciences. Children build models, play games and gain understanding through "hands on" work.

Specific topics covered vary by grade level and are often tied to classroom work and themes in Social Studies and Math. Sidwell students dabble in chemistry, electronics, astronomy, biology, geology, human anatomy, simple machines and much more.
We are not talking about math in our students lives.

Social Studies is disappearing from our nation’s classrooms.

Science has been reduced to memorizing facts rather than used as a tool to investigate our world.

K-4 students are not meeting weekly to conduct experiments, explore or investigate concepts.

None of the K-4 students in my neighborhood are dabbling in chemistry, electronics, astronomy, biology, geology, human anatomy, or simple machines.


If we could have schools that served the mind, body, and spirit (i'm open to debate on what all 3 of these mean) for all children, why not do it?

In fact, there are people in this country who believe we could have similar schools, schools that focus on the individual and the world he/she inhabits at no increased cost. You might be shocked to find out that 2 individuals under consideration for Secretary of Education, Linda-Darling Hammond and Doug Christensen, have worked to create schools where such teaching and learning can occur without outsourcing our classrooms to test companies or for-proffit schools.

Unfortunately, these two individuals don't have a media apparatus lobbying for them as do Michelle Rhee or Joel Klein, individuals who want to increase NCLB's size and scope. At Newsweak, Pat Wingert argues that these two names and a host of other Washington Educational Insiders as innovators. The entire first paragraph is worth reading (but not quoting), as anyone familiar with think tanks and policy groups knows there is nothing innovative about any of these names. These are people who have been feeding Americans the same nonsense for nearly a decade.

Genuine innovation, risk taking, and outside of the box thinking will not come from "back to basics" schooling, it will come from supporting teachers and students as they make sense of a complex and changing reality. Yes they need English, math, science, and history to do so, but they also need the arts, social sciences, and engagement with their communities to become engaged doers rather than passive recepticals, the ultimate product of a standardized education.

Here is what I don't understand: Rhee and Klein oppose "Sidwell schooling" for American children, favoring a rigid, unflexible, standardized education for all...Does this mean that these two individuals disagree with how President-elect Obama schools his children? Conversely, if standardized schools are the be-all-end-all for raising intelligent, engaged adults, why is Obama ignoring Rhee and Klein and sending his children to a school such as Sidwell?

Is he off his rocker? Is Michelle?

As a teacher, a teacher teacher, and a future parent, I want my child to love what she does, who she does it with, and how she is doing it, not resent education in general. In our public schools today, thanks to NCLB and a regimented, rigid mindset that has been with us for decades, there is a great deal of resentment, from teachers to parents, to the most important participants: students.

Obama has the power to change this. Appoint Darling-Hammond or Christensen to Secretary of Education, replace NCLB with community created responsibility models, and properly fund our public schools.

I can't afford the commute from Huntsville to D.C. to send my children to Sidwell.


Unknown said...

Very poignant points. The problems I am witnessing in the world seem to me to stem from a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of education. We are too busy, “filling buckets” and not devoting enough time to “lighting fires.” We accept a fragmented knowledge, allowing people to gravitate to either “the sciences” or the “arts” at the exclusion of the other. While not spending the time to show how it is all interconnected . . . how we are all interconnected. Education is truly about instilling the critical thinking, work ethic and associated fundamental tools required to learn and do “anything.” But more than that, it is planting the seeds of judgment, values, wisdom required to do the “right thing.” I suspect that NCLB’s days are numbered. In its absence, there will be a little bit of a vacuum. I deeply hope that vacuum will be filled with a little more of Sidwell. Keep up the excellent fight.

Anonymous said...

I wonder if anyone has a list of all the various politicians and lobbyists and what schools their children attend...

Unknown said...

we can only hope that NCLB's days are numbered. As an educator, I agree that NCLB doesa none of our students any good. We are forced to teach wide instead of deep. We are given time tables in which to introduce massive amounts of information with very little time to ensure comprehension. It is very sad and frustrating for us all, educators and students alike. It is incredibly painful to watch a child who is academically 2 to 3 grade levels below where he/she should be fumble through the state tests. Something has to change and fast. NCLB does nothing but promote failure.

Nikki R. Callahan
What Do They See in Me, that I Don't See in Myself?

Anonymous said...

It seems to me there are many parents that are either oblivious to what goes on in the classroom or have some conception of NCLB but may be so overwhelmed with the million other things on their daily list they do not feel they have to time to look deeper or get involved. Regretfully I only bring up the issue of NCLB when it is a hot topic in the media or a new stat is released. But honestly with so much competing in the media I don't see how this will get the type of exposure it needs. So grass roosts may be the way to go. What ideas do any of you have or successful experiences do you have in conveying the reality of NCLB to the general public and yes even the mainstream media?