A Few Ideas on Education

A Broken System

Education has been a hot issue in our house for the past year, as Zari is four. She’s a bright kid who loves to learn, so I want to make sure I put her in an environment where she can thrive. The problem here, as elsewhere, is that there are good schools and bad. We are in the process of purchasing a great house, but it’s in a neighborhood with dismal reviews and ratings. As such, we have entered the school lotteries to get her into one of the magnet schools, even though I hate the way the system works.

Let me try to illustrate the problem, step-by-step:

  • Schoolopolis has 200 students entering kindergarten.
  • There are ten elementary schools, each with a kindergarten class for 20 students.
  • Of these 200 students, 50 of them have parents who are really involved in their children’s education. For various reasons, the parents of the other 150 are unable or unwilling to take the time needed.
  • Without magnet schools, we get five students with involved parents in each of our ten kindergarten classes. All of the students benefit from this involvement.
  • The school district, unhappy with the performance of the schools, decides to create two magnet schools.
  • The involved parents apply for the 40 slots in those two schools.
  • Now we have two schools with nothing but involved parents and eight schools with one or two involved parents each.
  • Seeing the writing on the wall, the involved parents whose students were left out of the magnet schools opt out of the system, choosing private school, leaving the non-magnet schools with no involved parents.

The result is that instead of having ten average schools, we now have two award-winning schools and eight failing ones in our fictional Schoolopolis. The award-winning schools get tons of credit for innovative teaching methods, when a large part of their success is because they aren’t burdened with children who come from disadvantaged backgrounds.

So, like I said yesterday, I’m not happy with the system, but I’m perfectly willing to be a hypocrite to get Zari into a good environment.

Zari’s Preschool

I was lucky to be able to care for Zari myself until she turned two. Since then, she has attended Siskin Children’s Institute. The uniqueness of Siskin comes from the school serving both children with and without disabilities. Special needs children learn better with typically developing children as role models, and typically developing children learn the importance of diversity and to appreciate the abilities of their special needs friends.

When I was in school, as was the norm, the special needs children were taught separately from the other children–to the point where, in my small town high school graduating class of 110, there were names I didn’t recognize. I am ashamed to admit that on the rare occasions I did see them, I was not kind or understanding or even remotely accepting, and some of my classmates were just plain mean. I believe that by exposing Zari to people who don’t learn as quickly or as easily as she does at a young age, she has an understanding now that I didn’t have until college.

Zari’s teachers do a great job of keeping her motivated. I’m very happy with the school skills she has learned at Siskin, and I’m sure she will be more than ready for kindergarten next year, wherever that may be. Siskin has adopted the Reggio Emilia approach. In Reggio Emilia, the idea is to create an environment that is comfortable for learning. Instead of rigidly structured classrooms with harsh fluorescent lighting,  we see warmly lit areas where children learn while playing. The teachers use the children’s interests and the environment to teach, acting more as a learning partner than an instructor. This seems to work well for all of Zari’s classmates, but for an exceptionally curious kid like Z, I can’t think of a better method.

My Elementary Education

When I was in school, I was blessed and cursed by being an exceptional student. I loved math. My first day of second grade I was excited (EXCITED!!!) to get my new math book. The moment I got it I started flipping through the pages, looking for the first thing I didn’t know. I made it all the way to the end. I knew everything. I was crushed, knowing that I was going to spend an entire year doing nothing but repeating what I already knew.

The next year was worse. My family moved from Kansas City to East Troy, Wisconsin, a town of about 2,000 people. I was the new kid, and I absolutely, positively did not fit in. My third grade teacher was horrible. I was placed behind all of my classmates in every subject. Having just come from an environment when I was “top dog,” I was embarrassed–and motivated to prove her wrong. It was a small school, so the third and fourth grades were in the same classroom. I remember having reading workbooks where we were supposed to do one half of the book, flip it over, then do the other half. I taught myself to read and write upside-down so I could do both halves at once. Partly because I really wanted to get back on top and partly because I had great difficulty making friends, I passed my classmates and had done most of the fourth grade work as well.

My fourth grade teacher was wonderful. Instead of having me redo the fourth grade work, most of the year I spent working on special projects. I still have the lenses from the slide projector I built. I read books on astronomy, architecture, aviation, and other subjects–even ones that didn’t start with A. I had a great time, I made friends, and I started to like school again.

I had the same teacher for third and fourth grade. Under a Reggio Emilia approach, this is the norm, as students stay with teachers for three years. This gives students the advantage of familiarity with their teachers and classmates, avoiding the annual acclimatization of a new setting, and the teachers know what teaching methods work and don’t work for their students. I know it worked for me, by happenstance if not by design.

My Plan, or, (Jokingly) Leave Some Children Behind

What most Americans are taught is based on their age. Counting in kindergarten, addition and subtraction in first and second grade, multiplication and division in third and fourth grade, etc. For the average student, this may work, but a special needs child may need more time while a gifted child may need much less. While it is important to teach children how to socialize with their peers, I would really like to avoid teaching children too far above or below their abilities. I’m not advocating leaving children behind in the sense of giving up on them; rather, we slow down the pace of teaching the subject or subjects in which they need extra assistance. If some children can handle a faster pace, we need to let them excel. As importantly, if a student does well with reading but poorly in math, we should accelerate his reading education while spending the extra time needed to help him in math.

Under No Child Left Behind, students are regularly tested and their teachers and schools are graded based upon the results. From what I understand of the system, the testing method is fatally flawed for one simple reason: They never set a baseline. Let’s take an example:

We have two sixth-grade classes in Schoolopolis. In the end-of-term exam, the scores are

  • Mr. Green – 92%
  • Mrs. White – 75%

Mr. Green is obviously the better teacher, right? Not so fast. On the first day of school, Mr. Green and Mrs. White gave their students the same test, where the students scored

  • Mr. Green – 89%
  • Mrs. White – 34%

Without the baseline there is no way to tell that Mrs. White turned failing students in to average students, while Mr. Green only managed to moderately improve already good students. Mrs. White and her school may lose funding, while Mr. Green may get a bonus and his school might get awards. The bottom line: Schools and teachers should be judged based on how much their students improve, not on their raw scores.

Obviously, I’m not an expert on education, and I may be off-base on what I’d like to do. I am, however, smart enough to know that I’m not an expert, and that I know people who are.

As always, I welcome your questions, comments, and even your criticisms. Thanks for reading.


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