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“There ain’t no right way to do wrong.”

November 22, 2010

Note: This is the first part of a two-part post. The second part is here.

While watching and listening to the November 8th meeting of the DPS school board, I jotted a little note, accompanied by a sketch.

By this point, a group of women were sharing their concerns about the possible effects of transportation cuts on students who attend Gifted and Talented programs at distant magnet schools. One was mentioning how without that access, these students would “stagnate” in a traditional classroom, or in their neighborhood schools.

I paused to think about Race to Nowhere and reflect on the implications of the anxiety-inducing, high-pressure, achieve-at-all-costs mindset gripping so many American schools and communities. I then came back to where I was, in what was at times a very intense school board meeting, largely focused on the fate of children in historically low-performing schools.

Prior to those women, we heard many different views on how to address Denver’s achievement problems. We heard from advocates for KIPP’s expansion into the Far Northeast, who praised the uber-driven culture and extra hours that boost KIPPsters’ performance on standardized tests. We heard from the principal and some prospective parents at University Prep, where they believe that “College starts in Kindergarten.” (Apparently, we’ve decided that the path to equality in America is to make every student as stressed out as possible.) We also heard strong voices of opposition to the District’s plans, and saw alternative plans to transform certain schools (including one I helped present). As the Post remarked the next morning, the crowd was mixed, but it generally tilted in favor of those of us who agree that the DPS plan for the Far Northeast–and the process by which it was developed– is deeply flawed.

Things move quickly in the world of politics and school reform, and I absolutely understand–and feel– the sense of urgency that surrounds these issues. But while we continue to fight these very important battles over how to improve student outcomes, and who will have a say in determining our path towards that goal, I worry that as a society, we’re racing right past a much bigger issue.

Homeschoolers and democratic free schoolers notwithstanding, on the whole, we’re still dealing with a system that is designed to sort people into their “proper” roles in an unjust society. (Some people will phrase that as “roles in an Industrial Age economy.” Ok…as long as you remember which kinds of people were supposed to work the line, and which kinds were supposed to be management. Now that we’ve switched from the rhetoric of economic efficiency to the rhetoric of equal opportunity when we describe the same system, do you notice any striking parallels regarding whose schools are now “failing” and whose schools aren’t?)

We’re tweaking, instead of dismantling, an educational model that inevitably generates failure, by insisting that all children fit into a narrow conception of academic success and a similarly narrow (and ever-shrinking) timetable in which to achieve it. We use flawed metrics to rank and compare children and schools to one another, and then apply ever more pressure to improve the “losers”, as though it’s possible to make everyone a winner in a zero-sum game.

And while I and others regularly discuss this as the fundamental problem, it seems that virtually no one is willing to get off the reform treadmill long enough to think through the ramifications of that, and what it will take to turn things around for good. (Indeed, taking time to think about anything before proceeding is enough to get the Reformies to start crying “appeasement” and accuse you of not caring about children. Best to repeat the same Data over and over, and use it to justify whatever splashy change you like. Hey, even a terrible plan is better than *gasp!* doing nothing, right? ‘Cause those are clearly our only choices, right?)

It’s difficult, and certainly unpopular, but at some point we’re going to have to stop and confront the fact that this can’t continue. As one Montbello resident  said to the school board, “there ain’t no right way to do wrong.” The system (especially as enshrined by NCLB and RTTT) is fundamentally wrong; no amount of intervention, or turnaround strategies, or firing teachers, or whatever is going to change that.

Read the signs: While the University Prep types are focusing on college in kindergarten, wealthier parents are setting their kids up for even more “elite” programs using test-prep coaches starting at age three. Others are holding their kids back a year before kindergarten, so that they can have an advantage over their peers*. We talk a lot about early intervention and other strategies to close the achievement gap, but the kids currently winning this race are still accelerating. In our attempts to keep up with each other and the rest of the world, we’re teaching certain elements of the curriculum earlier and earlier in children’s lives, and we’re running out of places to move them. Unless we plan on developing some kind of overly-academic preschool for fetuses still in utero, we’re going to have to figure out how to do things differently. Our need to do this becomes ever more urgent now that we are beginning to see that, as the first generation of over-tested, over-coached kids grows into adulthood, even the kids who won this race to nowhere are struggling to develop crucial cognitive, social, and emotional skills they’ll need for healthy and productive lives.

So how do we go about changing this?

*ETA: Language check: I don’t mean to suggest here that all parents are trying to give their kids an unfair advantage over others by keeping them back a year. I believe that it’s a shame that kindergarten has become so difficult, and developmentally inappropriate, that holding them back a year or so is becoming the thing to do in order to prevent them from “failing.” To me, this is more a reflection on the sorry state of the school systems into which kindergartens feed, than it is of the parents who make the tough choice to hold their children back. Thanks, Caroline, for keeping me on my toes, language-wise!

12 Comments leave one →
  1. CarolineSF permalink
    November 22, 2010 6:42 pm

    I am a huge fan of yours, Sabrina, but I have a serious quibble with one sentence:

    “Others [parents] are holding their kids back a year before kindergarten, so that they can have an advantage over their peers.”

    We are a family who held our kid (now 20 years old) back a year before kindergarten. I know others who have done that. In every case, including ours, the parents suffered major anguish about the child’s maturity and development issues and the concerns that led us to decide that our kids couldn’t yet function successfully in a regular school classroom.

    Our son, an Oct. 30 birthday, would have been 4 1/2, and there were a number of issues that we felt would have been hard on his teacher, hard on his classmates and hard on own his emotional safety if we had marched him into kindergarten that year because the calendar said so.

    The notion that kindergarten was a competition in which he would need an “advantage” over his classmates never crossed our mind — and it never felt that way when he DID start kindergarten, either. I guess there are some parents who think that way, but I would imagine that they’re all enrolling their kids in Snooty Acres Private Academy or at the very least moving to the most exclusive and glittering suburb they can find. We’re an urban public school family, and we simply weren’t thinking in terms of a rat race our children would have to “win.”

    In the end our child did well in school in his quirky way — he’s a very keen mind, and self-identifies as both somewhere on the autism spectrum and with Sensory Integration Disorder (but never required special education services, or at least was never diagnosed as needing them). Who knows whether the extra year made any difference.

    You’re not the first commenter I’ve called out for lack of awareness of the struggle and pain parents go through in dealing with a kid with issues who doesn’t seem ready for kindergarten (and undoubtedly won’t be the last). But again, no, it was not about some kind of “advantage” in some kind of competition that we didn’t even know existed — and that’s the situation with the other parents we know who have made that decision as well.

    • November 22, 2010 7:10 pm

      I sincerely apologize if my wording feels insensitive. My point here is that parents should not be in the position of having to make such a choice. The fact that kindergarten has become so developmentally inappropriate that kids need to wait a year or two to become ready for it should be a signal to us that we need to change what happens in kindergarten. In Finland, school doesn’t start until age 7; I think it might be worthwhile to explore that here.

      • markfriedman1 permalink
        November 23, 2010 6:55 am

        I’ve been engaged in a lot of “paradigm shift in education” discussions recently. A principal of a progressive, alternative urban high school sent me this video about a month ago and I thought it was very insightful. Understanding educational practice on the systemic level is important, as it is clear we are educating for and preparing students for an era that has long since past. I’ve been searching for more school systems that make institutional use of alternative models of assessment like project-based learning, student portfolios, and performance tasks etc. It’s proved somewhat difficult to find entire school SYSTEMS that embrace true alternatives but I’m searching for the examples nevertheless. Something I was reading about this is here:

  2. Matt permalink
    November 23, 2010 8:27 am

    Sabrina great blog posts I watched the video you put on your posts three times , what a great video by Sir Ken Robinson. He mentioned kids were grouped by age, thats how it is in my school, and I do not think thats how it has to be, with an education reform we cound change that, if many schools start to go one to one, then we could also change structure of the class which would be great also.

  3. Nick permalink
    November 23, 2010 8:38 am

    I am a student in the eleventh grade. when my class watched the RSA animation video we all though that it was very cool and very well put together. The animation talks about how the schooling system is wrong and needs to be fixed and i think that is very true. Some kids do very well on tests and assignments – just because they know how school works and some kids try really hard and still come up a little short. But if they start to integrate some of the ideas that were in that video they could help a lot more students learn and succeed

  4. Mom permalink
    November 23, 2010 9:28 pm

    Your article rang true to me. We are ‘doing in wrong’ as a society. Fixing school is not going to work no matter what we do. We are so entrenched in our own system we can’t see how bad it is.

    I would love to see us go back back to the beginning and have a dialog on why we educate in the first place. What is it that we hope to do. What kind of people do we want our children to be. Here is where the answers are.

  5. December 28, 2012 7:48 pm

    I enjoy reading a post that can make men and women think.
    Also, thank you for allowing me to comment!

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