My biases upfront

Published 2.16.2017
Thursdays have become the day on which I choose to opine on education. Since making that choice and subsequent announcement, this is the fourth entry in the series. It's about time that I discuss my history and biases.

My schooling

I've mentioned previously that I was educated in the public schools, but I will add that those schools were in the Midwest. The term Midwest is relatively vague because people don't define the region consistently, but I don't want to be any more specific than that. I just wanted to indicate that I didn't attend school in the Northeast or on either coast.

My husband was also educated in the public schools, in fact, his mother taught and later became a vice principal in the same distract. When our children reached school age, it wasn't even a question, they entered public school. Neither finished school in the public system, but for very different reasons. Technically, they were considered private school students at graduation because they graduated from an online high school.

I can remember growing up that my mother constantly complained about the schools and the quality of teacher and education we were receiving. So complaints about public school are not new. It seems that each generation likes to think that theirs was the best education, and that the one their children are receiving can't compare. That having been said, things do change over time, and the options and courses available now to kids are not the same as those I had the option of taking.

No child left untested™

My children had the misfortune to be in elementary school at beginning of the era of the "No child left untested™" law, otherwise known by it's official name "No Child Left Behind." (For the record, the ™ is a joke.) I'm not against testing, I think testing is a tool. I think test taking is a skill that can be taught much like any other. As it happens, I was very good at taking tests when I was in school because it was a skill I excelled at. I was adept at recognizing which information a given teacher was likely to consider testable, which allowed me to prepare more easily than others.

In fact, I was so good at it that I once passed a test about a book I didn't read because before class I quizzed a classmate who had read it. Because I had a good concept of the types of questions and information that the teacher would want regurgitated about the book, I was able to learn what I needed in 10 minutes of questioning. In fact, my test score was higher than my friend's— much to her everlasting annoyance. Test taking is a skill. Testing can help judge whether someone has actually learned some bit of knowledge, but alone it's not sufficient.

When the No child left untested law was passed, there was plenty of discussion as to how it would effect education. I'm not going to rehash other people's thoughts, rather I'm going to recount how I thought the law could have been addressed, then how it actually was at the school where my kids went. Anecdotes aren't data, but this is about my history and biases.

The elementary school my kids attended was considered one of the best is our relatively upscale town. Less than 10% of the students at the school required breakfast or lunch assistance, if that adds perspective. So when the new state standards (which may have actually predated No child left untested™, but if they did, it was not by much) were enacted, to my way of thinking, not much needed to change. There we were at one of the best schools around, with award winning, well thought of teachers, and students that were achieving. If it was working, then why did anything need to change?

Well. To say that I misread the situation might be one my hugest understatements or miscalculations of all time. Everything changed. The district decided to replace the principal, though in fairness there, the guy being replaced was near retirement. The new principal, for whatever reason, chose to shuffle the teaches and the grades they were teaching. I don't know if this is standard operating procedures at most schools, but I can say that doing it required teachers to completely rework their curriculums. In some case, this meant that teachers were barely ahead of the kids in terms of the curriculum.

Initially, the administration didn't alter the curriculum the teachers were using and permitted them to design their lesson plans as they always had. However, in the second year of the No child left untested era, the first year when the results would actually affect school funding, the administration completely altered how the school prepared for the test. Essentially, until the test, the primary aim of instruction was to prepare for the test. This is fine if maximizing your score on the test is the goal, but I can't say that it did much for my kids. My son, in particular, suffered under this new regime. We began homeschooling in third grade because of the changes.

This school, which had previously prided itself on the quality of its teachers and the achievement of its students suddenly became obsessed with a single metric. I know that detractors in the eduction establishment predicted this would be the outcome, but to me it was a self-fulfilling prophecy. If teachers and schools were confident that they had been doing an excellent job (and certainly that was the line at our school) then why not just continue doing that excellent job? I know it was never really that simple because of the dumb way the law and the ratings were structured. Schools that couldn't show annual improvement were punished, even if their overall achievement was high.

There will never be the case that 100% of kids will be above average, that's just not how it works. Kids are not widgets and don't all react the same way to instruction. One of the reasons I think technology should be part of education. Because technology allows the possibility that information and lessons can be offered in myriad ways to meet the needs of all kids, rather than one teacher giving the same presentation to all. That model never worked for all students— and I say this one student for whom it did work— eventually. I don't know if I will ever tell that story here, but suffice to say, I know that if I'd been in my son's class, I may have gotten the same treatment he did. I don't think it would have worked any better on me than it did with him.

Public schools and teachers are accountable to tax payers and various government officials because they are supported with tax dollars. I'm not anti public school. I do think that schools and teachers need to change more than they wish, and technology needs to be part of the change. I think I wandered a bit from my original intent in this entry, but I'll leave it for now.


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