Saturday, February 9, 2013

Choosing Public Schools

Massive changes are taking place in education today. These changes emphasize "accountability" and "outcomes." This poses serious questions: who is "accountable"? What "outcomes" do we as a society want for our children? As a mother of four children in public schools, I want my kids to love learning. I want them to play, create, and find their passion. I want them to learn to resolve problems with friends and have the freedom in their day to use those skills. I want them to learn to respect others and be responsible. I want so much more than can be found on a test or quantified with a score.

If public schools want to keep their families from seeking alternatives, they have to affirm what they've been trained in: child development is vast and varied, teaching is an art form and play is children's work. I know that they have to have good test scores in this era of test-mania, but at what cost? Exhausted teachers crunching numbers and grading constant assessments do not have much energy left over. The teachers at my son’s school continue to give them group projects, art, drama, and hands-on experiments, which, in this era of data-collecting, are mini acts of rebellion against standardized testing. They know that children will be happy in school if they feel connected and if it is fun. My son still has a lot of fun. But kids at other schools where they do more laser-targeted skill drills might not be enjoying themselves as much.

A new charter school is coming to my town. As charter schools go, it is more benign. It's a "public" charter school and not for profit. If approved, it will be the second such charter school in our college town. The first school has been around for a few years and has a very long wait list to get in. I imagine the demand will be high for this one as well. And it kinda makes me want to cry.

Why is there a “need” for this, another charter, in a relatively small city with schools that are doing very well by most standards? Why would parents leave their neighborhood school to put their kids in a lottery for these charters? To answer that, we need to look at this “Race to the Top” of educational policies that threatens to leave all of our children (and our democracy) behind.

When my 18 year-old son was in elementary school he had a lot of recess and time to play. His school day was shorter so that when I picked him up from school, he could play outside with his friends. The neighbor kids came over and they had a regular game of pretend in the backyard playing with sticks and pinecones. In third grade, his teacher clearly encouraged the children to be socially engaged with their community. They performed for the residents of a retirement home. They discussed habitat and environmental destruction and studied endangered species. They made dioramas and posters and models of their animals. Their studies culminated with a showcase of their animals after which the "entrance fees" they collected from their visitors (friends and family) were donated to the environmental organization they chose and voted on.

Contrast his experience with my 8 year-old son now. My youngest child has one recess a day in second grade. His school day was recently extended so that, aside from that one break of play in his day, he is in structured school time from 8am when we leave the house to around 4:15 when he returns. When he eats a snack and does his homework (very light load for him, thankfully), it’s nearly dinnertime. There is no time for him to go outside and roll over a log to watch roly-polies. How will his curiosity be sparked? With no freedom to play and explore, how will he learn?

This is an example of how the world of education is turned upside down today. Teachers know what children need. They know how to make learning fun and how to assess the growth of their students. But teachers/educators are not deciding this policy. Instead, politicians and business people (like the chambers of commerce) think that they know best. With test scores being wielded as both a carrot and a stick, our schools are forced to focus on performance on a test rather than the love of learning. Instead of using a standardized test as a gauge to see what the child's needs are, they are being used to label children, teachers, schools and whole districts as either "failures" or "successes." These politicians and business folks have created a crisis by repeating, "our public schools are failing." And so the schools have set about proving that they aren't failures or risk being taken over by the state and its partnered private companies waiting in the wings.

To prove “accountability,” our teachers are forced to collect data. Our children have become data points on a graph. My 18 year-old's second grade report card showed that he was working on something ("needs improvement") developmentally in one area and exceeding in others. It had space for the teacher to praise his creativity in a handwritten note and to explain his strengths. The report card my second grader comes home with now has "benchmarks" of specific skill sets that he is working on, coded with numbers. It is practically undecipherable. I know I'm not alone in thinking that I would far rather have a handwritten note from his teacher telling me what his strengths and weaknesses are and what we can help reinforce for him at home.

Schools must debunk these test scores for the community. They shouldn’t validate the state’s attempt to fail our schools by declaring pride (or worry) in our grades. Tell parents that there are better ways than the ISTEP to measure student success. Tell them that the state decides the cut score and what might be passing the ISTEP this year could be an entirely different bar the next. This is not some objective use of data. Tell parents that these grades from the state are on a curve, relegating a third to the failing status automatically. Tell them that these grades reflect socioeconomic status better than the actual abilities of kids. Reinforce the idea that the teacher is the ultimate authority and knows better than a test how their children are learning and growing. Educators can explain to parents that children learn on a continuum and reassure them of the individual differences in learning and growth.

And what about “accountability”? We are all accountable. Thursday the House Education Committee voted to redirect over $47 million toward private and home schools in the name of “parental choice.” Now our public schools will make do with even less. Will the parents who are aware (and able) “choose” to send their kids to charter schools or private schools because those schools are committed to play or have the luxury of smaller class size? With the loss of their per-pupil funding comes the loss of parents who invest time and money into bettering their school community. The input for the school board and its decision-making in the community doesn’t apply to the charter schools. Private school parents might not see the need to pass a referendum to maintain smaller class sizes or programming in the public schools they no longer attend. We are further divided as a community and isolated from one another as a society.

"Accountability"must mean that we take responsibility and support public education. We must commit ourselves to all of our children. Public schools are our common space where the future citizens of our country learn and grow together. What would we do if there were no "choices"? What if, like Finland, we had no private/charter schools? We would have to choose to get along, to better these schools and help the ones that were struggling. This, then, is a call to action. To embrace public education we must recommit ourselves to supporting, respecting and fully funding it. We must hold our public officials accountable for this as well. At the hearing on the bill to expand vouchers, Rep. Lucas said, "The government should not have the monopoly on schools." We must make him and the other representatives like him understand that this is NOT a game of Monopoly, this is not a business venture-- this is our children's future. Their education, this public system of education, is not only their Constitutional right, but the cornerstone of our democracy.