Monday, December 21, 2015

Manic Monday: Education and the little blue penguin

(I'm trying to get back to a regular schedule of blogging.  Life and other things have gotten in the way.)

When my niece was in the second grade, she was assigned a report on the little blue penguin.  I would figure that, as a second grader, she would be required to go to the library, look up a book (or something on the Internet), write up a report, and read it aloud to the class.

Uh, no.

What her teacher wanted her to do was to, among other things, make up a diorama AND a display board about the little blue penguin.  She encouraged her class to "get the whole family involved."  In fact, the only way my niece could finish the project was to "get the whole family involved".  My niece's stepfather ended up making out a schedule for her to follow so she could get the assignment finished.  (Just a side note:  My niece asked her stepfather to adopt her.  I think that says a lot about their relationship.)

I can understand this sort of assignment as a way to learn more about the little blue penguin.

But in second grade?

I've wondered for some time if the reason for our abysmal performance in education is that we expect too much too soon from our kids.  I can remember, in first grade, reciting the ABC song.  Now, kids are expected to know their ABC's when they hit kindergarten, if not sooner.

We're pushing our kids too hard, too soon.  We don't give them the time they need to learn the fundamentals, because they have to go on to the next subject.  Hurry up, hurry up, we have requirements to meet!  Our teachers either can't or won't take into account that each student will learn in a different way.  I tend to think that they can't because they are under pressure from their higher-ups to get through a curriculum, so their students can get through a test.

I wonder, too, if so much of this emphasis on our poor educational system is because of a true concern for our students . . . or only because "America must be number 1 in the world because we are America."  We are a great country.  Although we have made our share of mistakes (see slavery and discrimination), we are also known for our compassion, for being the land of opportunity with freedom of speech, assembly etc.

But do we want to be "number 1" simply for the sake of being "number 1"?  And are we willing to do anything, including sacrificing our children, to be "number 1 in the world"?  Are we going to force second-graders to do a diorama on the little blue penguin just so we can meet some sort of arbitrary standard to make us "number 1 in the world"?

Education is vital.  I think teachers are underpaid and underappreciated.  I think they have lost power in the classroom, and I also think they are used as pawns in a system that is more concerned with results rather than the methods used to get them.  I want the United States to have a good--great--educational system that turns out excellent doctors, lawyers, teachers, engineers; and also plumbers, electricians, auto workers, etc.  (Those of us who look down our noses at blue-collar workers--where would you be without running water, flushing toilets, or electricity?)

But how are you going to do it?  Are you going to impose a curriculum on everyone that demands the same performance whether the kids can meet it or not?  This has been one of the main--and understandable--criticisms of the No Child Left Behind program.

I may or may not have a valid voice in this debate.  My son is in special education.  He has what is known as an IEP, an Individualized Education Plan, which sets out goals and objectives according to his strengths and weaknesses.  He's been very fortunate with his teachers, also.  I can think of only two bad teachers he's had in his life, and one of them was "bad" simply because she was dealing with some very difficult personal circumstances in her life.  I don't know the ins and outs of "regular" public education.  I do know, though, what I hear from other teachers and workers in the school system.  My father was also a public school teacher until 1992, when he retired due to illness.  (He died in 1993.)  When I asked him if he regretted not teaching, he said, "No.  It was getting pretty bad."

I also remember being a public school student in the 1970's, and even then, public schools were having their problems.  Discipline was a big one, as it is now.  When you tell a student to do something, and they say no, and you have no leverage with that student . . . what do you do?  I experienced this in 1989, when I briefly worked in an inner-city public school as a librarian.  I had no way to maintain discipline, and the students knew it.

I cannot remember what year this was, but during the first day of final exams in high school, we were given the opportunity to have some sort of a break, or privilege, during that day.  Many of the students abused that privilege, and as a result, our principal came on the intercom and announced our punishment:  We were going to have less time to do our finals the next day . . . which meant we were going to get out of school earlier.  

HUH???

What kind of consequence was that?

And it's gotten worse since then.

My niece is now 20, a college student, and doing well.  Her experience with the little blue penguin apparently hasn't harmed her.

But I wonder how many other students, in the name of "educational excellence" have been left behind? How many other students have paid the price for our desire to be "number 1"?

When are we going to learn to find out what our students are capable of, and fit the curriculum to their needs, instead of expecting them to do something they may not be capable of yet?  Why expect our second-graders to do a diorama on the little blue penguin?  Surely that can wait until third or fourth or fifth grade.  Why do they need to know it in the second grade?  Do the people who expect that out of second graders even know if the average second-grader is capable of that?

I believe in setting standards for students to reach for.  But there's a difference between asking our students to stretch and asking our students to grab something that's totally out of their grasp.  And I fear we are asking our students to do the latter.

Just my .04, adjusted for inflation.

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