A college professor goes back to elementary school

I spent the day today in my sons’ elementary school, as part of the Watch DOGS program. Part of me chafes a little bit at the idea that it is a special thing for dads to come visit and volunteer, whereas it is totally expected for moms to be PTA-involved and such. But, it is a great program, and in our community, it is still true that moms outnumber dads pretty severely at most school events. Also, I think that anything that gets people involved in public schools, gets them to appreciate public goods, is a good thing. I had a great time and I thought I would share a few thoughts while the experience is fresh in my head (although I did it last year too).

First, everyone who writes about school reform should do this on a regular basis. There is no substitute to actually sitting in a classroom (or in my case, shuffling from classroom to classroom) and doing a little bit of work. Teachers are not saints, and we shouldn’t act as if they are, but they work as hard if not harder than anyone else, and it is worth it to see exactly how their work is hard.

Second, kids of different ages are different! This is totally obvious, but move from a 3rd grade classroom to a 5th grade one, and those two years really make a difference in terms of what content they can learn, but also in terms of how discipline problems manifest, what sort of rewards and change they need, the overall pace of their day.

Third, standardized tests are evil evil evil. I say this as a cognitive psychologist who strongly believes that testing one’s memory is an excellent way to learn. I also believe that sometimes students of all ages have to do things that aren’t fun to get to the fun stuff of learning. Even if drilling the number line is tedious, and memorizing times tables sucks, getting your basic math facts is necessary for any critical thinking in math. But the standardized tests infect the curriculum. I couldn’t always tell what was a test-taking strategy meant to get kids familiar with taking a multiple choice test on a small netbook, and what was the actual content of the test. The teachers knew that students didn’t like this stuff, but they also don’t question the goals of the curriculum, which is increasingly to score well on the test. This “outsources” all of the expertise from the teachers to the test-makers. If we allow the test to become the curriculum, then the teachers just teach to the test. Why bother questioning the way they ask the questions or what questions they ask if there is nothing you can do?

Fourth, the goals of education are myriad and complicated. This is the one discussion I really wish I saw more of in education reform circles. The rhetoric of “our schools are failing” has a tendency to lead to one-dimensional rating of our education system. Here are a few of my goals for what I want my kids to learn in their public schools (all are equally important):
1) Learn to read, do math, but not to practice these as “skills,” rather use them to acquire a broad background knowledge in all of the areas of knowledge, from science to social studies to literature to philosophy.
2) Learn that learning is fun; to enjoy books and maintain their curiosity
3) Learn to follow rules and be civilized, and get along with people who are different from them
4) Learn how to follow their curiosity, to see that self-guided deep learning into one subject can be fascinating
5) In addition to academic subjects, learn to respect, appreciate, and create aesthetic experiences, art, drama, music
The school has to do all these things at once. And the kids pick up what is most important. If following the rules and being civilized is of paramount importance, kids pick up on that. If enjoying reading is not, they pick up on that too. I am always always amazed at how well the schools my kids have been in (in Oakland, as well as here in central Virginia) have balanced all of these goals, despite not being supported in many of them by the incentives and structures in place. This school in particular has a heroic librarian, an awesome art teacher, and a great positive culture of discipline and respect… which leads me to my fifth point.

Fifth, sometimes kids have shitty days too, and when you are 8,9 or 10, you don’t simmer by yourself, you take it out on other people. For many kids, being in school is an unpleasant experience. You have to sit and do things that you are not good at, and are unpleasant, and then you get to go outside for recess, but you have to fight to be a pitcher at kickball. Then someone takes your turn, and you get angry. Then you are punished for getting angry. The world is a non-stop gauntlet of emotion regulation, and some kids start behind. I don’t have any good answer for this, but it drove home to me the fact that some kids need a hug, some need a complete breakfast, some need a great team learning experience and some need to be left alone with a good book, and a teacher has to figure out how to compromise and get each kid enough to get them to pay attention, learn a little bit, and get through the day without losing it. This is not easy, and everyone who writes how we need to evaluate teachers more rigorously and stringently needs to think carefully about what exactly they think the task of teaching is and how difficult it is. An unstated assumption of a lot of school reform is that teaching is, at its heart, a relatively straightforward task of knowledge transfer. This could not be further from the case.

Breakfast for Lunch
Breakfast for Lunch (and ice cream)

Finally, school lunch is gross and packed with sugar and processed food. Seriously. We all know this, but doesn’t really hit home until you are faced with a tray of flavored multicolored ice milk product, french toast sticks with table syrup, sausage, orange juice, milk and applesauce. Oh, and some apples and oranges that I knew (the kids knew, and everyone there knew) were there for display and were not likely to taste very good.
Diorama of a Potomac River Habitat
Potomac River habitat. Awesome dioramas are awesome.

Despite all of this, I am an optimist about our public schools. Despite the pressures of standardized tests, huge budget cuts, kids with behavioral problems, you name it, the teachers and administrators made this a happy place. The kids worked hard when they had to, frolicked and played in lunch and recess, and in general acted like kids always do. This wasn’t a prison, but the kids felt safe, respected the routines and felt proud of their projects and their work. Stepping back for a moment, and thinking about what life must have been like for an 8 year old only a few hundred years ago, it seems downright magical.