Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Not All Sunshine and Rainbows

My first introduction to blogs was reading Mommy Blogs.  In case you're not familiar, they're not unlike this blog (although I've never thought of myself as a Mommy Blogger) where moms write about raising their children.  I quickly found them to be much like fashion magazines - fun to read but you feel terrible about yourself after reading them.  Those Mommy Bloggers always have the perfect children, perfect husband, perfect life. 

Then it occurred to me, they're not telling the whole story.  And neither am I.

Who wants to read about the bad stuff?  The challenges?  The failures?  I go to blogs personally to get creative ideas, to laugh or to learn something.  I have enough challenges of my own.  I don't really want to spend my precious screen time reading about some other mom's bratty kids.

So I'm going to write what I hope isn't a long post about something we're dealing with, in an effort to seem more real and to show you that life isn't 100% perfect in New York City.  Now don't get too worried.  All is fine in Skaggsland, as far as our family is concerned.  The problem is our school system. 

When Kevin and I started discussing our children's education when Ella was in Pre-K we were all over the place.  We were concerned about the current state of public schools (large and growing class sizes, low and continually decreasing funding, lack of innovative or progressive teaching methods).  We looked at progressive private schools and decided that not only could we not afford them (and California private schools are half the price of New York private schools), even if we could we thought sticking with public schools and using all of that saved money to supplement their education with enrichment classes and travel, would be a better use of our income.  When we discovered that we could give our children a bilingual education for free at a Spanish immersion public school, our minds were made.  It seemed the best compromise, although we still were hesitant.

We liked our elementary school in California although it still suffered from many of the issues we feared: no gym class, any art or music instruction was at the mercy of what the parents could provide or pay for via the PTA, no school counselor, nurse, assistant principal, nothing much innovative in teaching techniques.  But the school did the best they could and we did just what we said we would: we supplemented their education with after-school piano, art and sports.

Initially, when we moved to New York we were happy at our school.  We loved both of their teachers and although we were getting less Spanish (50% as opposed to the 90% of the day the kids were getting in the younger grades in California), the school seemed to have a lot more money.  We now have a gym teacher, computer teacher, art teacher (with an art studio), music teacher (with a music room), assistant principal, parent coordinator, nurse, counselor.  We were impressed with how much more staff was available.  The class sizes however, are even larger - averaging 30 children in a class (the younger classes often do have a paraprofessional in the classroom to help).

This year, everything changed for several reasons.  First of all, Ella is now in a testing year.  Third through fifth grades take a standardized test in March.  Kids in California also take a standardized test but the results don't really matter except to show how well (or poorly) the school is doing.  In New York, 4th grade test scores determine which middle school you go to.  Since there are only a handful of "good" middle schools and the bad ones are really bad (according to several parents I've spoken to), the stakes are incredibly high.  The pressure is put on the kids starting the first day of 3rd grade.  Ella is already talking about "the big test" and her class has already started working on practice tests. 

In addition, most schools in New York City changed their curricula this year in math and English Language Arts.  Three-quarters of the city chose ReadyGen for ELA at the suggestion of the Department of Education (and I believe they all had financial incentives to do so).  The problem is that first of all, ReadyGen wasn't even written yet when they all chose it last spring.  There are parts that still are not written yet today.   So no principal had the chance to even evaluate it first.  The other problem is that it is written by the very same publishing company (Pearson) that writes "the big test" so the curriculum is one big test prep.  Their workbooks even say Test Prep on them.  We've become the Princeton Review of elementary schools.  The term 'teach to the test' has never been more clear to me than it is now - exactly the opposite of the progressive education we were looking for.  Just more rote memorization and uninspired content.

As we are getting to know the curriculum we are also finding out that it is developmentally and age-inappropriate.  Don't just take my word for it, there are many blog posts and articles by New York teachers and administrators that say so.  Here's a particularly good one that asks, "Is 3rd grade the new 7th grade?"  Don't get me wrong, I'm all for raising the standards and pushing our kids.  This isn't that.  The upcoming text for Ella's class is Behind Rebel Lines, listed as middle school reading on every book website I could find.  The title sounded a little serious to me so I decided to read it over the weekend.  First of all, it's set in the Civil War, which hasn't been taught yet in 3rd grade.  The kids will have no context for it and no idea what the "Northern cause" is or who the Union or Confederates were.  The vocabulary is often much too tough even for Ella who is one of the top readers in her class and is reading above grade level.  More importantly, there is content in it that is just not appropriate for a classroom of 8 year-olds who still believe in Santa Claus.  A spy is executed by firing squad, the protagonist's former love interest is shot in the neck and dies, there are references to minstrel shows and blackface and even the use of the n-word.  I'm sure this is a good historical book for older children who have studied this time period and can put this in context, but third graders haven't.

When I met with her teacher to discuss this, she showed me much more material coming up that is much too advanced for their class - a biology book that has a diagram of a cell with about a dozen labels of its contents, material I covered in college biology.  A lesson where the kids are asked to write an essay comparing and contrasting two characters' methods of problem solving, without ever having been told what an essay is, let alone how to write one.  She is as frustrated as we are and agreed with me that the children are being set up for failure.

On top of all of that, since the curriculum and "the big test" are in English, Spanish is pretty much going by the wayside.  The teachers don't have time to teach all of the material in ReadyGen and still have much time to teach Spanish.  They're getting less than two days a week now, and my guess is that it will continue to decrease as we get closer to testing time.  And as I've been told multiple times now, the test is in English and teacher evaluations are now directly linked to how well their students do on the test.

This time last year, Ella loved school.  She loved math, science and reading.  Now she often fights going in the morning and has a completely different attitude towards school.

Holden's class, not being a testing year, seems to be doing better.  They're able to keep up the 50% Spanish, it seems.  But he is getting bored.  He has a large class and there isn't much, if any, differentiation going on.  If he has mastered the math or reading section they're on, he waits.  And waits.  And gets bored.  The homework he's coming home with is ridiculously easy for him.  I asked his teacher last week if everyone got the same homework.  When I told her that it was too easy for him (and I suspect what's going on in class is also too easy) she said she'd try to send home extra "enrichment" work for him.  I haven't seen any yet.  I'm not blaming her.  It's a very hard job to teach a large class of extremely different abilities and backgrounds, and then to do it in two languages.  I wouldn't want her job.  But it's still not working for Holden.  And I'm not even implying that he's some sort of genius, but the teacher has to teach to the least common denominator.

So now that I've broken my promise to keep it short, I'll end here.  For now.  Things aren't all perfect in New York City. 

Plus, I found my first grey hairs this week.

So there.

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