You Can’t Have My Kids

I’m a product of public schools. From the time I started Kindergarten to the time I finished graduate school, I only attended public schools. We live in a democratic society founded on the ideal of self-governance. In order for that to work, we have to have an educated, informed citizenry. The only way to do that is by educating the population. All of the population. Call it socialism if you must. But it’s impossible for a true democratic society to survive without good public education.

I’ve spent all of my professional life working in public schools. I never considered working for a private school, or working in a non-education career. I’ve always felt that I’ve had a contribution to make, and that public education is a worthwhile cause for my efforts.

That’s why it’s surprising, especially to me, that my children will not be attending school next fall in the public school district that I live in. It’s very likely that our careful selection of a home — less than 500 feet from the local high school’s property, will have been in vain. They probably won’t go to school there.

You can’t have my kids.

No Child Left Behind and similar educational reform efforts have been a race to mediocrity. Schools are measured by the percent of kids who pass the tests. If a student who gets 70% is considered proficient in a subject, no one cares whether the student gets a 71% or a 99%. They’re both passing. They both count for the same amount.

Understandably, public schools focus on that which is measured. “Better” schools have a higher percentage of students passing the tests. Let’s say, for example, that I have three kids: one is at 60%, one is at 75%, and one is at 90%. Currently, 2/3 of my students are labeled as “proficient.” That’s not very good.

Let’s also say that my school has the resources to move each kid up 10%. If I distribute those resources equitably, my students would be at 66%, 82.5%, and 99%.  That’s still 2/3 proficient, though. My school is not improving, and bad things happen.

But let’s say instead that I don’t allocate the resources equally. Maybe I raise the lowest kid by 20%, the middle one by 10%, and the highest one by 0%. Then, I end up with 72%, 82.5%, and 90%. Everyone passes the test. The school is excellent. We get awards and recognition for the superb turnaround. Everyone is happy.

Except my kid. My kid is the one who had a 90% to begin with. My kid is the one who spent a year treading water.

In reality, it’s not this simple, of course. Despite our best (worst) efforts, learning is not that easy to quantify. And learning gains are not so easily tied to resources. But the general idea holds true. Schools focus on under-performing students at the expense of those who are already proficient. While that disparity has always been there, it’s worse now than ever before. And it’s my kids with the short end of the stick.

It gets worse. My kids are artists. They like to draw and paint and sing and dance and act. None of those things are measured on the tests. So they’re all being reduced. As the budgets get tighter, the schools are focusing more and more on the things that are measured. And the one thing that gets measured above all else is our students’ ability to take multiple choice tests. We’re preparing our posterity for prosperous careers in bubble-sheet completion.

Meanwhile, I’ve been hearing a bit about these things people keep calling 21st century skills. In truth, they’re nothing new. We need to focus on critical thinking, creativity, communication, and collaboration. We’ve been talking about that for the better part of 20 years now. But that stuff is hard to measure. So you can guess where that is on the schools’ priority list. We’re doing a better job than we were a decade ago. But we still have a long way to go.

Meanwhile, my kids are growing up. One is a third done with school. The other is half done. I don’t want them to be professional test-takers. So we started looking for alternatives.

The younger daughter, who will be in fifth grade in the fall, applied to a performing arts magnet school. Its a public school, located in downtown Akron. She’ll learn all the stuff that the state (and soon the feds) say she has to “know.” But a significant amount of time will be spent every day on drama. Plus, she’ll have classes in visual arts, vocal music, dance, and instrumental music. For her, this is a much better fit. It’s not perfect — I still have strong concerns about  a lot of things they’re doing. But it’s going to be better than the status quo.

I never thought I’d pull my daughter out of a suburban school to send her to an inner-city middle school, but that’s exactly what we’ve done. It’s non-traditional, to say the least. But we’re excited about it, and grateful for the opportunity.

The older daughter’s situation is harder. She loves visual arts, but wasn’t accepted to the magnet school. Another arts-based magnet only goes through sixth grade, and she’ll be in seventh next year. For her, we’ve looked at online charters. This is still a public school, but it’s a charter school. That gives them a little flexibility that the traditional school doesn’t have. She’ll be doing a lot of her coursework online, but at her own pace. Because she’s smart, that’s going to  free up some time to allow her to do more with art and music outside of school. Again, it’s not a perfect fit. But we’re going to try it.

I hate charter schools. I’m frustrated by school choice. The whole movement takes resources from the public schools and channels it to private organizations. It undermines the whole idea of universal free and appropriate public education. It’s the first step toward a privatization effort that will send the privileged to good schools on the taxpayer’s dime while leaving the less fortunate to wither in the shell of what was once public education.

But this is the best option for my kids. I only have two. I only get one shot. And the local public school isn’t good enough.

You can’t have my kids.

Photo credit: Austin Barrow on Flickr.


One thought on “You Can’t Have My Kids

  1. John, I read your post with interest and, admittedly, mixed feelings. I do agree that NCLB has changed the emphasis to reading and math; and that “proficiency” is the goal of AYP. However, two things that come into the mix are also worth considering. One is the absolute dedication of many teachers to the learning of all students, not just those who are non-proficient. Perhaps resources are not distributed equally to a student body; but the classroom teacher can often make a silk purse from a sow’s ear when the situation demands. Another consideration is the Value-Added measure. Though I am no fan of the Value-Added algorithm, it is at least an attempt to quantify the annual growth of all students, and a recognition that effective teaching must be measured beyond “pass/fail.” You are absolutely right that quality teaching is extremely difficult to measure. I just started reading “The Death and Life of the American Public School System,” by Diane Ravitch. I believe that it is very relevant to your concerns.

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