At last week’s meeting, an MNPS Board member suggested that there are 35,00o seats in Metro Schools that lack “quality” so I’ve been thinking about this language and what this term means. What do we mean by student “success”? What do we mean by “quality” seats?
It’s a question that I wrestle with on a regular basis. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have two small children. My daughter, Avery, is 5 and half, (that half is extremely important to her), and a four-year-old named Peter . Six years ago when my wife was pregnant, we had many conversations about how we wanted to raise our children. We both agreed that we wanted independent, intellectually curious, verbal children who would be equipped to stand up for themselves and navigate the uncertainty that is life. Well, guess what I’ve learned in the last 5 years? I’ve learned that raising children with that skill set is a pain in the ass.
I’m not afraid to say it – it’s hard work and sometimes I’m not sure I’m equipped for it. I come home from a lousy day at work and they are ready with a thousand must-be-answered-now-not-later questions. If you tell them to do something, often they’ll question the motivation and offer their not-always-welcome insight. My son is fond of telling me I’m not in charge, God is. The other day he had a laundry basket on his head, and he was preparing to submerge it in the toilet. He was interested in what was in there. My daughter likes to proclaim she’s an artist as she spreads paint everywhere. Other times they’ll lay on the couch with their ipad and you’ll be lucky to get a grunt out of them.
Yesterday after I got home from a grueling day at work, everybody wanted to get a last bit of sledding in. It was late in the day and temperatures were dropping, so what was once snow was quickly transitioning into ice. As we made our way to the sledding spot, Avery and her brother ran on the ice and got into other mischief that their mother and I tried to caution against. Of course, every rebuke was met by a defense of why they were engaged in said activity.
I was tired, grouchy, and getting cold. “We need to stop the back talk, or we are going home.” I said. “But Daddy….” Avery began. That was the last straw; I picked her up and immediately began the trek home. “I told you about that back talk. Now we are going home and no ipad when we get there”, I began to lecture. She bravely listened, fighting back a rebuttal. We’d gone about 10 yards when it became apparent that the dog wasn’t following. As I called for the dog, but she wasn’t listening either.
“Daddy, I can get her to come.” My daughter had a plan. “I get down and do my hands like this.” She said putting her hands together. “Please let me do it. I’m sorry, I know you said not to run but I just wanted to have more fun. I haven’t cried either because you always say crying makes it worse.”
It began to dawn on me that she was realizing a whole lot more than I was giving her credit for. I slowly let her down, and she called the dog. As the dog came along, I picked up my daughter, hugged her and told her I loved her. Then I asked her if we could please work on the back talk. She nodded yes. Her mother and brother caught up, and we went home.
When we got home, my daughter said she needed to have a conversation with just me. We went into her room and she started with, “I know I back talked but I called the dog and got her to come and I didn’t cry, because like you said, that just makes it worse. But since I did those…could I…um…please…have my ipad?” I looked her and repeated the “work on the back talk” question and then said yes. You may think I was a pushover, but in my mind she was practicing the skills that would serve her as an adult. She was taking in a situation, analyzing it, and proposing action. Skills that were actually more important than not back talking.
There is a thin line between critical thinking and back talk, but how is a child supposed to develop that skill if they are never allowed to practice? Self-analysis is an equally important skill. Do I think she was doing some deep higher level thinking? Of course not, but the mastery of all skills needs to start somewhere. In the beginning it may be clumsy and annoying, but hopefully by adulthood it’s a fine tuned symphony. There has never been a single master concert pianist who has not made their family suffer through endless off key, out-of-tune plunking when they were starting out. Why should growing up be any different?
Our schools should be an extension of our families. They should be places where children get to hone and practice skills that they will utilize as adults. It’s one of the qualms I have with eye tracking, where students are forced to keep eyes on a teacher throughout class. Sure, it makes for an orderly environment where learning can take place, but what’s it’s real world application. Who is going to fill the management roles: the advanced reader who lacks the ability to take a command, process it, discern its value, and formulate a response or my back talking daughter? Besides, does learning demand a specific environment to transpire or can it thrive in a multitude of environments?
The accountability era has created a plethora of ideas that exist to bring a sense of comfort to adults. Let’s be honest, public education, like democracy, is a very messy proposition and like democracy, we never know if it’s really working or not. Test results make us comfortable that it’s working. “No Excuses” brings us comfort that discipline is being introduced to children that we perceive as lacking discipline. Vouchers, choice, charter schools, all designed to tame an uncomfortable system. After all, isn’t the public often the worst part of public education?
The problem is, we can’t just do what we find comfortable and pass it off as a child’s best interest. Sometimes children talk out of turn. Sometimes they learn things at their own speed. Sometimes they have things going on in their lives that are more important then what we think they should be focused on and it impacts their learning. Schools and instruction need to be responsive to the child and not the manufactured mandates created to give the illusion of accountability and comfort adults fears..
Kids can score well on tests all day, but if they lack the skills to translate that to real world application’s, then what’s the point other then to validate an adult’s existence? We’ve created a learning environment where everything is measured, and there is no margin for failure. There are businesses with similar cultures. In these cultures, there is no incentive to take risks or innovate because that means potential failure, which will reflect poorly on performance. We know these companies aren’t market leaders and that companies that foster innovation thrive, so why would we foster the former over the later? As hedge fund manager James Altucher says, “Your competition is not other people but the time you kill, the ill will you create, the knowledge you neglect to learn, the connections you fail to build, the health you sacrifice along the path, your inability to generate ideas, the people around you who don’t support and love your efforts, and whatever god you curse for your bad luck.”
Don’t be mistaken, I may quote a hedge fund manager, but I still believe we need to push back against the commerce narrative of education. Education is about creating better citizens not workers. I can promise you that I’ve never had a conversation with my children about competing for jobs. The same holds true about talking to them in regards to competing against the Chinese or anyone else in the global market. Instead, the conversations in our household center around the skills that will make for better lives and better people.
My son is encouraged to read not because it’ll make him career and college ready, but because it’ll unlock the magical realms of his beloved comic books. My daughter and I engage in math games not to reach a goal but because they are fun. Both are regularly taken outside to play or on inclement weather days we find an indoor play facility. We do this because exercise and nutrition are every bit as important as high performance in math. The importance of balance needs to be instilled at an early age.
During the recent snow days here in Nashville, it drove me insane to see administrators take to social media to admonish kids to read during this off day. How about go out and play on this rare snow day? How about mentioning that learning takes all shapes and embracing a rare free day has equal value. What would your reaction be if your boss took to social media to issue instructions for you on a snow day? “Hey TC, make sure you spend the afternoon reading about life insurance. Can’t let a day go by. The Chinese might catch up.” I can tell you how that would be met by me. Unfortunately we have put teachers and administrators in an untenable situation. Because of the false air of accountability that permeates everything, they have no choice but to focus on the measurable and attempt to take advantage of every minute available.
It seems that we’ve gotten ourselves involved in some kind of race were perpetual forward motion is a requisite. A fellow parent forwarded me an email in regards to valentine’s day celebrations that they received from their child’s principal. Apparently we’ve reached a place where we can’t even take time to celebrate a day of love lest we lose a minute of instructional time. After spelling out rigid dress code and time constraints for a holiday they “rename friendship day”, the email closes thusly:
We have many skills that still need to be taught and practiced, therefore every moment we have with your child is important. Thank you and have a great evening.
Have we become so focused on preparing children for life that we are failing to demonstrate to them how to live it? To paraphrase the rapper Ice Cube, we better check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. This is not the path to a healthy society.
We are in danger of running down a rabbit hole where the practice for life overtakes the the practice of living life. We are so focused on quality seats that we’ve begun to narrow the definition to a point where it neglects the whole child and fails to include all that is involved in a child’s life. I’m fifty years old now and when I reflect back on my public school career and how it’s helped me navigate the challenges of life. I realize that it was as much the extracurricular activities that shaped me, as the classroom work. Solar day and History day inspired me more then any assessment I ever took. Truth be told, cutting class and the machinations that it required went a long way to fostering a gift of planning, while also presenting a lesson in accountability.
If you talk to most teachers they will agree with that we are narrowing our focus to our detriment. Its not hard to find them lamenting against the rise in testing and other reforms and how they’ve affected their ability to reach the whole child. A whole advocacy group of teachers, known as BATS, who recognized the dangers of the path we were on and the need to push back rose up last year to defend the needs of the whole child and attempt to shift the focus of our policies. As evidenced by the growth in the anti-testing movement, parents are also expressing concerns. If not parents and teachers who should we listen to?
We need to step back and reassess. A large portion of an adults life is spent earning a living and the quality of employment directly affects their quality of life, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Life is filled with many rich opportunities and one never knows where life may take them, this is why its so important to equip children with the tools to take advantage of those opportunities. If we don’t, in my opinion, we are doing a disservice to the child and furthermore to society. Locking children in to a predictable future locks society into a predictable future, to the detriment of both.
I’m going to close like I opened, with Ms Speering’s words. I hope you all will take them to heart, because they offer some very sage advice.
“Quality” results when students learn the relevance and inter-relationships of each and every subject. “Quality” results when students work together cooperatively rather than competitively. Working together in teams more closely resembles real world experiences and helps prepare our children for the expectations of an unknown future.