Since I started blogging, it’s never ceased to amaze me how the same thoughts seem to be on parents’ minds at the same time. I’d like to share a piece that was sent to me by a parent of two school-aged children. She’s been a fierce public education advocate who unfortunately has been placed in a position where she was forced to take a deeper look at her beliefs and make some tough decisions for her family based on those evaluations. Some may argue with her decisions, but few could say they aren’t what’s best for her family. At the end of the day, that’s what we all need to be able to say. This piece dovetails nicely into a piece I’m in the process of writing. So without further ado, I’d like to share her story:
In August of 2015, when my son (“J”) was in 6th grade in a local public school, the wheels, bumpers, headlights, etc. started to come off the proverbial bus. The teachers were not able to successfully differentiate his instruction, so he was bored and was not progressing at an appropriate pace. The district also had recently changed their discipline policies, which made it difficult for them to appropriately discipline the children who were inflicting emotional and physical abuse on my son. To top it off, a tenured teacher, who was clearly burnt out and ready to retire, inflicted emotional trauma on my son and other children.
Perhaps if J were not a highly sensitive child (http://hsperson.com/books/the-highly-sensitive-child/), he could have handled all of these issues. But he was depressed and despondent, so my husband and I made the only choice we could—we pulled him out of school and I homeschooled him for the second half of his 6th grade year. And then we–two graduates and advocates of public schools–did what just a few months previously was unthinkable: we applied for local private schools in the area.
We found a school that was a good match for him and he began attending 7th grade there in August. And he is happy again. He loves his classmates and teachers, and best of all, he feels safe and respected. (At this point I would sell a kidney to help pay for his tuition. That is how much this school has helped him.) But, here is the catch: J is having a difficult time adjusting to the demands of the school.
I have been told by many people that it’s very normal for children to struggle when moving from public to private school, especially when they are in middle school and all of the hormones and social pressures make the simple act of existing complicated. But this is different. My son, who normally brought home straight As, was suddenly failing tests on a regular basis–and he didn’t seem to care. When I tried to help him study, he often resisted, which ended up in arguments and hurt feelings. But on the few occasions where the planets aligned and he allowed me to help him, he got great grades on his tests.
We consulted with the school counselor, his advisor/home room teacher, school principal, and a variety of other specialists. We brainstormed solutions and we all shared them with J. But nothing we tried seemed to help. He often times refused to study for tests, and when he did, he didn’t know how to do so effectively. He also forgot to bring home materials for very important tests, which was so infuriating to his father and me. We could not understand how this straight A-child suddenly seemed incapable of functioning in his new school. He was angry and frustrated with his schoolwork, and he just seemed to give up.
Finally, after a semester of struggle, I recently contacted a tutoring service. After talking with the executive director and explaining what was going on, she said that it appears that J does not have the necessary executive function skills to succeed in the more rigorous academic environment. (Please see this link for an example of how a child with limited executive functions experiences life: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-child-with-executive-functioning-issues) I knew that J was having problems planning, organizing, staying focused, persevering, and self-advocating—but it blew me away when she put it in such terms.
Executive functioning is the brain’s way of managing its thoughts, tasks, and focus. These processes are generally performed in the frontal lobe of the brain and they do not come naturally to everyone. In many cases, they have to be taught explicitly. My son’s private school classmates have been working on executive functioning skills for years because the school they have been in does not focus on teaching to the test, as is done in public schools. The school is, instead, able to focus on teaching children HOW to learn.
So here is the conclusion that I have come to in just the past couple days: High-stakes standardized testing has handicapped our public school students. The curriculum is limited and focuses on teaching content—not on teaching children how to learn (i.e.., executive functioning skills). And Common Core standards absolutely do not solve this problem, as indicated by the incredibly low number of children who leave Metro Nashville Public Schools prepared for college. In fact, the executive director of J’s tutoring practice said it doesn’t matter what a child gets on a standardized test–what matters is if he/she is capable of effectively using executive functions to stay focused, organized, and motivated. Without those skills, a child will grow up to be an adult who has trouble succeeding in college, future careers, and life in general.
It is unfair that there are countless children going all the way through 12th grade without learning how to think. These children graduate from school and are left floundering because they do not know how to advocate for themselves, plan or organize their lives, or focus on a goal. In this day and age, you can find just about everything on Google, so cramming facts that will likely never be used again into a child’s head is not an effective way of making our children self-sufficient, successful adults–but teaching them how to learn is.
It is long past time that our state and nation take their focus off of the amount of stuff that children can regurgitate on a test. While it is important to have some very basic measure that reflects if students are learning the content being taught to them, it is much more important that these children learn how to access this content, organize their learning, and discover how to reach out for help when needed. If my son, who by all measures, is “gifted” and was raised in a highly supportive household, does not know how to do such things, I suspect that there are countless other children in public schools who are in desperate need of learning these executive function skills.
My fear is that our country that is known for innovation and creativity is going to lose this edge and become a society of people who do not “reach for the stars”. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. And that is unacceptable.