All of my friends want to know if the DC Public Schools are right for their kids. I used to be a DCPS teacher, and they know I have seen the belly of the beast.
I live in the city myself, and I’m looking around with my eyes wide open, wondering if the urban public schools my child adores today will meet her needs tomorrow. Increasingly, the question for me (a die-hard public school supporter, Berkeley Masters Degree of Education in hand) is not whether suburban schools can do it better than urban schools, but whether or not any public schools at all can match up to the academic freedom I see flying around the (mostly-test-free) halls of the area’s elite private institutions.
It’s like an educational parallel to the Whole Foods paradox. Peasants in the bad old days used to eat brown bread and vegetables and at the very least (despite nasty, brutish and short lives) were the healthiest eaters in the land. Now people with lower incomes are stuck eating fast food crap. Well, people with little money used to be able to turn to the public school system to find the freedom to learn. Now, the privilege of having unfettered access to the healthiest of educations –an innate love of learning, fostered by creative approaches to curriculum—seems like it may be reserved for the elites who can pay the price for test-free schools. As a teacher from Oakland High put it, incessant testing in public schools is “like weighing a calf twice a day, but never feeding it."
I can tell you from first-hand experience that the kind of test prep that happens in schools in the months leading up to test days is exactly the kind of thing that used to make my skull split right down the middle in elementary school my very ownself. The teacher, droning on in a patient voice, leading children through instructions they can very well read to themselves. Pattering on about how to pencil correctly in those tiny ovals. And all of this information actually necessary, because schools’ budgets and very leadership depends on this make-or-break test. Oh, the agony.
Back when I was teaching in DCPS, the test did not even align with the curriculum. They’ve (theoretically) solved that basic, horrifying paradigm of apples and oranges equaling a fascinating, high-stakes game of gotcha. But I wonder still if we cannot, as a society, ever trust that teachers are attempting to teach kids the best they can with impossibly limited resources. Sure, there were some dud teachers where I taught. Very few, though, and my excellent principal was more than up to the task of sidelining entire departments for a year or two in order to render a retirement package more alluring. A goodly number of the teachers I worked with were top-notch, dedicated, highly experienced, and downright fantastic at their jobs.
I’m speaking as a parent looking for what’s right for my kids. I’m speaking as a former public school teacher. I am all for ensuring high standards in teaching, in fact, I would love for there to be individualized education for every student in every class. But I do not think that the current (over)emphasis on standardized testing warrants the bloody beating of the dead horse of teacher and student motivation that exists in public schools today. IMHO, it’s a Republican plot to drive the public schools out of existence. It’s finger-pointing rather than problem-solving.
What can we do to help excellent teachers and the kids they continue to reach? Make ongoing teacher training helpful and interesting, instead of making the aptly-titled “seat hours” merely a shuffling of bodies. Reward teachers for completing their National Board Certification (which has teachers compile portfolios instead of just tracking their test scores;). Track grades, heck, even compile meaningful results. Ask teachers to do something like give a sample lesson in their interviews instead of just looking at their paper test scores. Give teachers meaningful standards to inform their teaching, and access to successful lesson plans (and don’t require mindless repetition of vague educational principles from either teachers or students). Devise citywide curriculum and spiral concepts through the grades so kids can build on concepts from year to year. And remember that there is a bigger picture to flesh out when judging schools than the numbers.
How healthy is the parent community? How involved are teachers in the extracurriculars and life of the school? What obstacles are the students and school community struggling to surmount even before butting heads with the three Rs? How, as a city, can we ensure the health of the whole child attending each school? Do our smallest citizens love to go to school and engage in meaningful dialogue with each other as they grapple with important ideas and constructs? Is every kid growing up with an open mind and heart?
This isn’t what I see fostered in public schools today. So, what do I tell my friends? Same thing I tell myself. Every child is different. You have to see what works for your child, one teacher and one grade at a time. Look at your kid’s report card, yes, but make your decisions based on the overall picture you see at a school. Public or private. The numbers only tell a fraction of the story. Open minds and hearts? Or rote bubbling of ovals? Hopefully, it won't come down to that divide.
Original DC Metro Moms post for Wednesday's Education Topic Day....