Monday, September 22, 2008

Online Education

On the front page of the New York Times reads the headline: "Half a million American Children Take Classes Online.” It continues to report, “with a significant group...getting all their schooling from virtual public schools."

So, I think back to my experience homeschooling my three kids. And yes, they took plenty of classes in the community and with other homeschoolers. And yes, there may have been times when an online class would have been helpful. But I can’t help but wonder about learning from a teacher who loves doing what he/she does as opposed to getting information from a computer. Where is the interaction? Where is the spontaneous burst of questions and answers, dialogue, rapport? Where is the passion?

Then, I think about situations I have seen in our public schools: Teachers with far too many students to be affective or to know what any of those students are getting from classroom-based presentations short of their test scores: Teachers who are far too burdened with state and district requirements to have the time and energy to connect to their passions, let alone communicate them.

I think about the ghetto schools I have seen. I taught in a couple for a while. I remember asking kids to hand in their knives. I saw a gun battle at the gas station across the street from the high school. I dealt with fires set in trashcans and the need to lock myself and my students into our classroom for our own protection.

I think about burned-out, crabby teachers and the interactions they might be creating with their students. I think about all the students who are pushed to move on, when, with a little bit of extra time, they could have mastered that skill or got the concept.

I put it all together and come to the conclusion that sitting in the living room, studying from a computer screen might be O.K. if it keeps a child out of a less-than-optimal situation, but wouldn’t it be better if there where passionate classrooms that met every child’s needs everywhere?

Monday, September 15, 2008

How to Pick the Right School for Your Child

Well, you’ve made it through diapers, potting training and preschool. Now what? The weight of your child’s future lies in your hands. Will he end up the CEO of some big company or living under a bridge? Will he be happy, or will he be thwarted with mid-life crisis because you pushed him in a direction that did not make him happy. How do you pick the right school for this wonderful child you loved and nurtured?

Where do you start? In the obvious place, a place too many often overlook…your child. Who is he? What does he need? And then, how can you get that for him? Every school has an underlying philosophy. Find out what it is. Then go visit the school. See if the school matches its own philosophy. For instance, they say they aim at positive self-esteem, but everyone is yelling at each other. The teacher talks sternly to the children as if the teacher anticipates they are all going to do something terrible at any moment.

Then check out how much personal attention each child gets, particularly in kindergarten for their first experience. It is so important to start off on the right foot with school a place for positive experiences. What is the teacher to student ratio? Are there any aids in the class? If you can’t teach 28 five year-olds at the same time to read, why do you assume a teacher can? We are all still human. Some of those kids will go unnoticed. The ones that require the most attention will probably get more than their share. The squeaky wheel gets the oil. The polite, quiet ones will probably go unnoticed.

Observe your child. Is he physically active? If so, either put him in a school that can accommodate that, or make his early experience Montessori. How does your child learn? If it’s by doing, does your local school have lots of manipulatives or just workbooks? If it’s not experiential, it’s probably not a good match for the active child.

Create your own checklist: physical environment, playtime, supervision on the play yard. You don’t have to be a teacher to have common sense. Ask questions. Don’t be afraid. After all, it’s your baby we are talking about. And above all, try to see the teacher your child will have. If it’s someone you wouldn’t want to spend every day with, why should your child? Don’t be afraid to make changes if necessary. You have more power than you think.

Monday, September 8, 2008

They Can Drop Out, But Where Can They Hide?

According to researchers from John Hopkins University, one in ten U.S. high schools should be labeled a ‘Dropout Factory.’ Associated Press reports, "It's a nickname no principal could be proud of: 'Dropout Factory,' a high school where no more than 60 percent of the students who start as freshmen make it to their senior year." The U.S. Department of Education reports that 30 percent of our kids across the nation never make it to a high school diploma anyway. That’s three out of every ten! I also understand that number does not include the kids who drop out, but get a G.E.D. high school equivalency certificate at a later date.

So, what I want to know is, where do these kids go? What kind of society are we creating? As an educator, and a mother whose boys would never have made it if I left them to the system (late readers, dyslexic and more) I think there but Grace go I.

We create our high school students in kindergarten. If we lose them from the starting gate, not enough of them catch up. Kids who can’t read well enough, or can’t write well enough, or can’t pass state math exit exams, don’t get better in high school. They get lost.

When it was obvious our boys were going to be late readers, we first put them in a Montessori system where they could go at their own neurological and psychological rate. Then, when our local Montessori stopped at the fourth-fifth grade, we created our own school. Both boys graded UCLA in their areas of strength, math and computer electronics. They were fortunate. We were proactive.

So what if our local public schools were more developmental on the elementary school level. What if they taught the three R’s at each child’s individual rate. No more children being dragged through curriculum when they cannot keep up. No more children bored to death and turning off at a young age, because they already knew the material and needed to go faster. No more high school dropouts.

So here’s my final question. When rain falls, we know where it goes. Some of it goes into rivers, lakes and oceans. Some of it waters our flowers. And some of it falls into our sewers. Where, every year, do these million high school dropouts go? We absorb them into our communities, our society. Do some end up making things blossom? Or do they end up in the sewer? What do you think the probabilities are? If this system does not work for so many kids, isn’t it time we rethink it?

Monday, September 1, 2008

International Competition

The Olympics are on. I watched the opening ceremony on T.V. Stellar! The incredible syncopation and coordination of human mind, body and, from the look of their faces, even spirit, of the performers! It just shows what is possible when we focus our time and energy on a goal together.

I also watched the determination on the faces of the athletes. The way the young female gymnasts worked together as a team. The way they hugged and comforted each other when the faltered. Their coach’s sense of triumph and pride when they finally qualified in spite of a number of challenges. I listened to the news. It’s all about the Olympics. The ads claim that the United States as a nation is “so into the Olympics.” I think about our sports policies…how kids who did not do well in school can get into major Ivy League Colleges along with free tuition and all expenses paid. I think about high school sports and how competitive they are. I think about how our identities, so many of us, are tied into the triumph of our sports teams. It is a national goal.

Then I read the newspaper…not the sports section…the headline of the Washington Post. According to the Post, “U.S. Teens Trail Peers Around World on Math-Science Test.” It reads, “The disappointing performance of U.S. teenagers in math and science on an international exam, in scores released yesterday, has sparked calls for improvement in public schools to help the country keep pace in the global economy.” It said that in the last two years the science scores of U.S. 15-year-olds lagged behind those in 16 of the 30 industrialized nations. Worse, their math scores trailed behind 23 of those nations. So, where is the national fervor we have for sports applied to math and science? Almost nowhere.

Mark S. Schneider, commissioner of the National Center for Education Statistics, U.S. Department of Education, shed light on these statistics only to darken the picture. He said that the international exams were designed to test a student’s ability to use "more sophisticated concepts and deeper reasoning skills." They were not designed to just measure a student’s recall of facts. Furthermore, he stated that most U.S. 10th graders received an average science score of 489 out of a 1000 points, 11 points below the average of 30 countries. In math, only four countries did worse than the U.S. and 23 countries had higher scores.

So, my question is this: If we, as a nation, are into competition, what happened to academia? If we want to succeed, it had better not just be in sports. I wonder what would happen if we backed our science and math programs like we do our sports programs? I wonder what we could do if we showed the same public support for math and science as we do for gymnastics and volleyball? I wonder what would happen if we cheered our students on, where’d we really be as a nation? Or will we just be known as all brawn and not enough brain…at least in math and science?