Testing

Parent Perspective: “Have you lost your mind?”

Truth.  I am a little surprised that the reaction from friends and family to the idea of starting a Sudbury school has been wholly positive.  And for those whose reaction is a little doubtful, they are helping me to improve my pitch about starting the school.

Most of the people I have shared the concept with have asked questions and smiled. Some nodded and moved onto to other topics or wished me the best of luck.  And then there were the ones whose eyes lit up, who see this as the school they have been looking for their son, daughter, grandson or granddaughter.  They want to know more.  When will it open?  Where will it be?  How much will it cost?  What happens when you finish with your Sudbury education?

I was expecting something different.  In talking with other founders who have launched a Sudbury School, each has shared with me the stories of adults who have had an overtly negative reaction to the idea that kids can be in charge of their own education.  Some got downright angry.  A few even tossed out threats.

For those of you who are considering Sudbury for your child, or are planning to support the decision of a family member or friend to embark on this journey, be prepared for the negative nancy to come along and blurt out, “Have you lost your mind?”

It is for you that I share this essay borrowed from Johanna Schmidt, a longtime Fairhaven School parent and author.  I have copied the text from the Fairhaven School blog.

Are You Thinking Sudbury Parents Must be Insane?

Back when both of my children went to a highly rated public Montessori School, I occasionally ran into acquaintances whose children attended Fairhaven School.  I smiled and nodded politely as they described the model of this “free school” where the kids decided to do whatever they wanted all day, while thinking “Are you CRAZY?”  I couldn’t believe that any intelligent and loving parent would take such a risk with their child’s education.  Didn’t we all agree that solid education was the only way a person could accomplish anything in this mad world?  Were their children sad misfits who simply couldn’t survive other more conventional models of schooling or were they (the parents) impossible idealists completely cut off from reality as we all know it?

Understand, I am a career educator, started teaching right out of college and never fully stopped.  I have taught in public schools, private schools, taught adults, children, and currently teach and administer a program at University of Maryland, partially because I want to be able to afford to send my children there someday.  So I have a lot invested in the world of education as we know it.  If it’s all a big mess than what on earth have I been doing all these years?  If kids don’t actually need teachers, then surely college-age students don’t need me.  How threatening is that?

So.  Here’s what happened.  My eldest son B, got up to 7th grade, where the high-performing public Montessori school took especial pride in preparing a high percentage of their students to successfully test their way into the math and science public magnet school in our area that has the reputation (there’s just no other way to say it) of being the ONLY option for people who can’t afford private school.  We were told that all the 7th graders would be doing between 30 and 100 math problems a night, in homework, in order to increase their prowess and take their rightful places as rulers of the planet.  And I broke.  I snapped.  I couldn’t see it, couldn’t do it, couldn’t subject my child or my family life to it, suddenly thought “Good grief, K-12 is all institutionalized academic rigor and stress and tests, then University is more institutional academic rigor and stress and tests….what kind of education is that, really?” and I compared my own paltry schooling but extremely happy childhood with the one I was providing for my son, shook my head in disgust, and began looking for alternatives.

One thing led to another and I found myself on the back porch at a neighborhood party while two enthusiastic parents related how their son, who had been miserable at a neighborhood public school, actually enjoyed going to Fairhaven, was happy and acting more responsibly at home, and was occasionally cooking them eggs for breakfast without even being asked!  Will you think less of me if I admit it was the promise of my progeny becoming some sort of unpaid cook/housekeeper that made me start to listen?  And once I started listening and entertaining dangerous thoughts, I couldn’t stop.  Then I visited the campus and I was sold.  I wondered “How could a place that feels so good be bad for my sons?” In retrospect, I wish I had had the emotional courage to ask myself years before, how could a place that felt as bad as their former school felt, possibly be good for them.

My husband and I took a deep breath, clutched each other’s hands, and in the face of more raised eyebrows than you can shake a power point presentation at, we jumped off the educational cliff.  That’s what it felt like to me, enrolling at Fairhaven.

The first thing I noticed was different about B. after he started at Fairhaven was that all of his health problems evaporated.  Asthma, allergies, digestion problems, all of which he had suffered for his entire K-6th grade years.  All gone. He didn’t take many classes that first year, and that really freaked me out.  But he was happy and healthy, and my husband and I decided maybe we were just giving him a well-needed break.   He was doing such interesting things and had great friendships so I knew it wasn’t an entirely bad move, but we weren’t complete believers yet;  I kept worrying about my son’s pathway to college.  I couldn’t see it. If I list for you here my son’s involvements and accomplishments, and why I now believe my son will be able to create a future for himself, it will sound an awful lot like bragging, and B. will not allow me to publish this blog.  He’s a thoughtful, modest fellow and would prefer to impress you in person. If he chooses to go to college, he’ll go.  I can see that now. He’s fourteen.  Why, I ask myself, why, why, why did I think I should be able to see it any sooner?

Around the Web: Direct Instruction

In this article entitled, “Early Childhood Education: The Case Against Direct Instruction of Academic Skills“, Alfie Kohn makes the case against Direct Instruction (DI).   He defines DI as instruction “in which teachers read from a prepared script in the classroom, drilling young children on basic skills in a highly controlled, even militaristic fashion, and offering reinforcement when children produce the correct responses – appeared to produce the best results.”

This paragraph really him home.

When a didactic, basic-skills focus was compared to a child-centered focus in 32 preschool and kindergarten classes in California, children in the former group did better on reading tests (consistent with the short-term advantage found in some of the other studies), neither better nor worse on math tests, and terribly on a range of nonacademic measures.  The skills kids had lower expectations of themselves, worried more about school, were more dependent on adults, and preferred easier tasks.

Better on the test.  Not so good in social or emotional areas. And this is just one of several studies captured in the article.

So what do you think?  Is there any reason to expect that the direct teaching of skills in order to improve outcomes on a test ever make sense in PreK/12 education?

I welcome your comments.

The Pressure is On.

2014 is nearly over.

And I am only “half” ready.

If 2014 is any indication, the time will zip by.  On the one hand, I am excited about a fresh start.  But there are HUGE unknowns that loom ahead.

The biggest one is the daunting challenge of how to change the course of our kids’ education.  The amount of time we have to make a meaningful change seems like it keeps getting smaller and smaller.   I know that there are others of you out there who are feeling uncertain of the path your kids will take too.  Maybe you have a teenager and you feel you only have a few years left to make a difference.  Maybe you are coming up on a transition from elementary to middle school or middle to high and you want to do something before your kid settles in to the next school.

Regardless, we all feel time slipping away.

For me, with each day, the pressure is more intense.

pressure

I think schools are feeling the pressure too.

Public and charter schools have more required of them, with less funding and, in some cases, with less time to impart the knowledge needed to pass the standardized tests that measure the success of their teachings.  The test scores not only impact the kids, but are often computed into the ratings of the staff’s performance and can affect the schools’ funding.

The stakes are high.

Maybe that is why so many traditional school systems are starting earlier and earlier to get kids ready.  Whether it is having middle school kids pick a track for high school that aligns with a specific career or college path, or piling on more and more homework to “help” with preparation, schools are requiring more instruction and more work in an effort to push kids to be their most successful.

In fact, I recently read an article about a kindergarten in New York who cancelled its end-of-the-year show in order to devote more time to college and career prep.

The interim principal writes,

The reason for eliminating the Kindergarten show is simple. We are responsible for preparing children for college and career with valuable lifelong skills and know that we can best do that by having them become strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers.

And currently, the determination of who is a strong reader, write, and so on, is a series of assessments…standardized tests. Not a successfully executed end-of-year show.

I do not fault the school for making the judgment call.  In fact, if I was them, I may have done the same thing.  If you can only be successful as a school or as a system if your students do well on a test, then surely, you must prepare for the test.  Starting earlier is a natural conclusion.

However, there are several problems with the way our system has evolved.  First, not everyone does well on standardized tests.  Moreover, even if you do well on tests, the methods of instruction most schools use to prepare kids for the tests is ideal for only a fraction of the population.  Generally, traditional schooling is not multi-sensory.  It is lecture based.  It utilizes rote memorization.  Most people don’t learn that way.

In addition, success in life is more than being able to do well on tests. I want our kids to have schooling that reflects modern society.  They need to learn to be self-motivated.  They need to learn to be adaptable.  They need to be able to be curious and innovative.  To achieve this, schools need more individualization.  More customization.   More interaction. More experiential-learning opportunities.  They need to be given freedom and responsibility.  They need opportunities to practice making choices for themselves.  They need to become accustomed to taking responsibility when those choices don’t pan out the way they’d like.

To the contrary, traditional schools pick the time, the place, the lessons, the curriculum, the delivery methods and the measure of success. Kids decide on next-to-nothing about how they are taught and that is doing them a disservice.

I also think that the assumption that a show would not help the students become “strong readers, writers, coworkers and problem solvers” is also flawed.  Time and time again, we learn that life’s softer pursuits can be a great teachers.  Music. Art. Games. Theater. Sports. Cooking. Gardening.  All of these things require reading, writing and decision making.  They just cannot be assessed on a test.  And really, shouldn’t our 5 year-olds have an experience that exposes them to the world around them and allow them to lean into learning things that really interest them?

Shouldn’t we all have that?

When I was looking for a path that would give my kids the best start in life, I NEVER would have predicted that I would be an advocate for something like a Sudbury School.  No grades. No grade-levels. No lesson plans. No tests.

That said, I have come to realize that while some kids are getting exactly what they need from traditional schools, there are plenty more kids would thrive in a new or different environment. Sudbury may not be for everyone, but if you are feeling the pressure to find something else that might be a better fit for your kid, consider joining the effort to open a Sudbury School in North Florida.

Feel free to comment below and I will reach out to you with details about our upcoming information meetings.

Happy new year and much joy, prosperity and health to you and yours in 2015.

~Jennifer