It was night time. I was in bed. I was awakened by a bump. I got out of bed. I looked under my bed. YIKES! I saw a monster. He growled at me. I growled bake. He got agry. I ran away he did to. I ran in my mom’s and dad’s room. The monster ran to the closet. In the morning my mom and dad asked me why I was in ther bed. I told them it all.
– “The Monster,” written precisely as above by a kindergartner I know
My oldest child is completing her first year of public school. While I was mostly pleased with her experience, there are certain components of it that, projecting forward, make me uneasy. Primary among them is the administrative impulse within public education to categorize children. Her classmates have all been divided into groups, and the groups will be evenly distributed across the various first grade classes next year. Boys and girls are each a group. Special needs children are a group, as are the “troublemakers.” Then there are the average kids, the “brights,” and the few who have horrifyingly been deemed “gifted and talented.” They’ll all be spread across 10 or so classes, with the “gifted and talenteds” collected in one lucky classroom that gets a visit from an outside teacher once a week. Once you’ve entered into the “gifted and talented” group, thanks to your performance on a secret test and assessment formula, you stay there for the duration of elementary school, like some sandbox mafia to which other children are occasionally extended an invitation. There’s also a special arts program, which pulls students out to work on projects with a district art teacher, who handpicked the kids, herself, based on her interactions with them this year.
I understand the need to assess students, to identify those who need extra help and to ensure that all are challenged. I understand that in order to distribute students across classes and distribute resources effectively within a system, divisions and choices must be made. But what I am seeing first-hand, which should come as no surprise to anyone who pays attention to public education, is a system that creates giant cracks connected by shoddy netting. Forward, forward, forward the students are marched, their teachers sympathetic drill sergeants who can get them a little help and extra attention within certain confines, but not really much more than that. My state, like many others, doubles down by incentivizing a system that reifies taxonomies that I’ve been shocked out of my naivete to find start immediately. I have these misgivings even though we live in a very good school district and even though our daughter has done very well.
I’m familiar with but not expert in theories of elementary education, and there is much I don’t know. What I do know is that I wish we could send our child to a school where she was marched on the path projected forward by the thinking in the story above, not by a system that sorted her by its expectations of what she should be able to do when. There’s a creativity and focus in “The Monster” which I fear will only be tapped and harnessed incidentally given the current trajectory of public schooling, whether she’s in a “gifted and talented” program or not. I want her to get help at school nurturing that ability, mining it and turning it into the base from which she can develop the literacy required to be a well-rounded adult. But the hegemony of quantitative assessment and the taxonomies that it leaves in its wake make me worry that such creativity will be given space to flourish less regularly than it should.
Approaches like what I want exist, to be sure, but we can’t afford to have our kids attend the nearest Montessori, and home schooling isn’t practical given our situation (and sense of what we’re capable of doing). We also care deeply about public education, and would rather contribute to its richness and successes through the unique perspectives we know our children will bring than to remove ourselves from it all together.
Ultimately, we’ll plan to supplement and support our children’s pursuit of their passions, and while we’re confident they’ll come out the other side whole, talented, adjusted young adults, we’re also increasingly resigned to the fact that no matter where we are it will take a certain amount of navigation, and that we’ll see things along they way that don’t sit well with us. In fact, that’s already begun.