The Scariest Story Ever; or, the Tyranny of Taxomony

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.

Creative Commons License photo credit: minowa*naitoh

6 thoughts on “The Scariest Story Ever; or, the Tyranny of Taxomony”

  1. I’m waiting on a long response to this because I am workin on one in my head. Anto and I are going through the same questions/issues as Miles ramps up for Kindergarten this coming fall. Fact is, we don’t know if he is going, and amazing to me, we are exploring the home school path. I have some deep questions and reservations, but at the same time I have to think all the things you are talking about in more depth so that I can begin to explain where I stand on this, because my ehart is also very much in public education. I’m confused, more soon.

  2. As the mom of a kid who has gone from a “troublemaker” to a “bright,” I can tell you that you shouldn’t worry too much about it. Or maybe just worry a little less. I think many kids are lucky enough to get a good teacher, who will take a little time with each kid to know what will most help him or her. Not that it’s the norm; but there are so many teachers in the schools. And they really are on the kids’ side. Combine that with parents who stay very involved in their kids’ schoolwork and extra curricular learning, and I think you’ll come out okay!

    But ask me again next year when my son starts 2nd grade. Probably as a “troublemaker” again…

  3. Spending some time in my RSS reader to procrastinate on writing my next diss chapter on educational problems in NYC public schools (chapter covering the WWII years), and I’m glad I did. The concerns that you raise connect in important ways to those of parents of the 1940s that I’m studying at the moment. Administrators’ favoring of categorization often turned into an obsession (in the 1920s, 30s, 40s, and … well that’s where I’m up to in my dissertation), one justified in terms of scientific modernization. The most ambitious school reform initiatives (then, as now) looked to substantively change the tracking dynamic in innovative ways (analgous to that which you are proposing) but failed for a variety reasons. What were those reasons? You can read my diss for that (or perhaps the abstract so you can avoid the slog). Thanks for your thought-provoking post, that has my mind racing with historical questions as well as future oriented ones about the public schools my son will be attending starting in the next couple of years.

  4. @Jim: I’m interested to think through all this with you. Beyond our realization that we could never successfully pull it off because of the various personalities involved (which is far and away the main reason), P and I both are concerned about the particular forms of socialization that would be absent if we homeschooled. Frankly, there’s a lot, both good and bad, that K has to deal with because she’s schooled where she is, and I think (hope) engaging with those forces will ultimately make her stronger.

    @Sarah: thanks for the comment. I guess my worry isn’t less about my particular child’s situation than about the values of ranking and competition and betters and worses that the system I describe is subtly drilling into her already at such a young age. I have no doubt we can correct them, but I’d prefer to devote that energy to something else. That said, I don’t mean to imply that good teaching is absent or that she’s not getting challenged and inspired, because she really is. But it’s happening within this overarching context that really has my alarm bells going off. Of course, part of my feeling is shock that all parents likely feel about sending their babies out into the world. And part of it is I think seeing the world a little more clearly through that process.

    @Tom: thanks, also. As I was writing this post, I quickly realized I wasn’t saying anything new or even saying anything really new to me. I think I was trying to express something that feels different because I’ve come to know it now experientially rather than just intellectually. I know there’s a long history behind this stuff, but to see the fundamental structure first-hand, unchanged but gussied up with some new language and updated details has been eye-opening. And, finally, I’ve been wondering when you were going to hand that manuscript across the table… I’ll be waiting!

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