Monday, February 16, 2009

My Public School Interview

When I was first considering whether to continue with expensive Montessori private school, I interviewed the principal of our local school. When I went to meet her, she said she had never been interviewed before. I thought that was very interesting. Either everyone assumed there was no way they would use the public school, or that they knew what public school was already all about, or, saddest idea of all, that the parents who were sending their kids to public school never thought to find out about the place where their kids were going to be spending one-half of their waking hours.

Our school system scores well on the state tests and everyone always says, "You're homeschooling? But --------- has such good schools." By their standards, that is probably true. The Connecticut Mastery Test is a barely grade-level test. I was not satisfied with using that as my standard.

I interviewed the public school before we decided to continue with a private Montessori education. I got the name of the math curriculum (terrible--I discuss it, and more of the condescending treatment parents receive, here). I learned that the 2nd grade girls had formed a clique that had rules regarding appropriate clothing and if the rules were broken no one else in the clique (almost the whole second grade) would talk to you. It took the school two years to find out about the clique. After finding out about the clique, the school had a number of 'inclusiveness' goals (which I think are OK--I am glad they were trying to eliminate such peer pressure). They picked the 'most inclusive student of the month' from each class. I asked the principal what they did to honor academic achievement. She looked at me quizzically and stated that they only liked to reward what everyone could accomplish.

I call bullshit. Not everyone is as capable as everyone else of being nice (having the clique at all proves that), but, in recognizing it as something to be rewarded, they are at least showing that is something to be valued and a trait to try to obtain. But with academics they give up on the kids right away, they don't care that some kids might do well even if it involves a lot of work on their part; work they might do in order to get a reward. Additionally, the academic reward need not be for overall grades. It could reward handing in homework every time, most improved, best effort, or most attention-paid during class.

I asked how the school dealt with discipline on the bus. I was considering sending my seven year-old into their realm, I needed to know how they would deal with trouble makers. She said that they do warnings and talk with parents. OK--that's fine. Then she said that if the kids persist in their behavior, they could be kicked off the bus. But she said, "I can only take them off the bus for a few days though. Otherwise the parents complain." kids who are so disruptive they have to be taken off the bus are allowed back on again because it might inconvenience the parent. Seems to me that those types of parents and those kids should be inconvenienced.

We had a few disagreements with the Montessori school and they were always helpful and listened to our concerns, and for the most part, agreed with us and made the changes we requested. The amount and level of homework had been an issue, for example. I asked the principal how she handles conflicts between the parents and teachers. Her response was "We do our best to educate the parent." How arrogant. I knew that we had no chance ever being given a fair hearing of any opinions, no matter how valid.

The school had leveled classrooms with all different types of learners. The curriculum marches forward according to the schedule. Whether the kids understand the material or not. When I did the interview, many kids were being pulled out of class for independent tutoring. The school put 'egalitarianism' and the so-called self-esteem of not being in a 'slow class' above effective teaching. They do not do ability grouping and they have special ed students floundering in a regular class. Of course the kids that don't get it are pulled out of class (again--they'll be behind on THAT) for additional work. Tell me how being constantly behind and not understanding what is being taught helps with self-esteem? The educators can pretend all they want, but children who 'don't get it' will still recognize that they are behind other kids and every kid knows they need extra help with all of the pull-outs anyway. The kids themselves are even more aware of their academic failings when they are being mainstreamed into a classroom that includes all abilities. At least being in a class that is working behind other classes would give them a fighting chance of mastering skills the first time around and they would be surrounded by other kids who work at their same level.

You can be sure that the public school would never have accommodated Hanover's slightly advanced level when she transferred. I felt like it would have wasted her time since she had finished most public school first grade curriculum in her Montessori kindergarten. She tends to pick things up quickly, so I also did not want her to get bored with school. I also didn't want her to be in an atmosphere where brainy kids are made to feel out-of-place. A friend of mine, who was familiar with Montessori, had asked his relative, a public school teacher, how Montessori educated children do when they transfer. She indicated that Montessori education wasn't all that good. In her opinion, sure, the kids are advanced when they come in, but by the end of the year they are the same as everyone else. When you do nothing for children who are advanced and only teach them the same way and material you teach anyone else, of course they cannot continue with their advanced level of achievement. What an asinine comment.

During the entire tour I got to hear the principal complain about their lack of space, how the library, which was larger than the first floor of my house, could not accommodate two full classes at once, how they should have more money to expand the library or, as we were walking past an entire room devoted to art, the empty music room, the empty computer room bulging with computers newer than the one I had at home, buy new computers. Whine, whine, whine. As though anyone else can get the top-of-the-line everything or exactly what they want.

Here I was shelling out over $10,000 per kid to pay for a private school as well as helping fund this school. That private school had a library that only existed in the six bookcases on the wall of the one elementary school room, had four computers for all twenty-four children to use, no cafeteria (children ate in the classroom), no actual gym (there was a 600 square-foot carpeted room that the kids could run around in that also served as the hallway to get to the other part of the school), no art or music rooms, had minimal music, art, and gym programs, and had no afterschool opportunities except daycare. And yet I was happier to have my child schooled with such so-called inadequate resources because the priorities were always placed on academics. Each child had an individual plan and could work many of their subjects independently, at their level, and even move into a higher-level academic classroom if that is where their talents and need for curriculum leads them. The parents in this private school were more than willing to live with such substandard extras as long as their children were taught the core subjects competently and at the appropriate level.

When I left the interview, the principal of the public school was kind enough to give me samples of the school newsletter to parents. After explaining to me how they had to lengthen the school day by 15 minutes to spend a full hour (maybe an hour and 15 minutes, I can't remember now) each day doing math, every newsletter admonishes the parents to do math fact practice with their children at home each night. A testament to how inefficient their math program is. They spend an hour a day in math class and they still cannot find a way to fit in 10 minutes of math fact practice? There is no excuse for taking that much time each and every day to teach elementary grade math concepts--except for their lousy curriculum and lousy way of including all levels of learners in each class.

Another little gem was written by the school's full-time computer expert. He wrote about finally succeeding in converting every single computer lab computer to a Linux operating system. What an ass. His logic was that the systems were more stable. My thinking was along these lines: There are computers in the school so that children will be familiar with computers. They should be able to write reports on them at school or home, use them to research on the web at school or home, use them to run academic programs at school or home, have a familiarity with computers so they can get jobs that require computer use later in life. And this guy has them using Linux. An operating system that runs on about 1% of computers OUTSIDE of their school. 90% of those children will go home or go to the library or go to a job where the operating system will be Microsoft Windows. So except for a computer geek, who thinks children should be using Linux computers or spending resources and money to end up with a computer system that was not generalized.

Even before the interview, I pretty much knew that there were things about the public school I would have issues with. That the schools can guarantee a captive audience of the nation's children for hours a day makes them ripe for indoctrination. There is not an ideological group out there that is not trying to get their message into to public schools. Almost all of those groups try to pawn free or reduced-cost curriculum to the schools to wedge their ideals into the children's heads before they are knowledgeable enough to determine the idea's rightness or wrongness. Those groups spend lots of time and effort getting to the trapped kids who may never be presented with any other viewpoint; whose possibly inadequate education could keep them from being able to figure it out on their own. Public schools eat up this free material, especially if it already agrees with a teacher's, or principal's, or school board's pedagogical or political beliefs.

After the interview, I was quite certain that I did not want to put her in that school. I wish that more people would treat public school like any other place they would store their children for multiple hours. I am sure most parents would interview nurseries, daycares, and preschools. I am dismayed that so few interview the public school. I hope that all parents are vigilant about their children's education, whether it's in public school or private school. Just having a child in school is not enough, especially when an effective education is so far down the list of many public schools' priorities.


LB said...

It's so true that people just assume that public school is right and good. And the teachers also feel that they are beyond reproach.

Years ago, the principal of my daughter's school actually told me face-to-face to back off "and let us do our job". Gee. I thought raising my daughter was my job. Silly.

Within two weeks she went to a local Montessori and then a year and a half later, homeschool. Now she's back at public high school doing really important work, like watching a documentary on Darfur sponsored by the Humanitarian Club for which the entire school had reduced class times and had to be excused by a note from the parent if they did not want to watch it.

My daughter chose to watch it, and then wished she hadn't. What is a 15 year-old supposed to do with that type of education?

christinemm said...

Kim said: "When I did the interview, many kids were being pulled out of class for independent tutoring."

Don't forget the way it is structured now is that those kids are labeled with an LD and classifed as 504 SPecial Ed and then the school can collect more money from the state for them. So it benefits the school to do it that way, to pull them out for special tutoring as they make more money.

When my parents were in school the teachers had to have more individualized learning in their class in order to get the struggling learners up to speed, that one teacher was in charge of their education and they had to be creative in their approach. Now the kid gets noticed, referred for testing, labeled, then they leave that class for extra help. It is SO DIFFERENT now.

Kim said...

They could still label the kids special ed and have those kids sequestered in their own classroom where there could be multiple teachers and a teaching method and speed that is more geared for their needs.

It is dispicable that the schools would allow those children to drown in a classroom geared toward average learners and constantly pull them out guaranteeing that they are behind in the subject being taught at the time of the pull out as well as what they were already missing.

I would be even more thrilled if they had classes for upper elementary even more like middle school. Math seperate from reading so that if a child is strong in one and weak in another they could be placed according to their level. Even better if they used levels of progress instead of grades even if that might mean having 7, 8, and 10 years olds all in the same math or reading or writing class because that is where their abilities place them.

Kim said...

LB, the disregard for parents is quite sobering. At least in private schools, even if they don't agree with you or plan to change anything, they are generally respectful and will give your argument a good hearing. They have just as many parents to deal with and just as many differing opinions, but they do much more than government schools.

Expat Reader said...

Thank you for this post. It was an eye-opener to read that this is what the average public school is like, and that our tax dollars are forced to support this institution. It angers me that the current Administration and Congress have signed into law a spending bill that is supposed to throw money at "infrastructure" such as this school.

Anonymous said...

Everyone on here needs to read up on No Child Left Behind and what it means for teachers before you dump on public schools anymore. If you have complaints about public schools then blame yourself if you voted for Bush.