Tuesday, March 12, 2013

So Long, Cherished Public Schooling Ideals

I'm mourning the loss of the cherished ideals I once held so close - that it was a good and honorable thing to send one's kids to public schools. "I mean, of course I'll send my kids to public school someday," said my naive 21-year-old self, who would not actually become a parent for at least another decade. When my DH and I were dating, I even asked him (no, TOLD him) "Hey, my future kids are going to public schools, got a problem with that?" (not on the first date of course - I'm not that much of a level-jumper).

I used to judge the last couple of US presidents for sending their kids to places like Sidwell Friends instead of to the local public school nearest to the White House - imagine how that school would have benefitted with the First Daughter(s) there, in theory... I used to judge my old bosses who volunteered on public school-reform boards and projects, while sending their own kids to the best private schools in town, because "I think their peer group really matters most."

Back in the day, I took a lot of ed policy classes, back when the small schools movement was all the rage. I was so optimistic - because there was so much innovation going on, such an array of choices, I thought it meant our schools would have to get better. Wrong. I used to think homeschoolers were cray cray - now I completely and totally get it.

These days, I'm often reminded of what a former prof of mine used to say "If education were such an easy problem to fix, don't you think we would have fixed it by now?" Now I know that context matters - are we talking about big cities, suburbs, or rural areas (like where I live)? Three vastly different scenarios with totally different resources, and different needs.

Like the mother I met the other day who moved here recently from suburban California, where the academically-rigorous public schools were "a total pressure cooker" for her 9-year-old son, who could not keep up with some of his more gifted peers. He's loving it here in No-Academic-Expectations-Having-Land, in fact he's thrilled to be the smartest kid in class (yes, his teacher actually called him "smart," presumably thinking that a beneficial label). But I can't help wonder if they'll feel differently about it when he never quite grasps algebra. Will they even see the lost opportunities in terms of entire career fields that will be pretty much forever closed off to him if he can't grasp algebra? (Forever? Yes, I'm saying forever.)

So, here we are. We've registered our 5-year-old for first grade in a mixed age classroom at the new private Montessori elementary school. This means he's skipping Kindergarten, and will be the youngest student in the school by at least 7 weeks. We had him tested through the school district, and re-tested through a private firm (best $40 we ever spent.) Both tests concurred: he definitely belongs in first grade this fall. We read "A Nation Deceived" which help put our fears to rest about grade-skipping. Off the record, one tester said "I did a double take on his birthdate - looking at him and talking to him I thought he was born in 2005." and "No way should you enroll him in public school around here." Case closed.

Great news, yes. I finally feel really good about DS's educational future.


Anonymous said...

You made the choice we would have made in your situation.

Here's us on the "is it selfish to not send your kids to public schools" question: http://nicoleandmaggie.wordpress.com/2012/01/19/stupid-you-should-be-doing-more-arguments-from-people-who-arent/

Nataliya said...

dear Hush,
as you know, we're selling our house and moving. The move, and next property purchase will be decided mainly on school zones in our area. Not only are we concerned with public school ratings, we are also looking at the best possible way to give the kid(s) three languages by grade 3. Our plan is to send the little ones to private schools grade 4-8, and enriched public school programs for high school.

Coming from a very humble background, and having attended one of the best schools by virtue of a parent teaching there, I can tell you, schools are EVERYTHING. Hubby went to the best schools, even attending a boarding school for high school to be supported by the level of educational stimulation he required. He moved 7 hour flight away from home at age 14 to get all that.

I say, if you can afford private, go private all the way. We are still struggling to figure out what we can and cannot afford. But if I could, I would go private all the way. Because while reform is great, it's not happening fast enough. And while I think ALL children need quality education, I owe it to my own to do the best I can by them.

notrustfund said...

I can so relate to this post and it sounds like you are making a great choice.

I took a class on education reform while in business school and it was so depressing. On the last day of class our professor asked the class, which was a mix of business school and ed school students, if we were more or less likely to take a leadership role in the education space after taking this class and almost everyone said 'less'.

On a happier note, my kids are a bit younger than yours, but we have them in Montessori and love it so far. I look forward to hearing more about your experience.

Cloud said...

Hey- congrats on making the choice! It is a hard and stressful one.

I am actually planning to post tonight or tomorrow (depending on how long the work I need to do tonight takes...) about our (happy) experience with public education. We just had Pumpkin's second parent-teacher conference, and left very happy.

BUT- we live in a very different place than you do.

I think parents have to do what is best for their kids. Absolutely, and I really mean that. Put your kid in the school that is best for him or her.

All I ask is that those who choose to opt out of public education remember that it is not a choice for a bunch of kids. We owe it to those kids to give our public schools the resources and support they need to be the best they can be for the most kids, even if they aren't the right choice for our own kids. I know that you (and Nicoleandmaggie) get that, so I'm just happy for you guys that there are private options that work for you in your towns!

hush said...

@nicoleandmaggie - Thank you. Everyone go read the excellent post they just linked to.

@Nataliya - I know you live in a major Canadian city, so I have to imagine you've got at least a couple of viable public school options out there. So please don't give up hope yet. The rural American school situation I'm faced with here is so very different than the educational landscape big city folks anywhere are likely to encounter. I think you might even be pleasantly surprised. You should definitely check out @Cloud's great post on how her DD (who is in a bilingual immersion public K in San Diego, and got accepted there by lottery IIRC) has been positively thriving in her urban public school:


@notrustfund - Thanks, yes, Montessori has been very good to both my kids. I know it's not for everyone, but I'm definitely drinking the Montessori kool aid these days.

@Cloud - Thank you. I'm glad you understand me. I gave some thought to the impact of our choice, that -amen- we are privileged to have where others do not, on our neighborhood public school, and I hope this is not self-serving bias talking, but it seems to me the local school will still come out ahead financially (the funds aren't going out of district like they would have if we had opted for one of the public schools in the away district), and they'll have a smaller class size by one student. And my kid won't be around to interfere with anyone else's learning as he is wont to do when he gets bored in school and starts acting out.

paola said...

Yikes! I had no idea it was so bad. Who ( with the means) wouldn't do the same for their kid! You didn't mention whether the school was Spanish Imersion?

Haley said...

Being the youngest does not matter until mid to late high school when people start driving and seeing R-rated movies and not again until college when your friends turn 21.

I was youngest in my class and never really noticed until my friends got to take drivers ed with out me, and my (strict, but in hindsight, smart) parents did not allow me to ride in cars with brand new drivers. He will be fine!

Anonymous said...


When I was a freshman in high school, my boyfriend was a junior, so all my friends were two years older *anyway*.

hush said...

@Paola - It's not great here, but public school was and is awesome in the mid-sized city in which I grew up. Don't generalize much about the US based on what I've written here - it's super locality-specific.

@Haley - Thanks, I'm sure he will be fine, but it is always great to hear others say that, too.

the milliner said...

I can so relate to this post Hush. It's really hard for me to reconcile my idyllic view of what public school should be (based on my neighbourhood public school that I went to, with fantastic teachers ) with our situation for DS today.

We live in a big city, with technically lots of choice. But, the majority of the schools (especially the ones everyone wants to get in to) operate on a lottery system. And, on top of it all, for 2008 when DS was born, our city has almost had a textbook baby boom. Which means fierce competition for spaces in good schools is going to follow DS throughout his academic career. Gah!

We didn't get into our first choice school, but will probably try again next year for grade one. On the waiting list for our second choice school and third choice school - a private school with a modest tuition (we so cannot afford the very expensive tuition private schools). And having gone to public school myself, I have concerns about private. But I think (at least some of) my concerns are more due to my lack of first hand experience in a private school environment. We're now hoping DS gets into our first choice of the public schools directly in our area.

I'm curious about the testing you had done for your DS. Does the test have a name? I'm not sure if they have anything like it here, but I'd be curious to find out where DS is situated right now. His teacher at daycare (they use the High Scope program) often comments to me about his advanced level in math, science & language. But I have no sense how far ahead (or not) he is. He is just starting to read, but I don't think he's a full grade level ahead. It would be nice to have a bit of a heads up going in to kindergarten.

Anonymous said...

@the milliner

How far ahead your kid is will depend a lot on your state and local curriculum-- in our school district, they teach letters, numbers, colors, and mostly sitting still in Kindergarten. In Kindergartens in expensive districts in a city we used to live in, they expect all those things to have been learned in preschool so they can focus on reading and arithmetic. You can still expect that most other children will not be reading starting K, and a few will probably not start reading until sometime in first grade.

hush said...

@Paola - forgot to mention - yes, the private Montessori is a bilingual immersion format (except some reading instruction will be provided in English for kids who need it).

@the milliner - The local school district gave him the test of English Basic Reading Skills, and we requested he also be given the test of Spanish Basic Reading Skills. Part of the test was also an oral reading interview where the tester used a pointer to point at words and ask him to read them, then had him read a passage and answer some comprehension questions; then for math, did the same with numbers and a couple of oral story problems. The local private testing agency we hired tested him using the Wechsler Intelligence Scale for Children. Testing was what sealed the deal for us and once we had the hard data, both the public and private schools were totally on board.

Laura Vanderkam said...

I'm glad you found A Nation Deceived. There is nothing wrong with acceleration, and a lot of stuff that is right. If you feel like adding another blog to your reader, I write one called Gifted Exchange (http://giftedexchange.blogspot.com) on gifted issues. It's kept with the Davidson Institute for Talent Development, which is another organization you should check out as you ponder how to challenge a smart kid in a less-than-stellar district.

hush said...

Cheers @Laura Vanderkam - I will add your gifted blog!

the milliner said...

Thanks @nicoleandmaggie & @hush for your feedback. We're in a province in Canada that isn't generally set up to manage (or even acknowledge, I'm kind of getting the feeling) gifted kids in the public school system. Which means it varies greatly on what school you're at/what teacher you get.

Our first choice school for DS is an alternative school that is keenly aware of differentiation and is set up in a way to manage it effectively. It's hard to get in, and even harder as we're in a different school board (even though we're physically not too far). So, we're on the waiting list, and will probably try again next year.

I'm going to check out private testing options in our area, if and when we ever decide it could be helpful.

Anonymous said...

We also made the decision to send our kids to private schools, in our case, in spite of the availability of perfectly appropriate public schools for our children. I have always felt that private schools have a place in our educational system, but do worry that the current expansion of the system is undermining public education, which I believe is one of the cornerstones of American opportunity (libraries are another, in my world). But, my ideology stops with my children, and I will make the choices appropriate for them, while trying not to actively harm other kids. In my case, that means I continue to support the availability of a strong public school system, by remaining aware and involved and voting to maintain adequate funding.

I never had the ideological position on public schools v private that you did, but another lesson that I get taught again and again is to never say never about my children. I was first introduced to the idea in my 20's, when a group of childless colleagues were discussing discussing how they would raise their teens, and the 30 year, with kids, pointed out that when we have kids, there will be a particular child and not a theoretical one that we will be raising.


Claudia said...

Hush, I'm glad you've reached a decision. I have vague inklings that Montessori is all about personal development and individual speed.
But I was a bit dismayed to read nothing about social development in the testing your DS took.
We are in a Danish public school, though for its size, care, funding and progressiveness, it may as well be a private school. My DD is in "kindergarten grade" which is the age equivalent of U.S. first grade. They focus A LOT on social abilities, and very little on academics. I happen to agree with this structure, and have really seen the payoff in some of her classmates.
No point especially; just wanted to throw that out there. And yes, I know I'm lucky, but we also pay nearly 50% in taxes, so there'd better be some good things from that!

hush said...

@the milliner - Good luck getting the school of your choice next year. Keep me posted.

@bj - "my ideology stops with my children, and I will make the choices appropriate for them, while trying not to actively harm other kids." I respect that.

@Claudia - There's a backstory I left out as to how DS was first identified by the school district as meeting the criteria for testing. Proving social and emotional readiness was a huge initial hurdle in their minds I believe. I suspect little boys are given a lot more scrutiny as to behavioral concerns. He was interviewed by a school principal, an intervention specialist, 2 K teachers, and 2 first grade teachers. One teacher also reached out to his current Montessori teacher, who is her former colleague, and asked him point blank "Do you think this kid has any issues at all that would prevent him from succeeding in first grade"? They wanted to know how he had been getting along socially, could he "sit still"? Was he a leader on the playground? So all of those boxes got checked before they agreed to any testing. It helped that my son is very, very tall (as in off the height charts) and looks and acts the part - there's some unfairness there, no doubt, but their biases about looks probably worked in his favor this time around.

Anonymous said...

Ironically, gifted kids with behavioral problems tend to be better behaved after a skip (there's research on this). Ours is definitely better behaved when the mental stimulation is taken care of (and he gets some exercise-- he needs both).