Pillow, St. Louis, Pillow, Butler
June 4, 2005

The U.S. education system has a great many problems, as most Americans know and as most of the rest of the world has come to realize as well. We've tried various "reforms" of the various systems used in various states. What we really need to do is trash the system and start over from scratch.

I first began trying to "develop" my own education system when I was about ten, so I guess you can say that I've had an interest in this for a long, long time. You see, while I lived in only two school districts during my elementary school and junior high days, I switched schools a total of five times. Kindergarten began with Mrs. Gillespie and Pillow elementary school in Austin. Mrs. Gillespie was encouraging and probably one of the best kindergarten teachers in the world. She used students in a good mood as examples without making students who weren't in a great mood feel bad. She taught creatively and kept things fun for the students, while still teaching us. But even Mrs. Gillespie put some unnecessary rules on some of our learning.

For example, we had to read the little yellow Dick and Jane books. We read during school time and we got to take two books home a night. On the chalkboard was a list of where everyone in the class was in the Dick and Jane series. At the time, it seemed to me like this was great motivation. Of course, I was one of the kids furthest into the series. At least, until I missed two weeks of school for the chicken pox. I wanted to have some of the books at home while I was sick. Nope. I fell behind the "top group." I got back to school and wanted to take home more than two books a night. Nope. The limit was only two. I could never catch up unless David Tapia got sick and missed two weeks of school, too.

Why hold back a child who wants to learn? I was tearing through the books so quickly at school and at home; the books rarely kept me occupied for scarcely longer than it takes an adult to run through the Dick and Jane books.

But it was in first grade that I really figured out that school was damn boring. I got through my schoolwork quickly enough that I would begin working ahead in my schoolbooks. I didn't mind learning; I didn't mind working. I wanted to learn and I wanted to work. But when I was caught working ahead, I was punished. Why? Because one teacher cannot easily adjust for the needs of 25-30 kids. If you've got one kid who needs extra practice with learning how to carry the one when adding 17 and 5, and another kid who has the concept down cold, what do you do? Do you bore the kid who understands? Do you ignore the kid who may be just as smart, but just hasn't gotten this particular concept as quickly? Do you assign lots of busywork to keep the smart kids busy while the others catch up? There's not an easy answer here for the teacher in this situation.

The pattern continued in second grade despite the fact that I moved to St. Louis private school that tracked students into two groups. And here, I discovered another issue. Math finally started to get difficult for me. Not because I couldn't understand it, but because the concepts weren't explained. We began learning multiplication tables near the end of the year, but we were told just to memorize the answers. Now, as an adult, I can understand that there are some bits of math that it is pretty much necessary to have memorized so you can access it fast. But the problem is, you also have to have the concepts down as well. That was what was neglected as I was supposed to learn multiplication. No one wanted to explain how it worked and why we had to "just memorize it." In my case, I got stubborn and didn't really try to work on memorizing it. I lucked out. I hated the private school so much that I moved back to the public school the next year. There, for the first eight or ten weeks of third grade, I was part of a class which probably did the best job of educating me. I don't know that it would be the best system for absolutely everyone, although this is something I will continue to explore.

It was in Miss Burciaga's class that we were broken up into multiple and very fluid groups. While Miss Burciaga had been given some 30 kids who were at all levels of learning, she handled everyone's pacing and intelligence wonderfully. During the first days of the school year, she called us up to the front of the class in small groups and had us read from the reading textbook. Some groups wound up with two or three kids, some with four or five. And if you started reading ahead for any reason (and still did well enough on the comprehension questions), then you began moving up a group until you were with other kids at your pace. If you got sick and missed school, you might drop back a group or two, but as you began feeling better and reading more, you moved back up again. Maybe as "high" as you had been before, maybe not. Ultimately, it didn't seem to matter much to anyone if you were in a particular group or not because the groups were so incredibly fluid . You knew you could change groups if you worked at it. You knew you could make the changes if you wanted to.

Sadly, i had one more elementary school move -- after just about ten weeks back in Pillow elementary, we moved away from Austin to Arlington (between Dallas and Fort Worth - not in Virginia). This school was "progressive." It was an "open concept" school. This meant the school building was one HUGE room. Each grade level was separated from the other by five foot high bookcases on wheels. And each grade level had the teachers' desks in the center of the area facing outward into our class "rooms" which were divided again by the rolling bookcases. The din in the place was incredible. Here, we had five or six teachers who had at least 30 kids to a homeroom. Then, we were "tracked" for math and for language arts. When I got to Butler elementary in Arlington, I was a full book ahead of their "high" language arts group and on pace with their "high" math class. They "tested" me and didn't believe me, my mom or my school records from Pillow and placed me in the second highest groups. I was depressed already for moving away from my beloved Austin and the thought of being moved back to the beginning of the school year in math and even further behind than that in language arts, so with the logic of a depressed third grader, I barely did any work at all for weeks. Finally, I got mad in language arts and started really tearing through my work again. I was quickly moved into the high language arts class. I started working in math, but the math teacher for the high group simply didn't want to add another child to her load and refused to let me move up at first.

Then, she made a tactical error. She announced one day that anyone belonging in the high math class should come over to a certain area. I decided that I belonged with that group and stood up, moved to that area with the other "high math" kids. The teacher looked funny at me and said, "Do you belong here?" simply repeating her mistake from earlier. Defiant as only kids who are sure they've been wronged can be, I replied, "Yes" and sat down. While she would often give me a hard time in class, my grades stayed high and I didn't have any problems keeping up.

The next year we had a boy move into our school district. He was a book ahead in math and nearly the same in language arts. The fourth grade teachers recognized he was going to be bored and rather than punishing him with boredom or forcing him to prove himself, they got him a tutor. Was it because he was a boy and I was a girl that he got better support for his education? Or was it the difference between our third grade teachers and our fourth grade teachers at that school? I have no way of knowing now which it was. Either was likely.

Why do our school systems insist on boring students? Why do we neglect our children's education? Why aren't we as a nation more concerned about really doing something about this issue? Why do we have to focus our attentions on a man who told a group of graduating college students in California that what made this country great was that even C students could be president and that some of these really smart college graduates should consider being bus drivers and janitors because the U.S. needs people to do these things.

More importantly, what can we do to improve the system as a whole?

And why aren't we doing more?

Posted by Red Monkey at June 4, 2005 9:11 AM | Why Johnny Won't Learn and Mrs. Curnutt Is Tired of the System | | StumbleUpon Toolbar Stumble |

Free Pixel Advertisement for your blog