Friday, December 30, 2011

Tackling the Real Problems

As more parents participate in the Nebraska Family Forum blog and Facebook Group, it has become evident that an unusually large proportion of families adversely affected by Nebraska's school attendance law are those whose children need specialized instruction; whose children don't fit into the rigid mold that our public education system has created for the equal training of all children. Many of the children caught up in the legal system because of changes made to Nebraska's "truancy" law are kids in special education with Individualized Education Plans, whose individual needs are ignored by the law, which makes no distinction between excused absences and unexcused absences.

Equally impacted are those children who need specialized instruction on the other end of the spectrum. Anne Slingwine wrote on the NFPF Facebook group about her daughter who "was bored in school" and was not sufficiently challenged by school curriculum, especially in her daughter's subject of interest, science. Anne described her long ordeal working with the schools to get her children the "the education they deserve." I believe that  Anne makes an important observation when she says that her "daughter is not the only one, and I wonder how many kids have lost interest in science because they are bored."

As the Nebraska Family Forum has discussed the circumstances of kids who don't quite fit the public school mold, it has put the spotlight on the serious defects of our current public school model. It is evident that there are far more pressing needs for fundamental education reforms rather than a short-sighted crackdown on school attendance. It is simplistic to say that "kids can't learn if they're not in school [everyday]" or "kids learn better if they're in school [everyday.]"  "Kids" are not a conglomerate block of like copies, and there are plenty of exceptions. 

It is easy in the disconnected conversations on Facebook for people to simply say that if public school isn't working for your kid, then you should use a private or home school. But most families today have no real option other than to use their public schools for the education of their children, and to do their best to meet the needs of their kids in an increasingly rigid system. Our goal should not be to push out the kids who don't fit in, but rather to carve out a place for every child.

Like Anne, my struggle has been in keeping my son's interest in school active because of his boredom with the curriculum. I sent him to school as a kindergartner with a voracious appetite for learning. This was the four-year-old who would ask me to tell him everything I know about China (for example), and then when I had shared my full breadth of knowledge, he’d insist on another topic.

Every year I felt that school chipped away another chunk of his precious love of learning. I believe the hyper-focus at ever younger ages on reading, writing, and arithmetic with practically no enrichment in the sciences, history, and geography leave many kids bored and disinterested in school. When my son was a 2nd-grader, he came home in tears one day. With only two weeks left in the year, he was very upset when he realized that they would not finish the last chapters in their classroom science book.

It was as though he endured school for the pure moments of education when he could enjoy learning new and exciting things about the world he lives in. I did as much as I could in the few short hours after school (hardly enough to make a real difference) to help ignite his love of learning, and promised him regularly that it would get better as he got older. One time in third grade he asked me when they would learn about Supernovas, and I had to answer, probably not till high school or collage. How sad!

I too hope for real education reforms, reforms that will place the emphasis back on well-rounded quality teaching and classical education. Steve Jobs said the most important thing in education was “A person who incites your curiosity and feeds your curiosity.” Our public education system seems more and more to ignore the unique genius in every child, and in many ways fails our special needs children, whichever side of the standardized test they fall on. What true education should do is strive to develop in each child their innate talents and abilities through exposure to a broad classical education, recognize that a child develops through a number of basic stages at different ages, rather than putting each child in a rigid prescribed box, and a good education must always Ignite a passion for lifelong learning.

NCLB, and the philosophies that preceded it, have almost completely changed the paradigm of education to one in which children are “forced” to learn only the basics required for proficiency in testing. The path our education system is on today will never be able to generate an inner enthusiasm for learning within every child because it no longer presents a natural environment for the development of curiosity, creativity, and imagination that allows motivation to arise from within. "No Child Left Behind" and like agendas do not result in closing the "achievement gap"; they result in diminishing overall achievement.

"Direct instruction" may be effective at teaching skills and facts, but it is inadequate for fostering the curiosity and creativity that are more important in the long run. In a recent American Academy of Pediatric report, parents are warned of the relationship between increased depression and anxiety in children, the lack of the simple childhood pleasure of unstructured play, and "the national trend, to focus on the academic fundamentals of reading and arithmetic, spearheaded by No Child Left Behind. Compound that with extended hours in after-school programs that emphasize academics, the hours of unsupervised video gaming and constant T.V. and you have a recipe for a nation that cannot create, work, or think."

Before Nebraska state officials demand "perfect" attendance and threaten those kids who don't fit into their box with legal action, perhaps they should ask if the public school is serving our children well when someone as successful as Steve Jobs says that his public education "came close to really beating any curiosity out of me"? I'm not a life long Nebraskan. Rather I have lived all over this country and the world, and from my perspective Nebraska is not moving to establish freedom in education, but instead is establishing a conveyor-belt-style schooling that underserves our kids. I encourage state officials to put more resources and energy into tackling the real problems that stagnate our kids education, and ignite our kids natural love of learning, which will draw them to the classroom and keep them there.

1 comment:

  1. Right on! I was saddened to hear another story this week of a High school student at Milard West who received a paper back from his English teacher with several words circled and the critic of "too many 5 dollar words." When he asked what that meant she said, "Don't use words for which you don't know the meaning." He replied, "But I do know the meaning of these words." After writing all the definitions, she gave back half credit. Is that encouraging education?