Went to a PTA meeting last night (yes, I do still go to these on occasion.) And what got me out of the house was the featured speaker, the new (as of the fall) Director of the Division Accelerated and Enriched Instruction (AEI) in MCPS. I wanted to check her out, hear what she had to say, and see who else in our school community would show up.
I was not disappointed. Many familiar faces were there, but a few new ones too. And poor woman, she didn’t get through even a third of her PowerPoint presentation before the discussion was hijacked. And it wasn’t me, I swear!
She started off with the MCPS vision: It’s not about labels, it’s about access to opportunity without gatekeeping and without barriers. Every student has potential. Every student has a gift and our job is to identify it and nurture it. She joked that they were responsible for every realm save for gifts in athletics. MCPS believes it can meet the needs of 98% of students in the home school (but pity the kindergartner who falls in that 2%). She then explained the concept of “rigor” as MCPS sees it. It’s learning that’s “proactive,” “ambiguous,” “complex,” and “emotionally engaging.” Fine. You get no arguments there.
It was her next slide, “Rigorous Programming at Every School – Elementary School”– and specifically the first bullet, “Access to accelerated and enriched pathways in mathmatics”– that sent things sliding. A mom meekly raised the question of what she should do in the case of her child, a 4th grader, in a class that is doing advanced math at such a fast pace that the entire class is struggling. Her daughter is coming home crying. What should she do as a parent in the face of relentless pressure to accelerate? With whom should she raise the issue?
Another mom, with a child in the same class, followed up. She spoke of how her child no longer was liking math, was beginning to think he was “bad” at math. The whole class was getting C’s and D’s. She applauded the system for it’s emphasis on rigor, but she feared that he was missing foundational concepts in the drive to accelerate through the curriculum and pleaded for a curriculum that truly delivered quality and rigor. (For the truly wonky, try doing some research on the pilot of Singapore math in MPCS.) As she saw it, kids were being pushed ahead with only “emerging proficiency” (And you should have heard the rumbling when straight-faced the principal stated that 71% mastery of a topic–a “C”– was considered “proficient.”)
(I envisioned a line of little 4th graders, bowed by the big math books strapped to their backs, being hustled on a forced march along the mathematical highway to calculus and beyond.)
Yet another parent asked, what happens down the line? Are kids going so fast that when they hit middle and high school we will discover that they have gaps? Are kids who are being raced to algebra in 6th grade going to be taking classes at the University of Maryland as juniors? (Not asked: Who is going to pay for those courses and provide transportation? No good answers there.) Where is this coming from? Is it NCLB? Jerry Weast? Hesitant answer from the speaker: both. The principal added that during his career the discussion has clearly shifted from quality of teaching to measurable outcomes. No longer is it how well did you teach something, but how well did Johnny learn it.
Meanwhile a mom who I’ve never seen before spoke up about her first grader. He came into kindergarten reading. He’s clearly advanced while the other kids are learning their “ick” and “eep” chunks and yet in her opinion nothing is being done to meet his needs. There was lots of talk about the 2nd grade screening and datapoints and how kids are supposed to be identified for services, regrouping, differentiation, cluster grouping, etc.
At this point I had to jump in. I so felt this woman’s pain. I was that woman. I’ve sat through PTA meetings for eight years. Eight. And NOTHING changes. Are early elementary teachers even equipped to identify the highly, exceptionally or profoundly gifted students in their midst? Is this data being used to actually, individually assure that children’s needs are being met? (MAP-R data is keenly tracked on behalf of low achieving students, but somehow it’s not as important when it shows a kid is reading several grades above level. Then it’s somehow not as valid a “datapoint.” ) Why is there a resistance to regrouping across classes or even *gasp* grades for reading, social studies and science when the reduced class size initiative (good thing) results in kids being isolated, with no or an insufficient number of peers (bad thing)? Ms. Williams at least made the statement that kids need peers (ideally 3 to 8 in a “cluster’) and that no child should be made to sacrifice, that all kids deserve to learn. But she (and the principal) also made the point that they didn’t want kids to “skip” anything–although the parents were adamant that their children had in fact “skipped” material in order to accelerate in math.
Maybe I’m dense, maybe it’s because I don’t have an education degree and am not a teacher, but what is so gosh darn sacred in the non-math portion of the MCPS curriculum that can’t be “skipped.” All learning is a about choices, trade-offs. Because we learn about the Amazonian rain forest we’re not learning about the middle ages. (And as an aside… can I ask? Where has actual history…you know like Mesopotamia and Egypt and Greece and explorers and stuff…gone in MCPS elementary schools?)
Needless to say, the speaker didn’t finish her presentation. Time ran out.
I ducked out of the business meeting portion and struck up a conversation with a mild-mannered dad whose son is a highly gifted 3rd grader who was an early reader. The dad related how in previous years he had tried to talk to the school but had basically gotten nowhere, had gotten the “they’ll all even out by third grade” line. Time and time again parents are told that their first place to raise a concern is with the teacher. But does anyone in the educational establishment understand how terribly difficult it is to initiate a conversation that in essence is conveying to the teacher that she’s not doing enough for your child? It’s an asymmetrical relationship and the parent is at a complete disadvantage.
Afterwards in the parking lot the conversation among parents continued. Six of us must have stood out there for at least an hour trading stories and information (it was an unseasonably warm evening.) One mom chimed in with an insight into the re-testing feature of the curriculum. Her daughter had been saying that she needs to “fix” an answer. Long story short…her child wasn’t being re-tested with a new test. She was being given the same test and basically prompted on what items to “fix” in order to pass. Another parent brought up (my bugaboo) the use of math “strategies” i.e. counting on fingers, drawing pictures, hatch marks, repeat addition, and how kids aren’t taught their multiplication facts. That it’s expected that parents do this (why?), but few are explicitly told so. Had we heard that they’re doing away with BCRs (that’s Brief Constructed Response to you) next year? Around and around.
In the end one of the moms–who has been PTA vice president, is a special ed advocate and a savvy observer of the school–said that bottom line, parents have to watch everything like a hawk, and know what all the options are within the school so that they can specifically advocate for their child. You have to network and information share relentlessly with other parents. Every year she writes “the letter” and is sure to hand it to the teacher at the start of the school year. When her son was getting killed for his poor handwriting, she told the administration, “Show me where in his education he was actually taught handwriting and then we can talk about grading him on it. But until it’s taught, you can’t grade him on it. So no more papers with comments about his poor handwriting.”
Basically you have to be one of those parents.