Wednesday, February 25, 2015

A person's a person, no matter how small!

We Could Learn a Thing or Two from a "Crazy" Elephant

A few years ago my kindergarten class performed the Dr. Seuss classic, Horton Hears a Who. The book's main character, Horton, believes he has heard from an unseen population of little people living atop a speck of dust. So great is his belief that these tiny people exist that even when he becomes the laughingstock of the entire jungle and is accused of being insane, he does not veer from his claim. The underlying message of this wonderful story is "A person's a person, no matter how small!"  

As a kindergarten teacher in a rural Oklahoma public school, I sometimes feel a bit like Horton: the defender of little people. Who am I protecting them from?  Why the very people intended to be their greatest protectors: Lawmakers and administrators in the State Department of Education who view them not as the wonderful individuals they are but in terms of test scores, their effect on overall school grades and as future college students. 

College, hmm...We'll See
"College bound" is the new phrase in education. State administrators and lawmakers past and present are known for their  snappy little phrases intended to illustrate their concern for education. "Ensure each Oklahoma student graduates from school  college and career ready." "Educating our children to fill the technical jobs needed in a global economy." Makes for a great sound bite, huh? However, what message are we truly sending children who are retained because they cannot pass a 3rd grade reading test? 

In my home state of Oklahoma, we have something called the Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA). According to the OKSDE website, the purpose of the RSA "is to ensure that all Oklahoma students are reading at grade level at the end of third grade." Sounds good so far. Only problem is this: "a third grade student cannot be promoted to fourth grade if he or she scores Unsatisfactory on the state reading test." What if your child repeats third grade and still cannot pass the test? Retention again! A child can be retained up to two times. 

Teachers and school administrators across the state are feeling the pressure from state administrators to get results. Not only are we failing nine year old children, we are failing the schools who produce them! That's right. Schools are now given grades partially based upon their student's test scores. 

Kindergarten Teacher/ Doomsday Profit
Here's biggest fallout from this whole mess (at least to me): They are demanding results from a younger population of children-namely pre-k and kindergarten.

Curriculum once taught in first grade is being pushed down into kindergarten and kindergarten teachers, like myself have become doomsday profits:

"If little Johnny doesn't get retained and catch up then he likely won't pass that third grade reading test and he will be retained in third grade--perhaps twice!"

I always feel like I should have a chorus behind me saying, "Ooooooo!" after I make that statement. Am I exaggerating? No it is true that little Johnny or Susie may very well be retained in third grade which is much more mortifying and emotionally damaging for the child than if she/he is retained in kindergarten. At the same time, I feel we are scaring parents into agreeing and that just feels wrong. 

Product Versus Process: What are Really Ending Up With?
This pressure to perform has caused schools to become less about the process and more about the result: Good test scores. Consider this result: We can all say, "College Bound" but it is not going to happen if lawmakers and state administrators (all states, not just Oklahoma) continue to set kids up for failure. If they choose to make education a race to the top, they need to remember that with most races there are winners and there are losers.  Nobody in this country should be labeled a loser at the age of nine, especially by our education system! 
Something is Rotten Around Here but it isn't Our Kids!
This whole mess reminds me of that scene from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory; The 1970s Gene Wilder movie not the creepy Johnny Depp remake. I'm referring to the scene where the character, Veruca Salt throws a tantrum and steps onto Wonka's egg rating scale, the "Eggdicator." Veruca is immediately given a rating of bad and falls down the garbage chute. I remember seeing this movie when I was kid and being a little shocked at Wonka's callus comment, "She was a bad egg" when her father was so obviously distraught. What our education system is doing is just as callus  when we retain  a child repeatedly and consequently set him on a path to failure.  We can say "college bound" and regurgitate all the little political sound bites we want but the reality is most of those kids don't go on to succeed in school, much less go to college.
Serving Two Masters
The state department of education has their eye on just about everything we do and demand "accountability" in the form of mountains of documentation on our students. Sometimes I feel I am serving two masters: the State Department of Education and Developmentally Appropriate Practice. They often are at complete odds with one another and leave me feeling frustrated.   

Keep on Believing 
So what are teachers to do? I wish I had a great answer. That would really make this post awesome, right? Sorry to disappoint you. 

Me (in the green) with some of the dedicated
staff and faculty at Big Pasture!
I guess we do our  documentation--dot our i's and cross our t's to satisfy the state but we also continue to deliver lessons that are as developmentally appropriate as possible. Most importantly, we keep sending the message to our kids:

"I believe in you! I know you can do it! I will do everything in my power to help you be successful!"