Saturday, November 3, 2012

A Rant About The Politics of School

This is not my child. It's a stock photo from Morguefile by aron 123

Here is a rant for your Saturday morning. An honest to goodness rant and a personal one at that. That is what can get written today and so I will write.

I am struggling a bit with the public schools right now. I still have two children there, you see. One of them is a hoop jumper and can adequately do what he needs to do. This is not to say that he is fascinated with the subject matter. He is not, as far as I can tell, interested in any of it at all. He turns in forms and papers and for this he receives As. Someday we hope he will go to college and do this there, and we very much hope that some college decides to pay his way. Our dreams are pinned on this noble goal.

I feel simultaneously proud of this incredible 4.0 and saddened by my memory of a child who read everything he could about volcanoes, about reptiles and knew the color of a giraffe's tongue. I remember a child who just loved to learn. I have not known that child for many years.

The other child lives on the breeze of a whistle, captivated by a thought-provoking hum. He is as clever, but a hoop jumper he is not. He looks at hoops and wonders whether the stripes end at any point. He is reminded of a Mobius Strip, but can't remember the name. He gets As on most everything that he remembers to turn in. And I receive emails telling me that he is not paying attention.

This annoys me.

Why? you may ask. It annoys me because we sat in a room—a gaggle of teachers, a school counselor and an unusual number of parents—we sat there and we talked about how this child cannot pay attention. The reasons for this are both provably medical and provably psychiatric. This child was then given a Section 504 under the Americans with Disabilities Act for these disabilities which he has.

He is not paying attention, she tells me. I have to remind him to focus several times.

To this, I thoughtfully do not reply, "No shit, Sherlock."

I do not point out that some similar observations might be:

This dyslexic child, he cannot spell at all.

This child with ADHD cannot sit still.

This child in a wheelchair cannot walk.

And I am emailing you, parent, she says, so that you may do something about this.

I will get right on that, I reply. I will now attempt to make my child pay attention while he is away from me, having never tried before.

This is the eleventh year now that I have had, on and off, conversations with teachers along these lines, and I am tired. Being a homeschooling parent has made me less sympathetic than I was when I worked five years alongside these good people in the public schools. And I think that is unfortunate.  I can't help feeling that I could do a better job of holding my own child accountable and making sure he learned if I didn't have to navigate all these loaded emails. Give him to me, I think to myself. I can educate him. All this collaboration, though, it used to feel a worthy task.

I will say it again. I am tired. I am sick and tired of the politics of school. There seems so little of learning and so much of School. We soldier on.

Sometimes, though, the familiarity of it just gets under my skin.


  1. Oh, Tara, my greatest sympathies go out to you. I am the school counselor who sat through 12 of these such parent/teacher conferences this week. These conferences were all for middle schoolers so there were at least six teachers present, one counselor, one principal, sometimes the district psychologist and 8 of the 12 students actually had parents show up. For me these things are painful. Sometimes the students involved have such a bizarrely unsupported home life (the stories I could tell - most especially since I work with the local law enforcement) that the conference is sad - typically those are the ones where teachers wanted shake the parents into doing their job. But then there are the conferences like yours - where I find myself thinking - we HAVE to change the way we provide children with an education. My intuitive guess (not supported by anything but 30+ years of experience in public schools) is that the current system "works" for maybe, at best, 50% of kids - those are the kids like your older child who can jump through the hoops - but even those kids generally lose their natural curiosity and enthusiasm in this system. ANd what about the other 50%? The system tells the child she/he has to change to fit the system when, really, we should be changing the system to meet the child. I can tell you the whole thing is so frustrating for me. More recent political movements (NCLB, RTTT) only exacerbate the issues bigtime.
    For ten years I taught in an alternative program w/i the local public school. It was AWESOME as the K-1-2's (yes, I kept them for three years!) had so many opportunities to learn in ways that were rather unconventional. BUT, my 2nd graders ALWAYS performed well on standardized tests (yes, those were required for SECOND GRADERS - get real). I could easily bend the curriculum to meet the kids where they were. We had an active, thriving classroom with flexibility and movement. I begged parents to volunteer and THEY DID! It was wonderful for me and I still see those kids around town - they all remember it well. I had the pre-504 kids (too young to be given an official 504) b/c admin knew they would thrive and I would never object to having a classroom with the "challenging" student. Why did it stop? NCLB - admin wanted me to change my classroom. NOPE. I took the next available route out of the classroom - guidance counselor (I already had my credential and took the position that opened up). Now I just get frustrated with the system as a whole.

    1. The classroom you worked in sounds so wonderful! I have found, over and over, that when we can meet kids where they are and respect their individual learning styles, they can do and learn incredible things. But, in all the years I worked in a school (and it was, by any measure, a very good school) we were so often trying to force them to rise up and come to where we wanted them to be, leaving them further and further behind. In the end, I found this too much for me as a parent. Retrospectively, it was too much as an educator as well.

      The tough thing about these 504-type conversations for me is the dichotomy one gets stuck in—due to inadequate language— either the child is a victim of his disability or the child is a perpetrator of behavior that he could choose easily not to engage in. And I think neither thing is true. He simply needs to be met where he is and shown what to do in a way that he can use. It sounds like this is just what you knew how to do. Someday maybe we'll have public school classrooms like that again. Let's hope.

  2. First, I send you all my sympathies and a hug. I spent years and years with a son in public. He had ADHD, Tourettes, depression, etc....he also was very, very bright. Years dealing with IEP's, 504's, frustrated teachers....a sad, frustrated kid.

    I have 2 kids in Special Ed right now. IEPS and the like. The have "obvious" disabilities. Hearing and speech. Our experiences have been quite different than with the ADD son.

    There is still this idea floating around that kids with ADD/ADHD could do better if they really wanted to. Or that you as parents, could wave your magic wand and fix them, if you would just make more effort. I think this is partially because kids with ADD also tend to be very bright, or gifted even. At least that has been my experience.

    I am currently homeschooling a 9 year old who has zero attention span for anything he isn't currently obsessing about. And sometimes it's frustrating. Some days are a challenge. But I am so thankful, daily, that we aren't having to deal with him in regular school. Because we would be getting the calls, the emails. He, I am certain would lose his excitement for learning in a cloud of sadness and feeling like a screw-up. And I am thankful we can just let him be all of his weirdness and quirkiness...

    You sit through all those IEPS meetings and put all the facts down on paper....and they still email you to complain that your son can't focus. I have been there.....banging my head against the wall at the utter stupidity....

    I am not sure what options there are in your area. I don't know your kids, but I would guess they are very bright and creative. And sometimes regular school crushes that right out of a kid....

    Hang in there and look for alternatives.

    1. Thanks very much for the hug. I know that you know exactly what I mean and I admire you greatly for your advocacy for your kids.

      You're right. It's so easy to see a bright child with issues as simply lazy. "Your son is so bright," said the email. "He could easily do this assignment in the time given but is choosing not to."

      It's tricky to respond because of course he makes choices and some of them are not good. On any given day, he may try very hard, less hard or not so hard at all. We all do. We have great days, middling days, days that we phone it in. But no matter what he's doing, he has an attentional disability and a sleep disorder that affect him. So, it's not simply obvious for a teacher who has him 90 minutes three times a week to tell me that he is choosing not to do his best. Not when I talk to him and see his eyes tear up when he tells me, "Mom, I tried. I tried as hard as I could. I don't understand why I'm in trouble."

      At this point, our path forward still looks like keeping him where he is. He has good grades in most of his classes and thrives on the social aspect in school. I just have to figure out how to try my best, as Mom, to provide him with the knowledge of how to give these teachers the best he can do and to keep advocating for him the best I can. If that doesn't work, then, yeah, we have other options. It's always good to be reminded.

  3. I applaud any and all mothers who choose to homeschool. I'm not made of the right cloth for that.

    I count myself very lucky that our 'team' at my kids' school is so good. I am dreading the transition to jr. high, though.

    1. It will probably be fine, Jewels. It went fine for my oldest. And I am still not sure I am made from the right cloth to homeschool either, unless that cloth is called Desperation. ;)

      This doesn't go to what you said exactly, but I feel the need to say that, honestly, we are known nation-wide for having excellent schools here. I think that the problems I see are sort of general to the school system of the US as a whole and to the high-achievement culture of my town in particular. But I want to make sure I am not communicating that we don't have good teachers, in a lot of ways. I think we do. Good teachers, bad ideologies would be my assessment. Some of them don't understand ADHD and all of them are hampered by a sort of freaked-out, driven sense that we are getting these kids ready for something that is coming next. If they're not ready, they will be slaughtered. In this case, to love them is to prepare them for battle. While readiness has bearing on actual circumstance, one wonders why it has to be that way.

  4. You are a great mom and will find the best alternative for your child. You know your child better than anyone, and it is sad to me that you were put in that position in the first place.

    1. Thanks, Winnie. I very much appreciate your thoughts.

  5. As a homeschooler myself, I highly advocate homeschooling. But it's always up to the parent and child.I too am saddened that you were put in this position; I'm sure you'll do what's best for you two .. :)

    1. Thanks, Larissa. I don't believe my kiddo would want to homeschool unless things got much worse, and probably not for more than a subject or two. He very much likes the social arrangement of school and I think he wouldn't want to give that up. I have the thought in my back pocket.

      You should write a post about your homeschooling experience. I don't know about others, but I am very curious about what you would have to say. (Sorry if you did this and I missed it.) You are such a great storyteller and I am sure it's a great story to tell.

  6. I'm interested in this, but if I gave advice, I would be the proverbial old maiden aunt who tries to tell everybody how to raise their children, since I never had children and never taught school. However, I do think that there is a great overdiagnosis these days of ADHD and dangerous overmedication for the disorder. My mother taught school back in the 1930s-50s, and nobody ever heard of that then. It was just, oh, this boy is a wiggly pre-adolescent (or adolescent) who can't sit still - he'll grow out of it. And strangely enough a lot of them did. My mother said youngsters who were universally proclaimed hopeless grew up to be steady, responsible, successful young men. I'm sure this didn't happen in every case, but still I think today it's too easy for an overworked and harassed teacher to blame a child's problems on something physiological or psychological when all he needs is a mentor who can relate to him and find out what he really likes to do and cultivate that. Of course, nobody has time for that sort of thing!
    Tara, my mother also used to say, all parents can do is the best job they know how and hope for the best. So hang in there! You know your children better than anybody else! I'll bet they both turn out fine! BTW, does the older, more steady one ever mentor the younger one? What kind of relationship do they have?

    1. I very much see your point about over-diagnosis. The thing about ADHD is that it's a symptoms-based diagnosis, which makes it very tricky to say for sure what is being treated and why. I now have three who have been given that label. For my eldest it was incredibly useful. I fought for it myself and had him "labeled." With that understanding of himself and that diagnosis, my son was able to do well. He took medication for three years 5th-8th grade and has recently stopped, deciding he no longer needed it. For us, it was a big win.

      For my middle one, I am never sure how much of what I am seeing is complicated by his sleep disorder and, until that's better treated, we just won't know. For my youngest,I more or less disregard the diagnosis, thinking his issues are better explained in other ways.

      My eldest and my middle don't have the most supportive relationship although I have gotten the former to give some advice to the latter on managing his school agenda and the like. My 15 year-old wasn't always such a stellar success. I've sat in meetings about his ADHD, too and he repeated first grade, way back in the day. He's matured and I am hoping this one will, too. :)

  7. My oldest three, all boys, made it through the public school system basically unscathed, but nonetheless underserved in some fairly essential ways. My daughter lost patience mid-way through her sophomore year of high school--largely with inadequate teachers who lacked basic spelling and grammar skills and frequently used the classroom to spout political and religious opinions to a captive audience. She decided to finish high school online and is nearing that goal now.

    I think the focus on standardized test scores has done more damage to actual education (vs School) than any other single thing. It is a huge part of why so many kids (not to mention teachers) lose enthusiasm and the fact that so many resources go to "teach the test" rather than to teach critical thinking skills, etc means there are fewer resources for children with special needs. The difference in our district before the advent of test-focus and after was striking and extremely discouraging.

  8. Tara,

    Sending a truck load of support and energy. You have wonderful insight into your children, and I bet you're a bangup advocate for them. In standard classrooms there are no shortcuts and few breaks for wiggly, distractible kids. I don't know about your school district, but funds in ours have been squeezed over the last 15 years, making things worse. Pretty funny that the staff feels like they need to tell you that your son has trouble concentrating.

    I'm excited to read about new thinking about education: find a great prinicipal, give him or her free rein to design curriculum and hire staff, and voila! Kids of all stripes start learning. Getting a degree in education makes almost no difference in whether you are a good teacher or not. Giving young teachers an interim training time -- say 2 to 3 years -- when they are evaluated and mentored, does make a difference. After three years it's pretty clear who is going to be good, and who needs another profession. Not that that is much help to you right now.

    Soldier on! As you already know, these years fly by, done before you know it. The time you invest now in your bright, creative and distractible kids will pay off in spades. Don't blink!


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