Thursday, October 18, 2007

Child Left Behind

A few days ago,Dandydandy
posted about two of her boys “who are exceptional when one compares their educational abilities against what is average and/or expected of them.” Ten-year-old Sam loves school and is doing well in it by traditional standards. Dandy says she worries about him getting used to not being challenged at school, so that he shuts down when he faces something more difficult. Thirteen-year-old Gabe, on the other hand, does not like school, is doing extremely poorly, yet is scoring off the charts on standardized tests. The result of the failing grades plus high test scores is that he’s been invited to participate in a special early SAT program for high performers because his test scores are high, but is being denied access to special programs for gifted students because his grades are bad. [Please correct me if I’m summing this up badly, dandy!] You can (and should!) read the whole post here

Dandy asked for input on dealing with the situation with her 13-year-old Gabe. The questions are, if I understand it correctly, if our kids are not performing in the system, does it necessarily mean they are not performing? What if the system’s failing him? Do we need to teach them to jump through the hoops or is there another way to let Gabe be Gabe but still make sure he comes out knowing the stuff that’s important to know?

This is exactly the problem I am hoping not to face with my own son. AJ is currently more in the Sam camp. He loves going to school, but seems to have come to have the expectation that it will not be challenging, so when he gets stuff that is more at his level (which, at the moment, is usually coming at homework time), he balks because he can’t do it as quickly as the easy stuff.

But I’m seeing signs of some Gabe-like tendencies too. In the past few weeks, he’s started balking at doing his math homework – it’s always been his favorite subject. But he’s bored. He wants to do more and it’s not happening fast enough for him. We have tremendous arguments about homework just about every night. I don’t like the way the wind is blowing. And yet I respect the quality that makes AJ resist assignments that seem like busywork. And I know the Gabe-like approach because I’ve been there. The only thing that kept me from crashing and burning in high school was parents who laid down the law. And for some kids, that’s not enough.

If AJ were in Gabe’s shoes, I would have several concerns. First, I would be concerned about the impact of failing on his self-esteem. Even if it he feels like the failing is something under his control, a decisions he’s made, at some level he’s chosen to fail and regardless of how a kid feels about the system, most of them don’t like to fail. I don’t know enough about Gabe, but from what dandy’s said, I’m sure dandy’s working on this part of the equation already. Is Gabe motivated in other areas of his life? You mention his frustration with school, but are there things that really turn him on? Trying to get at the school stuff through something he likes is one way to work. When I was having a tendency to throw in the towel, finding ways to relate to my music-making always helped me. (Need to study French? Listen to French music. Balking at math? Look at acoustical properties, etc. We were pretty creative about that sort of thing in my house.)

The second area of concern is the school system that’s not working for Gabe. There can be many reasons for this, from poor organization, laziness, or just a simple lack of resources (time, money, warm bodies). I think there are a lot of problems with school systems, but they are the systems we’ve got and it pays to try to work with them if at all possible. One thing that AJ has got going for him right now that it sounds like Gabe does not is support inside the school. This can be hard to get. We’ve been lucky in finding a school and, this year, a teacher who are receptive to my requests. But I am also being a royal pain in the ass (in as nice a way as I know how). I have been talking to principals and teachers and social workers and gifted support people at AJ’s school since the year before he started kindergarten there, making sure they were going to be paying attention and finding appropriate stuff for him to do. When the schools can’t find materials on their own, I provide them. I never take it for granted that the school knows what AJ needs. I never assume they have the resources he needs. I spell it out for them and I offer to help. No one will be a better advocate than I and even if all I’m doing is letting them know I’m paying attention, then I think things will be better. And I'm learning not to care that some of them may think I'm just another crazy parent. Because the ones who count know better.

My basic philosophy in dealing with bureaucracy is that if the system isn’t working, the best way to help is to get yourself on the inside and try to figure out how to make it better. Fighting the system usually just meets with resistance and can be counterproductive in the extreme if you’re not in a position to get up and walk away from it. I talk to AJ’s teacher at least once or twice a week, either in person or by email. I’m in regular contact with the school’s gifted teacher. When I have concerns, I put them in writing. I try to work with the school hierarchies (Start with the classroom teacher, then the gifted teacher, then the principal, at least in our school. And if I’m going to contact someone other than the classroom teacher, I always let her know.). Even at our school, which has been a largely positive experience, there is a lot of insecurity and it pays to understand the hierarchy and make it work for, not against you.

Also, I would be a little concerned about the disjuncture between the way the school’s handling the SAT invitation and the way they’re holding out on alternative programs for Gabe. Because I’m pretty sure that the school has something to gain for turning out students who perform well on tests. It seems to me that this might be a bargaining tool if you can find someone to go to bat for Gabe. I would keep talking to people until you find someone who can help.

And finally, while I like to see a kid who is idealistic and who understands the idiocy of systems that think of kids as scores instead of people, I would draw the line at saying it’s okay to buck the system entirely. Unfortunately, most people need to know how to jump through hoops once in a while in order to get through life – to hold down a job, buy a house or a car, get insurance, etc. Public schools may not always be a great place to learn about math and science, but it is almost always an excellent place to learn about bureaucracy. And the value of that lesson should not be underestimated. That aside, Gabe’s failures, even if a conscious choice on his part, will have complications for him in the future. They are likely to limit his choices for further education, careers, etc. There’s a good chance that a few years from now, he may look back at his grades and regret his actions. I’d hate to see that happen to any kid. He may be smart, but he’s still very young and may not yet be in the position to judge the outcome of his actions objectively. Thirteen is a tough place to be when even when everything's going great. Thirteen thinks it doesn't want help, but it really needs it.

And what of a system that is so failing a clearly gifted student that he’s shutting down entirely? What should we expect schools to do? In Gabe’s case, I would think it would be obvious to the school that there was a problem – he has two very different sets of scores, one from classes, the other on tests. He’s clearly underperforming in class. The school should want to know why. The first question they should be asking is whether he can do the work. The standardized tests suggest that he can. The next question that they should be asking is why isn’t he doing the work. Is it a behavioral problem? Is it a learning disability? Is he having problems at home? I’m pretty sure our school would have called in the social worker and school psychologist in a case like this. But then, these things are easier to spot in early elementary school when the kids spend all day with one teacher. If Gabe has different teachers for different subjects, then it’s possible that no one is really paying attention to the big picture. It’s one thing for a kid testing off the charts to fail one class. It’s quite a different thing to fail most of them. They should be looking at learning style. They should be talking to him. The fact that they aren’t suggests big problems at the school. Get yourself on the inside and find out what’s going on. Make sure the teachers are talking to each other. Find an advocate if you can.

And maybe there’s a way to teach Gabe to be his own advocate. When I moved from one school district to another in high school, I found myself repeating an almost identical curriculum in English two years in a row. The school was an enormous urban high school with plenty of problems of its own. Dealing with the administration was usually a total waste of time. I was bored out of my mind. I wasn’t interested in doing it all again. I wrote my teacher a letter and asked if I could make some substitutions – Macbeth for Hamlet, Jude the Obscure for Tess of the D’Urbervilles, that kind of thing. The teacher was all for it and it kept me involved in the class in a way I would not have been otherwise. Another teacher allowed me to do an independent study in Latin, as I’d already finished all the levels the school had to offer (my previous school system started languages earlier). As far as the school was concerned, I was taking Latin II, but the teacher let me work at my own level. I still got stuck taking freshman health in my senior year, but because I’d managed to make the rest of it work for me by working with individual teachers, it was almost tolerable (if a still a bit humiliating).

Whatever you all do, good luck. I hope you and Gabe work this all out one way or the other. And I hope you’ll post here or on your blog about what happens.


Dandy (Hannah) said...

So many great ideas here and a lot to think about. I definitely need to start talking to school faculty again...and I'm having a self-realization about my own attitude as I type this. Thank you so much for blogging your thoughts on this issue. I am going to be writing more on this subject very soon.

FreshHell said...

I think one of the difficulties here that's not easy to solve is that Gabe is one of six children with a now-single mother who is (I am assuming here) still putting herself through nursing school (?). So, there are many other distractions and perhaps Gabe's problems need a high priority sticker which is so hard for a parent with multiple other "high priorities" to deal with. That said, there are avenues to look into that have been brought up in the comments. Dandy, I hope you'll let us know what happens. Middle school is hard enough when you're not failing out. It's the black hole of education - everywhere. Best of luck!!

Anonymous said...

You know, you should forward this entry to your governor. Take care,