This is the sixth post by FedUp Mom, the mother of a fifth grader. FedUp Mom’s daughter used to attend a public school in suburban Philadelphia, but this year FedUp Mom moved her to a private Quaker school, hoping for a more relaxed environment. You can read her other posts here, here, here, here and here.
(If you want to write about your experiences for Stop Homework, please drop me a line.)
by FedUp Mom
Looking back at my daughter’s experience in the public school, I think her problems began when she got high scores on the standardized tests and was labelled “gifted”. I have become increasingly skeptical of the following oft-repeated slogans:
1.) “Gifted kids are bored because the work is too easy.” Not necessarily. Sometimes gifted kids are bored because the work is just too boring.
This is an important distinction because it leads to different solutions. If you think the problem is that the work is too easy, then the solution is to move the kids up to the more difficult work of the next grade level. This is what the public school did with my daughter — she tested out as “gifted” in math, so they put her in an accelerated math class, which attempts to get through two grades of math material in one year. For my daughter, this just added frustration and stress to the boredom she was already experiencing, and was the central train wreck of her disastrous fifth grade year.
Why? Because the work, while more difficult, was still fundamentally boring. It didn’t engage her in any way. It was just a stream of algorithms to be memorized and practiced until they could be performed quickly, followed by a timed test, followed by the test being handed back to the students as a group so they could be embarrassed in front of their friends. Somehow we’ve wound up with a system where wealthy school districts reserve their most rigid, punitive, backward teaching for the kids who have been singled out as the brightest.
2.) “Parents want rigor”. Every time I complained about the pressure to the public school principal, she would say, “this is what the other parents want!” and I would think, “if you don’t listen to me, why should you listen to them?” I really don’t know what to make of this argument. Do I think there are hyper-competitive, driven parents out there who are willing to put their kids through the meat grinder, if they think it will improve the kid’s chance of going to the Ivy League? Sure, I’ve met parents like that. But why should the public school cater to them? How many parents would choose a progressive, child-friendly option if it was offered? I say it’s time to find out.
3.) “Gifted kids need to be challenged!” What I object to here is the passive voice. Gifted kids don’t need to be challenged, they need to be supported and encouraged to challenge themselves. As Alfie Kohn rightly points out, the best way to ensure that a child has the right project is to let the kid choose it. It would benefit all students to have a voice and real ownership of what they do at school.
To my taste, a lot of gifted advocates aren’t radical enough. They look at a school system where kids are being trained to jump through a series of hoops, and they say “wait a minute! Those hoops are too easy! My child needs smaller, higher hoops so she’ll be challenged appropriately!” I look at the school system and say, “in the twenty-first century, why are we training kids to jump through a series of hoops?”
4.) “Your daughter is so bright!” This might as well have been part of my name by the time we left the public school. I was constantly greeted with, “Hello, Mrs. FedUpMom-your-daughter-is-so-bright!” Clearly this is a school policy, intended to butter up wayward parents, but I now see it as a symptom of the basic problem. First of all, the teachers are trying to reassure me that I’m a member of an elite group that I’m not convinced I want to belong to. Second, once again, my daughter is being reduced to her test scores. My daughter isn’t just bright, she’s also creative, unconventional, and self-motivated. These are the qualities that led to her miserable school experience. The public school doesn’t reward brains or thinking, it rewards obedience, compliance, and the willingness to give up all other life goals besides satisfying the teacher. The kids who do well in this system are the ones who are bright enough, but not so independent that they ask questions like “what’s the point?”
What do gifted kids really need? They need freedom. They need a chance to develop their own interests at their own pace. They need downtime. They need a social life. They need an interesting, stimulating environment that will offer challenge without crushing them.