Third and Fourth Weeks

John is settling into school. He skips along the court in the backyard when he gets home. He has friends.  He likes his teacher.  He likes having rules. He really likes having rules.

In the last two weeks, I feel like I have had my first opportunity to see some of the decisions that our teachers are trying to make.   On Monday evening this week, we went to an emergency meeting of the parents.  When we arrive, a group of parents are meeting with the principal, some administrative staff, and about 11 teachers.

The parents are here because they are upset.  Susie’s been following it more closely than I have, but I have a general sense of what this will be about. We are going to talk about curriculum.

This is where, as Susie would say, “the rubber hits the road.” People talk about equity and opportunity in society.  Well, this is where that occurs. This is a Title 1 school.   Tonight’s meeting is made up of people who are on that frontier.  These parents aren’t drawn from the mainstream of the school’s parents.  We all look alike, for example.  We all speak English.  I would bet that we all  fed our children breakfast at home this morning.  Right off the bat, that sets us apart.  Sure, I wish that the school was better off, and I can see that there is room to grow.  I wonder if there is a reason why most of the space in the book shelves remains empty.

There is an announcement about PTA – this year the parent’s have raised $8,500.  The librarian got a grant from the state to buy $9,000 in books.  The parents want to sell t-shirts to raise money.  One of the parents volunteers that he is a designer. The parents are suggesting $5 for the shirts, so that people can afford them. Resources are tight.

Last year, our school reported a big jump in its test scores (70 percent Adequate Yearly Progress).  I believe that scores improved about sixteen percentage points.  That is an impressive jump. The teachers were proud.

It turns out the the school district has purchased a new reading curriculum.  The new curriculum comes from Scott Foresman.  It is called “Reading Street.”

Reading Street is an award-winning program.  It wins awards for helping school pass the No Child Left Behind tests.  According to the University of Wisconsin, 98 percent of the content in Reading Street “aligns” with testing requirements.  This is Scott Foresman’s sales pitch:

With the No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB) tying federal
funding to student performance on achievement assessments, greater importance is currently being placed on
K–12 alignment issues than ever before.

The challenge for something like Reading Street is that there are not just federal standards, but also state standards.  Scott Foresman wants to sell Reading Street in 50 states.  That means that they have to design a single set of reading content that “aligns” with testing priorities in all 50 states.   Note, they aren’t concerned about making reading fun.

The teachers are upset because Reading Street puts the teachers onto scripts.  The lessons are written remotely.  The scripts run for more than two hours.

I have refrained from making political comments on this blog.  It just isn’t that interesting.  I worry that my micro-readership would splinter into sub-micro clusters. But, isn’t it a bit odd how a right-wing plan to take control of education manifests itself into an equity-driven program that imposes a neo-Marxist spirit that forces everyone to operate at the same level?

Most parental objection to the curriculum focuses on its unbending adherence to teaching a limited vocabulary.  Teachers are not allowed to differentiate in the complexity of lessons that they give to students.  Our teacher was frustrated.  As he said to Susie, “I don’t want to have to teach John where to use ‘the’ in a sentence.” The sense I get from the meeting is that all students have to learn the same words.

I have done a little research on the curriculum for Reading Street. Here are the words for the initial weeks of first grade:

Week 1: at, can, cat, back, dad, am, bat, mad, ran, way, on.

Week 6: hum, jug, tub, pup, fun, box, mop, gum, hid, ten, pot.

Tonight’s meeting follows an announcement on Thursday evening that schools are now allowed to modify the curriculum. The man sitting to my right is the father of a little girl that went to Beth-El with John two years ago.  He is exasperated.  “How are we going to know when this kind of thing is going to happen the next time,” he asks.  “How are we going to know that it won’t happen again?”

Of course, the outcome is not perfect.  Durham is still going to use Reading Street.  They are just going to allow schools some decision-making over how they work with it.  In fact, the District has come up with A New Plan for Flexibility that explicitly outlines exactly how much differentiation is allowed.

Some parents object because Reading Street is “drop-dead boring.”  That is intensified by the amount of time that is dedicated to learning these words.  His class is spending 160 minutes per day on reading.  That is a lot, but it comes at the expense of other things. Last year, first graders spent 100 minutes on writing every day.  This year, they gets 30 minutes per day. The only reason that John gets that much is because our school has opted for the writing-intensive choice within the Flexibility Plan.

The tests cover reading and math.  There is less writing because writing is not on the tests.  That is also why there is no distinct social studies program (there are ways to introduce social studies through other lessons) in elementary school.

– – –

Today, John’s teacher pulls Susie over at pick-up.

“I’m glad I caught you,” he says.  “I wanted to ask you about something with John.”

Last year, this would have been the beginning of a talk about being gentle, or how the school wasn’t willing to push him.

This year, everything is different.  It is not just that we have rules here.  It also appears that the public schools are committed to using what resources they have to meet John’s needs.  Again, John is challenging in some different ways – while he is bright, he can also get distracted.  He needs someone to give him external motivation.

Our teacher already has the motivation system in place.  Now, it seems that he has an answer for how to help John meet his abilities.  He has assessed John on reading over the last weeks.  It turns out that John has done well, to the point where he has exhausted the initial set of materials.  The average score for entering 1st grade is supposed to be “6,” and the average score for exiting first grade is supposed to be a “15.”  There are a bunch of “6’s” in the room.  The maximum score was ’38.’ John scored 75 percent on his ability to read the “38” words, but 100 percent on his ability to demonstrate comprehension.

I have some mixed feelings about this.  Yes, I feel proud for him.  Then again, its also potentially a problem if John decided to check out of first grade.  If he thinks that first grade is “easy,” then he will become his own enemy.

The plan right now is to send him to a reading class in the 2nd or 3rd grade.  The 2nd grade teacher sounds better. According to our teacher, she uses a strict set of rules.  While it would be nice if John’s teacher gave he plenty of praise and affirmation, he really needs something else.  He needs a teacher who can motivate him with clear guidelines and rules.  We are lucky that we have that in his classroom now.

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