Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Teaching Outliers

In a recent conference with J's teacher I discovered the importance of working smart even at the first grade level. The skills that will be useful to her as an adult are not unlike those she needs to thrive in elementary school. As it turns out, the quality of work is not nearly as important as speed of completion when measuring the ability of a student. No one has the time or interest to understand why a child's comprehension varies dramatically between two books at the same reading level.

In summary, how you appear is far more important than who you really are - style reigns over substance. Though we chatted about J, what I heard from the teacher and later from the guidance counselor and the principal, helped me understand why a kid in my neighborhood who is also in J's class is being sent to behavior school like he were a wild animal in need of taming.

I have seen T for a couple of years now and think he is very bright and inquisitive. His mother tells me that he loves taking things apart to figure how stuff works and can sometimes even put it back together. That's a lot for a child who is close to failing first grade. What this kid does not have is a compliant manner. He tells it like it is without fear of consequences. What's more the consequences leave him quite unperturbed. If he finds the work boring he refuses to touch it. His mother just can't get him to do his homework.

Now, instead of trying to discover what's special about this child and nurturing it, thanks to absurd regulations like No Child Left Behind, the teacher's only goal is to reach the targets that have been set for the school. This means leaving the potential of the outliers untapped and undiscovered. This also means repeating end of year assessment drills ad-nauseum.

Sure there are many alternate paths for J, T and many others like them to thrive but they definitely do not pass through public schools - even the ones that take pride in being among the best. In fact, the point of diminishing returns kicks in even before the end of elementary school. The more I see of the system, the more I feel inclined to pull J out of it. I just can't wait to start home-schooling - if only I had the luxury of staying home.

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