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My Kids are Succeeding in America's Failing Schools

A report in USA Today  suggests that U.S. schools are too easy. Based on 3 years of questionnaires, students regularly feel unchallenged by their schoolwork. Ulrich Boser, who worked on the report, explains that while there is a rarified group of hyper-academic students (probably kids of Tiger Moms), “the broad swath of American students are not as engaged as much in their schoolwork.”

I believe it. 37% of 4th graders say their math homework is “often too easy.” No surprise there! My 4th grader often tells me homework is “stupid.”

I don’t think the U.S. public school system is perfect, but I don’t like it when (albeit useful) studies like this set off alarmist reactions that exaggerate problems in a way that is unhelpful. I am, personally, very happy with my children’s schools and with how well my kids are doing. I’m impressed with what they are learning and school is not too easy for them.

I think one reason some kids are less engaged at school is that some parents are more engaged — doing their homework for them, taking over their science projects, squabbling with teachers over grades. Another problem is that some kids are over-burdened with extracurricular activities, which can lessen their investment in classwork.

It’s hard to find the right balance. I can’t say I’ve necessarily found it. Every kid is different every year. I try to be mindful of their temperaments and I try not to take over their projects. I have to make sure the things I’m doing are really for them and not for how they make me look as a parent.

I think the worst teachers are teachers who are not empowered to take initiative within their own classrooms. State testing — a bit of a necessary evil, if you ask me — cripples teachers. How do you not teach to the test when your job depends on it? Our grade school handles this really well and is one of the top ten in our state even though we serve a lot of lower income, remedial, and ESL students. They use differentiated teaching strategies with learning tiers and pull-out groups. Every student is discussed every week. It’s great. My two grade-schoolers are advanced in math and reading, (Of course they are! Ever met a blogger whose kids weren’t advanced?) so they are pulled out for enrichment groups instead of getting stuck on something remedial, unless they need it.

Which is not to say we haven’t had any challenges. My son spent two years in preschool without uttering a single word. He was selectively mute, but was articulate at home, could read, and had a flair for numbers. Well, he failed all his kindergarten assessments because, you know — mute. I met with the principal and told her a little bit about my son. I put my trust in her because I didn’t know any of the teachers or who would be best for my son. She chose the perfect teacher for him. He has had great success at school and enjoys it.

We hear so much that’s bad about the school system that parents often feel like it’s “us against them” … like teachers are intentionally making our kids dumber at math than the Chinese. But every time I’ve empowered a teacher or a principal by turning off my helicoptering instincts and actually supporting them, I’ve been thrilled with the results and my kids have thrived.

“I’m finding there are simple work-arounds I can use for my kids until the system gets it exactly right.”

When my son was in 8th grade he was in a geography class that barely had a classroom set of textbooks. He couldn’t bring a geography book home for homework. I was aghast because that seems pretty crappy. And it is pretty crappy. I e-mailed the teacher. He told me the school’s textbook budget goes into up-to-date math books for every student. So Geography takes a hit. He also told me I could buy one on Half.com for $6, which I did. I know that doesn’t help every student and policy makers need to be concerned with every student. But I’m finding that there are usually simple work-arounds I can use for my kids until the system gets it exactly right.

And even though my kids as 8th graders might score lower on a math test than 8th graders from China or India, our broadly-based education system is designed to continue through college and the United States has a lot of competitive colleges turning out competent, well-rounded graduates. Sometimes I actually wish our schools focused LESS on math and science at this point. Long live liberal arts education!

It’s very difficult to get an impression of this issue as a whole. I’ll have 4 kids in 3 schools this fall. My children, like the schools they attend, have varying strengths and weaknesses. There are a lot of moving parts.

I’m glad people value different things and care about different aspects of education. We all benefit from this. I pick my battles within the education system and volunteer where I think it makes the most impact. Our grade school has 5 or 6 parents signed up for each part while the Jr. High struggles to find a parent to serve as PTA president. I volunteered for the Jr. High’s Community Council — we got to choose how our state’s Land Trust funds are spent. Mostly, they’re already ear-marked for big-budget items. But with the leftover funds (a couple thousand dollars) we created micro-grants for teachers with creative, specific, enriching ideas for their classes. One teacher got a grant to buy Lego Robotics sets for projects in his Computer Science class. This kind of thing is really exciting to me.

Yes, yes — the 24-hour news cycles love to cite studies that point out how dumb Americans are. But I’ve seen otherwise. Have you?

More of my Babbles.

Read more from Kacy at Every Day I Write the Book.
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