Tuesday, April 19, 2005

But Who Would Have the Courage To Propose Such a Radical Amendment?

When I was a young boy, I asked my parents -- more than once -- why I had to go to school. "Because, if you don't, we'll have to go to jail and you'll get send to a military school!" was the standard reply. Assuming that such a school for truant children of negligent parents actually did exist, how different could it be from the public school that I was already suffering through? The classroom life was boring, tedious, and often pointless. As if discipline and punishment by two adults at home wasn't bad enough, the school came up with a different surrogate to watch over each group of kids every school year. Elementary education had its positive aspects, but the best part of the school day was the very end, when I was finally permitted to go home.

Now that I am a father with three school age children, you might expect that I have "come around" to the realization that sending our children off to school five times a week for most of the year is beneficial for their intellectual, physical, and social development. You would be sorely mistaken.

The school system -- be it public, parochial, or some other similarly structured system -- seems to be based on an assumption that everyone of the same age, in the same grade, should or can be equal in every way. The biggest problem that arises out of this assumption, from what I have seen, involves the school's attempts to deal with children who fall above or below its standards of a particular grade level. From being selected to participate in the "Gifted" program to being held back a year or even referred to a mental health professional, our school systems provide "special" means of handling "special" students.

When children grow older and attend Middle School and High School, they have more flexibility in making their schedules. Some kids are still in General Math while their classmates are in Algebra. Some make it as far as Advanced Placement English and History but just manage to squeak by in Math and Science. Why wait that long to let children learn according to their strengths and weaknesses? In elementary grades, children may need more work in certain subjects than in others, or they may need more challenging materials to work with in particular areas. But the system doesn't work that way. Rather than acknowledging that a child may be having difficulty in school because he is independent and free-thinking -- while exhibiting a remarkable capacity for learning in subjects that interest him -- the school rigidly declares him to be in need of special treatment, even to the extent of using drugs to keep him docile and cooperative. (Tell me that's not scary.) Gifted programs are just a means of giving a child challenging extra-curricular work that has nothing to do with challenging them in classroom subjects at which they already excel.

What good are elementary schools, then, anyway? Was I right when, as a child, I thought school was a tedious waste of time? What kind of alternative do we have to the traditional elementary school system in which our children are now following in our footsteps?

Mitch Berg of Shot In the Dark has a shocking but well-thought out and quite reasonable answer: Let's abolish elementary school.

"Mr. Incredible" Bob Parr, in the movie The Incredibles, opined -- using the example of a fourth grade class graduation -- that the schools are "psychotic" because "they keep coming up with new ways to reward mediocrity". Mitch would agree; he posits that elementary school "turns everything about human psychology on its head". The system is all about turning the children into what the system thinks they should be, instead of letting them be who they are.

Mitch's essay is quite long but well worth the read, particularly for those of us who have a vested interest in the education system -- that "vested interest" being our children. I doubt that a proposal like this would be taken seriously by people in positions of authority who could get a public debate started, which is a shame because it is the best solution to the school situation that I have heard from anyone in my lifetime.

No comments: