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Posted at 11:30 AM ET, 10/13/2011

Parent relates troubled visits to children’s high-achieving schools

This post was written by a mother with two daughters who attend high-achieving schools in Montgomery County, Md., one of the best public school districts in the country.

The mom asked that she not be identified so as not to poison her children’s relationships with their teachers. Even though you won’t know who wrote the post, it still tells a story about education today and where school reform is taking us, even in the best schools.

Here is the report from this Montgomery County mother:

This Monday my husband and I had the luxury of taking time off from work to attend parent visiting at our daughters’ elementary and middle schools. Many parents don’t have this flexibility, and can’t leave work to spend a day in their child’s classroom. We know we are lucky, we own a home in a highly educated neighborhood and our daughters attend schools that consistently rank as excellent and win award after award.

Our public schools are in Montgomery County, which has a reputation as being one of the best school districts in the country.

While we saw glimpses of magical teaching moments, we also witnessed exercises that left us aghast at how our daughters were being taught and the lack of creativity or thoughtfulness in the curriculum. If this is the model for the rest of the country we are in deep trouble.

Our younger daughter spent 20 minutes writing down her spelling words as many times as possible to memorize them. There was no discussion about what made the words similar, no discussion of roots of the language and, most horrifying, it was clear that many of the children, my daughter included, were proud to spell words that they can’t use in a sentence. The spelling of these words will be forgotten before the next test.

The next assignment involved no more brain power than the first. Children were given articles from a magazine. The articles were fascinating, lava, endangered bears, life at the Great Barrier Reef. The children were tasked with finding text features from the magazine. They found a headline, a by-line, a map, a caption and a photograph. Not once were they asked to actually read the stories or discuss how a particular text feature made the story more interesting or emphasized or illustrated an important part of the story. Not once did they talk about why or how magazine articles can help them learn about their world or what they found interesting.

The last exercise of the morning gave me hope as all the children worked together to write a short story using each of their senses to describe a scene that their other classmates had to guess. It was group thinking, creativity and engagement at its best.

Our middle school experience was just as mixed.

In the classes where the teachers aren’t forced to teach to a test or standard curriculum, students were engaged and the learning was hands on and exciting.

In more traditional classes, it was painful. In honors English, students were told to “identify three similes, three rhymes and three alliterations.” They weren’t encouraged or even given enough time to read the poems, there was no notion that they would discuss the meaning of the poems; instead, they had to feverishly search for similes, rhymes and alliterations as fast as possible. The students spent their time looking for the words “as” or “like” and then underlined the next several words; looked for two or more words that start with the same letter etc.

I’m not sure what the children learned from this exercise; it could just as easily been a word search. Ironically one of the poems was about how often poems are butchered and misused. This class is taught by an excellent experienced teacher.  The teacher tries everything she can to make the class engaging and interesting but she told my daughter she is bound to teach the lessons and worksheets in the curriculum created by the county.  My daughter compared it to being forced to make lemonade out of lemons but without the help of sugar or water.

Montgomery County is blessed with fabulous teachers, engaged parents and communities, and many PTAs that can raise funds to support extra resources in the classroom. No wonder it is constantly looked to as an example for schools across the country.

But if this is our best model, we are in grave danger of raising a group of children that know how to check boxes, underline and memorize but that are rarely taught how to think. I only wish that the shadows of creativity that we saw could be more prevalent. It is then that our school district could truly be model for the rest of the country.

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By  |  11:30 AM ET, 10/13/2011

 
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