The Washington Post

Parents, teachers clash over movies in class

[I was away last week and failed to get last week’s Local Living column on the blog. Here it is.]

If I were a principal, I would never let parents gather for chats at school bus stops. I would tell the drivers to swerve in their direction, shake them up and distract them from conversations that are likely to raise questions I would rather not answer.

Take, for instance, the Anne Arundel County mothers who congregated the morning after their elementary school showed Disney movies — “Toy Story 3” and “The Lion King” — to help the students recover from the strain of the Maryland School Assessment (MSA) tests a few weeks ago.

“The moms at the bus stop were pretty fed up with this tradition, so I took action and e-mailed the fifth-grade teaching team,” said Susan Noble, the parent of a fifth-grader.

This produced not only an airing of an old but still lively issue — using class time for passive viewing of Hollywood films — but the revelation of a controversial use of the MSAs that many parents were not aware of.

I see Noble’s story not as criticism of teachers and administrators, but as a plea for more communication and consultation with parents. Would it have hurt to ask whether parents wanted their children watching movies when they might have spent those two hours on a project that required movement and thought?

“For years I have wondered why the buildup is so great for MSA but the rest of the school day, the entire afternoon, is wasted on a movie that was a special treat when the kids were in preschool,” Noble wrote in her e-mail to the fifth-grade teachers. “Yesterday was a beautiful day; I appreciate the fact that there is a great deal of pressure on the teaching staff to make sure the kids excel at standardized tests. I just fail to see how making them sit still and watch movies prepares them for the rest of the testing cycle. Is there truly nothing else they could be doing?”

The response, signed by three teachers, thanked Noble and other parents for expressing their concerns. This was followed by a stink bomb:

“MSA is an important test for the 5th grade students because their scores are kept in their permanent file and used to help middle school teachers with placement,” the teachers said. “It’s comparable to how SAT scores and high school GPA are considered by colleges.”

Uh-oh. Anybody who talks about somebody’s permanent file is asking for trouble. Placement is another bad word if not explained. Placement in what? Parents knew middle school offered different tracks in math, but implying that a child might be stuck in the slow English class because of a low MSA score was a new and disturbing disclosure.

That was just the first sentence. The second sentence was one of the most ill-considered analogies I have seen in notes from schools. Placement in tracked courses has little to do with placement in selective colleges. Course placement is designed to put a child at the right level so he or she can successfully rise to higher levels. College placement carries no promise of improvement. If you believe that getting into Johns Hopkins will change your life, then not getting into Johns Hopkins means nothing more than you are out of luck.

Asked about the issue, Anne Arundel County schools spokesman Bob Mosier said, “There are times throughout the school year when elementary school students benefit from a break from the rigors of academics. These breaks can include movies, seasonal parties, or events like Grandparents and Special Friends Day. We are confident that our principals and teachers are not overindulging in such events and that our schools are working with their parent groups in the planning process.” He did not comment on the effect MSA scores might have on placement.

In their note, the teachers said the movies were just background entertainment while students practiced skits or completed a math lesson. So why, some parents thought, did they show the film at all? Was this to sanction having the TV on during homework?

“I am frustrated and not sure where to turn,” Noble told me.

How about sitting down with the teachers and hashing this out? Everyone seems eager to communicate.If parents and educators talked more, there would be fewer surprises in the latest e-mail from the faculty room.

Jay Mathews is an education columnist and blogger for the Washington Post, his employer for 40 years.


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