Starstruck - FamilyEducation

Starstruck

February 03,2011
Professor Mom
Aliki McElreath

Aliki is a writer and college English teacher. She lives in North Carolina with her husband, two children (ages seven and ten), a dog, a cat, a rabbit, and too many fish.

One film I just can't wait to see is "Race to Nowhere," the grassroots film that is making its way across the country via scheduled screenings (it's been unavailable to me over Netflix for months now)--the film is coming to my town next week, and I'm looking forward to going. If you haven't heard about the film yet, go check out the website, and read about it (there's an excellent review of the film here)--sign the petition, too, if you're moved to do so. Race to Nowhere has started a lot of conversations about how much pressure we're putting on our kids today. We overschedule them, running them from one extracurricular activity to the next; we sign them up for tutoring at a young age when they don't even need estra support, so they can leap ahead; too many kids are bringing home pages and pages of mind-numbing homework sheets; they are suffering from depression and anxiety and poor self-esteem. We demand success from our kids on levels that were never foisted upon us growing up, and they are cracking. Depression in children has increased, and many children are crumbling under the weight of school-related stress and anxiety. Even if they have "safe" home environments, the pressure in the classroom is too much, for too many.

The school system is a real system, as it turns out, in ways I didn't even imagine when L. started kindergarten, and working this system, for some parents, has become their mission in life. It's all about the numbers, after all. I've learned a lot in recent years.

I didn't realize, for instance, that kids are "tracked" at an early age based on math and reading--the two main sections comprising the end-of-grade tests in most states, but that emphasis on math skills far overrides emphasis on reading.

I didn't realize that since many teachers are forced to teach-to-the tests, this would result in very little time being left for teachers to focus on enrichment activities, activities that could reach students like L., who learn in "non-traditional" ways.

I didn't realize that parents will scramble to do anything to get their kids tested and scored as academically gifted in third grade, because this gives their child access to excellent magnet school programs for AG students--programs that are well-funded and off-limits to other kids (and way off-limits to my gifted-and-talented-in-unconventional-ways son).

I didn't realize that so much would be riding on math, and that being gifted in reading and the arts would count for so little.

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Not long ago, a mother at T.'s school asked me if I knew about a special math group for some first-graders--Math Stars.

"What's Math Stars?" I asked her.

As it turned out, it's a special group for some students in first grade--started up and run primarily by parents. These parents are seeking out additional resources and work for their kids to prepare them in advance for the testing that happens in third grade to identify gifted and talented students.

I wondered, as she was talking, why kids need to start so early down this road. I asked her: wouldn't the test in third grade demonstrate their mastery of the material?

"Well," the parent said to me. "Regular classroom time just doesn't prepare kids for academically gifted results. We have to advocate for our kids."

Now I live, breathe, and sleep advocacy for my kids: I have spent over five years advocating for L., and I know what advocacy looks like. This didn't look like the type of advocacy I know.

I didn't say anything more, but walked away feeling disquieted, then indignation began to mount around me, like a building wave. It all suddenly seemed so under-the-table and mind-boggling. What about those parents who didn't have access to this "Math Stars" option? Why can't all kids be viewed as "Math Stars?" Where was the corresponding "Reading Stars" group, for kids like T. who are reading so ahead of their peers? Why can't all kids, regardless of who they are, where they come from, and how in the loop their parents are, be given additional resources to help boost their learning?

I became obsessed with this Math Stars concept, then with why T. wasn't one.

At the next parent-teacher conference, when I asked T.'s teacher about her progress in math she answered, without missing a beat, "T. is just where she needs to be in math. She's doing great."

But where is that? I wondered--this place where she is. Is it Math Stars-great, or great-enough-to-matter when the testing rolls around?

Is it great enough?

T. works hard. She loves school, and she loves to learn. She cheerfully and willingly tackles her homework each night, and fairly often she even chooses to do the "Challenge" work--the work that's not required, but offered as a challenge to the kids. There are some nights when she doesn't want to do the challenge. I don't push her. Should I, though? If I pushed her would she get into Math Stars?

Then, for about two hours that afternoon, I felt myself caught up in an insane spiral of thinking. Were we dooming T. to mediocrity if we didn't play the system? Could we afford some additional tutoring in math for T.? Should we do it? Would it be worth it? I had visions of her rising rapidly up the ladder of elementary school success, doors to coveted AG programs opening wide for her; opportunities unfolding at every turn--if only we could work the system enough, push T. enough.

I asked Scott that night what he thought about it all. He looked at me as if I had lost my mind.

"Tutoring?"

And it seemed ridiculous, all of a sudden. So ridiculous to fill up T.'s time with extra math, just to advance our first grader to fit some unspecified, hypothetical criteria of measurement down the road. She is happy and well-adjusted and, more importantly, happy to learn. She does her homework, and then we do crafts together, or she helps me cook dinner, or she reads to me while I grade papers at the kitchen table. But that afternoon I could see so easily how so many parents--faced with the numbers game that has become public education--find themselves caught in that same spiral; how advocating for their kids rapidly turns into competitiveness; how we can all lose sight so rapidly of what we know and believe is best for our children--at their expense.