Getting ahead

March 28,2008
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.

It's just the perfect day outside today--clear blue skies, warm spring breezes, lots of birds chirping outside my office window. All of this adds up to make this good Friday Feeling even better--what better way to head into the weekend than to have the promise of the continuation of some truly good weather? I'm already imagining naps in the hammock, crafts on the screened-in porch with the kids, and perhaps some walks down to the neighborhood pool so we can sit and imagine what it will be like when it opens; imagine ourselves seated on the pool steps, feet in the cool blue water, watching the kids splashing and dunking.

But a part of me is a little heavy-hearted today, too. This is L.'s last official day of his three-week Spring Break. On Monday Scott will rush the kids out the door amidst lots of protest and heel-dragging, I'm sure. L. Is already nervous and stressed about his new glasses, and about what the other kids will say. His wonderful mind, which has wandered over this three-week break so enthusiastically through all the topics he knows and loves--soaking up knowledge and concepts, will then be forced into learning processes he so resists, and which don't come easily to him--like those dull, ever-present worksheets that have become such a staple in today's public school classrooms. Ask any parent today what they dislike the most about their child's classroom experience, and they will no doubt tell you about the worksheets--the sheer volume of them--all designed to help the child achieve a high score on the assessment tests. Every quarter at L.'s school (and probably at many schools), a teacher loses on average about three weeks of instruction time in order to prepare students to take the round of assessment tests that have become so standard. 

Over and over again, when I talk with people about the struggles L. is having in school (and the struggles we're having as well), they sigh and make a comment about how No Child Left Behind really should be called No Child Gets Ahead. We love L.'s school, don't get me wrong--it's a wonderful place, filled with caring teachers and staff. In today's world of filled-to-capacity classrooms and trailers-standing-in for classrooms, L.'s school is small and the kids are names, not numbers. Our issue instead is with what education has come to mean today: with the fact that teachers increasingly are trained to teach to the quarterly assessment tests, and not to higher concepts--to the hands-on experiential learning outcomes that are so important for children. This education-by-numbers approach leaves so many children out in the cold; not just children like my son, who as a child with Asperger's Syndrome has many special learning needs, but countless other children across the nation who just--for many reasons--do not typify the "average" classroom learner.

Luckily, though, L. has these periodic breaks from school, and summer is close upon us. Luckily, too, we are fortunate enough to be able to be around for L. during his school holidays, to indulge his very particular way of learning, and to send opportunities and experiences his way. When L. returns to school on Monday, we will make the best of a difficult situation, as we always do. Hopefully, as L. moves up through the school grades, things will get easier, as he will find himself more and more challenged by the curriculum--one that will become a little more varied (I hope!). In the meantime, we cross our fingers and hope that the valuable social skills, the friendships and the support he gets from his school will somehow balance out the daily erosion of the L. we love to see most--the boy whose mind expands by leaps and bounds when he's left to learn the way he learns best; a way that's unmeasurable by today's assessment tools, but one that should be celebrated and recognized, nonetheless.