The state of education and this mom’s opinion

I watch Oprah. This may not be a surprise to many of you – I tend to like stuff like that – “Aha! moments” make me smile (except when they don’t) and I kind of like the potpourri of stuff she shows on her show. [NOT that I can get tickets for any of her tapings because I’ve tried and failed – so Oprah? Call me].

Lately, if you’ve been watching O, you know that EDUCATION has been a big theme on the show. There’ve been people talking about the state of education. There’s been talk of the movie “Waiting For Superman”, bad teachers, and the little dude from Facebook giving Newark, NJ a pretty hefty wad of cash to make some huge changes in the schools there.

Geoffrey Canada – a guest on Oprah’s show that has been working with schools in Harlem – said on her show something to the effect of (I’m paraphrasing, yo), No other business could consistently decline and still be getting business. Essentially – the schools are getting yuckier and yet… they’re schools. Many of us still send our kids into the public school sytems, even though in many parts of the country, the performance of public schools keeps getting less and less fabulous.

It’s thought provoking for sure.

And I can only speak for where I live and the programs I know and the teachers I’ve met. If you live in Topeka, I don’t know how it is where you live. If you’re rolling in Denver, I am pretty much clueless about life in your neck of the woods either. I know Michigan. Specifically, this little piece of it.

Here: it could be worse. It could be a LOT worse. But, it could be better.

While I don’t love the administration of the schools here and I don’t love how they allocate their budgets, what I give our area much credit for is that somehow they have picked a phenomenal teaching staff. While I think our school lacks resources and lacks some essential programs – the teachers are top notch. This is what redeems the schools here, in my opinion.

Never underestimate the power of a teacher who gives a damn. Truly, it can counter more than a few of the negatives.

I’ve seen the schools with regards to its special education programs, which my stepson utilizes. There is an amazing, caring group of teachers and administrators who work quite hard to help each kid maximize his or her potential. The IEP process could be more seamless, I suppose – but it seems like one of those red tape things that’s probably a pain in the booty anywhere you go. The school has always gone above and beyond to ensure my stepson’s educational needs are met – even among some extremely challenging situations.

I think that is the area where many parents find fault in their schools. Fortunately, we don’t. Not there.

Surprisingly where the school IS lacking is in terms of the kids who are excelling. The kids who are meeting the requirements are the ones who get left behind here. And I’m not sure why.

This means that we struggle with The Princess who is in third grade. She’s meeting every requirement – and so it’s easy for her to fall through the cracks. There’s no process that seems to hold the school system accountable for children who need program adjustments in the other direction – more work, more challenging work, possibly more autonomy.

In the education realm, this is called “differentiation”. Differentiation is:

the practice of making lessons different to accommodate the different students in a single classroom. A classroom may have students with a wide range of abilities and rather than “teach to the middle,” thereby losing the students who need extra help as well as those who need little repetition, a teacher may alter lessons so that all students in a classroom will benefit.

So far – we were tremendously lucky last year. The Princess had a teacher who saw that she was bored, saw that she was easily breezing through things. She used differentiation to challenge my daughter – she created a spelling list for just my daughter, as well as adjusting the number of books my reader is allowed to check out from the library (and the type of book, as well).

The administrators aren’t working with MY children every day. I can’t expect them to know the idiosyncrasies of my children and each and every other child in the room – I count on the teachers to see where there is a need and help us find ways to meet them.

Does it always happen? Um… no.

But does that mean we stop trying? Definitely not. At the beginning of a school year, it means being the squeaky wheel and talking to the teacher about his or her plans for her curriculum – how is the teacher going to bend the lesson plan to account for where she’s performing? Is he or she willing to work with us to find the best solutions for our child? We hope so.

I don’t remember these things as issues when I was in school – perhaps it truly is a decline of the education system. Perhaps I was too busy pulling the arms off my Barbie dolls or buried in a Judy Blume novel to pay attention to what my parents were experiencing – for my daughter is a lot like me, and my stepson is somehow a lot like my brother. Surely, my parents encountered some of the similar situations. Then again… perhaps they didn’t.

What do you find to be the biggest challenges with your school systems? What are you loving about them? What don’t you like (example: I bet I get three tons of paper sent home each school year. I recycle it all, but think of the expense of  the paper line item on the school budget. INSANE). If you homeschool, were you driven by the state of your school system to make that decision? If Mark Zuckerberg gave YOU a wad of cash to improve your child’s schools, what would you do with it?

I’m curious – there’s much talk about how the school system needs improving – but where do we begin?

Teachable Moments

Those who can’t, teach.

I think that phrase is all wrong.

It makes it sound like teaching is a fall back profession, something you do if you’re not good enough for something else. I know one thing, however: I would make a rotten teacher.

I’m better with my kids than with other people’s. I don’t exactly have a surplus of patience. While I know how to make my subjects and verbs agree (USUALLY), I don’t necessarily know how to explain it to someone else.

So, while half my neighborhood homeschools their children, I’ve never felt the need to do so.

Instead, I take the moments as they come. Not surprisingly, many of these come while we’re in the kitchen baking. There are so many opportunities to teach while baking – math, especially – and because the end result is edible, it makes it the best kind of math ever.

Let’s say you need a cup of granulated sugar. Now, because you’re a baking fool, all your measuring cups are dirty. Except one. Your quarter cup measuring cup. So you hand the measuring cup to your daughter and you say to her, “Well, lady, looks like this is all we’ve got. How many times do we need to fill our 1/4 cup to equal the one cup of sugar that we need?” And because your daughter is thoughtful and mindful – she thinks a minute and she looks at you. This is where you can tell her that there are four quarter cups in one cup. Just like there are four quarters in a dollar. So if we have this measuring cup, we’ll need to fill it with sugar how many times? She’ll tell you four.

And she’ll be right.


The cookies have been in the oven for three minutes. They should bake for 11. So… how much longer do you have to wait until the cookies can come out?


We put the cookies in the oven at 4:21 – if they need to cook for 11 minutes, what time will the clock say when it’s time to take them out?

Those are the kind of teaching moments I love best – those served warm with a glass of cold milk.


I wrote this post in celebration of Kleenex’s Hands-On Learning as an entry to win a gift card (oh yeah) and a huge box of Kleenex which I need because I am allergic to everything.

Renoir, Reggae and Recess

When I was in fifth or sixth grade, we had the opportunity to join the school band – the opportunity to select and instrument and start learning one. I remember shopping with my father and ultimately selecting a flute (Y’all are going to laugh, but I picked it because it was the lightest one to carry). Though I never really got very good at playing the flute, I was in band for years – through my junior year of high school. In addition to band, I stayed pretty involved with our school choir program.

I’m the daughter of a musician and music is something that brings me great joy. It is something that makes me tremendously happy. It it something I love.

It’s also pretty important for our kids.

Music education has benefits to the brain’s cognitive development – and kids who are involved in music programs quite often get better scores in English and math than kids without music education programs. Studies have also shown that music education can improve how the brain processes the spoken word, and musically trained kids score better on memory tests. (Source: Save the Music).

And art? We’re talking advantages to honing those fine motor skills, imagination, sense of time and place, focusing, uniqueness. Shall I go on?  (Source)

But reading is crucial.

Math is crucial.

Sciences are crucial.

So, when the education requirements change and the budgets are cut – it doesn’t surprise me when recesses are cut short and funds for arts are reduced. I’m not surprised – because I understand the so-called academic areas are necessary foundations for all that will follow in school and in the “real world” and the arts are seen as “optional”.

And yet. Yet it saddens me to think that many children aren’t getting a chance to sing, fingerpaint, experiment with different instruments, create something out of papier-mache, learn to read music, try to do a plie – maybe find out that he or she has true TALENT in the arts, and get the opportunity to excel and to shine in one of these areas.

At my guitar lesson the other day, my teacher and I were talking about it. She’s got a degree in elementary ed, of course with a focus on music — and she said to me, “There’s cuts being made and it makes me sad!” The scenario she described showed music and art being reduced in favor of filling that time with more PE class. Given the nation’s obesity epidemic, I don’t necessarily think keeping kids more active is a bad thing… but…

What happens now? What do we do when schools keep making cuts?

For my second grader, physical education takes place twice a week, art and music each happen once. But the budget for 2010-2011 looks pretty dismal. Will they cut those “specials”? Where are they going to make their cuts? And if those programs lose funding, how can they succeed?

I’m torn. I’m very torn.

I hope we never see the day when music and art is removed from schools – I’ve already said, in a half joking manner, “If they take the arts out of school I guess I’ll have to start exploring private schools.” Certainly I’d like to avoid that route — I mean, I don’t have an extra bundle of money earmarked for a private school tuition, and yet, I cannot imagine my children receiving an education without any fun built in, without any opportunity to explore the creative side of their mind, without the chance to see if maybe playing an instrument or coloring with charcoals is something in which they excel – something that could bring them joy.

Had I been raised by accountants, I might have very different feelings about this matter. Then again, maybe not. I find myself watching the budget talks very closely, hoping that these valuable programs hold their place in my daughters’ schedules.