Of Student “Pressures” and School Leadership

Over the holiday break, Kyle Spencer of The New York Times reported on how testing and a school district’s effort to ease student pressures has led to an “ethnic divide” in the community. It is an interesting read, a read that taps into many of the issues and concerns that have been rippling through public education in recent years.

But Spencer’s piece only tells a part of the story. How do I know? Because my kids are students in the New Jersey district profiled by the Times. Currently, I have a fourth grader in an upper elementary school and a third grader in a lower elementary school in the West Windsor-Plainsboro (NJ) Public Schools. And I wish the community saga were as as simple as the Times tried to make it seem.

For instance:

  • Spencer reports on how a gifted and talented math program has been moved from a fourth grade start to a sixth grade start. But there is no mention of parents lobbying hard to get their kids in that fourth grade program. Or of families that put their third graders through hours and hours and months and months of test prep so they would do well enough on the program entry exam to be accepted into the fourth grade class.
  • Spencer cites a researcher on how hard it is for Chinese and Indian immigrant young people to boost their way into the middle class. But there is no mention that the vast majority of these parents pushing for more are already 1-percenters (median family income in the district tops $150k), immigrants with advanced degrees, working on Wall Street or for one of New Jersey’s many pharmaceutical companies. In many of these families, middle class is far back in the rear-view mirror.
  • The article makes passing mention to “homework free” nights, but should include that there are four of those a year. As a reference point, last year my then-second grader was doing nearly two hours of homework a night.
  • In drawing the fault lines between white parents and Asian parents in the district, the Times completely overlooks the local elections that were held this past November, where the candidate (a graduating high school student, actually) who was demanding higher standards and higher quality lost to the candidate urging a more holistic approach (exactly what the superintendent is now enacting).
  • And it certainly doesn’t mention the experience my family had last year at back to school night, where a sea of parents surrounded the special education teacher, not because their children were special education, but because if it was a service the district offered, an offshoot of G&T they thought, then they were going to make sure their child got full access to it. The sea only parted when the sped teacher had the courage to point to a parent across the room and inform the throng that “there is a parent that I actually need to talk to about her child.”

In criticizing the district superintendent’s efforts to address the “whole child,” one parent is quoted by the Times as saying, “if children are to learn and grow, they need experiences.”

She is absolutely right. But those “experiences” require more than six hours in a classroom and three hours a homework a day, coupled with test prep and some time for extra-curricular foreign language classes and an instrument. (and for those who think I am exaggerating, let me introduce you to a girl who was in my daughter’s second grade last year). They need experiences that address both academic development and social-emotional learning. They need experiences that allow them to be kids, before they have to get into the cut-throat world of adulthood so many of their parents are pushing them into.

Since The New York Times article has come out, there has been a lot of criticism of WW-P Schools Superintendent David Aderhold and his focus on the “whole child.” Some have attacked him for dumbing down the district and denying students an opportunity to succeed. Others are appalled that he would impose his own vision for the district over the will of the parents. But maybe, just maybe, the supe is doing exactly what he should be doing, and exactly what we need from those leading our schools.

Dr. Aderhold is putting the needs of the children first. He is ensuring that educators have a voice, a real voice, in the direction of the public schools. He is showing there is more to student development and growth that reading, writing, and arithmetic. And he is working to demonstrate that the quality of a public education is about more than how many AP classes one takes, now many community college courses a high schooler enrolls in over the summers, and how many extra hours of math a fourth grader “earns” by getting a slot in a prized G&T program.

In the process, he might just be ensuring that elementary school kids get a little more time to ride their bikes, read a book for pleasure, or actually play a video game or two. He might just help a few more kids find the time to play baseball or take gymnastics. And he may even help more families spend evening time together around a dinner table, talking and exploring, rather than just working through the hours of homework expected of a middle schooler these days.

(This commentary also appeared on the Eduflack blog.)

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