Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Elementary and Middle School

I attended a School Committee meeting recently and learned of a few changes.

First, the elementary school is going to start using standards-based grading. This will not be ABCDF or 100-pt grading. Instead, a 1-4 scale will be used, with the numbers referring to whether the child has met the standards. The goal would be to have all students with 3 or 4 by the end of the year, and parents should not be surprised if their kids have 1 or 2 early in the year. It means we will have to rethink how we respond to grades.

The good news is that the standards will be pretty clearly spelled out, so we will know what to work on with our kids at home. "Can count to 100"--well, I can help with that. "Can add fractions." Yep, I can help with that, too.

Second, the middle school is eliminating tracking. I'm ambivalent about this. On one hand, I was tracked myself and I seem to have benefited. That's the system of education I knew, I was familiar with. On the other hand, Stamford public schools have eliminated tracking in middle schools and seen benefits for the lower-performing students, and they've resisted un-tracking the longest. The article says:

These mixed-ability classes have reported fewer behavior problems and better grades for struggling students, but have also drawn complaints of boredom from some high-performing students who say they are not learning as much.

I'd be concerned except that I remember being bored even in my classes, which were "advanced."

Back in the 90s I used to post about these kinds of issues on, taking on many conservative critics of public education, teacher unions, and "outcomes-based education." Back then the bogeyman was "whole language" reading curricula, which was denounced in favor of phonics. Parents were also Deeply Concerned that eliminating tracking would make it harder for their gifted children to learn.

And now I have my own kids. One thrives in school and does very well. The other does very well, and damned if I can tell if he's thriving. His grades are good. He's got "quirks," mainly in the social skills area, though I feel like he's a little bit quirky in terms of attention, sensory processing, and receptive communication skills as well. I wish they were teaching him more social skills and less academics, to be honest, because I can co-teach academics, but I apparently lack social skills and/or the ability to teach them.

My kids may be gifted. But day after day, what I keep coming back to is not worrying about whether they should be learning algebra tomorrow, but about their social skills, their emotional intelligence. My daughter is progressing pretty well, though we're about to start one of the most difficult phases for a girl, the 5th to 9th grade years. My son can recite the capitals of little-known countries and can recognize and draw the flag of Nepal. But he can't seem to make a friend at recess (I guess the other boys and girls have little interest in knowing where Burundi is).


Sarah said...

My son sounds a lot like yours, except teaching him social skills isn’t useful because he doesn’t understand the purpose- he doesn’t generally find other children interesting. He is also “gifted,” whatever that means, and this combination along with our teaching him critical thinking skills leaves him in a bad place at school. He’s bored, hates being told what to do, has no motivation to please his teacher or peers, and refuses to spend any time doing work he believes to be pointless (and, I have to admit, I don’t blame him). He doesn’t understand how badly we need the free child care, which I fear is really all school is for most kids at this point.

Laura said...

Good post, Wendy, and Sarah, I don't know how old your son is, but he sounds just like mine. I wish he could be bored, etc. and get good grades. Sigh. Our middle school has tried to teach some social skills. All of my son's problems stem from soft skills like organization, fear of failure, poor planning, etc. And they did have a workshop about some of these things, but every child is different and they don't have any resources for managing that.

Wendy said...

Wow, E is only (in 3 weeks!) 7, and now I'm getting scared about the future. :( He wants to please, his teacher says and his social skills group leader concurs, which is a positive. I was a little worried because he doesn't seem to want to please *me*. However, he did finally start responding to rewards charts. It also helps to have one thing you absolutely refuse to do (or let them have). For E it's Fantasyland (a Chuck E. Cheese type of place) and for S it may be Nintendo DS, which I think is the Devil's Tool. :)
Laura, I bought a book called The Organized Student. It's more geared for middle schoolers than 1st graders, so I haven't found it helpful. If you want it, you can have it. Let me know.

Amy P said...

I think schools are interested in teaching soft social skills, but I agree with Laura that a big mixed group isn't the best place to learn them, particularly since the kids (and adults) who need that sort of stuff can be especially hostile to huggy-feely stuff and don't understand what it has to do with them.

I think tracking is actually your friend since it increases chances of meeting kindred souls. My husband got a lot socially out of his pull-out gifted program and participating in things like science fair and math competitions. We enrolled C (who is almost 7) in two weeks of an easygoing gifted camp this summer for this very reason. I talked to the coordinator of the program (she's a professor at the university School of Education) and she said that gifted kids really need to be able to spend time with each other, just for their healthy social development.

About the playground. I was very concerned about C and the playground, up until late in the year when I actually visited the playground and discovered that it's really, really crowded and loud and practically every square yard has a kid on it and there's not enough equipment. It's amazing that the kids manage to play at all. Given the sensory overload and continual milling around of kinds in this setting, there's no way that I'm going to bug C about trying to cultivate friendships out there. I think we'll do a lot better in the fall if my husband and I put together a chess/checkers/dominoes/etc. afterschool club for the 2nd graders.

C's worked with a psychologist (which I think makes her much happier), she went on a point system with her 1st grade teacher in the spring (very successfully), we're doing IQ and achievement testing, we're starting physical therapy, and then we'll start social skills stuff in the fall. I would be happy to provide more details. Anybody can reach me through the contactify me system at

Lastly, I've been reading some friendship books to C. She was initially hostile, but we've settled down to a routine where I wash her hair while reading a chapter and she's warmed up to it. We've read and discussed "How to Be a Friend" (it's a cartoon book with dinosaurs) and American Girl's "Friends: Making Them and Keeping Them" and I'm planning to read her parts of "Good Friends Are Hard to Find" and all of American Girl's "A Smart Girl's Guide to Manners."

Wendy said...

Amy, I think our problem is that we've been reading Calvin and Hobbes to E. :)

Thanks for all the feedback. Will process when I'm not still traumatized from a 3+ hour dance recital.

Amy P said...

"Amy, I think our problem is that we've been reading Calvin and Hobbes to E. :)"

It's interesting how this stuff has both a clear genetic component and environmental component, and as parents, we get to provide both. It was only the last year or so when I realized that wow, neither my husband nor I make eye contact with interlocutors and (coincidentally), neither does C.