Is your child really "doing well?"
I was speaking with a parent yesterday as we watched our children’s soccer practice. As I am wont to do, I steered the conversation toward education. Her child is in a local public school and without prompting from me she added “he’s doing well” to the end of her statement. Practice was ending and we were both headed in different directions so the conversation didn’t go much further.
Today I got to thinking; what do we mean when we say our child is “doing well” in school?
Having had this type of conversation in detail hundreds of times, I can tell you that when a parent says her child is doing well she usually means some or all of the following: He gets good grades. He’s reading, writing and doing math. He doesn’t have any behavior problems. He has good attendance. He has friends in his classroom. He is well liked by his teachers. These are the accepted indicators of a child who is doing well. Many children in America fit these descriptions and their parents are happy (even if their children aren't).
Let’s look at it from the child’s point of view. All those successes to be happy about, but ask little 7 year old Timmy what he thinks about school and chances are that you won’t hear “I love it!” Ask him what his favorite thing about school is and 9 times out of 10 you’ll hear "Lunch", “P.E.” or “Recess.” Ask him what’s the most interesting thing he learned in school and it may take him a while to answer –if he answers at all.
Somehow it became an accepted fact that children are supposed to hate school. Many adults work for the weekend, why not children, too? If you watch any cartoon for an hour you’ll find at least one reference to the fact that school is a drag. I suppose the idea is if your child is “doing well” it doesn’t really matter whether he likes it or not –even if it is the place where he spends the majority of his time. We didn’t like it when we were kids, but look how well we turned out!
At least Timmy knows he’s doing well. He hears it all the time so it must be true. He gets A’s and his teachers write “Great job!” on his work. His standardized test scores are up to par. He’s never gotten a red sticker sent home telling his parents he had a “bad day.” He got the “student of the month" award in October, so he’s got that going for him, too. His class managed to make it through an entire month without getting three strikes for poor/loud behavior in the cafeteria so they get a pizza party! His parents have a bumper-sticker on their car saying how proud they are of him. At the same time, he sees other children being reprimanded for misbehavior and he sees them struggling with work he can easily do. He sees children arguing and fighting without resolution or apology. He knows there are children who don’t have many friends and even those whom it seems that the teacher doesn’t really like. He knows the children who aren’t “doing well.” There are plenty of them.
The teachers and school administration also know these children. They probably know their parents, too because they are the ones sitting on the other side of the table going through a child study or developing an IEP. They are the parents getting the red stickers and the emails from the teacher about poor behavior. They are the ones seeking accommodations for their child –hoping that the child is failing enough to be eligible for extra support. Many of these parents advocate for their child the best they can. Because the system is failing, their number is growing, but recently, the supervisor of the special education department here said to me "We don't have to help kids exceed the standards. We just have to help them meet them." This is her idea of "doing well." By that rationale, children who struggle will always be in the minority.
Imagine if all the rest of the parents started looking behind the curtain asking “Is my child really doing well?”
In my county, one of the wealthiest in the country, parents are generally involved in their child’s education. This parent I spoke with at soccer practice probably volunteers in her child’s classroom every other week. She sits with her child every night for an hour ensuring he completes his homework. She knows all the teachers and has lots of friends who send their children to the same school –and who’s children are also “doing well.” Even here, parents have become complacent. “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.”
I say it is these parents who should be the ones speaking up to help us change our definition of what “doing well” in school really means. We must expect more from education. Right now, school is a huge part of your child’s life. It should be a place that prepares him for it. We know that life is not about grades, tests, stickers or strikes and most of it happens long after school has ended, yet we use these ideas to determine success and failure. Life is about “doing well” –not just for yourself, but for others. It is about generosity, independence, compassion, responsibility, peace, community and a love of learning which cannot be extinguished. If these are the criteria upon which our public school children are evaluated, could we be so quick to say so many are “doing well?”