Public Skool



“You can’t get called on in math if you’re smart.”

                                    –Little Bit


My nine-year-old attends a class of 32 children at the local public school.  The class includes both second and third graders, all of whom qualified for the district’s gifted program.  When we left the Hoity Toity Private School my kids used to go to, I knew we were kissing those manageable class sizes (12-16) goodbye, but 32 seems awfully big, even for public school. 


Then again, all of those Asian countries that regularly kick U.S. ass up and down the globe on achievement tests have much larger classes, so what’s to complain about?


From Little Bit’s perspective, there’s not enough talking time.  According to her, she spends most of the day waving her arm in the air, hoping she’ll get called on to give an answer or express a viewpoint.  (Side note: this same child had to be bribed reinforced with Dora the Explorer toys just to say one word out loud in the classroom when she was in preschool—she was that shy.  You’ve come a long way, baby!)  Now she’s all set for lengthy discourse but has to compete with 31 other children for air time. 


So she’s developed a new strategy: subterfuge.  It seems the teacher is most likely to call on children who are not paying attention, as a means of re-engaging them.  So Little Bit will feign inattention by looking down or playing with her pencil or anything other than raising her hand and making eye contact.  Then, when the teacher calls on her, *bam* Little Bit knows exactly what’s going on and what the answer is.  Ha! 


Apparently even this trick fails in math class, because the teacher knows that Little Bit always knows the answer.  As I’m sure I’ve bragged about mentioned before, my kid is a wizard and by her lights, the math curriculum moves like molasses in winter, and I mean winter in some North Dakota kind of place, not the 50 and raining winter we have here. 


The class is split up by grade for math, so it’s just the third graders, and they are all smart kids, but there’s no accommodation available for those who need to move at a different pace.  It’s not that she isn’t learning anything; she is.  But not nearly as much as she could and would like to.   


Which brings me to a video I saw today.  The New York Times runs video op eds on its website.  In this one, titled “Advanced Pressure,” the film maker interviews high school teachers and students lamenting the existence of advanced placement (AP) classes.  They’re toooo hard!  It’s sooo much pressure!  Our poor kids, what have we done to them?


I’ll tell you what we’ve done.  We’ve encouraged kids who do not belong in AP classes to take them.  Every year, Newsweek publishes a list of the nation’s top high schools.  How does the magazine decide which high schools are the best?  They count the number of students who take AP classes.  Seriously, that’s it.  The students do not have to pass the classes.  They do not have to score well on the AP exams given for college credit at the end of the courses.  They just have to enroll.  The result: schools reallyreally want kids to take those classes.  Kids who do not belong in AP classes are stressed and overwhelmed.  Teachers who are supposed to cover a lot of ground in the classes are frustrated because the students can’t keep up. 


I live in constant fear that the school district will eliminate the gifted program because it is, in the view of some, unnecessary/elitist/expensive.  I also worry that by the time my kids get to high school, the AP curriculum will have been dumbed down to the point of worthlessness. 


The film maker did not interview any AP students who said “this is the first time in my school career that I’ve ever been challenged,” but there are many such kids.  Hope for the future of the nation that our bizarre anti-intellectual culture doesn’t make it a crime to be smart.




26 thoughts on “Public Skool

  1. A most clever strategy, Little Bit.  I’m so proud of her.  I can recall some classes that required not being called on because the answer was elusive (ok…I didn’t know it).   To paraphrase that great sage Conan O’Brien in his farewell speech….keep on plugging and wonderful things will happen…I promise you.

  2. They’ve eliminated the talented and gifted program at my son’s school.  So far he is still engaged, but I live in fear that he will become bored and stop trying.  And yes, 32 seems way too big to be effective. 

  3.  My daughter had the same problems in school.  As I recall, Spanish class was a nightmare.  It moved like molasses in winter. ( This time winter was in Cleveland!)   She was quick to catch on, but the teacher made all the kids suffer endless repetition until the slowest kid in the class finally got it.  Apparently, nothing ever really changes.

  4. For me it was Spanish class.  After the first week spent entirely on learning to say “Adios” with the right accent, I transferred out.  Hard to stay interested when the molasses hardens.  

  5. I had this problem in school, although not in math.  In *everything else.*  I skipped most of high school and developed really awful habits and then I was sooooo excited when I went to college until I realized that the first year was mostly stuff I already knew.  One bright side to living in an elitist area where no one is afraid to spend money:  we have a lot of programs for bright and gifted kids.  This is true in math in particular.  Maybe that’s because we have so many Asian kids.  😀  For example, in elementary school we have “challenge math” in addition to GT math where kids can learn pre-physics and early algebra.

  6. Our schools don’t offer any G&T until 4th grade – which seems too late to me.  I started in a self-contained G&T in 2nd grade and my daughter would SO benefit from something like that right now.  She gets pulled out of class now for extra math and gets harder spelling words….but what she would really like is to delve deeper into the social studies and science and have real discussions – not just hear the facts and get quizzed each week.  Ho hum.  Her second grade class has 25 kids, and it’s too many.  32???  Good luck to Little Bit, as she tries to get the attention she’s due!

  7. I hear you….my grandsons qualify for gifted…the younger one, however, is not emotionally ready….My daughter is very involved in the boys’ school/homework…..otherwise I don’t know what would happen….the classes generally are too big, I think…the school my grandsons attend depend a lot on volunteers to come in and help the teachers.It’s a wonder kids learn. I certainly don’t remember a lot of things that I was supposed to have learned in school, but I was somewhat of a social misfit…so very shy

  8. Child the Youngest loves her gifted class, and would be very upset if they cut it. And it’s amazing they haven’t. This year, the 6-8 graders don’t have lockers because the schools couldn’t afford to change the locks. Our school budget has been slashed by our myopic governor, and now we rank 50 in the nation in education. Seriously. I think even Arkansas beats us. Naturally, we supplement her education at home and at every chance we get, but still. Our school system needs critical care right now.

  9. This was interesting to glimpse an insight into how Little Bit is learning how the system works. That understanding of the psychology of human interaction is every bit as important as how to multiply fractions. In other words, bright young people paying attention will rise to the top like cream regardless of what the system offers or does not offer.

  10. thank no child left behind aka no child gets ahead.  districts are so caught up in making sure they meet the miniumum standards for keeping themselves off the watch list that they have all but forgetten about any child that can perform beyond expectations. 

  11. I took 9th grade Spanish, and the pace was completely irrelevent because I was busy with some very important doodling in my notebook.  Sadly, I wasn’t graded on the magnificent creativity of my doodles.And 32 does seem a little excessive, even for public skool.

  12. @turningreen – 4th grade is WAY too late.  Like they suddenly become gifted when they’re ten?@illgrindmyownthankyou – I agree, NCLB has been disastrous.  On the bright side, it actually encourages the districts to do something for the bright kids so they won’t jump ship and go to private schools, because the district needs their high test scores to bring up the average.

  13. A wonderful post, filled with insight and human interest. I remember Lil Bits trick well; my experience was with 50’s one-room-6-grades rural ‘education’. I was pulled out of 2nd grade one lucky day and never returned, spending the next 5 years being experimented upon by researchers. Prairie Cowboy’s thought here is wise and reason for hope. Still, public education will always entail compromises on pace and depth. I’m undecided as to how I’d structure it if I were King.  

  14. I attended a school site meeting at the Junior High last night and found out that class sizes for 7th-8th grade will jump to 40-42 kids (as a result of laying off 3 teachers)… can you imagine a math class (any class!) with that many 12 year olds?!   No hope for the future…

  15. The lack of challenge is part of the reason we decided to homeschool.  Our gifted program, if you can call it that, doesn’t start until 3rd grade.  It is merely enrichment and nothing but more work instead of differentiated work.  We do a virtual school now and do a lot of skipping and curriculum compacting.  It works well for us for now (my son is 6, age-wise is a K but for school is enrolled as a 1st grader).  But my husband wants him to go to public school eventually.  I just don’t see how that is ever going to challenge him.  He would be a major disuption if he has to wait for everyone to catch up to what he knew after the first time it was taught (we’ve skipped whole units in math because he was able to learn all the steps in one lesson instead of 12).  And the AP thing drives me nuts, too.  The only bright thing I’ve seen is that my local high school just started a program with a local college to allow cross-credit for certain courses.  If they keep that up across the curriculum then that could be a real possibilty for us one day.  But we’re talking 6-8 years from now.  We’ll see where we’re at by then.

  16. I fear that your fear on the dumbing down of AP courses may be true. I speak only from my own experience, but I found the AP courses at my high school to be a complete joke. I was not challenged in them whatsoever. Admittedly I was an A-B student, but that is because I didn’t try. I never studied, I did the homework in class, usually during lectures, and I usually half-heatedly threw projects together at the last minute. That’s all it took for me to get A’s and B’s. That being said, I failed the actual AP exams and entered college completely unprepared (and failed out four years later). At least in my hometown, AP courses have fallen to that point. About all the mean is that you can tie your shoes all by yourself.Also, 32 is tiny compared to the 40-45 person classes I was used to in grade school. Consider Little Bit to be lucky to not have to contend with those class sizes. Then again, my hometown was about as backwards as they come withregards to education; I can only hope it is not a representative sampleof the state of the public education system as a whole.And that being said, I do find Little Bit’s methods of getting called on in class to be clever and amusing.

  17. Your last sentence says it all.  Our public schools have some great teachers who do try to challenge the kids, but some of the administrators and principals are squarely in the anti-intellectual camp.  There also seems to be an attitude, in our society at large and not my particular school district, of animosity toward gifted children and their parents.  It’s like, “Your kid is gifted, you should be happy with that, she’ll learn no matter what and how DARE you expect a public education appropriate to her abilities when there are other children who are struggling, you elitist snob.”  As if being smart is all you need.  As if bright minds aren’t wasted every day in our soul-sucking public school classrooms.  

  18. I’m glad my AP courses in high school were very rigorous. I am over-prepared for for class size… I went to public school all my life and my classes were always around 30-35 kids.. it probably would be better to have smaller class sizes. but… what can you do. there’s so much complexity to the education system; it can’t really be reformed.

  19. Did I ever tell you about the time I caught my daughter and her best friend INTENTIONALLY “dumbing down” their English essays so they would not be accused of plagiarism?!? I am not kidding. Apparently they had been warned as a class that if their papers were “too good” the teacher would “assume they had cheated”. ??!?!?!?!?!?!? Wow, did they get an earful from me. I told them to fix the papers, turn in their best work, and if they were challenged, I would personally storm the gates of the school district to defend them. Grr. Lisa

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