Wednesday, February 07, 2007


I'm Not Ready!

Two unpleasant surprises from The Boy's school this week.

I learned this week that The Boy 's kindergarten class breaks up every few days for different reading levels, with TB and a few of his friends staying in their classroom while most of the class goes elsewhere, and a few kids from other classes stream in. They're the 'honors' group, in a sense. The fluent readers.

They're five years old.

Although the larger class is admirably multicultural and multiracial, there isn't a single black kid in the honors group.

It's the second half of kindergarten, and the tracking has already started.

It just didn't occur to me that it would start so early.

At one level, of course, I'm pleased and proud. The parent in me takes as self-evident that my kid is exceptional, wonderful, and objectively superior to all other kids in every possible way. And even putting parental blinders aside, TB loves to read and is good at it, and we've gone out of our way to convey that school is good and reading is fun. He's a bright kid, and I want him to be sufficiently challenged in school. I don't want him to be bored while the teacher helps the other kids learn their letters. To the extent that different reading groups will allow him to stretch, rather than sit and wait, I'm all for it.

But still...

It would be utterly devastating, I think, to hear that your kid has been pegged for the lower level group when he's just five years old. And sooner or later, the kids figure these things out.

I don't know how to reach the least-prepared while still challenging the most-prepared. I don't have a realistic answer. It just makes me sad to know that the differences are so stark so early.

The other shocker from school is that they had their first 'lockdown' drills this week. The teacher turns off the lights and the kids cluster in a corner where they can't be seen from a window or the window in the door. The kids are told that if they're in the hallway and lockdown mode kicks in, they should just duck into the nearest classroom, even if it isn't theirs. The teachers are to make signs with numbers on them and place the signs on the windows facing out, so the police will know how many kids are in each room.

To TB, this is no more harrowing than fire drills. It's just one of those bizarre school rituals. He does as he's told, but he doesn't really understand the reasons for it. And in this case, that's just as well.

I don't want him to know yet why schools need lockdown drills. I don't want him to hear phrases like “ugly custody battle” or “disgruntled employee” or “lone gunman” or “hostage crisis” yet. He's five.

I graduated high school in 1986. My entire k-12 experience was in public schools. I don't remember ever having a single lockdown, or even hearing the term. We got the “don't take candy from strangers” talk, followed later by the “don't drive drunk” talk, but not much more. And it wasn't because we were rolling in money, either. Northern Town was never wealthy, and the exurb in which I went to elementary school sort of peaked at middle-class. But even there, 'school violence' referred only to students fighting with each other.

I don't blame the school for doing lockdown drills. They're certainly better than the alternative. Heaven knows that if it turns out to be necessary, I'll be damn glad they were prepared.

I just wasn't prepared for my five-year-old to tell me at dinner how the entire class crowded into the corner so they couldn't be seen from the door.

The lockdown drills sound sad but neccessary. It reminds me of the drills they used to have during the cold war. I never experienced them,but they sound similar to the lockdown drills.
i remember being tracked when I was in kindergarten!
I remember being tracked in first grade, but rather than divide the whole class, just a few of us were taken out for reading (we were the upper group). If anything, the rest of the class felt like we were the ones "in trouble" or something.

I HATE tracking. Having taught the lower level kids (whose schedules blatantly listed classes, e.g., "remedial reading" and "remedial math"), I see what has happened to their psyche after years of tracking. It is no wonder that teens act out, skip school, or drop out. Why go to a place where you are officially labeled as dumb? And the rest of your peers know it?

Lower track kids can do just as much as upper track kids~ they just need to be given the chance.

I could say more about how all of this is meant to create little worker bees for the elite 1%, but then it would sound like a conspiracy theory . . .
We used to have bomb drills, where we'd be told to crouch and hide under our desks and cover the back of our head with our hands.

Except it was the cold war, and the only bombs likely to hit the US were nuclear. Hiding under the desk wasn't really going to do anything to save us, but maybe it made the adults feel like they were doing something, anything.

I, too, hate tracking. In my school it was almost literally done by which side of the train track you lived on. Ugh.
Hey Dean Dad,

Sorry, but welcome to the public schools. Kindergarten is a tough year for parents who actually give a shit, because it's your introduction to the crap that goes on. I have twins in first grade. One has special needs, and spent kindergarten in a self-contained room for the cognitively-impaired, until at the end of the year the school finally looked at its own testing results and found that she is NOT cognitively impaired; now in a regular first grade class she is reading. The other one didn't read the first day of kindergarten so they sent him out for testing in ESL (and could that have anything to do with the fact that he's not Caucasian????) and lo and behold he did not pass the test, although he honestly speaks and understands English far better than most of my undergrads. I later heard that the test contained dozens of grammatical errors - what can you do but laugh? But we decided to go ahead and waste the school district's money by giving him one-on-one reading assistance, from which he could only benefit.

And so it goes. 13 years is a long time...

Does anyone still do "clustered" classes? Back when I was in school (DD and I are contemporaries), my district had a system of clustered classes, where two grades were taught in the same large room by two teachers.

We split up into different clumps depending on subject, so the kids who were stronger in a particular area could caucus with the older ones, and the ones who needed a little remediation could get another shot at the work. We all did a lot of our activities, like parties and art class and field trips, as one big unit.

It was less obtrusive than skipping or being held back, and it wasn't quite as quantified as being tracked. Plus, if a kid got off to a rough start but got their feet back under them, they didn't have to be formally re-assigned to more advanced instruction. I quite liked it---much less stigma all around.

I remember enjoying first grade much better than kindergarten, for that reason. Like The Boy, I came to school able to read, so I spent a lot of time sitting in a corner with a book while the other kids learned about the Letter People. Didn't do much for my socialization skills, sad to say.
My parents were both primary teachers, mostly kindergarden and grade one, and my mother was a remedial reading specialist. Tracking starts early, yes, but a good school with good teachers should have virtually all the kids reading at the appropriate level within the kindergarden year, thereby finishing the tracking at the earliest possible time. Good follow up should keep it in check. Unfortunately this isn't often the case, but it might be in this school, be happy they are actually DOING something about it in kindergarden rather than thinking it will sort itself out - because it doesn't! And waiting until later makes the stigma worse, not better.
You and I are about the same age -- and I recal being tracked in elementary school for math and reading.

I'm not sure how it can be done without being so obnoxious, perhaps assigning the best teachers to entire classrooms of students who are lagging? At least then there wouldn't be a "higher" group.
I was also tracked for reading as early as Kindergarten, but while I agree that there are self-esteem issues, one also does have to provide some sort of avenue for the bright kids, so they don't end up clawing their brains out of their skulls.

Have you considered running for School Board? You have a set of skills which would be particularly useful.
We had earthquake drills, I think (California, 70s and 80s), and of course fire drills.
In high school we had accident-at-the-nearby-nuclear-power-plant drills. One of the warning sirens was located at our high school.

In first grade, I deliberately got a bunch of math questions wrong on a test so I could be in the same group as a friend. The teacher didn't fall for it.
The lockdown drills of your son remind me of my own experience with drills as a kid. I grew up during the cold war on the other side of the "iron courtain" than most of you and we were taught how to wear gas masks already in the kindergarden. I also remember that there was a nuclear bomb shelter in the basement of my elementary school.
In any group of children, there will be some who are ahead of the others. Even if you don't point it out, and 'label' them, the children will notice that Juanita can read fluently while Emily still needs help on understanding her ABCs. If a child can't read yet, doesn't it make sense to get him help at the earliest possible moment, rather than waiting until he is in a later grade and absolutely convinced of his or her own stupidity? Whereas if you attempt to wait until 95% of the class can read before moving on, the children who came into school reading will learn, at 5 years old, to daydream and pretend to pay attention.

One other thing to consider is that many of the children who are lagging somewhat in kindergarden lack a stimulating home environment -- if your parents watch TV all the time, and never read to you, it's hard to compete with kids whose parents have been reading to them since they were in the hospital. I'm not sure how much this applies to your specific circumstances. Some of us used to volunteer for after-school reading program, and for many of the kids, it was the first time they'd ever seen people reading for pleasure.
When the split is 20 "normal" and 5 "honors", it is more of a pull-out system than full-tilt tracking. Tracking will show up next year, when TB and his friends, plus those other kids, are all in the same first-grade classroom ... and so on forever.

A corollary is when you and the parents of those kids are the main ones at every PTA meeting from now until they leave middle school.

You need to get concerned if the split becomes 5 + 15 + 5, and the "slow" group is all minority.

Lockdown, the 21st century A-Bomb drill. At least we had enough of a tornado threat that they never mentioned nuclear weapons as the rationale ... but in October of 1962 it was abundantly clear that we could be incinerated with less warning time than the time it took to walk home. Every "goodbye" could have been the last one.
On tracking: School should be a place where EVERY kid gets to learn and that includes the kids who learn faster than average and kids who learn slower. It is more spirit crushing than tracking to tell kids to just be bored or overwhelmed all day.

On the drills: It is just stupid. Really do they expect kindergarteners to actually learn anything that they will be able to practice in a crisis situation to insure their own safety. I am all for teachers and administrators developing procedures when the kids aren't there but really the best thing the teacher has got to rely on is that when she/he means it the kids will pick up on that. And, I expect even better if they haven't been exposed to drills.
I'm actually very much in favor of drills; kids are very good at rote learning, so they'll do exactly as they're trained to do -- or not.

I remember tornado drills; I also remember the school 3 towns over getting totally demolished during a storm one day. It all seemed pretty sensible.
grumpyABDadjunct said... >>but a good school with good teachers should have virtually all the kids reading at the appropriate level within the kindergarden year,<<

I am going to use this as a jumping off point and say only if the parents are supportive and involved.

I echo the thoughts of anonymous and ccphysicist. When there is wide-spread participation from all parents, in day to day modeling and leadership like PTA, children - high and low - have a chance.

As for drills, better safe than sorry. God forbid should we need them. My own kids do drills. It might be a false sense of security, but it makes them think through what they can do in their own worlds to fell empowered, and I think that is a good thing.
Except it was the cold war, and the only bombs likely to hit the US were nuclear. Hiding under the desk wasn't really going to do anything to save us, but maybe it made the adults feel like they were doing something, anything.

Too close, and you're toast, but if you're father away but still within range of blast damage, it would help if your school building sustained damage. A desk is a pretty go thing to be under if bits of the room fall down...
I'm young enough to have gone to school when collaborative learning began to replace tracking. I was pretty smart, and spent most of middle school bored out of my mind--I would read novels in the back of class and cause trouble. It's tough to be put in the lower tracking group, but it's also tough to show up at school everyday thinking (knowing?) it's a total waste.
I'm a little surprised that the problem of race and tracking hasn't been more vocally protested. DD, this is definitely an issue that needs your leadership.

My brother, now a professor in sunny California, was tracked from the beginning, and the tracking followed him into college. He did shrug off the effects of being told every day of his academic life that he wasn't going to amount to anything, but it took almost ten years to undo the damage. As a black child, who was brilliant and precocious, the only thing kindergarten teachers thought to do with him in upstate New York was to put him in special ed. He shared with me these stories, and his other hair-raising classroom experiences as a black male at a predominantly white university, only in the last few years. I know that in this one case, gender gave me a little bit of an edge over my brother, given the history of black women in education.

If you see this going on right now, what are you going to do about it? That's not meant to throw down the gauntlet. But I'm just saying ... do the parents of African American and latino children have the same resources as you? They want their kids to succeed as much as you do.
I agree with nimbrown--and I had a similar experience with my daughter, who last year (in 1st grade) was put into the advanced reading group with four other kids. Four white and one Asian, in a class where 40% are Latino or African American. Quite a few of the Latinos are ESL students, but I was still surprised. We had a few pointed conversations with the principal and PTA about it. There's been some effort to rectify the situation for this year, but I feel like we're going to have to keep being a pain in the ass about it.
Sociologist Ray Rist, writing in 1970, described his observations in classrooms that showed that students were placed into tracks that would follow them throughout their schooling within the first 8 days of kindergarten. Rist described how the three groups the kids were assigned to in these first days followed them throughout their elementary school years, even though the groups were chosen simply by some sort of innate ability of the K teacher to sense who had potential. Not surprisingly, the groups were essentially replicating the social class structure of the community.

Sounds like it hasn't improved much since then.
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