Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Letter to a science teacher

If I haven't blogged for a while, it's because my husband and I and the twins have recently taken two trips: one pleasurable, to Quebec for March break, and the other an all too familiar (figurative) journey to school-project-hell and back. I've written about how and why I dislike school projects previously on this blog, so I won't repeat my arguments here. What I do want to do is share a letter I wrote earlier in the school year (November 2010) to my daughters' science teacher, outlining my concerns about a project he assigned. I was worried that this was to be the first of many unreasonable, pedagogically questionable projects, and after last year's experience with project overload, I decided to see if I could nip the problem in the bud by detailing my concerns to the teacher. This is the letter (with minor deletions and changes to protect the innocent)I wrote:

Dear Mr. X:

We are the parents of J and E in your Grade 6 science class. J and E are enjoying science so far, but we do have a few concerns about the previous project and the one new one that has recently been assigned. While the girls were working on the habitat project, a number of issues and problems arose that we would like to share with you in the hope that these problems can be addressed, and possibly resolved in time to make a difference for the second project.

The scope of the habitat project: We found that the scope of the habitat project was a little too broad. We believe that 11-year-olds do not possess the developmental tools to take a large subject and circumscribe it so that it becomes a workable, doable project. Since our daughters seemed initially to be at a loss regarding how to limit their topic, we directed them to ask you for more details regarding what was expected. They told us that your response to this, and to most questions, was: “what do you think?” While we understand the pedagogical goal inherent in this type of response, it was not particularly helpful to our daughters, since what they were looking for was specific guidance on the amount and type of work expected. Like many of the students in your grade six class, our daughters are hard-working, high-achieving kids who have been taught to strive to meet expectations. When the expectations are not clear (and unfortunately, the Rubrics section for this assignment on your blog was blank), they feel disoriented. Since no specific guidance on the number of plants and animals to be covered was provided, we took the liberty of giving our daughters some suggestions. Both girls chose to cover more than 15 animals, and since they also felt (although, again, they were not sure) that they should write several sentences about each animal (along with the required classification), the project took them a very long time to complete at home. The girls spent the better part of two consecutive weekends and multiple evenings working on this project. This made it a very stressful endeavour both for them, and for all of us as a family, as very little non-project activities could be planned for those weekends/evenings.

Time in class: We do realize that you gave the class . . . time at the computers to work on this project, and we are thankful for that. However, you may not realize that many of your students—our girls included—are not proficient on computers, as they do not use them regularly, either at home or anywhere else. So, for instance, when they research topics at school, they know how to save the information, but they do not know how to print it, at least not in the manner you suggested: i.e., by first copying the information into a Word document. They would need step-by-step guidance on how to do this, in order to learn to do it efficiently, or at all, and they have not received such guidance.

There are two other reasons why the time given to work on the project in class was not particularly productive for J and E: they cannot type with any degree of speed or fluidity, and they have not been taught how to transfer their work to a memory stick, so that they can bring it home for final formatting, etc. So any actual written work done on the computers at school had to be repeated at home, which was not a productive use of time, and greatly added to the hours required to complete this project.

Bibliography: We believe that the requirement of a bibliography at this grade or age, should be accompanied not simply by a reference to [board] guidelines (which are clearly geared towards high school students, and are confusing and out of date, to boot), but by detailed instruction on why one includes a bibliography, how to put together a bibliography, where to find copyright information in a book, or an encyclopedia, etc. The [board] guide, for instance, does not include a single sample entry for a Wikipedia article, despite the fact that Wikipedia is the source children use most frequently for research projects. The girls told us that you commented that students should include authors in their bibliographies. Given this requirement, perhaps during the research phase, you could direct the children, not only to the computer, but also to books, where they will indeed find actual authors, and where the copyright information is more straightforward. In any case, we believe that, since classifications were requested for every plant and animal mentioned in this project, the required bibliography was beyond the ability of most 11-year-old children to complete independently.

I should add, that J and E enjoyed working on their projects, and they both learned a lot. They are also excited about the topics they have chosen for their next project, In general, they are enthusiastic about science class, and we don't want that enthusiasm to dampen because of problems they encountered while working on the first project. That is why we have decided—respectfully, and in the spirit of constructive dialogue—to bring these concerns to your attention.

We are available to discuss these issues further, either in person, via email or by telephone.


J and E's parents

I delivered this letter (not without some trepidation) to Mr X's mailbox, and a few days later he called me. I was nervous about speaking to him because on past occasions, teachers with whom I've raised concerns or to whom I have written notes such as this one, have sometimes become defensive, which leads to an unproductive exchange. (I should note that I accept my share of responsibility for failed communications; it is quite possible that the way I spoke or worded my written messages rubbed the teachers the wrong way. This is something I'm continually working on.) But I needn't have been nervous. Mr. X was extremely gracious and receptive to my concerns. He tried to address them all individually, noting, for example, that he thought my daughters' class had been taught how to create proper bibliographies in grades 4 and 5 (which was not the case). He also admitted that he'd made some assumptions about the kids' knowledge of computers and research that he should probably not have made. We ended the conversation amicably, with him assuring me that he would try to do things differently for future projects.

The good news is, he did change things—a lot! Since I wrote that letter, for instance, there have been no more take-home projects. All work in science is now done in class, and it includes a balance of research and group experiments, such as designing a small electric car! Since I did not want to overload Mr X, I had not even mentioned in my letter another of my concerns: namely, the lack of experiments in what was, after all, a science class. But the letter seemed to propel him to re-think everything, and now the class is completely different. At the beginning of the year, the girls were complaining that in science class, they were either plopped in front of the computer (researching) or watching boring movies. They actually disliked the class intensely and, in fact, instructed me to change the second sentence of my letter from "J and E are enjoying science class so far" to "J and E are enjoying science so far." Now it is, hands-down, their favourite class. They especially enjoy the experiments, and one of them has even expressed a new interest in becoming a scientist or at least in continuing to find out "how things work."

And the bad news? Mr. X only teaches the girls science. Their core teacher, Mr. Y., is the one who assigned the social studies project that resulted in our recent journey to homework hell. The project displayed all of the problems I detailed in my letter to Mr. X, and then some (for instance, a completely useless "artistic" component). So what to do? Do I write a similar letter to the core teacher? Ask to meet with him? It's tricky because he is my daughters' main teacher, and I've already had to approach him concerning several other, non-project related issues (such as incompressible math questions!). I do not want to alienate him or stress him out, but I also do not want him to assign another project such as the one we just suffered through. The girls learned next to nothing from it, which is perhaps the most important reason I object to context-less, single-focus research projects for 11-yr-olds (and is itself the topic for another post!). Any ideas regarding what my next steps, should be would be greatly appreciated.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Semi-Private Schools

A long time ago—in another life, it seems—my husband and I found ourselves looking to buy a house in the greater Boston area. During this ultimately fruitless period of house-hunting, our real estate agent accompanied us on numerous expeditions to quaint urban neighbourhoods and not-so-quaint neighbouring suburbs. In her attempt to sell us on a particular house, the agent would invariably say something like, "The local school is wonderful—very high test scores." We were surprised by this, because we were quite obviously childless, and had never expressed the slightest interest in children or schools. We informed our agent that proximity to schools, good or bad, did not matter to us, that we were more concerned with proximity to decent restaurants and bookstores. She ignored us and continued to rattle off test scores of the schools close to the houses we viewed. It must be an American thing, we figured, something to do with the inequitable way schools are funded in the US. We were pretty certain school test scores were not of equal concern to house-hunters in Canada.

It took us many years—during which we became parents to twins, moved in a panic back to Canada, and slowly realized that babies grow up to be kids who eventually attend school—to realize how wrong we were.

Recently, the Toronto Star published the results of an investigation into fundraising disparities among public schools in certain boards within the province of Ontario. I was not surprised that our neighbourhood junior school was one of the highest-ranked schools in Toronto in terms of money raised through fundraising. I was, however, somewhat taken aback to discover that during the year being studied (2008-2009), our school raised—through a combination of school and parent fundraising—$252,072 more than the elementary school at the bottom of the Toronto School Board list. (See full report here.) What is a person who believes in public education to make of such an obscene discrepancy? How is it even possible?

Two explanations spring to mind: first, the government of Ontario no longer adequately funds public education, and has not done so since the Harris years, despite promises by the governing liberals to amend the flawed funding formula introduced by the conservatives; second, perhaps as a result of its decision to continue underfunding education, the government has chosen not to set limits on fundraising by, for instance, restricting the uses to which parent-raised money can be put. In my daughters' school, some of the money raised by the parent association goes to programs such as "Scientists in the School" and "Learning Through the Arts''—curriculum-related programs whose presence in a school should not be tied to the availability of parent-generated funds.

But the fundraising issue is also part of a larger picture of education in Ontario (and elsewhere in North America) that has emerged in the last few decades. Specifically, it is an integral part of a cycle of inequity in which (as my Boston real estate agent understood) standardized tests scores also figure prominently. Before the advent of standardized tests such as EQAO in Ontario, inequality among schools—including differences in parental involvement and fundraising—no doubt existed, but standardized testing has amplified existing differences through its direct effect on real estate values. A high-scoring school drives up surrounding property values, which leads to parents-of-means moving into the neighbourhood, contributing time, energy and money to the school, which in turn leads to even higher test scores . . . and on and on the cycle goes.

The result is the creation of a tripartite system of schooling in Ontario, consisting of public, private, and what people in my neighbourhood jokingly refer to as "semi-private" schools. In a semi-private school, private money, to the tune of more than a million dollars for some high schools in the province, is funnelled into the public school, making up for any deficiencies caused by inadequate government funding. Well-heeled parents who contribute the money are thrilled to save the $28,000 in private school fees. Indeed, for these parents it's a fantastic deal. For the parents of students attending the province's truly public schools, not so much.