I posted before about my experiences moving around as an elementary and high school student, and the major differences in curriculum and levels of education at my various schools. I forgot to write about the experience that we had last year. Oliver attended three different schools in first grade. We moved once across the country, to the great state of Maryland, and once within the same county. All of the schools that Oliver attended were rated highly on greatschools.org (the Chicago school is rated a 9 out of 10, the first Maryland school gets an 8, and the second Maryland school, our current elementary school, scores a 10 out of 10).
As this is more current than my experiences, I think it’s worth bringing up. Oliver attended a year of preschool, kindergarten and half of first grade at our Chicago school. It was a Literature and Writing, and Technology magnet school in Chicago. The schoolteachers and administrators wrote their own curriculum, and we had a generally very positive experience there. Oliver had some fantastic teachers.
Oliver isn’t your typical kid, you see. He began reading at age three. At four he was reading chapter books with help; at five he was devouring them so quickly that finding age appropriate, level appropriate reading material was a huge challenge. He intuitively understands mathematical concepts, and is fascinated by all things science. Sometimes I cook with the kids, and I work on math skills with them while we do it. I’ll present Oliver with a question like, “Oliver, this pizza crust recipe calls for two and a half cups of flour. We are doubling the recipe. I am using a half cup measure. How many half cups of flour do we need?” With barely a pause, he’ll respond with ten, and be able to explain to me how he arrived at his answer. (I guess, maybe that’s normal, but it seems pretty danged impressive to me.)
With that in mind, Oliver’s education has always been at the forefront of my mind, and I can be a bit of a rabid dog about it with his teachers. I have very little tolerance for him being bored in school, and I feel very strongly that he is a special needs kid, but the kind of special needs kid that can easily be ignored because he’s fairly easygoing, and is smart and engaging.
In Chicago, the curriculum was set up in such a way that the teachers were able to do differentiated learning. In kindergarten, Oliver’s teacher actually had individual time with Oliver almost daily, because he was in his own learning group. He was able to pull work out of Oliver that wouldn’t have happened otherwise, and keep his spark for learning going. He provided Oliver with a set of learning bones and scaffolding that I think have been instrumental in getting Oliver through all of the transitions in first grade (and getting me through them as well). His first grade teacher was able to engage him in other ways through technology (which I didn’t love, but he did) and more differentiated learning.
Oliver’s second school in first grade, our first school in Maryland, didn’t go as well. Although the class size was almost half as big (19 kids versus the 34 in Chicago), the teacher didn’t know what to do with a kid like Oliver. At one point, she said to me that she had six kids in the class who needed IEPs (Individualized Education Programs) that she had to do all the documentation for, and who were really disruptive, and she just wasn’t able to do much to help Oliver. He cried every day before school, and I literally had to push him onto the school bus. He came home with worksheets that were unreasonably easy, and the teacher took a month to test his reading level and insisted that he stay in the lowest level until she did so… even though she had documentation and letters from his Chicago school that should have assisted her in placing him. When we met with the principal, the best solution they could come up with was to have Oliver skip a grade, which Kullervo and I decided wasn’t appropriate, because, as lovely and wonderful as Oliver is, he is not necessarily socially advanced. And, on top of that, he was a first grader reading at a fifth grade level and doing math and science at least at a third grade level… being the youngest, smartest kid with a tendency to be a know-it-all doesn’t bode well for a kid. I was very close to pulling him out and homeschooling him, but for the fact that we bought a house and moved to a new school.
Oliver’s final school for first grade was much better. It was the end of the school year—he only spent three weeks there before summer break—but his teacher engaged him with creative thinking and projects that the class all enjoyed.
And it isn’t limited to Oliver. While Hazel is a completely different style of learner, she is just as gifted as Oliver. She, too, in kindergarten is reading chapter books (her first show and tell item in her class was the copy of Nancy Drew and the Clue Crew, which was the first chapter book that she read independently to herself. Her needs are different from Oliver’s–she is a lot more like I was as a smart kid in school, wherein she is more interested in the socializing and doesn’t mind if the work is easy–but that means that she can also easily get looked over in terms of pushing her academically. She attended preschool in Chicago before she had a gap in schooling when we moved to Maryland before starting kindergarten this fall.
So, all of that to say that the levels of education that kids get vary widely across this country, even within a county in a state. Also, as I look into the common core standards, I am doing so selfishly. My kids have special needs that should be, and need to be, met. I have the luxury of being able to homeschool them if we determine that will be the best option for them. I am less interested in the macro-effects of the common core standards than I am in the micro-effects, specifically regarding how these standards will affect my children and their education and opportunities for the future. Not that I am not thinking or considering larger picture issues, but my focus is mainly on my family.