School Choice

School Is NOT a Family: Why This Flawed Metaphor Hurts Your Kids

As soon as THAT video hit the internet, viewers assigned sides:

The mother who whined she’d spent $5,000 on test prep so her child could attend the best public middle school in District 3 (Manhattan’s Upper West Side) was the villain.

Henry Zymeck, principal of The Computer School who defended the proposal to set aside 25 percent of seats for students who scored at the very lowest percentiles on state standardized tests, was the hero.

“When we’re a family,” Zymeck lectured those who’d come to debate the proposal, which promised to integrate schools while raising achievement for all students, “we try to look out for the best interest of all kids, not just the ones in our households. And that, to me, is what public education is about.”

Just like the Department of Education’s definition of diversity — where a school that’s 75 percent Asian is not diverse, while one that’s 90 percent  Black and Hispanic is — Mr. Zymeck’s metaphor is not only flawed, but ultimately damaging to the cause of a fair and equitable education for every child.

The main reason that school is NOT a family is that, in a family, we don’t treat all children the same regardless of ages or stages.

When my then-nine year-old started taking public transportation, I still continued picking up his five year-old brother. We walked. Their not-quite two year-old sister rode in her stroller.

Different kids, different needs, different accommodations.

We don’t feed babies the same foods we feed their older siblings. We don’t insist everyone take a nap at the same time. We read different books to different kids based on their comprehension and maturity, we allow them to see different movies, and, when it comes to chores, we assign tasks they can manage, adding in challenges and further responsibility at a personalized pace.

Family isn’t one size fits all, and school shouldn’t be one size fits all.

This family sent their physically-handicapped child to one school and their typically-developing children to another because, even though the first offered inclusion, they found the academics lacking and wanted the best possible fit for each.

This family discovered that a dual language program was a great fit for their oldest, but not for their youngest, and allowed one to graduate while transferring the other.

I’ve written before about my feelings regarding “mixed ability” classrooms from the perspective of a mom with kids at the top – and at the bottom – of the class. I don’t see the benefits of a child who already mastered the material being forced to review it ad nauseum instead of moving onto something else, or how someone perennially lost will magically catch up if presented with a faster-paced curriculum.

I’ve also written about my fears that dumping students with low scores into a classroom with majority high ones will muddy the waters, making it seem like they’re doing better, while, in reality, those who came in academically behind will remain that way. It’s a shell game, not true progress.

(Fun side note: Zymeck’s Computer School webpage promises, “[s]tudents are grouped by math abilities, so that those who need more assistance in “math basics” can receive the extra support they require, while those who are more fluent in the area can progress at their own speed.” So… no One-Size-Fits-All then? And it sure doesn’t sound like they’re learning side by side in the same classroom like one big happy family. So where’s the much touted desegregation?)

Teaching students with wildly different levels of preparation (I prefer this term to “different abilities,” as I believe all children have the ability to learn and it’s their actual education that varies and ultimately limits their options) is much harder than teaching a homogenous group.

In a letter to the NY Times, an educator took offense to that viewpoint, writing:

Teaching multiple ability levels in a classroom is an integral part of any teacher’s education and training. Plain and simple, it’s our job.

I couldn’t agree more. But, at the same time, may I also presume that another part of a teacher’s job is making sure all students perform at grade level and graduate college-ready?

Since neither is currently happening – roughly only 40% of NYC students test at grade level and over 50% graduate not college-ready – what evidence is there that the opposite will prove true with this newest plan?


What do you think?

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