When you believe in public education, but that same system is underserving your own child.
I am told she is a nice kid. She does her homework. No behavior problems. She earned a 92% overall average for the 2016–2017 school year — making honor role and missing high honor roll by tenths of points. I should be pleased, but my kid might as well be invisible. She does not have special needs, nor is she gifted. She doesn’t qualify for the advanced track, nor does she need anything exceptional besides quality instruction. She is the vanilla comment that teachers give: is a pleasure to have in class. She is obedient, compliant, hardworking, and on the cusp of reaching her full potential. What would it take for her to reach excellence? Will it be hard work, or simply time? Or is this it? Has she peaked, at twelve? Is she just a pleasure to teach? Do I need to accept her where she is, or do I explore this nagging feeling that she has more to show?
I cannot ignore the feeling that she (and others like her) are being underserved.
Entering seventh grade this upcoming school year, my daughter is now officially tracked. She will never take advanced math and science, she didn’t make the cut. She needed to have earned a 93% overall average in both subjects. She earned an 89% in math and a 91% in science. Science was partly due to a huge mistake she made preparing for her final exam. Her math average was due to her elementary experiences. Accelerated humanities courses have yet to be offered.
I am an educated parent. My children are well-fed, read-to, well-traveled, advantaged. I am a fucking high school teacher. However, I didn’t see the letter in the envelope sent home in her first five-week report card (where she earned a 100% in science that first quarter). That missed letter explained the game, set the bar. I did not know that the 93% was the coveted grade until April — months too late. My daughter is competitive. If I had seen and read the letter, I would have told her the goal. She, being who she is, would have done everything in her power to earn the 93% in her math and science classes. She already has her upcoming season’s state swimming numbers memorized — she is a motivated, competitive person. I blame myself. I am sure my own public school and adjunct college teaching schedule hindered my ability to pay attention to details like letters in my sixth-grade daughter’s first five-week report. I missed the mark. I wonder if I was the only parent who did? I wonder how many of my own student’s parents have had similar experiences?
She finished third grade without mathematical fluency. I recall shopping at Costco that spring when she could not tell me what 4×4 equaled. I tried to get her help in third grade and none was offered. That school year, we actually spent $200 to learn that she did NOT need eye glasses. She continually complained that she could not see the board. We thought her eyesight was to blame, but it was a literal statement. She could not see the board because the room was cluttered and her seat was at a severe disadvantage to see the extremely small space the board held on the overly decorated classroom wall. She actually lost an entire year of learning. My daughter continues to have very little fluency in her math facts and in her spelling.
I spoke with the administrator, but only after my daughter had finished the third grade. I was a coward. Because I was hesitant to rock the boat, an entire year was lost for my kid. I didn’t know how to cross that line and call out a fellow teacher for malpractice.
By fourth grade, I welcomed a fresh start. The year began well until her long-term substitute teacher was replaced by the “real” teacher back from a leave. The long-term substitute teacher listened and tried to get my daughter help in math, but there were too many other more needy children. My daughter was not needy enough to merit help. During the last week of school, every female in my daughter’s class was given some sort of award or acknowledgment while sitting in the school auditorium or back in their classrooms. My daughter came home defeated sans any paper with a declaration of her doing something award-worthy. By the end of elementary school, it was evident that my kid was deficient, but not special in any way. She was in need of remediation, but not as much as others. She was lost, unseen.
In fifth grade, she was placed with a wonderful, caring teacher who saw her. I will be forever grateful to her fifth-grade teacher. However, there were frequent behavior issues presented by a few students. My daughter improved but continued to be instructed in an environment filled with peers who presented more needs than she did. It was more of the same issues in previous years, but it was better.
Sixth grade was the most positive year. My daughter finished the year strong with a 93% average. She learned a great deal. Her teachers were dedicated, warm, and extremely competent. However, my daughter did not enter with all of the information needed — she missed both the needed prerequisite instruction and the rules of the advanced placement game. She learned, she improved, but when I respectively requested that she be allowed to try the accelerated science class, which would have allowed her to take the NYS Regents exam one year earlier, my request was denied. I was told that it was unfair to allow her to accelerate when there were other students who scored near or above her scores but were also not recommended for accelerated science. The school had to draw the line somewhere. The line is drawn. Now there are a small group of kids (in a class of about 70 in a small, rural school) who are being sent a message: try your hardest kids, but you will never be accelerated in math and science. What will become of this small group? How will they learn to perform at a higher level? Will they become more or less motivated? Will they resent their more accelerated peers? Will they learn more because they will take their courses at a slower pace? Will they score higher on their NYS Regents exams?
Bottom line, my kid is coachable. I see her in the pool and on the volleyball court. She listens to her instructors, she implements changes and she improves. I am one of her most important cheerleaders, coaches, and teachers. I am biased. I am relentless. I am pissed. I dropped the ball. I am frustrated at her current public school system. I am concerned that choosing to live in a rural district was a mistake for my kid. Maybe a big suburban district, like the one I teach in, would see her potential? I am worried that she is hearing the inaccurate message that she is not as smart as others, and therefore not capable of reaching anything but where she is. I am concerned that all of the student’s fates are being set at only twelve years of age. I am unhappy that as a parent I held no real sway. My knowledge of my own kid did not matter.
I was told not to worry. I was told that my daughter will be fine. Fine. Not excellent. Not challenged. Fine. I am told to accept mediocrity without giving my daughter a chance to attempt any other track than average.
So, I ask myself if I should continue to fight for the survival of public education? If my own privileged child has been invisible, what about other people’s children? How have I failed my former students? Who have I ignored these past 23 school years? Who’s baby did I deny a chance? How does this personal experience instruct my own teaching in my last ten years in the profession? How can I challenge students to reach their excellence and graduate their best intellectual selves?
Maybe, anytime I am inclined to use the report comment number 24 (is a pleasure to have in class), I should assess my relationship with that student. Hopefully, this experience will make me less complacent and more willing to challenge my not so gifted, but not so needy students.
As for my own kid, my husband and I have told her that she is required to continue doing her best and that if she happens to earn higher than a 93% in every class next year, that would be her sweetest career comeback.