Over winter break, Jess Zalph ’16 spent a week teaching and observing at an urban charter school. This is the second part of a two-part essay, the first of which focused on the school’s discipline system.
Imani (her name has been changed to protect her privacy) looked up at me, more excited than I’d seen her all week, and asked, “Ms. Zalph, can I write a book instead?” We were in the middle of the half-hour period dedicated to independent reading. I looked at the sheet of paper she had already started writing on, her pen held like a dagger above her desk.
“Of course,” I said, looking around to make sure no one could hear me.
It was my fourth day of a week-long program that involved observing and teaching at an urban charter middle school. Four days was long enough for me to have learned that the school’s preferred answer to Imani would have been “no.”
Sure enough, within a minute another supervisor in the room requested that the fifth grader pull out her book.
“But I don’t like the one I’m reading,” she insisted.
“Imani, if I see your eyes leave the page during the remainder of this period, you will earn a major deduction,” was the response.
Don’t get me wrong. I think independent reading time is extraordinarily important, and I appreciated that the school valued it as well. It was the approach to encouraging reading that concerned me. Common sense suggests that people are unlikely to enjoy something they are forced to do, and tellingly, although Imani’s eyes never (well, rarely) left the page, I don’t think she read a word.
Over the course of the week, I was required to do some things that made me uncomfortable. That’s life, sometimes. But there was an obsession with quantification that permeated everything. One of the instructions I was given was to walk around and record the page the students were on at the beginning of independent reading, and then note how many pages they had read by the end. “To track the students’ progress,” I was told.
“Tracking” seemed to be the word of the day, every day. We tracked scores, we tracked behavior, and we even “tracked” each other (in class, looking at the teacher or a fellow student was called “tracking” them).
I understand the impulse and I understand the value. Knowing more is better than knowing less, and if through scores a school is able to learn how better to teach or help its students, that is undoubtedly a positive outcome.
But as we all learned in fifth grade, sometimes there’s too much of a good thing.
One of the strong points of this school is that its administration is genuinely committed to improvement. When I visited, the school was in the process of trying out a new classroom system that focused on student-directed learning, small group work, and discussion. As part of this three-week pilot program (which may be implemented in full next year), the students were expected to set informal goals for themselves. During advisory period (the equivalent of homeroom), I saw the students set valuable goals. Some knew they had behavior issues and wanted to correct them. Others struggled in math but wanted to learn a new mathematical skill. Still others wanted to finish reading particular books.
At the faculty meeting later that day, we were told these goals weren’t good enough. They needed to be quantifiable; they needed to reference a specific numerical point increase or a numerical amount of major deductions, for example. I checked—if students said they wanted to raise their math grades by 10 points but succeeded in raising them by only nine, would they be made to feel like they had failed?
“Possibly,” was the administrator’s answer. “We’ve decided that we’re willing to have that happen.”
I have mixed feelings about all of this. Goals are good! I set goals for myself (though more general ones, usually). And if setting goals helps students meet them, it’s not easy to object to that. At the same time, social psychology has a concept called the “overjustification effect,” which refers to occasions when people receive external motivations for something that had formerly been internally motivated. As a result, people often lose the internal motivation.
Humans are born wanting to learn. We are naturally curious and strive toward growth, and yet by middle school it is common to hear students complaining about their work. My concern is that this school’s obsession with enforced goals and a system where teachers have to say, “Your goals aren’t good enough, add a number to them,” leeches the desire to improve out of the individual and makes it feel like a burden thrust on the individual by the administration. As with the girl who was told she was required to read or else face disciplinary action, the Machiavellian approach to learning, based on fear instead of love, teaches students to hate the entire learning process.
Speaking of mixed feelings, every class at this school has the name of a college or university. For example, the two fifth-grade classes I worked with are called “Harvard” and “UPenn.” I recoil at the obsession with college being pushed upon these middle schoolers, although I know that for many it starts even sooner, as early as kindergarten.
Here’s the positive: Many of these kids do not come from families where college is valued or expected, and to them college may seem like another planet. Discussing college in school teaches the students that they are expected to attend. And for most, if they attend college, their lives will be better as a result.
But isn’t college supposed to seem like another planet when you’re 10 years old? When you’re supposed to be learning because it excites you, not because “this is a skill you’re going to need to survive college”?
Part of the issue is that as the focus gets further ahead, it also gets narrower. Students at this charter school were in class from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., and this, though grueling, is an extraordinary opportunity to be in an environment where they have the resources to explore and grow. These potential resources, however, are diverted from “horizontal” growth that would increase the students’ breadth of experience in a variety of subjects. In the nine-hour school day, there is no art, no music, no games, and no creative writing (under threat of punishment!).
These students, under an intelligent and well-meaning group of teachers and administrators, are being forced into funnels, learning nothing “extra” that cannot be reflected as quantifiable growth in a narrow set of academic basics.
But the basics can rise in tandem with less quantifiable goals. If these students found genuine interests, they would also find motivation to work, including honing their math and reading abilities, once they realized that these are related to their interests and that school isn’t all bad. If they had an outlet for the creative instincts that are inherent in all people, and these instincts were nourished instead of squelched, the basics would most likely improve, not suffer. Time is limited, but this rigid system is also making the time spent less valuable.
When students start disliking learning, they stop learning. The idea that “school is fun” shouldn’t be taken as a joke. And kids shouldn’t be taught to be drones.
Zalph is a member of the Class of 2016.