What the Test Scores Fail to Show

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A Window into Our Public School System
By Olivia Hull
It’s often said that our nation’s public schools are subpar, failing, dropout factories. Two recent wide-release documentary films, The Lottery (2010) and the similarly themed Waiting for Superman (2010), go even as far as to suggest that the only hope for struggling students in failing schools is the charter school system, which grants admission only to the lucky few who win the lottery. According to the Center for Reform, the average charter school nationwide has 200 students on the waiting list.  Classes are generally smaller, and are often held on Saturdays or even during the summer months. They are not subject to the regulations of the public school system or the often-overburdening demands of the National Teacher’s Union. But as Diane Ravitch of the New York Review of Books notes in her article, “The Myth of Charter Schools,” “most Americans graduated from public schools, and most went from school to college or the workplace without thinking that their school had limited their life chances.” So, in that case, how can our schools be so bad? It’s said that the test scores are below average and that specifically in the areas of math and science we fall well below our major international competitors – China, for one. But the test results don’t prove that the nation’s children are underserved in all areas. I don’t know enough about the public school system or the charter schools’ successes to formalize an opinion at this point. However, I will say that last Friday I experienced first hand, through assistant teaching for my “Math in the City” education class at Barnard College, what it means to be a kid in a public school (a school that received a C grade on its last report card), and it made me realize that the bleak picture these filmmakers paint does not tell the whole story.

In a bilingual class, half of which was made up of special education needs students, I certainly didn’t expect to see smiling faces all day long and unbridled enthusiasm about a picture book identifying each animal with its corresponding skeletal form. I didn’t expect there to be three computers in the back of the room my private school third-grade classroom had zero; I don’t think I poked around on a keyboard until at least the sixth grade. I also didn’t expect comfy colorful rugs on the floor, dutiful students sitting in “criss cross applesauce,” nor enthusiastic collaborative learning and generally exemplary behavior.
The children were happy to be at school, happy to be learning fractions, and genuinely thrilled to learn the meaning of CAPS LOCK and spell-check. They said “thank you” and “excuse me” and admired each other’s artwork. It’s good to know that at least this publicly funded environment is a safe, supportive place to learn. It’s good to know that these public school teachers are passionate, skilled educators, that the children in this class are trying their hardest and doing their best, even while learning in a second language, or learning with a disability. There’s something to be said for hardworking public school teachers who take  the time to pursue a master’s and to attend a math-teaching class at Barnard College so that they can serve their students better, for colorful wall posters, and for learning the writer’s process in third grade – brainstorming, rough drafting, revising, typing .  In this classroom at least, young minds are engaged, and the American ideal of equal opportunity is still very much intact.
Olivia Hull is a sophomore at Barnard College taking “Math in the City,” a class designed to pair education program candidates with public school teachers to engage in the teaching of mathematics.


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