kitchen table math, the sequel: Open Letter from John Dewey

Thursday, September 11, 2008

Open Letter from John Dewey

For those who do not know me, I am a parent and deeply concerned with the poor state of education in the U.S. I write under the name of John Dewey in order to prevent retribution for what I say about the things I see wrong.

The Langley High School in McLean, Virginia is –according to the Newsweek ranking of U.S. high schools—number 55 in the country, and the highest ranked of high schools in Fairfax County, Virginia. A new principal, Matthew Ragone, just took over this fall, and as part of his introduction to the parents of Langley students, he wrote a piece in the PTSA newsletter. My wife and I read what he wrote on separate occasions, and later we both talked about two paragraphs in the piece that we found disturbing. He was talking about issues that the department chairs are working on:

"One topic of discussion has been the concept of the 'Middle Child'. The 'Middle Child" is the type of student who does not feel at home at Langley because, while they may be smart and academically focused, they are not academically superior like many of their peers. Nor are they outstanding in extracurricular activities. This student does not enjoy the prospect of coming to school to face the intense competition, which is ubiquitous in excellent schools, only to be disappointed.

"There is no simple answer to this problem. In my ideal world every student will walk through the front door on September 2 with an exuberant, positive attitude and feel comfortable and be happy throughout the entire year. Of course that does not happen. As we start the school year, the Instructional Council will open dialogue with the general faculty and I will talk with parents at PTSA meetings and parent coffees to solicit your input and ideas. As the discussion continues with all the stakeholders, I am confident we will find a way to serve the 'Middle Child'."

Reading this, I was reminded of my first year in high school when my high school counselor addressed her new charges by telling us that we were going to be shocked out of our minds come first card-marking when we saw the D's and F's on our report cards. I admit to being shocked first card-marking, when I received 3 A's and a B. Luckily for all of us, this loud-mouthed idiot was not a teacher nor an administrator. The rest of the school was quite good and I was fortunate to have had teachers who really worked to make sure their students learned, and an administration that supported their efforts. In the case of the new principal, he is the new principal. The man in charge, the one who sets the tone. And his message is rather clear. One can read "middle child" as someone in the broad expanse of the bell curve representing the middle. Those familiar with bell curves know that this middle is encompasses a rather large area. Langley follows a pattern of high schools in the US which cater to the elite; i.e., the right hand tail of the bell curve. They let the minority top performers define their school, and for all the others it's sink or swim. Translating his message in even blunter language, he is saying "Your kid is going to be miserable at Langley." He tries to soften this message by saying "I'm not sure what to do about it but we're discussing it." Oh gee, I feel better already.

I showed his message to the chair of a math department at a high school in Iowa.Her reaction was as follows:

"I absolutely abhor such generalizations as that given in your note about the middle child! To me, that is no different than generalizing by race, gender, etc. I am appalled that this was coming from a PSTA newsletter, and I would complain big time. As a department chair, there is no way I would ever agree to even discuss such a ridiculous topic, because I have far more important topics to worry about regarding student achievement! Our school has many high achieving students, but there is no way I would ever try to communicate to anyone that his/her child won't cut it in this environment or even that (s)he would struggle. I prefer to communicate on the positive side, and lay out expectations rather than negatives, and also indicate a supportive tone, not a belittling tone."

To that end, here is some advice to Mr. Ragone if in fact he is looking for any, or even condescending to be. Your message should be "There are no middle children here. Every child matters; every child is as important as the next." And you should mean it. You should provide a culture in which students who aren't getting the material are identified and the school works with them after school or in special sessions to make sure they understand. Students should be encouraged to try out for sports. And really, Mr. Ragone, stop requiring try-outs and three weeks of practice in August when most rational families are trying to get away for a vacation.

My experience tells me that Mr. Ragone is not going to be persuaded to change one thing about Langley except perhaps to make things even more competitive, reduce the number of top performers, and make the middle of the bell curve even larger. Isn't that the name of the game in the "winner takes all" environment that passes for high quality education these days?

From the bottom of my heart, and the middle of the bell curve, I remain

Faithfully yours,

John Dewey

John Dewey is a pseudonym for a concerned parent who, like many parents, knows the difference between good and bad educational practices when he sees it. And like many parents, he is protective of his child of potential retribution for speaking out against bad practices, and thus chooses to write under a pseudonym.

Published September 11, 2008

Open Letter from John Dewey to the Principal of Langley High School, McLean, Virginia

Number one: parents should assume that their children may be retaliated against by school personnel if they dissent. It happens.

Number two: Perhaps I'll lodge a complaint with Mr. Rangone myself! After all, there is nothing he can do to my kid, now safely squirreled away at Hogwarts.

Speaking of Hogwarts -- and of my own local high school, as well -- it is simply false that the vast majority of kids enrolled in a high-ranking, competitive high school "don't enjoy the prospect of coming to school," etc. It's not the case in my local high school, and it is not the case at the new school, either. Both schools are happy places, and both schools are filled with talented and competitive students.

At a minimum, what it takes to create a happy atmosphere inside a competitive school is a highly competent leader who knows what he or she is doing. Yes, indeed, the person at the top sets the tone. A new principal who takes it for granted that the "middle" students will be miserable and promises to ask the PTSA for advice is probably not that person.

As to that, I think I'm learning something about how happy schools work.

More later.

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