By the second week of middle school, I had to crowbar my son Aidan onto the school bus. The classes were boring, he said. The teachers spent a lot of time yelling. All they did was worksheets and tests. “I thought middle school would be more interesting than elementary school,” he fumed, “but it's way worse.”
I kept battling, bribing and threatening to get him out the door. My two older children had gone to the same public school, which draws students from three towns and has a good reputation. They were in college now. Why couldn't Aidan settle in? What was different?
Everything. The No Child Left Behind Act, signed into law in 2002 when Aidan was halfway through kindergarten, has turned the public school curriculum on its ear. This legislation requires public schools to administer standardized tests annually to all students. Where there was once time in the school day for projects and performances, there are now stacks of worksheets. Schools are expected to make yearly progress in upping student achievement scores, so teachers teach to the tests.
I was once in favor of this Act. Who doesn't want to see schools held accountable? But now I've changed my mind. Sure, the test scores might be rising, but at what cost?
Aidan – a bright, quirky kid identified for our regional gifted program in fourth grade, balked at many of his elementary school assignments and started sliding fast in middle school. Every Sunday morning, he'd moan about having to go to school on Monday. “The only time school is fun is when I'm getting into trouble,” he mumbled one night.
Uh oh, I thought. I'm losing him.
I met with his teachers. They noted Aidan's lack of focus and danced around the topic of medication for attention issues.
“He's getting A's and B's,” I pointed out. “He earns advanced scores on the MCAS tests.”
Meanwhile, Aidan was getting mouthier and meaner at home. He was withdrawing into his computer. When his dad and I complained about his attitude and threatened to take away the computer, he shrugged. “My life is over anyway,” he said. “I'm already dead at school.”
One afternoon, I noticed the sign for a Montessori school tucked between a couple of brick buildings in a nearby town. On a whim, Aidan and I went inside and talked to the head of school. She invited Aidan to spend a day with them.
The Montessori middle school classroom was nothing like the ones in his public school. There was a carpet and the walls were painted a soothing periwinkle blue. The windows were enormous. The kids called the teachers by their first names. In public school, Aidan switched classes every 55 minutes. At Montessori, group instruction was kept to a minimum and students were expected to organize their own schedules. Grades were almost nonexistent and students didn't have to take MCAS tests. Middle school kids still got an hour of recess.
After his first day at Montessori, Aidan came home puzzled but smiling. “I don't know what this is, Mom, but it doesn't feel like school,” he said. “The teachers aren't really like teachers. They're just people who want to help you learn.”
His dad and I spent a weekend thinking about this. We were on the fence about Montessori for two main reasons: 1) we worried that Aidan might just drift through Montessori's free-wheeling, creative curriculum without having to really learn anything; and 2) we felt like traitors and failures because our kid couldn't make it in public school.
I went online and looked up articles on Montessori. One of the most helpful was by Emily Bazelon in Slate on the eve of Montessori's 100th anniversary, at http://www.slate.com/id/2166489/pagenum/2. The Montssori teacher's site was also useful, at http://www.montessori-namta.org/namta/geninfo/whatismont.html. I discovered that Google founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page credited their Montessori school educations for their development as creative, self-directed individuals at http://www.michaelolaf.net/google.html.
We agreed to let Aidan switch to the Montessori school and waited for the other shoe to drop. Surely he would hang out with friends from his public school and beg to go back.
That didn't happen. In fact, each day Aidan was happier than the day before. He was excited about doing a project on the history of batteries. He started spouting facts about camels as he researched desert biomes. He began taking time on homework assignments. He respected his teachers and they respected him. No more yelling, in class or out, and no more resistance to going to school.
At the end of the second week, I picked Aidan up early from school for a doctor's appointment. When I entered his Montessori classroom, I saw two middle school students lying on the floor, quietly reading. A few children were gathered around the computers. One teacher was holding a writing conference with four students at a small table. Aidan and another boy were working on math puzzles. Music played in the background. There was the blissful hum of concentrated activity.
“You seem awfully relaxed,” I noted as we walked out to the car.
“I am,” Aidan said. “Maybe it's because at Montessori they let you do math in your socks.”
I thought about this, and decided that if I had to do algebra, I'd rather do it in my socks, too.
I left the Montessori school thinking about the students seated in rows at our public school, diligently taking multiple choice tests, memorizing the names of explorers, and studying pictures of rocks and plant cells. Our public school teachers work hard to do their jobs, and students work hard to do theirs. Somehow, though, we have managed to make factories out of our schools and drain all joy out of learning.
It was well-meaning legislation, but the No Child Left Behind Act has handcuffed our public school teachers and stripped the natural curiosity and passion that all children have for learning. There should be no child left behind, yet mine nearly was.