Monday, January 18, 2010

School: Transitions, spelling, science and other puzzles

The kids have been in their US school for about three weeks now (we started them for a few days in December). Unlike their Melbourne school, this is a public school and I am not missing the fees. And the kids do not seem to be lacking for education or happiness. The transition has been wonderfully smooth. I thought, therefore, it was time to give some general impressions starting with ...

... Child No.3 who was due to begin school in January -- the big transition from pre-school. That process had already involved various days designed to smooth the transition, shock or otherwise avert some disaster. Given that we were going away, we missed it all and opted instead for no smoothing process. Child No.3 was thrown into her new school -- effectively a six month jump upwards -- and simply left there the first day. No meeting the classroom (and teacher), controlled expectations, short day introduction, or peers going through the same thing. And there was not one problem. In fact, she kicked us out 5 minutes into the first day and has continued to do so since. This has left me wondering what the point of the big transition process really is.

Child No.2 also had a six month jump upwards and started half way through 4th grade. The logic is that, so everyone had told us, that the US is somewhat slower so he wouldn't have a trouble rounding up rather than rounding down the grade. Although he has had no problem, it is clear that the curriculum is challenging and hardly lagging. Indeed, there is a strong sense of milestones and the children feel that. There are tests all the time with rewards too boot. On his first day there, my son had to do a 300 word spelling quiz for which he got all but 2 right. That won him a prize but he was not the best in the class. As a matter of fact, he was lucky. We asked him how he dealt with words such as "colour" and whether the teacher allowed him to use the English spelling. Turned it the teacher did not allow this but it didn't matter as he thought it was spelled "color" anyway. Blame that one on the Internet.

One reason it is easy for us to see what is going on is that he gets homework -- something they had outlawed at his school in Australia. I don't know if it helps learning but it really helps us in seeing what they are doing. And what is gratifying is that the maths is not stripped down and dressed up on materials designed to obscure that it is really maths. It is just maths, plain and simple. And he loves it.

But all that is nothing compared to the impact of the new school on Child No.1. She moved into sixth grade which gave her a 'status jump' into what they call Middle School. She no longer has a single teacher but in fact four teachers per day -- one for English, Maths, Social Studies and Science. She also gets Spanish (actually they all do), art and music but they are not everyday. Think about it: science is every day. This was not the case at their school in Australia where they would be lucky to get science once per month. Child No.1 absolutely loves it. At the moment, they are learning about electronics and have to build a project. This is taking her all weekend and many trips to Radio Shack. (Actually, it seems to me that may be some arrangement going on between the science teacher and Radio Shack as exemplified by the number of other children and their beleaguered parents we run into there -- all forking over money in the 'cash for capacitors' scheme). Anyhow, having abandoned a project to build a vending machine she is now constructing an electronic dart board. That, however, has remnants of the vending machine project as it is both coin operated and dispenses food as prizes. I'll be happy if the thing can just make a buzz and a light but I'm not the one with ambition.

Actually, the instructions for the project are interesting. They changed from the previous year where the whole project was designed and built at home. Instead, they can be designed at home but must be assembled at school. I suspect some projects last year were just 'too good.'

My point here is that in the US education system science and maths seems to be everywhere but in the test scores. I also wonder whether the raw delivery of these disciplines will make for better education than the dressed up versions we have experienced in Australia. I like it (as do the kids) but it is too soon to judge its real effectiveness. For the moment, everyone is happy and that is saying quite a bit.