Dear fellow members of the Lakeland Montessori community:
There’s a parent at a well-known and well-regarded non-traditional school in Polk County whose honesty and courage I have come to admire deeply. This person knows who this person is. And it’s not important to ID him or her. Not long ago, this parent posted a piece on Facebook raising many of the same types of questions that I’ve been raising about how we educate and evaluate kids in this county and state. This parent directed the question to his or her own school. It was very gutsy and honest and led to a good discussion.
At one point in the back and forth, this parent asked another point blank: Why do you send your kid to this school?
The other parent responded: Because it holds parents accountable.
What I noticed immediately was that the other parent did not say, “Because it holds me accountable or my child accountable.”
That was fascinating and illuminating. It sort of crystallized a point I’ve been making. At some point, education in this country and county has become about other people’s kids and parents and teachers. Not our own. Everything is about what are kids are not. None of us think we need accountability, not really. It’s those other people.
I think what I’ve been trying to do in this rather pointed period of education writing is force myself and other parents of the “magnet, charter, and choice” community to demand of ourselves the same “accountability” we say we demand from the kids and schools and teachers at the traditional schools.
For the most part, my numbers and analysis suggest that if student bodies were as standardized as tests, the traditional schools would generally produce better scores than the “magnet, charter, and choice” schools. No one has made a case that begins to refute that conclusion.
And the response from charter and choice officialdom has been about what I expected, really. No factual challenge of my core conclusions; a little bit of spluttering rage; and a mountain of silence. As if my findings have zero bearing on what everyone claims they value.
I have, however, received some very positive and thoughtful feedback from Lakeland Montessori parents and staff. And I think it’s time to build on that.
First, let me answer that parent’s question and explain why my wife and I send our son to LMS.
Primarily, my wife liked the idea of a Montessori school back when it opened. And I was impressed with how quiet and on-task the kids were the one time I visited. That was pretty much it, and we enrolled him at 3 in pre-K, if I remember right.
Today, I’m a pretty hands-off parent. I trust the teachers to do their jobs. I watch and interact with my child at home. And if there’s an issue, we try to do practical things to resolve it. Over the years, I have tried not to do homework with my kids unless they absolutely got stuck on something. I want my kids to figure things out themselves. I want them independent and intellectually self-reliant. There have been times when we’ve had to violate that ideal for the sake of checking a box and getting through the day — both at LMS and with our other kids’ schools. The homework dance, in my humble opinion, tends to dull independence for not much gain. So I thoroughly approve of the recent LMS decision to essentially get rid of homework. Another reason for attending.
Additionally, over the years, I have come to enjoy the slightly odd and creative ethic that has developed at LMS. I often call it a “hippie school” as a mild-mannered joke. But I think there is a sense of kindness that pervades the place, related both to its tininess and what it values. I like that.
However, the world is not fundamentally kind. In many ways, kindness is a luxury that we’re able to buy with our structure. Toughness and awareness of the lives of the wider world are virtues that need to be developed along with kindness. So I’m not really sure what future decisions we’ll make about schooling. They won’t be dictated by some blinkered notion of test achievement, though.
Finally, LMS has become almost a neighborhood school for us. Many of our neighbors and neighborhood acquaintances attend. Our son goes to school with children whose experiences and cadences are very familiar to him, as are the experiences and cadences of their parents to us. Never underestimate the power of feeling comfortable, of ethnic and cultural affinity, in shaping the choices we all make. That applies to LMS as surely as Alturas.
So there are my reasons. And now, in the spirit of that very brave and principled parent, here are a few questions for us relating to how we do business as a wealthy school with a self-selected enrollment.
It is a bit uncomfortable for me to ask them. I think, hopefully, a public discussion will push us all a bit past comfort. And I’ve exposed every other school I’ve written about to public scrutiny. So it’s time to do that with my own, just like that other parent did. So here we go.
1) What is our waiting list? Is it really 600 kids for a school of 89? If so, what do we think about that? Are those 600 people waiting for the Montessori methods, our “Peace Pole” culture, our FCAT scores, or our wealthy demographics? That, of course, is a question without a definitive answer. But I think it’s a question we should never stop asking ourselves.
2) More importantly, it’s my understanding that if you pay for Montessori pre-school, which starts at age 3, you get priority into the K-6 public school. What do we think about that? Isn’t that guaranteed to privilege wealthier parents? Is there anything we can do about it? Is it moral? Should you kick my child out to make room for someone who is needier?
3) It is my understanding that LMS has no intention of growing. Let me just say that I fully support that. I think the evidence shows the growth model that McKeel follows is based almost entirely on bashing traditional schools to create marketing momentum. Under no circumstances would I support that kind of growth. But I don’t think that’s ever been a priority for us, which is good.
Maybe we could encourage the Polk School District to create a larger, district-level Montessori school. We have special arts schools and STEM schools. Why couldn’t we have a Montessori school? Should we draft a letter to the School District to that effect?
4) Do we dump kids? Do we urge kids to leave? What’s our turnover?
5) Why do we pay any attention to FCAT at all? Can we stop? I’m confident that our demographics, coupled with the teaching methods our kids get, will always produce scores that will compare favorably to traditional schools who lack our structural advantages. I submit that’s all the FCAT is designed to do, anyway. It’s a class marker designed to give cover to Kelli Stargel so she grade other parents and funnel more resources to McKeel.
I’d like to ignore that silly test. If my son never again works on an FCAT prep worksheet, it will be too soon.
And frankly, I never looked at LMS’s FCAT scores before I started to use them as a weapon. It says something that I see no other value in those scores than weaponry. This is one parent who fully supports dumping the entire FCAT prep apparatus and doesn’t care if the scores drop in response. In fact, it would make a pretty interesting experiment, don’t you think?
In conclusion, for me, all of this started when I read a bit of traditional school and teacher bashing — otherwise known as marketing — from McKeel’s Harold Maready.
“In review of all the data, magnet, choice and charter schools are making a difference, which should be studied and implemented in other schools. Charter schools are not the total answer but are part of the solution.”
Maready said there needs to be drastic changes made in education, just as the MSNBC program pointed out.
“Analysis of the data would allow for an open forum to work together in solving the education issues in Polk County,” he said. “If we do not recognize there is a problem, then there cannot be a solution.”
Maready also said, in a different story about the same time: “We’ve got to be doing something right. If you look at the traditional public schools, that’s not us. We like to do things differently.”
Funny that Maready’s been a little quieter these days. Haven’t heard much from Larry Ross either. Wonder why that is? Anyway, that bit of triumphalism — coupled with McKeel’s kid-dumping — radically engaged my thinking about the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter schools.” Never dare someone to start a public forum if you’re unprepared to participate, McKeel folks.
In providing the public forum that McKeel asked for, I have, at times, used LMS’ FCAT scores as a bludgeon. They have been very effective in the public argument that Polk’s wealthier schools generally underachieve and its poorer schools often overachieve on the bogus measure of FCAT score. I don’t apologize for that. But I do recognize the inherent unpleasantness of pitting the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter schools” against each other. It’s ugly and unkind. Not Montessori, even.
And, at times, I’ve said unkind things, by implication, about the people who work in magnet, choice, and charter schools. The worst offense was my snide little joke a while back about challenging certainly faculty to a trivia game.
However, I also think we who are part of the wealthy “magnet, choice, and charter” community need to understand that we engage far more often in the ugliness and unkindness of denigrating the teachers and students and parents who are not part of the magnet, choice, and charter community. In many cases, we do it accidentally. But in many other cases, we do it with malign and clear intention. That’s worse than unpleasant. It’s dishonest bullying used in the service of marketing. That’s what too many charter schools, particularly, are doing. All you have to do is listen to hear it.
At least at first glance, I am a very mediocre LMS parent. I am not nearly as involved as many others. I have never attended a board meeting. I forgot to send Valentine’s Day cards with my son to school on Valentine’s Day. Who does that? I fail in ways large and small every day. It’s because of that recognition that I am very slow on the trigger to slag off on parents whose lives are fundamentally more challenging than my own, whose schools may not throw off the FCAT numbers that mine do.
That’s because everything involving schools, involving the evaluation of children, is personal. If any of us think we have an opinion about that subject, we need to be prepared to apply it to ourselves.