This week, my son will complete a fourth-grade project in which he interviewed his Pittsburgh grandmother about her migration experience from rural Arkansas to Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during the Depression decade. Sounds pretty good — and very advanced — on the surface of things. But the reality of how this school project evolved shows how much has changed — and not for the better — regarding schools and curriculum. For my son’s school in Silver Spring, Maryland, for Montgomery County Public Schools and for schools across the country.
You see, the bulk of testing season is over for MCPS’ elementary schools. So instead of practice tests, formative assessments (otherwise known as “formatives”) and the actual exams (MSA, MAP-M and MAP-R), the teachers now have to focus on lesson plans that aren’t test-driven. For April, the fourth-grade teachers at my son’s school decided to do a social studies project on immigration. They started with a wax museum project at school, as well as a field trip to the Phillips Collection in DC.
This was where things began to get interesting for me as a parent. The permission slip for the field trip presented this unit as immigration. Yet in my son’s trip to the Phillips Collection, him and his classmates would peruse a set of Jacob Lawrence’s paintings on migration. For those of you who don’t know, Lawrence’s most famous paintings were of the Great Migration of African Americans from the rural South to the urban North between roughly 1915 and 1930.
I could barely contain the historian side of me when I read such an obvious and unbelievable error. But I decided to not assume that the fourth-grade teachers made the decision to treat immigration the same as migration. So I hand-wrote a note that politely suggested that they make a correction on the permission slip and for the overall assignment, since immigration and migration aren’t the same at all.
This was the response I received by email on April 4:
“We have had this wonderful trip planned for the 4th grade for the past 4 years and we always make sure to front load the students with information about the migration process.”
When teachers go into placating-mode without actually addressing my concerns as a parent (and an educator, for that matter), it’s usually a sign of trouble where there otherwise shouldn’t have been any trouble.
Then, nearly two weeks ago, my son brought home his interview/presentation assignment based on the wax museum project and his Phillips Collection field trip. It was titled “Immigrants in Their Own Words.” The fourth-grade teachers had charged the students — including my son — with the task of finding a family member who had immigrated to the US, interviewing them and asking them questions like “In which year did you come to America?” and “What is the biggest difference between America and your country of origin?”
Flabbergasted is just the beginning of my deep sense of puzzlement over the assignment. It was an assignment straight out of a Facts of Life or Head of the Class episode from the 1980s, culturally and racial insensitive to the core. After all, the height of White immigration to the US ended nearly a century ago. For Blacks, well, if I have to explain it, then it may be worth the while of those of you who do teach to take my History of American Education course (that is, whenever I get to teach it again).
My wife wrote an email about this follow-up assignment, to which my son’s teacher replied, “[e]migration and [i]mmigration are almost splitting hairs.” Really? In what history or ed foundations course? With some prodding, we were given the opportunity to adapt the assignment so that my son could work on migration. Of course, even without that note, I would’ve insisted on him doing migration anyway.
That this process was poorly executed is only part of the story. For nearly five years, my son’s curriculum has been a mystery to me, as it jumped around from pre-algebra to basic addition, from writing letters in which he could write phonetically to having to write about beetles in grammatically correct but short sentences. After five years, my son has never brought a textbook home. The weekly emails from teachers and postings on the neighborhood school website and the MCPS website tell me a lot about nothing.
In sum, I know quite a bit about test dates, subject areas and sometimes subject matter in which the state of Maryland and the school district will test the students. What we don’t know from day one of any school year are the themes for each subject for the year or for any given marking period. Because of the priority of testing above all else, the amount of time in the curriculum on subjects like social studies has narrowed, and with it, a teacher’s ability to be autonomous and to think through curriculum in a critical manner. And without textbooks, I as a parent can’t truly anticipate how to help prepare my son for any new or potentially challenging materials.
It’s difficult, though, to anticipate that your son will come home with an assignment on immigration in the fourth marking period of fourth grade. Especially when I as a history professor know how complicated these processes are for undergraduate and graduate students to wrap their brains around. Especially since my son has yet to write a full-fledged book report on any any book he has read for school. Or spent significant time on history or other, non-test-related subjects. Education should always be a journey, but never a mystery.