School daze

Maggie Gallagher
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Posted: Sep 12, 2000 12:00 AM
Time: crack of dawn. My oldest, Patrick, who is 17 and about to be a senior in high school, grumbles about the illogic of the new school schedule. Classes start at 7:35 a.m. this year. Something to do with the demand for busses. "Little kids are always up at the crack of dawn," he complains. "Why don't they make the kindergartners go to school early?"

He has a point. My youngest, Bair, who is 5 years old and entering kindergarten, is certainly wide awake if not exactly bright-eyed and bushy-tailed. "I'm not going to kindergarten. Ever," he announces, clutching the teddy bear that Sister Anita said he could bring to the first day of class.

Patrick, who goes to public school, is wearing jeans and an oversized sweatshirt. My 5-year-old, who starts St. Theresa's in Briarcliff Manor, is wearing dark blue dress shorts, a white polo shirt and a blue v-neck sweater embroidered with the school logo. He looks better than most suits these days, leastways on Friday. Question: Why do we dress up our toddlers and dress down our investment bankers?

Picking a school these days is a momentous issue for most of us parents. I've had my kids in all different combinations: urban public, urban private, suburban public, suburban parochial schools. Each September brings with it a sense of apprehension as well as excitement: Is this the grade we discover something is totally whacked?

Will they be unrolling condoms on bananas this year, or tolerating bullying, or accusing my child of sexual harassment? Will I have to explain to my son the advantages of Western science over Indian medicine? Will he be reprimanded for calling Indians "Indians" instead of "Native Americans" or "Indigenous Peoples" or "Siberian-Americans"? Will they teach him to add and subtract, or will they hand him a calculator and praise his button-pushing skills?

Oh, the unbearable suspense of it all! Especially since a new Brookings Institution study finds that American students, after 20 years of urgent school reform, read no better now than they did in 1971. In math, students have improved their performance in the higher branches of mathematics: geometry, problem-solving, data analysis and algebra, but lost ground on fractions, decimals, multiplication and subtraction of whole numbers. At our current rates of progress, the study concludes, it will take American students 125 years to catch up in math with their counterparts in Singapore and 83 years to reach parity with Japanese students, assuming those nations make no further progress.

Some experts are calling this good news. "It shows we really can influence what kids are learning with curriculum policies," Jane Hannaway, director of Education Policy Research at the Urban Institute in Washington, D.C., told The New York Times. "We've been doing more of that new math and kids are learning it. We know how to teach basic skills. That's a very easy area to remedy."

By, for example, throwing away those calculators. The report found that fourth-graders who used a calculator every day had the lowest math scores. When kids are tied to calculators, they are not liberated to think higher-order thoughts. Instead, they come to see mathematics as a branch of magic, in which you follow formulas and punch numbers into a little black box, which produces an answer, right or wrong, that you can get partial credit for on the newer sort of math test. The bank will be less forgiving when you try to explain that even though you bounced a check through faulty subtraction, you understood the higher concepts involved.

Higher concepts such as: keeping track of dates. I finally get my 5-year-old settled down and walk into his new classroom: Surprise! It is completely empty. The more competent moms all knew -- kindergarten doesn't start until tomorrow.