THE BLOG
01/31/2014 05:54 pm ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

Let's Not Demand More, Let's Demand Better

John Slater via Getty Images

My kindergartener came home with her report card for the second time last week. The folded paper in the brown waiting-for-parent-signature envelope sat in her Thursday folder untouched while she went about her afternoon business of playing dolls and swinging in the backyard.

I opened it, the official rows of numbers on one side and a list of kindergarten skills on the other. I looked it over, read the brief narrative comment about her keen interest in her tasks and the growth in her reading ability, signed the front of the envelope and tossed the report card in the pile of papers on the counter.

The numbers on the paper were, as my mother commented, "monotonous;" except for a few marks, they were all nearly perfect. I had nothing to hide from her.

But I didn't tell her that she got a report card.

I didn't explain that in school she'll be graded on her work. I didn't tell her that fine motor skills and following directions seem to be her apparent weaknesses. I didn't brag to her or with her about her proficiencies in reading and math. I didn't dare disappoint her that her lowest score was in art -- her absolute favorite hobby.

Why would I?

Right now she sees school as a place to explore, to make friends, to master crossing the monkey bars. She sees school as a place "to get better at learning," she once told me.

Why would I want her, at 6-years-old, to think that she goes to school all day every day to earn a grade?

In a recent speech, Arne Duncan spoke to a group of parent leaders and said:

"To really help our kids, we have to do so much more as parents. We have to change expectations about how hard kids should work. And we have to work with teachers and leaders to create schools that demand more from our kids."

As a teacher and a parent, I read this and I worry. I worry about parents who will interpret this as an invitation to demand that teachers grade more harshly or offer more homework. I worry about parents who will, with good intentions, confuse quantity for quality, who will look again to standards and grades and report cards as measures of just how hard students are working.

And while I fully agree that it is time parents speak up for an educational system that our children deserve, I'm not sure the idea of "demanding more" is really what parents need to ask for. I worry that simply saying that we need to "demand more" will actually give us less. We don't want to turn this into a conversation about how hard we used to work or how much homework we used to have. We don't want to turn this into an I-walked-to-school-barefoot-in-the-snow-uphill conversation just so that our students have to work harder.

Demanding "more" isn't the answer. Instead, let's start asking the right questions.

Let's start asking:

What are our children learning? I want us to worry less about how they are being assessed, on how long their homework takes them, and more about the quality of what they are learning and how they are being taught. I want us to worry that our children become readers, not test-takers, writers, not bubble-fillers, thinkers, not data on a school's accountability chart.

How are they learning it? Are our students asking and being asked big questions? Are they exploring topics in depth?Are they encouraged to make mistakes, conduct experiments, pose research topics? Or are they being lectured to and handed worksheets that won't mean anything ten minutes later? Report cards don't tell us this. Conversations do.

Why do we give grades? If we know that grades are poor representations of what our children really know (I once got an A in chemistry simply because I predicted a snow day correctly...), that they remove much of the intrinsic motivation our children will need to truly succeed, and that they really are a tool used for ranking kids, why are we still using grades? Why can't we move forward to a conversation about learning? About a system that will truly push our students to think and create and synthesize and not just hand in papers to fulfill an antiquated points system?

Our country has gotten too focused on learning as a competitive sport. And I'm afraid that if we take Duncan's words of "demanding more" too literally, that will only get worse. We focus on grades and test scores and class rank. We talk about standardization and consistency and adequate yearly progress. We seek to define goals and benchmarks and bell schedules.

But we forget to let students ask their own questions. We forget that learning is exploring. We forget that while having high standards is a must, standardization is not at all the same thing.

Yes, kindergarteners have always gotten report cards. Yes, high school students have always faced some sort of daunting standardized test. But the conversation in our national educational culture hasn't always been so focused on assessment, assessment, assessment. We haven't always looked at the end goal, forgetting to see the joy in the journey of getting there in the first place.

Kindergarteners have that joy. The world is their classroom and everything is a new challenge.

Shouldn't all students feel that same way?

I am not sure when I'll tell my daughter about grades and report cards, when I'll explain that she is being ranked and scored as a part of her education. I'm sure it is not something I can hide from her forever, nor am I sure that I would want to if I could.

But I do know that even when she wants to look at her own grades, when she sees her own scores, I won't ever stop asking her what challenges she's seeking, what questions she wants to find the answers to. I won't ever stop asking her what she's learning.

Because isn't that really what school should be all about?

Duncan is certainly right about one thing: it is up to us parents to raise our collective voices for a better educational system for our children..

But let's makes sure we aren't just demanding more. Let's make sure we are demanding better.

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