Opening day is one of the three worst days of the school year for a principal. Imagine if you will twelve hundred students who are collectively ambivalent about school, a hundred anxiety-ridden teachers, and if you are in Chicago, twenty of them are rookies; perhaps a dozen school buses driven by nameless people whose only qualification is that they can pass a drug test, and a goofy array of parents, many of whom do not speak your language, all descending on you at one time. That is what the first day of school looks like to a principal. Every possible question from where is the chalk to why isn’t first period basket weaving class covered, is coming your way.
You’ve spent the latter half of the summer preparing individualized student schedules, at least a third of which are wrong, hiring new teachers at the last minute because the ones that left were hired by higher-paying school districts in their last moments; repopulating rooms with desks, computers, and stuff that was removed so that the janitorial crew from GITMO could thoroughly clean them; and registering students new to the neighborhood, some of whom present false paperwork because the school in their community is worse than yours. Oh, by the way, the first home game is tomorrow night and the lights on the football field aren’t working.
This describes an average, ordinary, garden-variety school opening. My personal worst was day one at Roosevelt Elementary in Bellwood. Just as I walked up to unlock the school’s door at the very early hour of 6:30 AM, the bloody water main in the middle of the street burst. It stayed ‘burst’ all day. Roosevelt, since renamed Thurgood Marshall, was totally without running water for sinks or toilets. I was forced to work out a bussing plan to get my K-6 kids to the restroom throughout the day. It was my very first day as a principal of any school.
The last thing I needed then, or any principal needed Tuesday, was a Presidential speech controversy. Can you also imagine how many parent phone calls principals and real superintendents must have fielded over the last week? It wasn’t enough that parents were holding the principal under siege to get privileged scheduling or the best teacher assignments or special intervention with the coach of one of the autumn sports, nooooooo. This year, the principal also had to explain President Obama’s innermost intentions and covert motivations. There must have been parents on both sides of the issue, which means the poor slob principal likely made a whole new portfolio of enemies as he or she was caught in the middle of the needless political controversy.
It was no bed of roses for teachers either. Establishing class control is an essential day-one task; so is presenting the syllabus or setting an academic tone. How do you do that with a presidential address breaking into your private time with new children and dominating the landscape? Furthermore, given the complete variation in school scheduling across the nation, did Obama’s speech come at the beginning, end, middle, or during normal passing times? Did it interfere with the lunch schedule and force some teachers to hold kids and lose lunch time or prep period time contrary to union contract? Were classrooms all completely set up with televisions on the very first day of school? I betcha the GITMO crew appreciated that added requirement. If televsions weren't universally available, that translates to a school-wide assembly of hundreds of youngsters under the supervision of teachers who cannot yet identify them. Nice.
Students love drama. The clever and theatrical ones certainly used the occasion to generate a little late summer tension and distract the teacher from more mundane tasks. And how many of our educators were able to keep their personal politics from showing in the glare of this foolishness? If you had an opinion one way or another, your bias showed, and since Obama is more of a black guy than any other description, did old-fashioned racism get injected into places where it wasn’t before all of this transpired?
Educationally, this was a debacle. National Nice Guy and U.S. Secretary of Education, Arne Duncan, is, at the lowest level of interpretation, Obama’s education advisor. Duncan was wrong and ‘misspoke’ in declaring Obama’s speech as unprecedented because George Bush 41 and Ronald Reagan also addressed school children. Duncan was inept in suggesting a Pyongyang- style lesson plan inextricable linked to the president’s person instead of the nation’s welfare. When I was in high school, JFK challenged us to ask what we could do for our country, not what we could do for him. Duncan was disingenuously crude in changing the DOE website lesson plan in the vain hope that no one would notice, and then Arne looked like an Arne Duncan in telling the country that we were silly to object to the speech. If he truly believed that, why did he change the lesson plan after it began to take fire?
Worst of all, Duncan made the first day of school across the nation for nearly 100,000 public schools much more difficult than it had to be for the very people he is supposed to be helping: educators, students, and parents. Why? Because this man does not have any idea of how schools work. He has never taught a public school classroom, and he surely has not taken on the gargantuan task of running a school. Yet there are those of you out there completely willing to believe that he reformed Chicago Public Schools. Clearly he failed to provide the President with simple, useful advice in the area of his alleged expertise. Sure give a speech Barack, if you must, but not on the first day of school.
Oh, the other two bad days for a principal. The last day of school, and the day you get fired so the district can establish an Arne Duncan charter school. Madness.
Kindergarten has changed radically in the past two decades. New research in Los Angeles and New York shows what is happening in today’s full-day kindergartens:
• 2–3 hours per day of literacy and math instruction and testingThese practices may produce higher scores in first and second grade, but at what cost? Long-term studies suggest that the early gains fade away by fourth grade and that by age 10 children in play-based kindergartens excel over others in reading, math, social and emotional learning, creativity, oral expression, industriousness, and imagination.
• Of that, 20–30 minutes per day of standardized testing and test preparation
• Less than 30 minutes per day—and often no time at all—for play or choice time
Developmentally inappropriate practices are putting young children’s health and academic progress at risk. It is time for a change.
Contact: The Alliance for Childhood