Updated: Sep 13, 2021
If you’ve ever found yourself frustrated or confused when going through your student’s homework, test results, or other school papers, you’re not alone! As parents, we make an effort to get our kids into a “good” school, but once they’re in we trust that the school has it all together. But in reality, there are some major flaws in the American education system, and a few not-so-widely-known things that you as a parent need to know in order to help your child navigate through it successfully.
1. Curriculum practices can vary wildly from school to school, and the teacher may not have any say in what they teach
First a quick primer on what a curriculum is: basically, it’s all the resources used to teach your child. It consists of a year-long program that includes all the readings, lessons, homework, and test for a particular subject. There are tons of different options out there made by a large assortment of different companies. And just like everything else, these programs vary in effectiveness, and none are perfect.
There are typically three scenarios when it comes to how schools use curriculums:
Some districts require teachers to use the purchased curriculum. This means despite what you or your child's teacher thinks of the effectiveness of this program, it must be used. The reasoning behind this is two-fold. First, the money’s already been spent and they don’t want it to go to waste. And secondly, it allows them to compare and rank teacher effectiveness (more on this below!).
Other districts purchase curriculums and allow teachers to choose if they use them or create their resources. What typically happens in this situation is teachers use what they like (and think is good) from the district purchased curriculum and then use their expertise to fill in the other stuff. Of course, there are pros and cons to this, too. While it's great to allow the expert in the classroom to use their knowledge and teach how they want, switching back and forth on different resources can confuse parents. The homework/test formats are not the same week to week, and students typically have trouble conveying the changes to parents. This can lead to frustration at home and in the classroom.
Lastly, some districts offer no curriculum, and it’s up to the teacher to put it together. This sounds great in theory, but the downfall is that the cost of these items often falls on the teacher. When I was in the classroom, I spent my own money on resources for the classroom but not on homework to send home. Again, this can lead to a special set of challenges that you wouldn’t know about unless you understood the curriculum setup at your child’s school.
The good news is that all of this can be figured out so you can better understand what your child needs from you at home and how you can best support your child’s teacher in their efforts. Grab our list of questions to ask your child’s teacher to help guide you through what info you need to know.
2. Testing has become stressful for everyone, but it’s not going away any time soon (and there is a way to make it better!)
The idea of testing started out with good intentions. It was supposed to allow us to measure growth and success as a whole in education, which is a positive thing. But now it has become a stressful chore that everyone dreads, with too much importance placed on the results. And because schools have started to become dependent on the results of testing, they’ve actually started to test even more frequently throughout the year to ensure they were on the right track, making the whole situation worse.
Testing has become the determining factor in many things, including what classroom your child is placed into next year, and teachers’ job performance. I can tell you from personal experience that testing time is stressful for all teachers, and understandably. Their livelihoods and careers have become dependent on it, yet they are rarely given the proper resources to teach their students to the best of their ability.
It will come as no shock to learn that I’m not a fan of testing. If the scores were used solely for teacher development, that would be another matter. But because schools have placed so much importance on the results, it creates extreme stress for both the staff and the students. It takes too much focus away from a well-rounded education.
That said, the tests will go on, so we need to create a plan that protects students' self-worth and confidence. I believe in preparing students for the testing and not just telling them they shouldn’t worry about it. As an academic coach, I work with students on strategies and practice problems to make them feel ready and confident. I find this strategy much more effective in reducing stress than trying to convince them not to worry.
While I hope one-day testing is done away with, that day isn’t coming anytime soon. Until then, I believe we should empower students with the tools and lessons that will allow them to walk in on test day confident and empowered. If you’d like to work with your child on this at home, grab our list of online reading & math resources here.
3. There’s no one universal system for determining reading levels
I talk with clients often who are frustrated and confused by their child's reading level. In one program, their level is identified by a letter. In another program, the level is identified by a number, and in yet another program, a number is also used, but it is not the same number as the first. What the heck is going on?
In a nutshell, algorithms determine reading levels and different companies develop these algorithms which they patent so nobody else can use it. This means each company that develops a reading curriculum must create their own algorithm and leveling system. And, as I explained earlier, schools/districts sometimes put multiple curriculums/resources together to create what they feel is a well-rounded education for your child. No matter how confusing it might be for the parent!
There are ways to determine the “conversion” for your child’s reading level. Grab this handy cheat sheet of questions to ask your child’s teacher at the beginning of the year to guide you. We’ve also put together a list of online resources that you can access at home to help your child improve their reading skills.
Want to have an expert evaluate where your student stands academically? We offer a free assessment in which we can not only determine where your child is reading-wise but start creating a plan to help them catch up or get ahead. You can book an assessment here and learn more about our process in our “How it Works” section.