Monday, February 3, 2014

Inner City Immersion Language Education vs. an Affluent School Without Language

My dilemma

Although I live in an affluent school district and have two kids who attend local schools I have a child who attends Post Oak Elementary in Lansing, MI. It is an inner city Title I school, with inadequate funding and a disadvantaged student population. I've been very happy with my choice to send him there because they offer an immersion Chinese program, allowing him to spend half of the day learning in Mandarin and half of the day learning in English. However, I definitely give up a lot by sending him there and now I am struggling with whether I should send him to fourth grade in Lansing or move him back to Okemos. I will outline the pros and cons of leaving him in the immersion program, in part because putting it on screen will help me think the issues through and in part because I hope others will give me insights into what I should do.

A bit of history

My wife and I both learned languages as children and have become increasingly convinced that having children learn a foreign language when they are young is the most opportune time. All three of my children are learning a foreign language. My fifteen year old is reasonably fluent in Japanese. My twelve year old takes Greek lessons twice a week. Often I get asked why I bother doing something as difficult as teaching them languages. While I don't expect that they will necessarily use the language they learn as adults, they learn many skills that I don't expect them to use in their professional lives, from playing sports to learning to read music and play an instrument. Like these other activities, learning a language helps them develop into smarter, more well-rounded individuals. There is research showing that serious language study helps children improve their ability to discriminate between sounds,
increase their vocabulary and do better in math, and even enhances cognitive flexibility.

Zachary started learning Chinese in an immersion preschool and moved to Post Oak in kindergarten. He can read and write hundreds of Chinese characters. While it is difficult for me to independently assess his ability to speak and understand Mandarin, the Chinese people he speaks to while he is with me almost always compliment his pronunciation. He seems to understand a lot of Chinese and on a few topics can speak so that he is clearly understood. When we recently went to a Chinese New Year's celebration that consisted of skits by MSU Chinese students he loved it, laughing in all the right places and clearly understanding (at least at some level) the dialogue.

The Quality of the Teaching

 In the four years he's been at Post Oak he's had six 3 English and 3 Chinese teachers (the kindergarten teachers moved up to first grade with him. Since I have volunteered extensively over the last decade in both Okemos and Lansing Schools I have had a great opportunity to observe many teachers at work and think I can evaluate how they teach reasonably well. My assessment is that Zachary has had 3 excellent teachers, two that are average, and one below average (a similar distribution to what I've seen in the wealthy district with my other children though neither dataset is statistically significant).

The Results (Other than Chinese)

Zachary, though certainly not a prodigy, has consistently been ahead of where his brothers were at the same point in their education in math, though he is not as far ahead of grade level as he once was. Though he was not ahead of his oldest brother in reading that is only because my oldest was linguistically precocious (beginning to read at 18 months and correctly spelling puerile in a first grade assignment).  He seems basically happy and well adjusted, though at times has minor social issues.

The Problems

I began rethinking leaving him in Lansing Schools last summer when the district fired all of its elementary school art, music, and physical education teachers due to lack of funds. In theory the regular teachers picked up teaching those subjects, but from what we see coming home, hanging on the school walls, and hear from our child, there has been a real drop in how much they are getting. However, we supplement with Tae Kwon Do and twice weekly piano lessons. After school resumed last fall I learned that they also gutted the gifted and talented program, cutting the number of students drastically and changing it from a year round program to one that is three months long.

In contrast, this year the Okemos School district has an award winning music program and great art at all grade levels. My middle son has been learning viola in school for two years. My oldest son is taking photography in high school, using a nice dSLR and high-end computers with Photoshop. Next year he'll take AP art. This year Okemos passed a bond proposal that will fund a personal learning device (iPad) for every student.

I'm not a big believer in standardized test scores as a good measure of school performance. Often, they only reflect the socioeconomic status of the test takers. However, at my local elementary school, Bennett Woods, scores are at the 93rd percentile and at Post Oak they are at the 14th.

There is clearly a real difference in how much a typical student has learned by the third grade. The children in Post Oak are not less smart. Part of the difference in achievement is because the children in the school don't have the same enrichment opportunities that my children (and other economically privileged children) have over the summer, so they experience a bigger summer slide. As the children that he goes to school with fall behind, it affects their attitudes toward academics and their interests. The influence of a child's peer group may be as important as the influence of parents and teachers and I fear that the effects of poverty on my son's peer group will lead to a less enriching set of peers. My older sons often play with friends who share their interests in foreign languages, chess, computer programming, and rocks and minerals, incorporating those interests into their social lives. I don't see that type of interaction with Zachary and his schoolmates. Furthermore, falling behind because of the summer slide and less stable home lives forces teachers to focus attention on remediation.

Other Issues

It is not just the academics that I worry about, I also worry about my son's social development. It is much harder to get him together with friends since we are about half an hour away by car. As he ages, the peer group becomes less diverse economically and geographically as parents like us who send our kids through the school of choice programs drop out to send our kids to more economically privileged districts. They are not replaced by new school of choice parents since few students begin an immersion language program in later grades.

The School District

While the school has an amazing and highly dedicated principal, the district itself is dysfunctional and underfunded. The immersion language is supported by FLAP grants from the department of education with assistance from MSU's Confucius Institute and the Chinese government. The school district is less than committed to the program and as the grants expire, may reduce or eliminate Chinese instruction.

Extracurricular Activities

Because of the lack of funds, the range of extracurriculars available is smaller than in Okemos. For years, Zachary was jealous of his brothers' after school chess club. Okemos parents who want their children to participate pay a couple hundred dollars each to hire two of the top chess players in Michigan. They go to tournaments, for which the parents gladly pay USCF and MCA membership fees, the registration, and a markup that pays for the coaches' time and a room rental.

Being a Good Citizen

Trying to be a good parent, I give to the PTA, donate school supplies, donate money to the Okemos Education Foundation and the Lansing Education Advancement Foundation, and I have volunteered to help in the schools every year since my oldest son (who is now in tenth grade) was a first grader. This year, in addition to doing math pullouts for the gifted kids I decided to start a chess club for Zachary. I'm a mediocre chess player at best and I'm not really qualified to perform classroom management on lots of kids at one time. Nevertheless, I enrolled 26 kids in an after school chess club. Unlike in Okemos, where there is a mandatory fee for the club and another for each tournament I emphasize on every flier that no child will be turned away for lack of resources. I've tried applying for grants, holding fundraisers, and have asked for donations. I won't break even.  There is no way, even doing much of the work myself that I can give Zachary and his peers the same caliber of after school opportunities that Okemos students have.

Differences in Curriculum

In an attempt to decide whether to move Zachary to Bennett Woods next year, I visited Bennett Woods where the principal showed me anonymized schoolwork of typical third and fourth graders. While there were differences from what Zachary is bringing home, they were subtle. In math there was a little less rote problem solving and a bit more synthesis and application (in story problems, for example). In English, there was more emphasis on proofreading, revision, correction, and polishing. Nonetheless, I am concerned that the gap will widen and that eeven if I move him to a better district later those small differences will become larger as those with a slight edge are encouraged and given more opportunities (I read Outliers by Malcolm Gladwell).

Change to Pattengill

If I move Zachary into our home district I may want to do so next fall. In a move designed to save money Lansing changed from k-5 schools to k-3 and consolidated grades 4-6 at Pattengill Academy. The immersion program is supposed to be a school within a school, but I have questions about how separate the school within a school is. I hear complaints from Post Oak kids who share busses with Pattengill students about the behavior of the students on the bus. I have had parents tell me that their kids learn things (and language) from those students that they would rather not have their kids exposed to.

Does it Apply to my Kid?

I am trying to balance the ability to learn a language well, at an early age against the things that we'd give up in a poor school district. I know that to some extent the enriching environment I can give my kids ameliorates some of the problems with an inner city school, so perhaps those drawbacks are less important. On the other hand, I have been able to successfully provide language education to my other children through in-home tutors, online courses, college courses, immersion language camps, computer software and trips to Japan and Greece, so I should be able to do so with Zachary. Moreover, my attempts to go above and beyond the Post Oak curriculum at home in math and English have been extremely difficult and largely ineffective.

What would you consider? What questions would you ask?