When Education Reform Gets Personal: Confessions of a Policy-Wonk Father

Article excerpt

Over more than 20 years in the field of education--including two with Teach For America--I have helped promote state standards, the Common Core, the hiring of teachers with strong content knowledge, longer class periods for math and reading, and extra support for struggling students, to name a few. I have recently discovered, however, that what I believe as an education policy wonk is not always what I believe as a father. I am incredibly fortunate that my two young daughters are ready learners who attend a high-functioning school. That said, I make the following confessions:

As a policy wonk, I push for high academic expectations for all students. I know that American competitiveness requires excellence in subjects such as math and science that our schools do not teach very well. As a father, however, I find that what matters most to me is that my daughters are happy in school.

In Montgomery County, Maryland, where I live, academic expectations are extremely high. Our school district aims to teach math, for example, in a rigorous way. I appreciate this goal, but to date "increased rigor" has primarily meant that some students skip grade-level math classes and enroll in classes meant for older kids. Basic skills that are taught and reinforced in the grades being skipped are often given short shrift. In 2nd grade, my daughter brought home worksheets on probability before she had any real understanding of the concept, or even a strong foundation in simple division. Her frustration with probability, and consequently math, grew as we substituted times-table drills for play dates. Last year, to my horror, she said that she hated math. This year, which has included an increased focus on math facts and an inspiring teacher, math has become her favorite subject.

With my policy hat on, I know that a teacher's academic background is critical. As a father, however, I want a teacher who manages a calm, safe, and fun classroom, and who loves children. One of the best teachers my children have had is our regular babysitter, who speaks English as a second language and never graduated from high school.

Of course, there are some gems at our school (thank you, Ms. …