Chapter One: Greg
The gurgling and giggling that only happens in a room full of five-year-olds fills the air. Bright colored posters of numbers and letters cover the walls. Little people mill around knee-high tables and chairs. There is a smell of glue and markers. Mrs. Ford calls out that it is time for “50-in-a-minute”. The milling about slows and the little people begin taking their seats around the little tables. Each one is given a sheet of math problems that are to be completed in one minute.
Little Greg finds his seat. He is restless. It is almost time for lunch.
“Children, when I tell you to start, you may answer the math problems on the paper,” Mrs. Ford explains as she walks among the knee-high tables handing papers to her little students. “I’ll turn on the timer,” she holds up her stop watch. “When I tell you to stop, put down your pencils and I will pick up your papers. Ready, begin!”
Some of the little people continue talking and have to be reminded to start. Greg begins writing the answers to his math problems. If he answers them all correctly in one minute, he can go on to the next, more difficult set of problems. Each time he passes to a higher “level” of problems he will get a sparkling sticker by his name on a chart. The chart is hung on the wall with the colorful posters. One or two little people have more sparkling stickers than anyone else. All the other little people see this. So does the teacher. These are the exceptional little people. Look at all the sparkling stickers! The majority of little people have about the same number of stickers as everyone else in the class. Greg and Amber have the fewest stickers. But even Amber has more than Greg.
When Greg entered Kindergarten, he was fast, smart and talented. He didn’t need a sticker to tell him that he was approved of or loved. There was no chart to tell him he was able to learn or not. That has all changed. Greg now finds himself on the chart with fewer sparkling stickers than anyone. I mean anyone. Keep in mind that the world of a Kindergartener is not the world of an adult. Home and Kindergarten are the whole world to him, all he knows. So Greg actually has fewer stickers than anyone else in the world. Can you begin to imagine what that means to little Greg?
After couple of weeks, what do you think happens in the pit of Greg’s stomach when “50-in-a-minute” is announced?
“OK kids; let’s see how far ahead of Greg you can get today! Greg, let’s see just how much slower you are than anyone in the whole wide world!”
Greg is also behind in his other subjects. Do you think “50-in-a-minute” could have anything to do with it? Could it be that Greg knows the answers to the math questions, but is a slow writer? Is it possible that he is just flustered by the timer? Is it possible that Greg actually believes that he really is slower than everyone else because that’s what the chart says? Who knows? No one has the time to find out. The teacher believes what’s on the chart. The students believe what’s on the chart. Most importantly, Greg believes what’s on the chart.
Does Greg’s teacher aim to label and humiliate little Greg day after day? Of course not. But she doesn’t pause to see that is exactly what she is doing. After a few weeks she will notice a trend and send some practice sheets home with Greg. Now he gets to take his humiliation home with him. No longer is he the smartest, fastest, most talented kid in the world, not even to his parents.
A couple of weeks roll by. Mrs. Ford knows that Greg is behind. But her hands are full with letters and numbers, runny noses and snacks. She will catch him up later. In the meantime Greg will be thoroughly convinced that he is the slowest kid in the world.
Day after day, month after month, year after year Greg is reminded daily what the chart says to him. Is it any surprise that he comes to believe it? Is it any surprise that teachers and staff eventually think that Greg just doesn’t seem to get it? Does it shock anyone that he is in remedial classes in every subject, just to help him keep up?
After six years of ‘50-in-a-minute” charts, young Greg changed from the little person that doesn’t get it, to a young man that really doesn’t care. Can you blame him? He has been told nearly one thousand times that he is slower than anyone. Nearly one thousand times his classmates and teachers have seen and believed the chart too. Now a sixth-grader, Greg influences the kids around him not to care either. It is at this point that I learned something amazing about him.
This is the year that I teach Music in Greg’s school. One morning, I waited at the back of the room to take his class to the Music Room. I had arrived a little early, so I watched the class do “50-in-a-minute”. Two or three students whizzed through the problems and slammed down their pencils, announcing to the class and the world that they were done. My eyes caught on Greg. He strained and struggled, wrote an answer, erased it, looked around as more pencils were slapped down, strained and struggled some more until the minute was finally up.
He sat with his head hanging. I could see real pain on his face. The kids lined up at the door to go to Music. Greg’s head still hung down as he took his place in the line. Until then, I had bought into what the teachers had told me: Greg didn’t care. If Greg didn’t care, then why the pain? I told the class to go ahead, I would catch up. I couldn’t wait to tell Greg’s teacher the good news. Greg really cares! Something could be done for him! It would have been easy to miss with all that his teacher had to keep up with. She would be excited at the prospect of helping him. I told her what I had seen; how great it must be for her that there was hope for him. Greg cared.
When I was done, she stood there and just looked at me. There was no expression, no surprise, no interest, nothing. After waiting an awkward moment or two, I turned and left the room. Why didn’t she respond? Didn’t she care? I knew her to be a dedicated teacher. What was going on? Was she at fault for Greg’s situation? Were his previous teachers? Maybe the program was at fault. Maybe his parents were at fault. The implications of a response were enormous. Maybe she had the good sense to realize that.
Consider the effects of this one program on Greg for over six years! How could he not be affected? Especially in those tender years, when Greg is told something over and over for a long enough time, the effect will be profound.
Were the intentions of the “50-in-a-minute” program good? Could those that created and implemented it known that it would actually harm Greg? Is there any public school where Greg would have been safe from “50-in-a-minute”? No. Every public school is loaded with programs just like it. Then where would Greg be safe from such programs? At home! Greg’s parents would have been able to recognize something was wrong way back when he was five years old. They could have made the needed adjustments and Greg would still be the fastest, smartest, most talented kid in the world. His future is questionable now because of what he believes about himself. How sad that his teacher didn’t have the time or the will to help Greg at that last moment.
Mom, are you willing to take the chance that your little one would go through the same experience as Greg? Do you dare give your little one over to programs and policies that stifle natural curiosity and smother self-esteem?
I intend to beat “50-in-a minute” to death. It is a wonderful example of what really happens in public schools. No matter how good the intentions are for such programs, they leave a mark on little people that they will carry all their lives. Your little one’s personality, character and self-esteem are at stake. And that’s not to mention his education! Isn’t it worth taking a square look at such programs before making the decision to give your little one over to the public school? There might not be a “50-in-a-minute” program in your community’s public school. But there are thousands of like programs having the same effect on kids in every public school in the country.
Sadly for Greg, it appeared that his parents believed the “50-in-a-minute” chart too. I know them. They are supportive, loving parents. They have a stable, unified family. They attend every event where Greg participates. They are at every parent-teacher conference. When they visit Greg’s classroom the “50-in-a-minute” chart is there for them to see too. Along with his classmates and his teacher, Greg’s parents believe the chart. Maybe there will yet be a teacher that that has the will to help Greg. Maybe his parents will come to believe their heart instead of a chart. But we both know that isn’t likely, don’t we?
Greg’s parents, like most of us, attended public school. They themselves saw the chart all of their formative years. They had no reason to question what it said to them. With that in mind, what reason would they have for questioning now? They engage themselves in every aspect of Greg’s education where they can. But how could they know what is happening to him? That is the tragedy. They, like most of us, are “chart children” themselves. Could you expect to do any better? You would have to spend as much time at the school as your little one to do better than Greg’s parents. If you’re going to do that, why send him at all?
No matter how devoted and committed you are as a parent, your little one would soon be spending more time at the Public School than he would with you. This fact alone should make you think twice about putting him there.
No matter how dedicated Greg’s teachers were – and most of them were very dedicated – they weren’t able to see or address Greg’s needs. More chilling is that Greg’s parents, like most devoted parents, actually reinforce what he learns about himself in the Public School. If you give your little one over to the Public School, you would never be able to get a clear understanding of what would happen to your little one in the short amount of time you would have with him.
Greg is not the only one harmed by “50-in-a-minute”. Take Linda. She is one of those exceptional little people with the most sparkling stickers by her name. What does “50-in-a-minute” do to her? It can be as crippling as it is for Greg. In the short term she basks in the glow of sparkling stickers. She has more than anyone. Remember what makes up the world of a five-year-old. She has more than anyone.
Linda has come to believe that in the entire world, she is the best at “50-in-a-minute”. The chart proves it every day. She doesn’t question it, her teacher doesn’t question it, nor do the little people in her class. Her parents are thrilled at her accomplishments. So what happens when someone passes her on the chart? What if one of the unexceptional gets more stickers? Is it possible that she will feel something like Greg does in the pit of her stomach? How tightly is Linda’s self-concept tied to the chart? She knows that when she gets home her parents will ask her how “50-in-a-minute” went. What will she tell them? When Linda no longer has more stickers than anyone in the world, what becomes the focus of her school day? Reading? Spelling? Get the picture? We saw what the effects of six years of the chart did to Greg. What will the nearly one thousand “50-in-a-minute” drills do to Linda after six years? It isn’t pretty. The program will help create a jealous, intolerant, disdainful disposition in a girl that was as sweet as any five-year-old could be. If she had been doing it at home, instead of the public school, her parents would have noticed and been able to adjust to help her.
Maybe your little one would be in the safe middle zone of the chart. The Public School System, intentionally or not, brings as many as possible into the middle group. There is less attention needed to keep the middle group passing their tests. The kids below the middle group need special help. That requires extra time and effort. The kids above the middle group need special attention so that they can continue to make progress. This requires extra time and effort. Any extra time and effort put into those kids means less time and effort put into the middle group where most of the little test takers are.
The little people in the middle of the chart also believe what it says about them. They might never realize that they are capable of so much more! What could they achieve if they and their teachers had not believed the chart? The public school is no place for your little one if you think that he has endless potential. No matter how devoted his teacher in the Public School would be, it would be in her best interest to keep your little one in the middle. Are you willing to consign your little one to believe that he is only mediocre? There is so much more that he could achieve! There is so much more that he could be!
Our oldest son, Jordan, would come home from first grade totally upset about “50-in-a-minute”. We didn’t know what the program was yet. But we did know his teacher. She wouldn’t do anything intentionally to make the kids miserable. We would console him and send him back to school the next day. “It will pass,” we told ourselves. “It’s just first grade. He needs to learn to adjust and get along.”
We didn’t stop to think that Jordan did not see first grade as we did. To us, first grade was, well, first grade. To Jordan, first grade was his world. Our world was filled with professions, clubs, community, politics and taxes. His world was the first grade. His world was as consuming and important to him as ours was to us. To him, “50-in-a-minute” was the same as tax day for us.
We didn’t want to raise a paranoid little person that got upset whenever things didn’t turn out the way he wanted. So we continued trying to help him. We tried to inspire and console him. After too long we realized that the situation was not getting any better. We needed to get involved and figure out this “50-in-a-minute” thing. His teacher was happy to explain the program and what it was intended to accomplish. She gave us some practice sheets to take home and told us not to worry. Jordan was doing just fine (are you thinking of Greg here?).
I remember that first night at the kitchen table. Cassi and I looked over the simple math problems smiling. Jordan knew this stuff. We were confident we could get to the bottom of Jordan’s trouble. We told him we would practice with him and help him do as well as he wanted.
“When I say ‘go’, you start, son.” The minute hand hit 12. “Go!”
I remember the little guy sitting there just staring at the problems. He had long before mastered this level of math. “Get going, your time is running out.” His head was bent down towards the paper. He wrote an answer, and then erased it. His chubby little hand gripped the pencil. He continued to write the answers to a few problems. The time was up. Tears welled up in his eyes. What was going on? Why couldn’t this bright little guy write the answers to problems that were second nature to him?
“What’s the matter?” I asked
“I just can’t do it,” the little voice trembled.
“Let’s try it another way, OK?”
“No. This is the way you are supposed to do it, Dad.”
“Can we try it a different way to help you do better?”
“But this the right way.”
“Alright, alright. Forget ‘50-in-a-minute’ for now. I just want you to answer some math questions for me, OK? Look the other way and I’ll ask you for some answers. Ready?” I began reading the problems from his practice sheet. His voice was low and shaky. As I continued, he became more confident in his answers. “Good. Now let’s go a little faster.” I gave him the problems as fast as he answered. Interestingly, he answered them all correctly in less than one minute. “Son, you just answered all the questions on this page correctly. That’s great! You do know the answers. Let’s try it again with you writing the answers down on your ‘50-in-a-minute’ page. I won’t time you.”
He sat there and stared at the paper.
“Go ahead, Jordan.”
He started to write an answer, and then erased it. He gripped his pencil tighter and tried again. I couldn’t understand what I was seeing. Why couldn’t he answer the questions?
“It’s alright. Let’s leave ‘50-in-a-minute’. Go play with your brother.”
Cassi and I lay awake that night discussing what we had seen. What was paralyzing Jordan? The next morning we asked him some questions.
“What’s your favorite part of first grade?”
“Recess and reading.”
“What part of first grade don’t you like?”
“What don’t you like about it?”
“I can’t do it.”
“What else don’t’ you like about it?”
“I can’t go fast enough to get any stickers.”
“Tell us about the stickers.”
“When you finish a ‘50-in-a-minute’ you get a sticker by your name. Everyone has more stickers than me.” His voice started to tremble. How could such a silly thing as stickers be affecting him so deeply? I was only beginning to realize how he saw first grade. We just didn’t know what to do to help him. All we could say was, “Sorry you’re sad. We work on ways to help you get some stickers. Just keep doing the best you can.”
Jordan was never top of the hill in “50-in-a-minute”. He could never write the answers as fast as he wanted. I don’t think we ever really convinced him that “50-in-a-minute” was about learning math, not sparkling stickers. He believed the chart. It’s likely that he still does to some degree. It is interesting that Jordan’s strongest subject is…Math.
From his first year in Public School our youngest, Jacob was able to write the answers to the “50-in-a-minute” exercise quickly. Sometimes he had more sparkling stickers than anyone else in the world. The danger to Jacob was as great as it was to Jordan. But it was more difficult to spot because we were so happy with his success. Was he smarter tor better than the other kids? No. Was his value based on sparkling stickers? Of course not. “Chart children” with the most sparkling stickers might be afraid when something truly challenges them. They might not be able to see their true potential if having the most stickers is the measure of their ability and worth. The chart puts a cap on potential. There is so much more your child will be capable of if his possibilities are not confined to a chart!
But there is no way to really understand the implications of the chart when you are involved in the program. Teachers can’t. Parents can’t. How could little people? When little people are being taught such fundamental lessons about themselves at such an early age, the effects won’t just go away. What fundamental lessons would your little one be learning about himself? Do you believe that being an involved, engaged parent would be enough to counter balance them?
You will see that if you give your little one over to be taught by public schools you won’t be allowed enough time with him to even find out the damage, much less undo it. Only now, years after freeing Jordan and Jacob do we begin to understand this.
There is no one, no professional, no institution that can teach your little one as you can. No matter how devoted the paid teacher is, she can never care for him as you can. No matter how organized she is, she can never spend the time your little one needs. No matter how qualified her certificate says she is she can never do as well at educating him as you can.
You might not believe that now. Maybe you have some chart issues of your own, making you think you are not qualified. As you continue to read, you will find more truths about the Public School. If you attended public schools they will have a familiar ring. These truths might be disturbing to you. But they will also be liberating and empowering. You want the best for your little one. You dare to believe that there might be something better. Isn’t that why you are reading this book?
Whether your little one would be a Greg, with the fewest stickers, a Linda, with most, or one in the middle, do you dare give up his formative years to the Public School? Remember that even if there is not a “50-in-a-minute” program in your community’s public school, there are hundreds of others that have the same effect.