Monday, April 5, 2010

April 1st Times article on The Blue School

Last week, an April 1st front page New York Times article showcased an alternative elementary school in Manhattan's East Village that now requires an intelligence test (the E.R.B.) as part of the application test, charges $28,000 tuition for kindergarten, and has six families applying for each available slot in the school's preschool.  The school, reports the Times, is led by "the founders and spouses of the Blue Man Group, an alternative theater troupe" who

were attracted to the Reggio Emilia philosophy of learning, which integrates what children want to learn with what teachers and parents want to impart. To that end, [the school] has two “provocateurs” on the staff whose job is to inspire different “threads of learning,” planting ideas and building areas of study around the ones that take.
Tuition and intelligence testing aside, the school, reports the Times
has remained true to its progressive roots, with “imagination stations” and “glow time.” Children help direct the curriculum, and social and emotional skills are given equal weight to reading and math.
After a teaching candidate read “The Great Kapok Tree” to a class of first graders, they took interest in the rainforest. A provocateur built the classroom into a rainforest, replete with a kapok tree whose (plastic) leaves cover the ceiling. The children have studied the animals that live in the rainforest and are now exploring whether the Littles, characters from another story they read, might live in the kapok tree. They write letters to the Littles and even create math tests for them.

Once a week, 4-, 5- and 6-year-olds mix together at imagination stations grouped around subjects like language arts, music and movement. On a recent morning, one group was stationed in the hallway singing “Frère Jacques” in Mandarin; in a classroom, another group was imitating the sound of rain on a giant drum (it was pouring outside). When the children got overly excited by their Blue Man Group-style drumming, they calmed down with breathing exercises.

Another Blue Man inspiration is glow time, when natural or incandescent light is replaced by black light and children transform their environment using props like shaving cream, play dough or glow-in-the-dark blocks to study things like light, shadow and outer space.
Provocateurs and glow stations. Letters and math tests for The Littles. Anyone who spends any time visiting or reading about elite and model elementary schools should be forgiven for mistaking this article for an April Fool's day parody of current practices. 

But what's really striking is how feebly it justifies the new admissions criteria, in contrast to its justification for the tuition hikes (the burdens of Manhattan real estate). The justification for requiring an intelligence as part of admissions?
The founders said that since many of their applicants were also trying to get into schools that required the E.R.B. test, it did not seem like too much of an imposition, because the test result can be sent to multiple schools. 
The school, like many others, says that it does not require a minimum E.R.B. score, and that the test is one of many tools used in admissions.
“It gives us one piece of the child, which is valuable,” said Renee Rolleri, another founder, “and we can better respond to their academic strengths and areas to work on.”
Hmm... Isn't intelligence testing counter to progressive education in general, and The Blue School's philosophy in particular? Ms. Rolleri's implication, of course, is that the E.R.B. scores are being used to inform teaching, not to screen applicants.  But if this were really the case, wouldn't she say so more explicitly? And wouldn't the test then be administered once students start school, rather than the year before?

The other striking thing is how eager families are to apply to this school, and how unconcerned they are about its current lack of track record:
Despite the fact that it has no permanent real estate, limited financial aid and no track record of placing students in top schools, six families applied for each available slot in next fall’s preschool class.

Many parents are clearly unfazed by the school’s requirements and absence of a track record.

“This school was our top choice; we wanted to be a part of it,” said Marah Anderson, whose son Finnegan is in kindergarten. Ms. Anderson said that her son was accepted to two other schools, but that she preferred the holistic approach of the Blue School. “There is a lot of research that supports this approach to learning,” she said. “It’s just not as widely implemented.”
But perhaps these two striking facts are related.  There isn't a lot of research that supports this approach to teaching, but there is a lot of research showing that standardized test scores predict academic success.  If the school is going to avoid the most effective teaching strategies, then, to attract parents like Ms. Anderson, it had better make sure the students it admits are likely to succeed academically in spite of this.


michaeledlavitch said...

I am a Middle School Math Teacher and I created a new free online math games site called

Niels Henrik Abel said...

Yikes!! Shades of "Auntie Mame"....

Mrs. C said...

Yes! They can play all day with glo-sticks and send the math home in the backpacks!!

It's so clever, and they get tons of money per student each year! Even the mob couldn't think of a racket this clever.

Beth said...

OK, I'll take a break from my break for this one. The article wasn't very clear, but to the best of my understanding the Blue School ENDS with first grade. I for one would be pleased to give my kids a happy play environment through first grade. They can catch up academically later, like second grade.

Finland, which scores very high on standardized tests, doesn't start academics until age 7.

Katharine Beals said...

Beth--glad you're back!

Looks to me like The Blue School currently goes through the end of 2nd grade:

My impression is that they are adding year after year as they go (they're only 4 years old, with a preschool).

Their core curriculum certainly includes goals that sound as if they're intended for older children, e.g.:

"Advanced studies in media literacy will provide older children with a critical understanding of how advertising and public relations shape cultural trends, and teach them to identify bias (and objectivity) in news stories. In addition, teachers will help children analyze the sub-textual messages encoded in forms of popular entertainment."

I'm all for delaying all that penmanship and writing until well after kindergarten, and would also prefer that homework be delayed until at least 4th grade. But I think that children can benefit sustantially by learning mathematical concepts starting in preschool and kindergarten (as they do in Montessori programs), and by starting phonics by the beginning of 1st grade at the latest.

I'm all for providing my kids as much of a fun learning environment as possible; but many of the kids I've written about would be quite turned off by the Blue School's classrooms, at least as they are characterized by the Times.

ChemProf said...

This doesn't bug me, because it is private. If parents want to spend their own money on this nonsense, then fine. My problem starts when they start using my tax dollars to duplicate it (since most elementary teachers I know would be charmed by this article) or when I am expected to send my kid to the public schools that follow this kind of philosophy.