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Too many celebrations, not enough education

With the season of celebration over and many of our school-age children of various grade levels officially "promoted," it seems like a good time to sit back and ask: Why?

Specifically, why are promotion ceremonies at the arbitrary grades of pre-kindergarten, kindergarten, fifth grade and eighth grade even necessary? And after a simple review of the recently released MSA scores, it appears even more apt that a major shift in our educational culture occurs for there is little to celebrate.

As parents, we all enjoy reveling in our children's accomplishments, whether academic or sports-related; however, most of those accolades are earned and deserving of recognition. Yet, at the end of every academic year, our financially strapped (and academically distressed) city schools spend an inordinate amount of money and time planning and organizing ceremonies to acknowledge the simple transitions in K-12 education as though major milestones have been achieved. (Clearly, high school graduations are not up for debate here, although the over-the-top manner in which some of our students earn their diplomas could certainly fill a column as well).

Most of these transitions confirm that our children are entitled to move on to the next grade, which often entails a short walk to a classroom nearby, another hallway, or even another floor in the same building. And in the instance of the transition from one school to another, schools often shower students with a ceremony, as well as formal dances (i.e. "junior proms") and class trips to fun locations. But again, what has really been accomplished?

A promotion symbolizes a "job well done" or an achievement worthy of recognition, yet we find ourselves acknowledging every minute occasion in school. These transitions are not cause for celebration and strokes to fragile self-esteems; if anything, they are a call for more concerted support by teachers and parents to encourage our children to strive to and excel at the next level — and eventually earn the accolades of completing a "real" milestone, known as a high school diploma. At no point during these earlier transition phases, like eighth grade, do our children have monumental decisions to make (will it be more school, the workforce or the military?). No, instead their only viable option is continuing to ninth grade. And that requires a ceremony?

Parents, relatives and the like find themselves enthralled with these celebrations as well. Promotion ceremonies have become ways in which family members proudly acknowledge the accomplishments of their children, grandchildren and others, albeit prematurely. The fanfare of balloons, teddy bears, limousine rides and expensive outfits for the day allows parents to honor their children, but to an unfortunate extreme. And it all comes at a cost, especially for those parents without financial means but also for those of us who understand the considerable struggle in the school system to produce high-achieving, college- or work-ready citizens of Baltimore.

Instead, why not host a modest awards program that acknowledges yearly accomplishments for the entire school, perhaps separated by elementary and middle school? Such an event would minimize the excessive attention given to arbitrary grade transitions by shifting the focus to all student accolades and not just those being "promoted." At the same time, parents would still be able to publicly recognize their children. School administration and parent groups such as the PTA could formulate a committee of sorts, including all stakeholders, to coordinate the yearly event. And with greater parent participation, events such as these would take schedules and financial commitments into consideration, while also minimizing the effect on instruction time.

Last week's announcement of our citywide MSA scores confirms that more instruction time, not less, is needed for all of our children. And limiting the weeks of planning, rehearsing, celebrating and then "promoting" our children might prove to be one area where we can help shift our educational culture to the business of educating, and not prematurely celebrating.

Kimberly R. Moffitt, a Baltimore resident, is assistant professor of American Studies at UMBC and a founder of the Baltimore Collegiate School for Boys, a charter school due to open in 2014. Her email is krmoffitt@gmail.com.

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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