Comparing Education Systems in DC

By Chantelle Tait

            This trip was eye-opening, exhilarating, and heartbreaking, all at the same time. My group of 11 stayed in a hostel in North West DC and drove another neighborhood in another part of DC every morning. The neighborhood we were in is one of the most dangerous in America, and driving through it was a sobering experience for me.

            During the first few days of the week we worked in a KIPP-style charter preschool. I worked in two classrooms: one kindergarten classroom and a prekindergarten classroom. The time I spent in both classrooms was radically different from what my elementary school days were like. Every room had a teacher to lead the class and an aide to help the teacher. All teachers shared a very specific vocabulary such as “catch a bubble” for “be quiet,” “friend” for “classmate/kid/sweetie,” “spoons in our bowls” for “hands in our laps,” “capiche” for “okay,” among others. The teachers told us that this was to foster a sense of continuity for the kids as they went through the grades. However, classes in this school were highly regimented and kids were much disciplined. Kids could be “off the team” (their names were taken off a certain display) for bad behavior and any slight disrespect or failure to obey the teacher was dealt with briskly. Teachers’ days started at 7:30am and ended at 4:30pm, which made these variables tough to deal with for such a long time.

            As you can imagine, this routine was quite new to everyone in our group. At first we questioned the developmental appropriateness of these techniques (after all, aren’t 3 to 5 year-olds too young to adhere to such a regimented system?).  However, I personally came to the conclusion that for many of these kids the extreme discipline was necessary.

            This structured system was contrasted sharply by what we found in the other school we visited: a public STEM-style school that no longer has funds for its STEM programming. Each room had two teachers, but their roles were more clearly differentiated than those in the KIPP school. In KIPP, the point had been to have both teachers be able to carry half the weight by the end of the year. By comparison, the teacher carried most of the weight in the STEM school, and in some classrooms it seemed like the aide did anything at all. In my classroom, which was a mixed preschool and prekindergarten class, the aide was not very helpful. It was frustrating to watch. The atmosphere at the second school was much less regimented. Students were still reprimanded for doing something that was blatantly wrong, but days were shorter and the rules seemed more flexible. Some teachers incorporated vocabulary such as the one we heard in the KIPP school, but it wasn’t used as universally between them. This setting seemed more relaxed and more refreshing after the KIPP school’s strict structure. But, our group wondered if this system set up these kids to fail later on, even though it seemed more appropriate.

Nevertheless, both education systems implemented in each of the schools did have similarities. Both schools tried to teach the children through play and activities. The STEM school incorporated a Tools of the Mind curriculum, which revolved around imaginative play and learning situations by recreating them. The KIPP school involved centers where children performed different activities, like writing letters or playing with Play-Doh. In this way, both systems took advantage of children’s inquisitive natures. Both schools also required students to take standardized tests starting in kindergarten. I couldn’t believe that they start that young now!

            Overall, this trip was a fantastic experience. I was able to see things in action that I had previously only read about in my Sharpe freshman seminar. I was able to gain new perspectives and ideas on education reform. I made some great friends and had a blast navigating DC with fellow college students! This trip was a highlight of my freshman year.