Public Education

I’ve been thinking quite a bit about public education lately. I’m not getting ready to “send my kids to school” or anything (as if that were actually my choice!), but there have been some thoughts jumbling around in my head about this topic for a while, and I guess it’s time to get them out of my head and into cyberspace (does anyone even use that term anymore?)

It seems to me that a very healthy proportion of unschoolers have problems with public schools. I completely understand how and why people get frustrated with public schools; I taught for a short time at an inner-city charter school for at-risk teens, and it offered me an amazing glimpse at just how our school system is contructed and run in ways that make it harder for kids to learn. Let’s leave “No Child Left Behind” alone for a bit, and just focus on how a school district is actually run. A district receives the majority of it’s funding from the federal and state governments, as well as some from whatever local taxation system exists. Of course, this money comes with conditions: pupil performance must be at a certain level, the school district has to comply with often arcane state laws, etc. One of the ways that the States try to hold schools accountable for actually educating students is through a measure called “Average Daily Attendance”, or ADA. ADA seems like a harmless acronym, I suppose; attendance is, after all, pretty important. But ADA actually works like this: a school with 1,000 students is “promised” say $5,000 per student, payable at the end of the school year. The State stipulates that in order to receive this money, the student must attain a certain number of credits (say 24, or 8 classes) and attend school a certain number of days (say 180 out of 210). For students who achieve, no worries – the district gets the cash it needs to stay in business. But let’s say that little Johnny is allowed to miss 30 days of school for the school to get the cash, and midway through the year he hits that 30-absence mark – the school will not receive the cash. They now have to decide if they want to continue to provide Johnny with an education if they’re not going to get reimbursed for it. Many, many schools drop these kids like a hot potato, simply for financial reasons.

Of course, the districts will rarely blame themselves at all.
Certainly, there are hundreds of factors that contribute to poor public schools, ranging from economic conditions of the local families and general parental involvement to the fact that inner cities have seen a steady decline in the local tax base that funds significant portions of their school operating budgets. But the schools themselves are run very poorly: teachers rewarded for surviving instead of succeeding, poor teacher mentorship programs, lack of curriculum restructure to reflect the fact that most learning occurs outside the classroom, poor leadership from districts and principals, and unhelpful teacher and employee unions that resist accountability. Add to that a lack of a clear goal for why we even have a public education system (after all, mandatory public education is a relatively new construct) – is it for the good of the student, the good of the country, or the convenience of the parent? And then throw a diverse student and teacher mix on top of all that. It is no wonder that our schools are suffering.

All of that said, I am not among the unschooling parents who reject public schools. A while back, I blogged about our choice to unschool because of what unschooling is (free, flexible, provocative, etc), as opposed to a rejection of public schools or the American educational system in general. To be sure, public schools are struggling and are not suitable for everyone; but then, neither is unschooling, I think. I desperately want our public school system to be better and to succeed in helping children fulfill their dreams, precisely because public schools are really the only educational alternative for so many children. And there are thousands of people dedicating Herculean efforts to turn the ship around.

You may have noticed a post on the Familyrun.ning site last week from a man in San Diego who is working with a local Democratic Club on a position paper for the Obama Administration’s Education Task Force. He reached out to me directly for some thoughts on how we could best add unschooling to the discussion for the government to help work on. Here was my reply:

To me, unschooling is not a viable educational alternative for all families. As you well know, there are so many variables that contribute to a child's educational experience. The efficacy of public schools, or the efficacy of any other educational choice (private schools, tutors, homeschooling, and unschooling, to name just a few) is but one piece of the pie that helps a child grow. Of greater import, in my view, is what happens outside the educational system. There are so many other inputs - the interaction with the parents and the rest of society, financial conditions, the presence of and needs of other siblings, the degree to which a child has the opportunity to explore and develop a love of learning, the role that passions and desires play in how a child chooses to learn. With so many variables, each child's situation is different, to say the least.

When I advise new unschooling parents, I start by asking them if they are truly ready for the most substantial change of their lives - ready for financial sacrifice, ready to let go of their personal baggage, ready to let go of the element of parental control, etc. If they can do that, I then ask them to read and learn about unschooling. Like anything else in life, unschooling is not a constant upward trajectory - there are bumps and missteps along the way. It is hard, it causes you to question yourself, and it is certainly outside the norm.

For all of those reasons, I am always hesitant to discuss unschooling as merely an educational choice.. For me, it is a lifestyle choice with a strong educational component. As such, and because of all of the variables, I think it is best if parents stumble into unschooling as a natural outcome of a level of introspection that leads them to want to help their children experience the world differently - not as something a parent seeks as an alternative to public schools. Many, many people have attended public schools their entire lives and have ended up as creative, responsible, driven, and excited adults who contribute immeasurably to those around them.

On broader terms, I'm not sure that the government really belongs in the discussion on unschooling any more than it has been thus far. If I had my preferences, I'd rather the government concentrate on providing the attention, talent and resources needed to help turn our public schools into the cathedrals that they should be, and the cathedrals that our students deserve. A public school should be a place of refuge and wonder for children who, for a variety of reasons, have been unable to identify their dreams or fulfill their dreams through education. The government should be in the business of providing the best possible circumstances for the largest amount of people.

A bit preachy of course, but then that’s my way, I suppose.

I know that a part of what our schools provide, like diplomas and degrees, is perhaps outdated in a modern world where boundaries of work, hope, and dreams are breaking by the day. It all depends on what the children want to do in their lives. I have one son who wants to learn martial arts and open his own dojo - no diploma or degree required. I have another who wants to build the first flying car - depending on how he chooses to pursue that, he may need to go to college and pursue an engineering degree. Of course, my dojo son could pursue a degree if he chooses, regardless of his career; and my flying car son could choose not to pursue a degree and gain the knowledge that he'll need in a different way. The point is that a HS diploma is not, for the most part, a requirement for a job or for college these days. I think most people pursue diploma and degree as a matter of course, in the hopes that they may eventually be able to turn their education into some sort of career; in our home, we hope our children will find their passions and then decide whether or not college will help them achieve their dreams.


  1. So well put Jeff. I too wondered what the unschooling world could offer to that education task force discussion. Apples and oranges. If I really thought anything was going to change DRASTICALLY in the world of public education I could see myself getting involved. But at this point it just seems like more (pointless) business as usual.

  2. This is a timely post. After reading some of the recent posts from new parents at various lists, I start to question whether we're doing any favors by talking about and passionately sharing unschooling. I honestly think that parents need to be very bright, intelligent and have a huge amount of emotional maturity if unschooling is going to work well. People seeking an alternative to school may not be ready for all that successful unschooling entails.

    It really isn't an educational alternative. It's a lifestyle. A lifestyle that works best when certain factors come into play. People can work around a LOT of challenges if they're curious and creative. But I worry when we're trying to help families who don't even have a healthy home life. School and a happy family are much better than unschooling with unhealthy relationships.

    Anyway, great essay.