Those Pesky School Districts

So, I'm sitting here in the lobby of the Red Lion at the Quay in Vancouver, WA, enjoying the amazing energy as the Life is Good Unschooling Conference gets underway. I've been here for 24 hours, and I am already overloaded with love, hugs, fun, engaging conversation, and the energy from the many inspirational relationships I see around me. These conferences are amazing; every time I go to one I bask in the love and respect and connections that I see, and I become convinced that the decision to unschool was the best decision I have ever made. Why? Because unschooling is about listening, and supporting, and understanding, and embracing, and letting go, and taking an active role in the life of your child. Many parents try to do this, not just unschoolers; but I think that families that have been unschooling for a while have a deeper understanding of these principles than other parents do.

My reasons for saying this are fairly simple. Most parents, even the ones who are connected with their children and respectful of their needs and wants, still need to exercise a measure of control over the children if they go to public school. Even if they homeschool, with a less rigid schedule and a more student-centered approach to education, there is still a control of curriculum, and pace, and achievement that, in my mind, is still beholden to an outdated educational philosophy with several serious flaws.

I could easily turn my back on public education, and since we live completely outside the system I suppose I already have in some respects. I do have high hopes for serious reform in our American Education System, for a variety of reasons. But there is ample evidence to suggest that this system doesn't even want to help itself.

First, schools are operating under a few basic fallacies which have been accepted as "fact" by the fast majority of Americans, and therefore by a majority of our institutions, including our governments:

Fact One: It is the responsibility of our government to educate American children.
Fact Two: In order to learn, people must be taught.
Fact Three: The government knows what subjects children need to learn.
Fact Four: All students of a similar age learn the same way and at the same pace.
Fact Five: In order for students to learn, they must all behave in ways that are conducive to learning; in other words, they must sit still, keep quiet, and respect their teachers.
Fact Six: The best place for children to learn is in school.
Fact Seven: School is the best place to prepare kids for the real world.

I could spend the rest of my life writing this list, but let's stop there. When viewed in a positive light, what this schema suggests is simply that it is important for our children to learn and be ready for the real world. I agree with that premise wholeheartedly; where I differ significantly is in the best way to help our children along this path.

A school is charged with attempting to "educate" hundreds of students to essentially the same level of competence in numerous arcane subjects. To do so while attempting to ensure that children "learn" is a near impossibility, unless the system is set up with rigid controls to cycle through the most people possible - which means that the entire system is set up to deliver to the least common denominator with the least amount of disruption. To combat this and reach maximum efficiency, a school district will resort to virtually any means possible to ensure that students sit still, pay attention, and "learn." Take this recent situation, for example; several states have banned the wearing of Silly Bandz Bracelets in their schools, because of the "distraction" it presents, which limits learning:

"Students fiddle with them during class and arrange swaps — trading, say, a bracelet with a mermaid for one with a dragon — when they should be concentrating on schoolwork, teachers say. Sometimes a trade goes bad — kids get buyer's remorse too — and hard feelings, maybe even scuffles, ensue."

Here's the main problem. When a school district sees this, they perceive it as a lack of conformity to the controls they need to set up so they can educate to the lowest common denominator; when I see it, I see a school district attempting to limit natural learning, in which inquisitive and engaged children are using items from the real world to interact with each other, learning throughout the process.

I have been patient with this kind of bullshit for a long time, and have resisted the temptation to throw stones at our education system. But this one really strikes a chord with me because it demonstrates the sad fact that the system is just that - a SYSTEM that must control in order to "achieve" - and not an institution which takes learning seriously. Don't believe me? Let’s 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.

Are those reasons, or excuses? I think they are excuses. In the Silly Bandz example, why not use this as an opportunity to talk about the science behind Silly Bandz, or the concept of a barter system, or one of the hundreds of other avenues that such a discussion could take? Why allow the default reaction to be one of control and adherence to a system? Instead of fulfilling their primary mission - "it is important for our children to learn and be ready for the real world" - they choose to fulfill the negative aspects of their own myths. In the process, they turn their backs on the very people - creative, motivated, driven, learning-focused - who could help them the most. I hope that they start to understand that before it's too late.


  1. Good one, Jeff. I agree -- the ban on Silly Bandz is, well, silly, and those schools are missing lots of good learning opportunities. My social-studies-teacher mind is reeling with all the potential connections!

    I have only 10.5 school days left, btw!

    See you later today,

  2. If teachers would learn and watch from their students, what excites and interests them and then RUN with that excitement, schools wouldn't be nearly the hell that they are for most kids. Seems like a big "duh" to me...but apparently they are so dulled by the system they can't see excitement and interest as a launching pad.

  3. Even if teachers WERE to see the potential in such things as Silly Bandz, could they realistically implement ideas in the classroom to support that potential? I think the answer is probably not.

    Aren't they supposedly filled to the gills with other things, like standardized testing regimens?

  4. If they made bracelets with all the trivia about the elements and kid knew by looking at the chart whether they had that one (as they know Pokemon) that might be fun. Animal bracelets, with species, genus, family...

    I think this is an error: -=-after all, mandatory public education is a relatively new construct-=-

    What's newer than that is the replacement of "education" in the phrase "compulsory education" with "attendance." When some schools were sued for high school grads not knowing how to read or do math, some (possibly all) laws were quietly rephrased to "compulsory attendance." Kids have to be there or a law is broken. If they're not educated, the schools haven't broken a law.

  5. have you forwarded this to the president? please do.

  6. You already had me at fact two!
    Now seriously, stop it, because people are going to become suspicious at you being in every Sunday Surf.

  7. Thanks so much for writing this - I just posted the article on FB but I was way too lazy to write about how extremely disturbed I was by the bracelet ban. Seriously, I was sickened, even though I shouldn't be surprised!!

  8. Wonderful post. I didn't even know what the bracelets were until we heard about that ban. You make some great points here.

  9. My child went to one year of public school before we started life learning. I was gobsmacked at the attendance policies and how if you had your kid out of school for an outing the school would be all up in your business. For a while I thought this was a safety issue - you know, the school working with families to make sure we knew where kids were. But upon seeing the form letters sent home and the truancy/court cases etc. I began to see something else was happening. I think Jeff and Sandra have it nailed, and it's a pretty sad thing.

    Thanks for this post - it's a great one.

  10. i had never heard of silly bandz, they look great!! i want some...