Thursday, April 7, 2011

Hmm . . . Good Question

You would think that after three-plus years of writing some 175,000 words about unschooling and conscious parenting that eventually, just maybe, I would develop the ability to avoid conversations in which people feel the need to question my sanity about how I raise my children. You would think. Most of the time, that is the case; I am able to calmly respond about the positives aspects of my choices and leave the questioner feeling heard and respected. But sometimes, every now and again, someone asks me a question that I have heard 63 times and I just cannot contain myself. A couple of days ago, I had a co-worker ask me a question that put her square in my sights.

The question itself is innocuous enough, and I don't think she meant any harm. She merely asked "At what point will you put your kids back in school?" Simple, right? Right. But like most questions, this one has both a short answer and a long answer. The short answer was "It is not my choice to have them in school or out of school, it is their choice; if they decide to go back, I will support them. That's how this works."

The long answer is here.
If schools ever figure these things out, they will be on the right track and maybe on their way to earning my support; whether that is before or after monkeys fly out of my butt is highly uncertain, but likely "after" based on the current trajectory.


1.) When they figure out just what it is that they want to be and need to do. Schools are caught in the trap of trying to be everything to every student and stakeholder, and that is simply not possible. There are too many people who want too many things from our schools, and our schools have neither the legal power nor the power that comes from quiet, obvious excellence to stand up and let people know what they can and cannot - or will and will not - do. Are they responsible to their local governments, the parents, the students, or No Child Left Behind? In truth, they are responsible to all of these and more - but because governments provide the major sources of funding for schools, governments have the loudest voices. Virtually every aspect of how a school is run has been derived from some level of governmental mandate - not from the ideas of students, the input of parents, or God forbid, the intellect and ability of actual educators. From the government. So the government, tragically distanced from the realities of the classroom or the dreams and goals of the modern student, makes the rules about what is taught and how. No wonder they're so jacked up.

2.) When they can figure out a way to keep my kids safe. Columbine, Santana, and other renowned and tragic school shootings are hard to comprehend. But in addition to these horrific ordeals, there are thousands of kids who are physically or emotionally abused in schools each day. Some kids are bullied, teased, and ignored by other kids. Some administrators, teachers and students fail to understand or appreciate the diversity and differences in looks, thoughts, feelings, culture, style, and status of other students. Some schools allow or encourage corporal punishment. And no school - no school - can keep any of these from happening at any time, to any student.

3.) When they treat all students equally. Across the United States, there are stark differences between school districts in terms of equal access. Some districts spend upwards of $10,000 or more per pupil each year, while some spend as little as $3,000 or less. Some schools have an average of one computer per every three students, while other have an average of one for every 100. Some schools have student:teacher ratios of 15:1, while others have ratios of 35:1. Take any measure you want - spending, computers, student:teacher ratios, guidance counselors, textbook and libraries, athletics, after-school programs - and you will see amazing differences between regions, states, districts, and sometimes schools. While there are many reasons why this situation exists, they all ultimately fail to excuse the simple fact that not all of our children have equal opportunity to the same level of educational experience in this country - not by a long shot. If you don't believe me, take a half day and volunteer at an inner city school, or a rural one, or one that serves an immigrant or Native American population. Then volunteer at your local suburban school. No contest. Other than our judicial system, education may be the most inherently discriminatory system that we have, starting the wheels in motion for a nation of haves and have nots.

4.) When schools run well. Our schools are, in the main, paragons of how not to run an organization. We have teachers who are paid abysmal wages, ill prepared for the realities of teaching and often left to their own devices to figure out their role and how to play it. We offer them little in terms of practical help or support along the way, and then we shake our heads and blame them if they get apathetic and start going through the motions. Then, just when their performance starts to go downhill, we give them tenure, making it nearly impossible to discipline them in any way. We have administrators who are unaccountable for anything other than statistical improvements which can be easily manipulated, trained in old ways under a system that mandates that they come out of the teacher ranks, eliminating the possibility of bring in new ideas and methods from other professions. We grant concessions to unions while eliminating jobs, and me miss budget numbers by millions of dollars while watching test scores and student engagement levels drop through the floor. From the financing model to the union relationships to budgetary decisions to simply poor management and control, schools simply do not run well. They may run efficiently as stand alone organizations, but in terms of fulfilling their primary function - the education of our students - they fail.

5.) When they begin to focus on learning. Schools are notorious for hanging on to antiquated ideas about how kids learn, and then implementing arcane series of rules in an attempt to gain some control over student behavior when the students try to express themselves in more authentic ways. We ban Silly Bandz, use hall passes, enact dress codes, specify acceptable hair styles, and try a host of other regulations to force our children to conform so we can treat everyone equally - and then we deny that equality by trying to teach everyone the exact same thing in the exact same way. Simply put, students learn best when their minds and hearts are engaged in their learning, when they are comfortable and supported when expressing new thoughts, when their learning styles and preferences are accounted for, and when their goals an dreams are encouraged. In short, students learn best when they are allowed to be who they are, individuals with their own distinct needs and wants and preferences. To force them to conform denies this most fundamental aspect to learning, and therefore makes it virtually impossible for schools to achieve their stated goal of educating anyone.

6. When the curriculum matches reality. History, Math, Science, Civics, English - these have been the hallmarks of our public education curriculum for years. In so many ways, they are so out of date. This is a world of interconnectedness, of information, of relationships, of computers, and a thousand other things that make our current curriculum out-of-date. But we cannot seem to let go of this notion that kids need to learn these things, regardless of all evidence to the contrary that shows that people learn best what they can apply and what they enjoy applying. In the face of such a reality, there is no such thing as an effective "one size fits all" curriculum. All it does is alienate the very people it is trying to engage, limiting their time and ability to explore their interests and come up with new ways of approaching our problems. It also limits student choice, which limits student spirit, which limits student interest. That's not education, it's indoctrination.

7. When other parents care as much about their children as I care about mine. I believe that parents share in the failure of schools, too. When parents do not respect their children, the children may not respect themselves or others. When parents do not engage with their children, the children may not engage in school. When parents do not support and coach their children, the children may stop dreaming. And when parents don't listen to their children, the children may stop listening or speaking. I'm not talking about educational control, helping with projects and reviewing homework. Anyone can do that. I'm talking about having a positive, supportive relationship with your children. Why would I want my kids to go to a school with children whose parents are uninvolved in their lives? I wouldn't.

My short answer will always be my answer; if my kids decide they want to go, then they will have my support. But I will also share my thoughts about what schools are and what they are not, as well as my hopes that they someday "get it" and begin fulfilling their potential.

5 comments:

  1. The problem with the question is that it assumes that kids can be put somewhere, like a book on a shelf.

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  2. Well said, Jeff! I have a lot of people encouraging me to become a teacher and I struggle to explain to them why I don't think I could do that. I don't know where I will end up, but if I ever wind up working in a school I pray I will never have to tell a student to put their math (that they are enjoying) away to work on their reading (which that hate). I've seen stuff like that so much. It's completely counter productive to the ultimate goal of education because it snuffs out the love of learning and replaces it with a blatant hatred of work.

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  3. What a horrible question..."At what point will you put your kids back in school?"....as if it is inevitable and obvious that you WILL. At least "would you be willing to put your kids back in school?" isn't assuming.

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  4. I actually have no problem with the phrase "put your kids in school" - I think it's simply a holdover figure of speech that is well-known and handy to use. But I do agree that, even for people who are fairly supportive of non-school choices, there is often an assumption that it is merely a fad or a phase and eventually we'll all come to our senses and embrace school again. I'm not surprised or offended by that, but it is certainly interesting!

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  5. I read another unschooler blog this week that likened that question to asking someone "So, when will you and your spouse get divorced?" Um.

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