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Maybe It’s a Problem with the Public School System

Reading LettersLast February I read a newspaper article about the Utah public school system by Lois Collins that continues to trouble me. A couple of her statements just leapt off the page and smacked me upside the head.

Too often, we’re willing to hand over the teaching of our children to complete strangers. And we believe that the best thing to do is let others decide what real education should be.

You Are the Boss of Them

I am not a teacher, so I have stayed mostly quiet, resisting the temptation to tell those educating my children how to do their jobs.

Though Collins is a parent of school children, she somehow thinks she isn’t “qualified” to analyze the education her children are receiving. In order to be a “good” public school parent, she needs to shut up and stay in her proper place.

When she was four, my oldest daughter, Jessica, begged me to teach her to read. I refused — because the teachers in our district did not like parents to “interfere.” They had their “expert” methods and they knew best. Parents just messed things up.

I already knew I was going to “pre-teach” math to my children. My father was a math professor. My sister received a master’s degree in math education and I typeset her thesis when Jessica was just a baby. It was titled Scientists, schoolteachers, and the two cultures of mathematics and did original research showing that scientists (those who use math) and schoolteachers (those who teach math) see math entirely differently. My own research showed that statistically most people who major in education, do so to avoid upper math.

So, yea, I already decided I was going to pre-teach math to my kids — even if it made the teachers crazy — so they wouldn’t be ruined by the “math is magic” notion pushed by teachers who almost universally don’t like math, don’t understand math, and have no idea how to do math. I was willing to risk the wrath of the powers that be, to make sure that my kids actually understood math.

But reading was a different story. I was convinced I should leave reading to the “experts.” Until about two months before kindergarten, anyway. Jessica wore me down and finally I purchased the only program I’d ever heard of, Hooked on Phonics.

Now I’ll be the first to tell you that I’m not in love with Hooked on Phonics. I am now using it with my sixth child and it’s painful. The minute we are done, I plan to have a full-blown, joyful celebration which will include throwing the entire set into the fire pit and dancing around in circles. (I kid you not.)

But it works.

It works so well, in fact, that Jessica started writing little books in kindergarten. Books that were so age-atypical that the her teacher carefully wrapped them up to send them home. It worked so well, that by first grade the teachers sent her to read aloud to the kindergarteners, while her classmates learned to read. It worked so well that in second grade, she read 256 books. And I’m talking books like (the unabridged) Little Women.

When I was asked by the whole language teachers how she learned to read so well, I obfuscated. Generally I muttered something about how she was really motivated and loved to read, blah, blah, blah. I didn’t want to debate the teachers. I didn’t want to get them mad at me — leaving Jessica as collateral damage. I figured that soon all the kids would be reading and how she got where she was would no longer be an issue. I just needed to bide my time. (Is it just me, or does that phrase always remind you of the Wicked Witch of the West?)

In hindsight, however, this was the same wrong-headed approach Collins advocates above. She (and I) were all too willing to abdicate our parental responsibility to educate our children, to just about anyone who was willing to do it for us. And we knew that zipping our lips about our concerns was the right thing to do.

Seriously? You have money garnished from your wages in exchange for involuntary support of the public schools that teach your children.The teachers work for you! You hire them . Then you come to think that you can’t speak up about the teaching that is offered? When did we get so backasswards?

It is imperative that parents step up and speak up. Parents are the experts on their own children.

Learning Should Be Fun

…[an] elective is like oxygen to [a] drowning soul.

Collins sees academic work as the “drowning” of school students. The saving lifeguard? Electives.

In order to save money in these difficult economic times, legislators and others are finally thinking outside the box. Regularly they float new ideas for reaction. Recently one state legislator suggested cutting 12th grade. Another proposed removing kindergarten. Of course, both met with wild resistance — based mostly on the inconvenience to parents.

Another proposal was to dump elective courses and focus resources on core academic subjects that far too many kids are failing. Collins thinks kids will die without the “light” subjects.

Do I hate electives? No. As homeschoolers, we see school as a resource to be used when it provides a quality educational opportunity for the particular child. So far, that has meant that our kids do core academics at home and “fun stuff” at school.

When we moved from our Eagle Mountain home, Belinda and Alana (then senior and sophomore) decided to petition the school district to attend a high school other than the assigned school. Last year they attended Timpanogos High School part time. Alana continues there this year and will next as well. They have taken classes they were interested in, that had great teachers, good materials, and coursework that furthered their personal goals. We’ve met with cooperation from the administration and only a few problems. (Our oldest daughter, Jessica, also took classes at a local high school.)

During their high school years, they have taken classes such as: ceramics; a cappella (and other choirs); drama; musical theater; debate; welding; musical theater; dance; peer leaders; foods; drama; ballroom dance team; drafting; art, architecture, etc. With the exception of one semester of English (straight A’s, bored out of her mind (“Mom, I’m 14! Why do we have to spend three week learning prepositions! I’ve known this since fifth grade!”)) all the courses we have taken at the schools have been electives.

One more thing. My last two years in public high school included the following classes: orchestra; a cappella choir; chamber singers; ballroom dance team. I was barely able to fit my academic studies around my tax-supported fun time.

I give you this background to let you know that I don’t have some subconscious distaste for the arts or other electives. We not only love them, but think they are essential elements to quality of life. I can’t imagine what my life would be without them.

But does that mean that you should pay for my kids to take choir and drama and dance and welding and football and soccer? I honestly don’t think so.

Perhaps more important is the fact that if kids need to spend this many hours of light-hearted fun every day just to recover from the horrors of math and english, either we are raising a serious bunch of sissies or there is something dreadfully wrong with the way we are teaching the core subjects.

Rethink Education

Most of us have grown up with a public school mindset. It’s the right way. It’s the only way. And the “experts” are those who majored in elementary and secondary education.

I’d like to challenge that model and, at very least, encourage parents to step back and evaluate the educational paradigms they have accepted.

Perhaps a reasonable starting point is to look thoughtfully at the requirements to obtain those particular degrees and to assess what actual expertise is held by those who administer the school districts and those who teach our children. Deference to those with positions in these institutions should take place only when it makes sense. And when it doesn’t, we should realize that we are ultimately in charge.

We can speak up and we can redesign the system to server our children, not the other way around.

{ 9 comments… add one }
  • thirty-something April 11, 2010, 6:09 pm

    My kids are in public school, but I really hate it. If I’m honest, I have to say that I don’t think it’s best for them to be there all day and to have to jump through all the hoops and follow all the rules that have nothing to do with getting educated. But I’m scared to death of doing anything else. I wouldn’t know where to start. This is all I’ve ever done.

  • Beckalita April 11, 2010, 8:04 pm

    I can certainly sympathize with the feeling of terror at going down a different path from the only way I know to do things; it’s the exact feeling I had when our family took the plunge, hoping that we wouldn’t screw it up. Honestly, it’s the best thing we’ve ever done for our family. My only regret is that we didn’t do it sooner, allowing our children to really thrive from the beginning.

    We have had children that learned to read early, and we have experienced the flip side of the coin with the child who wasn’t cognitively ready until he was closer to age 8. I can only imagine the damage that could have been done if we had left that child’s educational future in the hands of the “experts” rather than trusting our own intuition as his parents. It’s not that the teachers weren’t capable or wonderful. Many of them are dear friends. The problem would have been in trying to fit him into a system designed around getting him to fit it, leaving him with a feeling of inadequacy and a dislike of learning. As it turns out, he is making great progress according to his own timetable and has no notion of what he should or should not know by now. He is healthy, happy, and he loves to learn!

  • MeriKae Leavitt April 11, 2010, 8:13 pm

    I sooooooo want to post this on my Facebook!!! I have been through too much of this with my Dyslexic son, and a friend of mine also. these so called experts that I call EGOs are destroying our children…and their self esteem.

  • Kristen April 12, 2010, 7:34 am

    Hey, thirty-something. There are lots of resources for new home schoolers. There is no need to be afraid. If you feel like it is right for your family, take the leap. You can find home school legal information on the web. It varies by state.

    Home school is not the same as public school. It is focused on the indivual learner and the needs of the family. When children are in a rich, loving environment, they will learn what they need to know.

    You could start with a couple of months of exploring the world around you. Depending on the ages of your children, try some of the following: Go on hikes and pay attention to what there is to see; play with play-dough (or make bread by hand, letting each child design his or her own loaf); try some new recipes; visit museums; go swimming at a local pool; do finger painting and sidewalk chalk (my children have used both in learning their phonograms–it’s much more fun than always using pencils and paper); go to the zoo; blow bubbles; check out books from the library on whatever your children are interested in; find reading lists for classic stories (usually they have lists at the library) and read them aloud with your family. The idea is to find the joy in living and learning and get to know your children again. Gradually, you can ease into a pattern of the three R’s and pursue the topics that matter most to your children.

    This doesn’t require a teaching degree. Just love your children and feed the fire! : )

  • kristen April 12, 2010, 9:41 am

    Oops! That would actually be “individual learner.” : )

  • Tara April 12, 2010, 8:32 pm

    I love this post! We live across the street (literally) from and elementary school and are homeschooling our children–it’s a little weird to some, but I am so happy to have my children home with me all day. I love it. My 5 and 7 year old boys (just turned 5 & 7 in March) are both reading Chronicles of Narnia, and books we get from the library don’t last more than a few days. My 7 year old is writing songs, LOVES math and just asked me how to add fractions. My 5 year old can build anything out of cardboard and duct tape and is completely in love with science. It’s his best part of the whole day.

    My 7 year old son had a pre-natal stroke, so we do walk across the street as a family for speech services and I am thankful for the great speech therapist we are able to utilize at the school. However, for us, home schooling has allowed me time to fit in all the doctor appointments, physical therapy, speech therapy, music lessons AND school, and still have time to be a family. And the kids are thriving. That’s the best part.

  • Tara April 12, 2010, 8:36 pm

    I just wanted to add, in support of the original point of the blog, I feel as a mother I am the best person to decide what my children need and when. I know them the best. We’ve been through so many specialists in the health care arena, some we’ve only needed for a certain amount of time, but as the mother, the CEO, I can decide when to hire and when to fire. The same rings true for my children’s education–I have no problem finding someone to help if I can’t provide what they need, but I am in charge of that decision. It is definitely mine to make and I am so thankful that I am able to make it!

  • Tina T April 13, 2010, 9:51 am

    I read and reread this post because with my oldest being in public school for the first time and my younger one heading to public school next year, I do feel that I need to keep a closer eye on what happens in the classroom (more so than when they were in a smaller Christian school.) So far we have been blessed with teachers that I think teach well despite the system that has been put in place rather than because of the system. I do think that it’s easy to get carried away with the status of “expert” whether you are speaking to a teacher, doctor, etc. I know my kids better than anyone, so that makes me an expert on them and when necessary I know that I need to be their advocate, because if parents don’t take that role than no one else will or can.

    I hope that we will continue to have teachers that don’t jump on the bandwagon for the “latest and greatest” teaching techniques, since I don’t think of myself as someone who is blessed with the level of patience needed for homeschooling. Of course if the teacher situation changes, I will certainly rethink the option of homeschooling.
    .-= Tina T hopes you’ll read Is Marriage Really the End of Freedom? =-.

  • Alison Moore Smith April 14, 2010, 5:17 pm

    There are definitely some great teachers and programs in public school. That’s why I really like our model. If the teacher/program fits our child, we use it. If not, we don’t. No longer are we stuck with lousy teachers (like, ahem, the cheerleading coach that taught AP chemistry at a high school one of my daughter’s attended).

    On the other hand, if you use the schools at all, you do have to deal with the administration, schedule, and inane rules. Some are fine, but some are awful. It’s a crap shoot. The power and money flowing into schools/unions sets up some really bad results.

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