I have outlined many of the problems I experienced with the public school system in my area. But I think this is a good place to stop and reiterate that I am not speaking out against public schools. I, personally, believe that a good public education system is paramount to having a good society.
My problem with public education as it exists in my area, and in the areas of my friends and family, is that it tries to be all things to all people, and as a result, it fails to provide the best outcome for almost no one. That is not an indictment of teachers.
I hear a lot of educators reminiscing about how destructive the old days were when we taught by rote memorization and kids were tied to their desks, etc., etc. Some people talk about how that is the “norm” in schools today. It certainly was not the “norm” at my daughter’s elementary school. But, again – and this is just my opinion – the old way served ALL students better than the current way. When I went to school, you could not tell who was the poorest child in the class or who came from a broken home by how poorly they read; because everyone could read. Everyone from my graduating class who went to college could write and do math at a level expected by the colleges they attended. We cannot say that anymore. No one seems to want to hear or acknowledge that. Parents are saying it. College professors are saying it. Some business people are saying it. Some politicians are saying it. Many teachers are not listening because they think we have a different agenda; that being to dismantle public schools entirely. Maybe some people want that. I can assure you that I do not.
From my own personal experience, the type of curriculum that teaches using the center-based, peer-led instruction that so many teachers admire requires the following to have a chance of being successful:
- State-of-the-art facilities which would include HUMONGOUS classrooms and a way (money) to keep the newest technology in children’s hands and at their fingertips AS it becomes available.
- Small class sizes; 15 kids or fewer. I am serious.
- A budget to replace outdated teaching material so that the program does not become stale.
- The ability for teachers to abandon something that isn’t working (say, because of classroom dynamics) and to try something different.
- Before and after school tutoring/homework programs for the kids who are not going to get it at home.
If the schools had this, do I believe the program could work? Maybe. I still believe they need to teach phonics first. I could even get behind learning “high frequency” words, but sight words as the main way to teach reading makes kids weak in grammar, writing, vocabulary, and in many cases, reading itself. There will remain the potential of producing kids who cannot think independently because they never learn to, though hopefully the smaller class size would allow the teacher to see and redirect these tendencies. However, we will only know if this system can work if we give it the environment it was designed for. We are trying to teach 21st century in 20th century infrastructure. I say we either go for it all the way or put it away until we can use it properly.
We also have to address one of the other main reasons that the progressive teaching methods are not producing the desired results; that being it relies so (too) much on parent involvement. This is a distinct disadvantage to those children in dysfunctional or just plain busy families. AND it is burning out the rest of us.
Anywhoooo. I told you that I went to a homeschool convention right before the end of Second Grade. It was a low-key affair held at a hotel in the outskirts of Chicago (not one of those huge mega-conventions). I saw a lot of encouraging things and talked to many encouraging folks. But I still wasn’t sure.
My daughter is very social. I worried about providing her the same opportunities to socialize as she had in school. Now, I must tell you that socialization in school is not always a good thing. It is an opportunity, that is true, but it does not always mean it is a good opportunity. We had to have many conversations in our house about what was appropriate and inappropriate, whether that be what you do to someone or what someone else does to you. Still, I think everyone agrees that kids need opportunities to interact with other children. Often, homeschool families with many children fail to take into consideration what this means for a child with no siblings at home. In that case, as the parent, you really must plan every single socialization opportunity for your child. They cannot just happen on the fly with brothers and sisters. It is certainly an important consideration.
At the end of Second Grade, two days before the kids were released for summer, my daughter’s teacher informed me that she was not proficient in telling time from an analog clock. My first reaction was embarrassment that I had not recognized this myself and done something about it sooner. However, with a little reflection on the issue, my focus changed. You see, we have few analog clocks in our house, and most of them have dead batteries in them more than not. We typically rely on the digital clocks on our stove, the microwave, in the car and on our iPhones. The school, however, has analog clocks in every single room and in every single hallway. So, the question became, why am I only learning about this two days before the end of the school year and why is it that this isn’t something that could be taught at school? I had already taken responsibility for teaching math facts, helping with math homework, teaching a writing course at home, and now I had to take the summer to teach my daughter to tell time.
Some of you are going to conclude that I am whining or lazy or disinterested. I would remind you that I am homeschooling, so I am none of those. No, the problem was that I sent my child off for five days a week, seven hours a day, nine months out of the year, and I still had all this extra “teaching” stuff to do. All those hours at school were times I didn’t get to spend with my child. And I like spending time with my child.
In fact, I was looking forward to spending time with my daughter that summer. Once again, on the last day of school, after all the tearful goodbyes, and the “see you next year”s, we headed to the beach and our local splash fountain. Tomorrow was another day. We would learn to tell time then.
And we did. In addition, I continued to look at homeschool curriculum. Honestly, I kind of thought it was an academic process instead of a true commitment to moving forward with the idea. Then, two weeks before school was to start, I learned that one of the third grade classes would be eliminated. This meant there would be only two classes, and if all of the students remained, there would be 60 children to divide among the two classrooms. That was just too many kids. I informed the principal that we would be homeschooling. It was a hard decision and I was sad. The school was part of our family. It felt like a divorce. There were liable to be hurt feelings. My daughter would probably be left out of most things she used to be a part of. But sometimes to grow, that is just what you have to do.
We joined a homeschool co-op and signed up with one of the local school districts which has a homeschooling partnership. The co-op provided an opportunity to have “classes” once a week in subjects like Latin, Anatomy, and Art. The partnership gave us the opportunity to take wonderful field trips, violin lessons, on-line courses like Jeff Corwin and Liberty Kids, and even to continue gymnastics lessons at the same gym my daughter had been previously taking them. I signed her up for a Swim and Gym class at the YMCA for homeschoolers. My daughter continues in dance and participates in a theater group in addition to softball in the spring. It is a very full schedule. If she were at school, and had the homework after school, she would not be able to do all of these things.
I feel very lucky to have this opportunity. I know it is not available to every family. I know that some families would not even consider it. That is O.K. Truly. But homeschooling has been a very positive experience for my daughter. She is thriving. She has gained confidence. She has even discovered new interests, like Anatomy. The ironic thing is that I believe what homeschooling allows me to do is exactly what the elementary schools want to do, but just can’t do properly with the tools they have.
People keep asking me if we will return to public school. For now, the answer is, “No.” Maybe after Middle School, or if our family or work situation were to change. However, I still feel that I have an obligation to try and support our public schools, and I urge everyone to do that. But do it from a position of knowledge. Volunteer at school. Go to school board meetings. Talk to teachers. Talk to other parents. Don’t just assume, like I did, that your child’s education is going to be like yours was; good or bad. Things change. Education is different from state to state and from district to district. If there is something that you think does not feel right, address it and be ready to seek alternatives if things do not change.
Also, I would like to leave you with these final thoughts: There is no one way to teach just as there is no one way to learn. It is not very productive for either side to point fingers at the decisions of the parents whether they homeschool or send their children to public school. It is their choice and it should be respected. No one should feel superior or made to feel inferior. I see a lot of assumptions being made from both sides about what the inner workings of the other look like. Having been in both, I have to shake my head at just how little a huge portion of both camps really know about the other. So, those of you who have always homeschooled, elementary schools are not satan’s playground with the kids being his evil spawn and the teachers his evil minions. And those of you who send your kids to public school, homeschoolers are not all mean Christian fundamentalists with 20 kids who have an organic vegetable garden in their front yard, hate your secular children, avoid teaching science and who produce socially awkward children. Most of us just love our kids and want what is best for them.