Wednesday, May 07, 2008

does any of this matter?

Evenspor over at Spors in the Desert posed a great question recently, in a post about gifted education:

There is one question that I still wonder about despite all of this. How much of this really matters in the end? Don't most of us still become productive and relatively happy adults, despite public schooling? I believe there are at least a few cases where the difficulties with the system are so great that they can cause lasting emotional and motivational damage if not dealt with. However, for most kids, is it good enough to just go through the system, as long as parents are paying attention - supplementing education and looking out for signs that things are not all well with their child? Do we need to fix a broken system, or do we need to focus more on simply being the parents our children need us to be?

It's certainly so that most of us turn out all right, in spite of (or independent of) our schooling. I would agree that in situations where it is possible to separate the influence of the schooling and the parenting (i.e. not my home, and not the home of anyone who is homeschooling), it is the parents who have the greater influence.

I'm going to take myself as an example, because as it turns out, it is my own experience that informs my decisions about these matters. (Isn't that astonishing? I would apologize, but really, what other experience could I possibly use?)

I had a very traditional elementary school experience. I sat in rows and did lots of worksheets. I had deadly boring drill and kill math homework. I learned (or rather, didn't learn) social studies from dry-as-dust predigested text books. We took maybe one field trip a year, and it was to the zoo, not related in any way to anything we were learning. There was no effort made to make any of our learning relevant to our lives. We were vessels to be filled. It was as if the outside world didn't exist.

I like to think I turned out okay anyway. I did well in high school, and I went on to my first choice and relatively competitive college, where I did well enough to graduate in the usual amount of time. I eventually went on to graduate school, where I did very well, and became a teacher, a profession that I loved. I am, in the words of Evenspor, a productive and relatively happy adult.

It's probably because of the influence of my parents that I remained intellectually awake enough to survive those stultifying years in elementary school. We had interesting discussions at home. We went to museums, a lot. We did lots of logic puzzles and mental math. We watched the news together and talked about it. We played games together. My parents, both of whom are teachers, took the time to talk to me about and introduce me to the real world: the world of people who are curious and interested.

But here's the thing: for eight years of my very young life, I was miserable. Miserable. I clearly remember the day I realized, with horror, that my life revolved around going to school. I rebelled in various ways: I refused to do the math homework (didn't need it: did fine on the test at the end of the week without it) and got in LOTS of trouble for that, on a regular basis. I cried. I yelled. I stomped. I was not an easy kid to have around, I'm sure.

So yes, I believe that this stuff matters. I believe my kids would be fine in public school, and they would both turn out to be productive and relatively happy adults. They, like me, are smart, but not so smart that public school would be a total disaster. I'm sure they could handle it. But I'm also sure it wouldn't be much fun, and they would probably not enjoy it. I don't know whether they would be as utterly miserable as I was, but I don't have any urge to find out.

Here's the radical thing I've decided: the quality of their lives right now matters. I believe my kids should be allowed to ask questions and seek the answers, that they should be allowed to get outside more than twenty minutes a day, that their lives should be free of the political agendas of NCLB and its attendant tests.

It's not about the outcome. It's about giving them a good life, now.


Evenspor said...

Good answer. :) I am very interested in learning about other people's experiences in school. It is seeming more and more that my experience in school was the exception, rather than the rule. I really enjoyed school, despite not always being challenged. I was lucky enough to have very good teachers who did not hate me for being "gifted", precocious or mathematically advanced. (there is a certain blog I read with very bitter overtones regarding the dislike of teachers toward their more gifted students) I even had one teacher who gave another student and I free reign during math time. We had to do the assignments in the math workbook, but she didn't care when or how quickly we went through it, and once we were done, we got free time while the other students did math. I know that is definitely not the usual course of things in a third grade classroom.

So it is useful to hear many sides of things.

Jennifer C said...

My problem with the 'system' of public school (and even some private schools) is the philosophy 'in loco parentis' - in place of the parent. In loco parentis historically gave teachers the ability to discipline students as a parent would. However, over the decades, this philosophy blurred and seeped into many areas of the PS system.

Today we see overt social and political agendas forced upon students and their parents. I don't believe going through this government school system is helping our country thrive and compete with the complex global economy, which was one of the reasons public schools were created in the first place.

There are many areas (science, engineering, etc.) we no longer can compete on the world stage in terms of innovation and technology. I would argue the very standardization of government schools and the curriculum and tests they employ has led to highly functioning sheeples. Sure, these sheeples may contribute to society but only in terms of the limited framework of in loco parentis.

Anonymous said...

Whenever my husband and I struggle with the questions of how to educate our children, whether we can afford private school, etc., we always at some point remark that we both went to public school (including state college) and turned out OK. In fact, except for being rather financially unstable, I would be thrilled if my kids had adult lives like ours.

I wonder if there is a certain inertia in public schooling. Like, we all went through 12 years of stultifying boredom, so that's just how it should be for our kids too?

Now, I loved school, even the boring worksheets and scantron tests. I looked on them as accomplishments or challenges. But I had what I consider a natural love of book learning and test-taking, and my temperament certainly fit into what was rewarded in that system. And in middle school I became something of an underachiever in terms of not applying myself, procrastinating, etc. which continued through college. Perhaps that was my form of rebellion finally.

I had parents who were interested in art and literature, gardening and crafting, and other more interesting "real world" stuff. So there was some balance and inspiration at home.

And like Evenspor, I remember being given free time in lieu of being gifted and completing work quickly. We had a "gifted and talented" program, but it was fairly minimal in terms of clock hours.

In addition to what you say about giving your kids a good life right now, I would say that giving my children a solid foundation in arts and crafts, a belief in their creative abilities, and a true love of learning would definitely nudge me away from public school.

shaun said...

This is not a deep thought but . . . if the kids are going to turn out OK one way or the other, why not homeschool, if you like it? I think one problem my PS friends have with understanding our decision to keep going with homeschooling is that PS is so much the default setting that it's instinctive to assume that something has to be "wrong" or really out of the ordinary to justify doing something else.

Truthfully, that's how we got to homeschooling -- something was "wrong" with my daughter's school experience. So I understand why that mindset is prevalent. But now we homeschool because we like it and would really miss the lifestyle -- and each other! Nothing needs to be "wrong" with our other choices for us to choose it.

Evenspor said...

anthromama - it does sound like your educational experiences were very similar to my own.

My basic stance is that there is no possible way to make a public school system that will suit everyone's needs and make everyone happy. That is why we still need to be parents and step in where we feel public school is lacking in meeting own children's individual needs. For some that means teaching values, for some it means extra enrichment in creative areas, and for some it means opting out of the system altogether and homeschooling. That's why I don't like the term "in loco parentis" because I don't think we should expect schools to take the place of parents. I think I mentioned on one of Elsie's previous posts that my mother-in-law teaches high school, and the parents of many of her students are not involved in their student's education at all. Attempts to call parents and talk to them about problems are met with, "Why are you calling me?" I think that attitude needs to be fixed more than the schools needs to be fixed.

Not everyone can homeschool, and not everyone should homeschool. I think public school is a very important thing to have. Since I think we've already agreed that there is no such thing as a perfect system, my question is whether the system we have is good enough. If not, is there actually a way to make it better? How do you insure that the individual needs of every student in every classroom are being met? No Child Left Behind?

Casey said...

the quality of their lives right now matters.

Yes! I was one of those who suffered long-term damage as a result of my (ironically successful) public-school career. It took me years to unlearn the habits of mind I picked up in school and finally figure out who *I* was and what *I* wanted to do with my time on this earth.

I believe that "turning out fine" is not enough for my kids. Not that I want them to be superachievers, but that I want them to be happy, motivated by their own interests and living in the moment instead of chronically stressed, motivated by fear and the expectations of others, and waiting for "real life" to begin.

If my local schools could meet those requirements, I'd be happy to send my kids along. Alas, it's not so. But I did learn that there's a Sudbury-model school starting in Austin soon. Hmmmm.

Anonymous said...

I read an article once that argued that part of the problem with much research on children is that it sees them purely in developmental terms. In other words, we usually evaluate what is going on with children in terms of their "becoming" rather than their "being". This difference is evident in your post. The question you respond to is set in a developmental framework: is this okay if children BECOME successful adults? But your response is to change the frame: what is this doing to their quality of life NOW.

I, like you, prefer the latter model. And thus agree with Shaun that whatever got us into this, isn't the fact that it is working and we are enjoying it a good enough reason to keep homeschooling? Since so many people are in school from inertia, I don't see why we can't keep homeschooling from inertia.

The question of whether the system is really broken in general terms is another one. And evenspor makes some good points in her comments on that.

Ipo said...

a few thoughts...
- i went to a waldorf k-8 and then a public high school, wasn't "gifted" per se, liked school just fine, did well, tested well except for SAT type tests.
- i think it is tricky comparing a public school education now to ones that anyone received 20-30 years ago, since they are different beasts all together. dh went to a public school, kindergarten some 30ish years ago, and we were recently talking to a kindergarten teacher recently and were shocked at what they "had" to know by the end of the year and that they would then be put into "special" classes in first grade if they didn't know those things. dh's comment was, "isn't there nap time or art time anymore?"... that's how far off our public school system has gotten.
- i see flaws with all types of schools; public, private, alternative, charters, etc. if i compare them to the ideal (in my mind) of homeschooling. there are pros and cons to all choices, one just needs to make the best decision for their family.
- and my parenting style is being responsive to my child's needs - that's how i approach homeschooling and how i would approach any attendance to a school if that comes up for us.
- i do see homeschooling as the ideal but not the only answer, all depends on the family. can totally see homeschooling dd for as long as she desires it but NO WAY, NO HOW could i have homeschooled my brother, who i also raised.
- this society doesn't see or honor parenting and the importance of it the way it should. evenspor touched on this, how some parents hand over their honor/responsibility to schools, and from there, coaches, therapists, clubs, etc. what a crazy thing. these children are our responsibility and gift - we are here to guide and more importantly, support them on their journey through life. and for me, choosing homeschooling right now is the best way to do that.
- and we could all second guess things, as our parents did and am sure still do, but here we are, doing the best we can within the context of our lives, what more can we do.
- what a ramble, sorry...