Sunday, February 17, 2013

How I Got Where I Am and The Problem with Schools and Parents

I had never planned to home educate.  I didn't even know what it was 15 years ago.  While living in center city with my husband and my two kids ages 4 and 2, I ran into a family in the middle of a sunny, winter day.  All members of this large family were exceedingly polite and engaged.  There were 7 children from age 16 to newborn and mom was very calm, even content, as she walked them across JFK Boulevard.  I had to know how she did this, as I felt overwhelmed with just 2 children, so I struck up a conversation with her.

Anyway, from this chance meeting, I learned that parents can educate their own.  (She was a home school mom.)   For the rest of the day, I felt dazed and confused by this new knowledge.  Would I do this?  Should I do this?  I began reading everything that had ever been written on home education.  This took over a year.

Kindergarten was just around the corner for my oldest, and now I had 3 children.  Everyday I asked myself questions like, "Why does everyone march their kids off to school and does the fact that most do this make it right and wise?  Why does this feel so wrong to me?"   I visited the  public school and left feeling like a number.  I was forced to listen to administrative staff with poor grammar ramble on senselessly about compliance, authorizations, health issues, testing, sensitivity training, identification papers, and policy implementation.   No one mentioned learning.  What I mean is that the word was never spoken.   I ran away.

At the heart of my struggle was a persistent concern that school would turn my kids into automatons.  Already, I had witnessed some negative socialization from the mere 2 hour per day private kindergarten I finally settled on for my oldest, as I waited for Pete, my husband, to share my goal to home school.  In this particular case, the negative socialization had to do with music.  Each week, I would focus on a composer and that composer's music would flow from the stereo throughout the week.  We borrowed books from the library on this "Composer of the Week" and would read them as we listened.  It wasn't what I would describe as a driven, purposeful study but it sure did spark age-appropriate commentary and curiosity. One day my son brought home a friend from kindergarten and they carried on predictably with their action figures in the family room while Dvork's New World Symphony flowed from the speakers and John hummed along, emphatically swinging his arms, conductor-style.  His friend said flatly, "This music is really weird.  There are no words.  It's boring."  In that moment, his arms dropped, and the light went out.  He picked up his action figures, tuned out the background music, and carried on with his play.

Huh, so that's how it happens, I thought.  Yes, of course, I knew I'd figure out a way to turn that light back on, but what if there were repeated blows to the "thoughtful life" I had so carefully nurtured.  What if I became weary of fighting this worthy fight?  Life has a way of steam rolling over good intentions.  Fifteen years in the business world had taught me this and lots more.  I had three kids at this point in time and I knew  I was at a fork in the road.  I wanted to take the steeper path, the road less traveled.

But, what is wrong with sending them to school, anyway?  Lots of nice kids go to public school and succeed in life. In an effort to find the answer, I visited the school again.  I told myself that if I could find people, young or old, who would be good role models, people I could point to and say, 'I'd be very happy if my sons and daughters turned out like that!',  then I would think about enrolling.  I came home empty-handed.
At ages 6 and 4, my two oldest kids were both already solid readers and had some facility with numbers.  The only thing the school could offer them at this young age was a certain brand of conditioning. No thanks.

In the years that followed, I was asked many questions by well-meaning friends.   Most would point out that the schools in their neighborhood were the very best in the state and they wouldn't dream of home schooling for this reason.   I often pointed out that dozens of parents from dozens of different neighborhoods have all said the same thing to me.  Statistically, it is impossible.  But, I realized that parents want to believe that they are getting the best and they will studiously ignore statistical impossibilities. Their ears are plugged, their eyes are covered and their fantasy worlds are on overdrive.

But what about NCLB?   How will your kid's learn?  How will you comply?  I had no idea what they were talking about.  I wasn't sipping the Kool-Aide they were being served at the state conditioning centers and truly had no knowledge of NCLB.   Instead of frantically trying to comply with piles and piles of pointless testing, I was focused on reading, writing, and mathematics - pure and simple, unadulterated learning - no fanfare, no forms to fill out, no middle men - just me, a pile of good books, and my kids.  It only took me a full year of home education to become fully liberated from the lock-step learning of state education.   When I learned how free and easy education could be, I knew I would never turn back.

Recently, when the tragic consequences of  NCLB began to get some news coverage, I was reminded of the comments and prying questions from friends some 8 or 9 years ago.  The billions of dollars spent, the time wasted, the children's lives wasted in these buildings spinning their wheels, wondering why they need to take yet another test, while the spirit of curiosity and learning wither and die on the vine - it is criminal - and a terrible, terrible burden on the taxpayers.   I am just your average, middle-aged, suburban mom - I am not a rebel.  But I cannot believe that this is tolerated.  I cannot believe that there has not been a mass mutiny - a revolution at the doors of the school.

Why don't they walk away from the mess? Why don't parents take control of their children's futures by taking direct control of their education?

Is it just fear?  For so long, the state has defined education, that parents have forgotten their role; they think they are not capable of facilitating an education for their own kids.   I am struck speechless at how little parents know about what their kid's lives are like from 8 to 4 pm.   I am stunned at how impotent most parents feel when it comes to their kids' educations.  They do not see mass education as a bad thing or a good thing; they think it is a necessary thing.

Of course, it could be something else altogether.  Home education is a job, a full-time job, and it is often unpleasant.  Children do not magically cooperate with every plan you concoct for them.  They argue, they procrastinate, they equivocate.  This is hard work.  Maybe parents just don't want the burden.  Some days, I haven't wanted this job but the alternative is unthinkable.

Most of the parents I speak to who finally see the light, see it too late.  It is usually around standardized testing time.  The SAT/ACT doesn't care which school you went to and it doesn't care if you were the best writer or at the top of your class in math.  The SAT tests a student's ability to THINK.  But, state education does not allow time for students to think about math (for example).  That would take too much time away from "teaching to the test".  In the SAT-score-moment-of-truth, most parents say...."my son/daughter doesn't test well."  or "the guidance counselor said an SAT score of 1,500 is good."  The truth is they have been robbed.  They have been robbed of the time they needed to learn how to think.   But, maybe at the end of 12 years parents are weary and confused and ready to have the entire ordeal over and done with.

Yes, it is strange to have a test determine which universities a student can expect to attend but the fact remains that this test actually IS a very good indicator of how a student will do in college.  Those with high scores generally meet the challenge and those with low scores generally struggle.  Competitive universities stopped believing what the high schools told them years and years ago.  They must have a way to calibrate the numbers that high schools report - the SAT is that great calibration test.

On the beach of time, public education is a speck of sand.  It is still in the experimental stage.  Many are beginning to see it as a failed experiment.  I am eternally grateful that my eyes were opened to the enormous benefit and advantage in designing an individualized learning environment for my own students.  It has demanded more from me than I even knew I had to give,  and it has keep me at the foot of the cross asking for grace and strength, but it has and continues to be worth it every day, every week, every year.