So we started Lexie off in kindergarten at our local school back in August. Four months later, and we’ve taken her out of school to do home schooling instead.
While it wasn’t for us, it was most certainly worth going for these few months. We have no regrets. Firstly, it was important to make some friends in the area, and we met a number of wonderful families through school that we’ll continue to meet up with.
Plus, we had to try the school education out to see just how wrong it was for us. Four months ago, we didn’t even consider the idea of home schooling. The idea that Lucy could teach a 5-year-old while looking after 2-year-old triplets would have seemed nuts. It’s really taken us these four months to come around to the idea, trying everything we could to fix the problems at school. We worked so hard on making school work out that we now feel sure we’ve made the right decision.
Anyhow, here are a few things that surprised me about our school experience.
Americans love to get parents involved in school. Looking back at our short time there, we did an almost ridiculous amount. We did about half the baking for a fundraising bake sale. We helped run the book fair. We bought stuff for the classroom, from pencils and craft supplies to tissues and hand sanitiser. We organised a basket of gifts for auction. We organised a ‘book swap’ event where every child could swap out two books, including getting hold of several hundred books to seed the event initially. We sent in the fruit for their Thanksgiving feast. We photocopied, and emailed, and organised. We went to meetings to vote on proposals for upgrading classrooms.
And when I say ‘we’, I mean Lucy!
We never even got around to volunteering in the classroom or driving kids on field trips (two other things we were down for) because the background check process still hadn’t completed when we left.
I love the principle, and I think it’s a deliberate culture. From what I can gather (I haven’t seen this written down explicitly), the theory is that the more invested the parent, the more they care about their child’s education, and the more they do outside school to set up their child for success in school. The child sees that they care, that school is important.
I hope it works. I think the danger is that maybe the parents who need to care a little more about school, aren’t the ones running the bake sales. But overall, I liked the attitude.
You’ll notice that a lot of what we did in my ‘parent involvement’ list was raising funds for the school. And this is where I worry, because some of the parent involvement may be less about getting parents to care, and more about making up for a desperate lack of funding: buying tissues and pencils for the classroom concerns me. For a while I kept telling myself, it’s just a way of getting parents involved. Then I learned they just cut teacher pay in our district this year - 5 schooldays cut in the first half of 2012. So maybe not.
Many countries are struggling to make ends meet in their budgets just now, but no pencils in classrooms?
I also wonder about the effectiveness of some of the fundraising approaches. None of the fundraising involved donating money directly to the school. It’s all of the form where some parents provide some goods or services, other parents pay for these goods or services, and the payment goes to the school. The problem is that the parents providing stuff are spending money and time which does not go to the school. And the other parents are probably buying stuff they don’t really want! So there’s an inefficiency there.
If I spend $50 on baking ingredients and sell $200 worth of cakes at the sale, then the school just raised $200, but parents collectively spent $250 and a load of time baking. My question is, what if those parents had just donated $250 and volunteered that baking time directly to the school instead?
The book fair is arguably worse. Parents simply spend money on books. The school must get some kind of cut or perhaps some free books, but fundamentally it’s money going into Scholastic’s pockets (they did $2 billion in revenue in 2011).
It’s not a simple question to answer. Perhaps the bake sale approach encourages people to give more than if they were just asked for money and time. It helps foster the school community. It provides a good way for lots of parents to give small donations. The book fair encourages parents to provide books for their children.
But I found it frustrating that I saw very little analysis of the efficiency element in all this fundraising. So much effort is being put in, and I wonder whether a little extra thought could help.
Now this part is just plain weird. Every schoolchild here, every single day, has to stand, place their hand on their heart, and say these words in unison:
I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America, and to the republic for which it stands, one nation under God, indivisible, with liberty and justice for all.
As an atheist, I was kind of irked by the God part (which isn’t even part of the original wording – it’s a 1950s amendment and the subject of various lawsuits), but mostly, I found this just a little bit creepy. Suitable for special occasions with patriotic significance, sure … but every morning at school? Sorry America, but it’s something a cult would do.
One speed fits all
The main, perhaps only reason, we ended up taking Lexie out of school, is the approach to dealing with different ability levels within the classroom.
I should start by saying that we thought Lexie’s teacher was pretty amazing in some ways. Most of all, she took this class of 30 children, some of them rather unruly, and had them under an impressive level of control. They lined up neatly, were quiet at the right times, tidied up their room, and approached their learning pretty seriously. Not all of the classes in the school looked this way.
What they weren’t terribly interested in, sadly, were the children’s individual abilities. I don’t want to turn this into a rant about how special our child is, but will stick to one very simple example: Lexie was prevented for a long time from writing her own name on her artwork. Apparently that’s the teacher’s job, because if you’re writing, you’re too far ahead. There were hundreds of things like this. It felt as though her enthusiasm for learning was being crushed. She began to be afraid to try hard or show what she could do, lest it was against the rules.
We asked again and again for some differentiation in the teaching, and while there was some token effort on the school’s part, the message came back consistently: just relax, she can wait for the other children to catch up. With a bit of added disbelief that she was actually capable of doing things like reading. CHILDREN OF THE SAME AGE ARE ALL THE SAME, DIDN’T YOU KNOW.
For some reason I thought modern education was all about being child-centered, recognising that different children are at different stages and have different learning styles. Maybe I’m wrong, but I’m sure that’s the impression I got from my mother training to be a teacher recently. I thought we were on a continuing process of evolution and improvement from the rote learning style of the 50s.
Is that a difference between the UK and US systems? (I didn’t think the UK system was anything to shout about!) A difference between idealistic teacher training and the realities of one teacher looking after 30 children? Is it impossible to pay attention to each child individually and also maintain class discipline?
Is school just babysitting?
I recently came across this post on public schools and home schooling, which just hit the nail on the head for me with this idea:
Because then I noticed how the US school system is really just the biggest babysitting institution in the world. My first clue, probably, was that I was dying to have my kids back in school so I could have my life back. What else can I do to get time alone? How else can I do some work? Work is very fun.
Whether or not it’s supposed to be … that’s exactly how it felt to us. A babysitting service.
I disagree with that post though on the idea that it’s doomed to failure in the way that Social Security is. Social Security is in trouble because of the basic age distribution of our population, and constantly increasing lifespans. It may well be doomed.
Schools may be facing budget shortfalls, but it feels like they’ve also just made some bad decisions on how to approach teaching. It doesn’t have to be that way.