A brief encounter with the US public school system

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.

Parent involvement

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.

Pledging allegiance

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.

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10 Responses to A brief encounter with the US public school system

  1. Keir says:

    I didn’t particularly think the Canadian school system was anything to shout about until I moved from Canada to the US. Granted, I was in French immersion in Canada so was learning everything in two languages, but I remember having homework every night and feeling like I really had to struggle to do well and teachers expected a lot from us. There were differentiated classrooms even when we were really young to separate out those who were more advanced.

    Then, we moved to the States and I started high school and I couldn’t believe what a joke it was. I had so many studyhall periods that I could finish the paltry amount of homework I had before I even left school. Teachers were surprised or unable to handle anyone who was above average. I had a teacher accuse me of plagiarism because my writing was too good! For being a global super power, let me be the first to assure you — yes. The US (public) education system really is that bad. I’m absolutely positive it is way behind the UK or Canada in how much it demands of students.

    And actually, I went to kindergarten in California and my mother has told me that they had me sitting in a corner while the other kids learned the alphabet because I already knew how to read. Luckily, we moved back to Canada right after that.

  2. Robbie says:

    This was a fascinating read. You took a fairly analytical approach to the whole thing whereas I guess most parents just send their kids because it’s the done thing.

    I admire your decision to take this initiative as well as raising triplets. Lucy must be a machine!

  3. DB says:

    Public or government funded institutions seem incompatible with the implementation of capitalism. Whilst I agree that the UK’s education system is regarded pretty highly around the world, I think you’d find that the high end private schools are, well, high end.

    Money talks, money wins. That’s the American dream.

  4. DB says:

    Great post btw, you painted a great picture of your experience.

    I’m not sure I fully agree with the decision to home school completely. There are things that the public school environment will provide that home schooling can not. It’s also a reflect on the real world that one will not always be recognized for their talents/how good they are, and that one will not always be treated fairly.

    Perhaps that’s more one for later in grade school but I think a hybrid of the environments would be a preferential scenario for me. Using the opportunity of being involved in the school and the example of not being recognized and, in this case by age, profiled is something that will happen eventually. There are numerous other social benefits of being in that environment over being primariy in the fair and safe bubble of home.

    Although, Im not in the position you are, so I fully respect that if I was, I may think different.
    I am very interested to learn how your journey evolves because I too will have to face the same challenges down the road.

    Thanks for taking the time to post this.

    • lukehalliwell says:

      Yeah … figuring out how to raise your child is very personal. You make a very important point though. I think she is missing out on some benefits of school.

      For us it seemed like a lesser problem than the fact that the school was just wasting an amazing ability she has right now to learn at an incredible rate, and actively oppressing her curiosity and love of learning. You don’t get back the chance to learn at the speed of a 5-year-old later in life! As I alluded to, we tried to figure out a way to get the best of both worlds, but the school didn’t seem too interested in helping. Maybe we’d have better luck at another school … we’ll most likely move house in the next few years and will definitely take that chance to try again.

      My own education consisted of home school for elementary years, then private school for 5 years and finished off at a public school. The time I was home schooled gives me a lot of confidence that it can work out well for her. Interestingly (and in reply to your other comment), I don’t think private school is necessarily everything people think it is. I went to one of Britain’s top private schools (King Edward’s in Birmingham), and here’s the thing – they are obsessed with their position in league tables of top schools, where the difference between the top few schools is something like 99.5% top exam grades versus 99.1% (I’m making the exact numbers up, but it really is like that). What does that mean? It means two things: firstly, they’re obsessed with getting good exam grades, which leaves no room for curiosity and exploration of a subject. Secondly, it means they’re obsessed with the idea that one or two pupils at the bottom of the class getting a C grade can plummet them down the league table. I don’t think they’d explicitly admit to this, maybe not even to themselves, but it absolutely corrupts their approach to teaching. They are simply factories for churning out ‘A’ exam grades. I was top of my year academically in nearly all subjects and was hardly ever challenged.

      In contrast, in my final two years at public school, I met 2 or 3 of the best teachers I’ve had in my life. They challenged me so much more than at any other point in school, and shared genuine joy and passion for their subjects – a rare gift.

      The one thing I’ll say for private school: incredible sports facilities. Seriously … incredible. Which means I’d recommend to anyone thinking of private school for a talented child: take that tuition money, spend a bit of it on some extra-curricular sports clubs/activities … keep the rest for something better.

  5. Chad Austin says:

    Thanks for comments, Luke. One thing to keep in mind is that California’s schools are not the best in the US… Unfortunately I came from a state with some of the best public schools to here, but I’m sure we’ll make it work.

    Best of luck with homeschooling!

  6. Mmm, I the picture you painted at first is exactly how I felt when Dylan started school, in P1 he was ahead of the game – especially at math, we were told this would be encouraged but really they did nothing and waited for the others to catch up. Now he is at high school – 2nd year he gets no homework at all and is getting visibly bored with maths because it is too “easy” (his words) (he’s not one to push himself, but at 13 not many are) He is also part of the first year of “curriculum for excellence” a new education initiative which the teachers don’t even seem to be sure of, all a bit worrying.

    On the parent helping front Marnie does huge amounts of voluntary work -(one of 3 voluntary librarians) fundraising and a whole lot more, towards the end of each year the school does things like wear your own school clothes days (£1 a pupil) to raise money for jotters and stuff as funds are running low. All this is encouraged by the government under the Parent Partnership initiative so funding issues are clearly known about. Marnie sees it as investing in our kids education, I thought (naively) my taxes did that.

    We also friends in Florida, with kids the same age as Maddie and Dylan, they are totally impressed with the schooling, they think the kids get too much homework though and they don’t like the allegiance thing either, their eldest used to stay silent but he gave in eventually.

    So what does all this mean… basically I think it is down to individual schools no matter where you live, good and bad teachers/heads are everywhere and funding is always a problem. really it is luck. If it is possible you could research the schools in you region and move to the catchment area of the one that performs the best – our Florida friends did that.

    • lukehalliwell says:

      Interesting – I was hoping to provoke a few anecdotes from others 🙂

      Every school is different and we’ll definitely try again when we move. It’s a shame, when we first came here we would have been sending to her to a dual immersion school where they get taught in Spanish and half the kids speak Spanish as their first language. I think that would have made up for any deficits in maths etc. Unfortunately we weren’t able to find a place to stay longer term in that area.

      Btw Dave, if you’re interested in some maths to challenge Dylan beyond what they do at school, check out the UK “maths challenge” and junior olympiad contests, and some of the books/websites about these. You’ll find some fun and challenging stuff to do; the way they teach maths at school really is pretty boring much of the time.

  7. Chris Stamp says:

    Interesting stuff, Luke.

    Germany seems very different – seeing the kindergarten system was probably a big factor in our current choice. I also admit to having been cautious about bringing up kids in US when considering options.

    We’ve got a place in a small German village (a few hundred houses), near the Swiss border, and the kindergarten is amazing – a beautiful big building in a quiet part of the village with a large garden full of trees and play equipment. The building itself is very well-equipped with a large sunny art room, woodwork room (with real tools!), snack room and others – even its own gym hall in the basement. All the kids and teachers seem pretty calm and relaxed (suspiciously so :)). It’s obviously very well funded, and we only pay a token amount each month – ten percent of the equivalent costs in Scotland. Germany has high taxes for things like this – they are less about personal wealth and more about a wealthy society, with major investment in the infrastructure of civilization. It’s hard to get personally rich in Germany but it’s a great standard of living either way.

    Here they don’t start formally educating kids until 6 or 7 – the focus seems to be on character development until then. At the kindergarten it seems the kids don’t have to do anything they don’t want to, and aren’t really pushed to learn at all. There are plenty of activities, but it’s up to them to choose what they do. The doors to the garden are always open so the kids can get up and go outside whenever they want, and they can choose what room to be in. Even once they go to school, it’s only in the mornings.

    I’ve no idea at this stage what starting formal education late means in the long run, but I guess Germany is a highly successful economy and the people are strong characters and extremely civilised, so can’t be all bad. Will be interesting to see how the boys react to it – they are 4 this week and start German kindergarten in 3 week’s time.


    • lukehalliwell says:

      Sounds good Chris! I think German education in general is meant to be pretty good. Also they seem more entitled to use the word Kindergarten.

      Hope the boys get on well!

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