bright flight and homeschooling

Rhonda and I continue to lean toward taking on the difficult task of homeschooling. There are a thousand different little reasons why. Once you start looking for reasons, you see them everywhere and everyday in the kids’ schooling. But as I see it there’s just really one fundamental reason why my kids don’t below in school: it’s the way we define the notion of a democratic education. Now when I say this, it’s not meant as a criticism of teachers or school systems or anything else necessarily. All that I am trying to say, quite simply, is that schools are obviously not designed to teach kids like my kids. It’s nobody’s fault, and if it is somebody’s fault, I don’t care whose fault it is. We can work to change it if we want, but I know that whatever changes might come won’t come in time to help my kids, so when it comes to thinking about their education, I’ve got to approach that challenge differently.

But let me be a little more clear about what I mean.

My daughter is in third grade. In NY state, third grades take language arts and math exams. In 2007 87% of third graders in her school met or exceeded state standards for language arts and 91% did so for math. The statewide averages are 67% for ELA and 85% for math. So in an average third grade class of 25 students 2-3 students will not pass each test. So that means there are probably 4-5 students not passing one of the tests.

I’m imagining the bell curve of performance works out something like this then.

  • 4-5 students not passing at least one test
  • 4-5 students who are at risk of not passing without the test-focused education they receive.
  • 8-9 students who might not pass the tests if they took them in October of third grade but aren’t really in any danger of not passing.
  • 4-5 students who could pass the third grade test in October.
  • 1-2 students who could pass the fourth or fifth grade tests in October of third grade.

Our educational system focuses on the bottom third of student performers and the result is that half of them pass both tests rather than having only a quarter or third of them pass. That said, statewide there are more challenges. The explicit goal of the system is to get every student to pass these tests. Quite honestly though, you’d have to do something drastic, like locking my kids in the basement, to prevent them from being able to pass these tests. In any case though, my rough estimate is that 10-15% of all students are having their time completely wasted in school. That includes my kids.

It seems to me that you could do this different. There are 350-400 kids in every grade in our school district. You could take the top 10% and put them into two classes. Obviously though this would create some ill will, especially if your kid fell just outside the top 10% or wherever the line was drawn. We might also say that it wasn’t democratic, that every kid should receive the same education, unless they have demonstrated special need of some sort–even then the trend increasingly is toward mainstreaming.

I understand the values behind that approach. I also understand that the result is a complete waste of time for my kids. So if you were like me, you sat in class with your finger on the sentence you knew you’d be asked to read once the class got around to your turn. You’d never do your math homework because you could work out the problems on the board faster than most kids could copy theirs of their homework papers. And I don’t think I’m anything that special. I’m sure there were many, many kids like me.

My wife and I are fortunate that as academics our schedules are flexible. We can be around to supervise our kids while they learn. We have the summer and winter breaks. So we’ll just have to see what happens.

7 thoughts on “bright flight and homeschooling

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  1. Hopefully I’ll be welcoming your family into the club down the road then. 🙂 We’ve been homeschooling for almost 5 years now and it’s been a lot of fun. Aside from the problems with the schools there are a lot of benefits to homeschooling and it’s fun to discover and explore those.

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  2. Oh, Alex–it’s a hard road. We finally ended up with one child in public school, in the GATE program (he made that “top percentile” cut), and one in private school, where the courses are small and demanding enough to make them all look like the “enriched” version, although the range of ability is much more diverse than in a GATE program.
    Here’s are some of the factors that made me opt not to try homeschooling:
    –I can be a lot of things, but *many* teachers isn’t one of them.
    –I can be a teacher to other students, and a teacher to my own, but with my own I am also always and inescapably a mother.
    –Whatever their faults, failings, or limitations might be, other teachers see things in my kids that I don’t (or won’t, or can’t) see, and make demands of them that I don’t make, by sheer didn’t of being *only* their teachers, not *also* a parent to them.
    –I am no substitute for the social world of school. Now, this one give me pause, still, for often the social world of school utterly bites. On the other hand, the world is a challenging place. Mom (except for the parts of her, good and bad, that a child internalizes) just plain old isn’t going to be there every step of the way.
    –My kids need to be away from me; I need to be away from them. We need intellectual and emotional lives that are joined, but not at the hip.
    –I’m still their teacher, even though I’m not their *school* teacher. I do oversee the school work, stay informed about the school life, and butt into it as need be, but I get to be a different kind of teacher, too, using our educational time at home to fill gaps, offer alternative views, and sometimes outright counter what’s going on in school. This is a good thing. I like being able to do it. Who would counter me?

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  3. This is an incredibly difficult decision. I, too, am an academic, and my children are in an urban public school. We made the decision to work within the system and be active agents of change for a couple of reasons that mostly have to do with social justice issues, and the world we’ll be passing on to our children. If all the bright children leave the public school system, who’s left? More importantly, what parents are left to advocate for ALL the children? Because isn’t our commitment as citizens to all the children as well as our own? And who better to change the system than those with not only intellectual expertise but experience with academic systems and institutions?
    I wish you well. It’s a tough call, one we really agonized over.

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  4. Yes, that’s a great point, too–there’s some sense of *wanting* to be connected to that system, of feeling guilty about opting out of it, and thus opting out of some opportunity to change it. Oh, it’s so hard. Some of my best students ever were homeschooled all the way through h.s. And some of my best students ever went to public or private schools. Sigh. It should be easier. I’d happily not have had to take on some of the school issues that a person has to take on when the kids are there, but then those have been good for us (and maybe for the teachers and schools, too) is some ways.
    The good thing–it’s never a decision etched in stone. Plus, there are some great home schooling support groups and organizations, now, so some coop arrangements are possible.

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  5. Thanks for the feedback. The point about trying to change the system is well-made. I’d like to think that perhaps I can still be just as effective at doing that with my kids out of school. In any case, I don’t think I can make a decision about their education based upon my political commitments. There’s a great private school near here. Of course it’s $!5G/yr, which is a little rich for my blood, especially if I wanted to send two!
    Kafkaz’s point about getting different perspectives is also well-taken. I do worry about playing the role of teacher. I’m really not sure how it will play out if we go that direction. Homeschooling certainly isn’t an ideal or easy choice, on many levels.
    I’ll let you know how it goes.

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  6. David Guterson takes up many of these issues in “Family Matters: Why Homeschooling Makes Sense.” He’s particularly good on the vexed, vague, and difficult issue of “socialization” (which I’ve put in scare quotes because I think the topic generates more FUD than light). The book is well worth reading; it was decisive in my own family’s decision to homeschool our kids for several years (son through seventh grade, daughter through fifth).
    No one approach is a panacea, but I wanted more than anything from my kids to grow up not being cynical about school. We’ve only been partially successful at that, now that they’re both in public schools, given that even the quality of “gifted” education is so variable. Don’t get me started on “AP” drill-and-kill. I’ve just spent days trying to console young writers who’ve been nearly wrecked by those classes.
    My current rather dark view is that education is broken in nearly every context: public, private, urban, suburban, elementary, secondary, post-secondary. I think part of the problem is cultural. I think part of the problem is an industrial model that started off shaky and went down from there. As a professor at a public university, I’m dedicated to making change happen, and I’ve certainly had to step up at multiple points to help our kids navigate through bureaucratic minefields and difficult educational and social situations, from arguing for mid-year admissions to dealing with my son’s jaw being broken during an unsupervised 300-student indoor mini-gym “PE” period in which a bully popped him one, then jumped him later after he emerged from the locker room. Stuff happens, and there are mean people in the world, but even in urban areas we need to have some confidence in the infrastructure and the rule of law. Some schools don’t foster such confidence.
    There are agonizing considerations in every direction here, but I can’t in good conscience let my kids’ time be wasted, especially in an environment where any positive effect they may have is lost within large classes, inattentive teachers, and lazy institutional structures. My kids only get one crack at these crucial formative years. And yet, even with our family’s resolve, our decision to send the kids to a public high school has led us straight back into a fairly privileged near-wasteland of time-wasting and time-serving.

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  7. Thanks Gardner. I’m going to check out the Guterson book. From the description on Amazon it certainly sounds worthy. And I completely sympathize with your comment about consoling young writers! Now that I have seen it taught in elementary school and thought about it, of course it’s obvious that the dry, mechanical, and disconnected style of writing so many students practice is something that they have been systematically taught to do.
    As you say, this is our kids’ one shot at education, their one childhood.

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