Tuesday, October 09, 2007

What About Free or Independent Schools?

I found another great article in the Home Educator's Family Times today. It's called, "The Difference Between Homeschool and School," and it's written by a woman who was unschooled from birth through college and is now raising her own son. It's rather deep and involves quite a bit of educational research; if you don't have time to read and think, you might prefer to skip this one.

The author considers the question of the "liberal" schools - free schools, holistic schools, Montessori or Waldorf schools. She discusses the benefits as well as the concerns of those schools. In the end, her conclusion is that while those schools are certainly much better at keeping kids motivated to learn, they suffer a couple of significant defects common to more traditional schools.

First, children in those schools still have to conform to the desires and schedules of the teacher or the other children. The need to manage a large number of kids means the students don't get the one-on-one time they would like, nor do they have the time to immerse themselves fully into the subject matter they are studying. As the author puts it,
What if a child wanted to take a nap? What if he wanted to be alone? What if he wanted to call his parents? What if he wanted his parents to hold him and read him a book? What if he wanted to feel the comfort of being at home? What if he just wanted to be left alone for a couple of hours to play a game or read some books of his choice? What if he didn’t want to be constantly watched and surveyed and monitored? Well, too bad. Sorry. In even the most holistic, free-school there is no special time or place for the individual child.

The other significant drawback to even an independent or democratic school is that the teacher does not have the deep, loving relationship with the child that a parent has. Educational research has shown that children learn best when they are deeply cared for. The author puts it this way:
I do believe that, aside from the unlimited learning possibilities, this is the very real and very important difference between the very best liberal school and home schooling: the loving, personal, and close relationships within the life learning family.

This article also brings up a really important issue in terms of socialization, and one that's not discussed much in homeschooling circles. The issue is this: how do we teach our children to live within the power structure of society? Here's how the author puts it:
In liberal circles the question of socialization is usually asked in this context: how will a child, who is not regularly in school, learn the values of the community and how will a child, who is not regularly in school, learn how to compromise and accept the status quo? This question is not so simple as to whether or not the child will learn how to talk to or relate to other people, but rather is based on the concern (or fear) that the home school child may not be willing to compromise her values when her values are counter-hegemonic. When we break down the reasons that make us feel like school might be better than home schooling, we find that the reasons for going to school are rather contradictory to a liberal and explorative education. That is, the reasons for going to school are actually the opposite of liberating. In fact, the reason for going to school is to learn to fit in and obey the very same power structure that mainstream society (and public schooling) operates under.

When we break down the ultimate purpose of schools to be the transmitters of culture, and when we explore how schools transmit this culture, it becomes clear that we are dealing with a very invisible, yet very powerful and active structure. Even the most liberal schools are perpetuating a system that takes power out of the hands of the individual and family and transfers the power into the hands of an entity - an institution - and the culture of power. By using this system as the sole means for learning and education, we are surrendering our inherent ability to be the leaders of our own learning, education, and future.

And here is where the rubber meets the road when it comes to schooling. If the "ultimate purpose of schools" is "to be the transmitters of culture," the first question that must be asked is what kind of culture we want to be transmitted to our children. If "the reason for going to school is to learn to fit into and obey" a given power structure, we must ask ourselves whether we in fact WANT our children to learn to fit into and obey the current power structure, or whether we have other goals for them. Perhaps our goal is that our children break free of the current power structure; perhaps it is that they create a new power structure; perhaps it is that they submit themselves to a different power altogether from the one our society is subject to. But if any of these is true, sending our children to any currently existing school is going to defeat our purpose. Teaching our children at home allows us to carefully build into them the culture and values we believe to be most significant.

And perhaps that's the core reason why the current system opposes homeschoolers so vehemently. Unlike even so-called "independent" schools, we homeschoolers represent a threat to the current culture and power structure. We are raising our children to be truly independent of the pervading culture, to think for themselves and to become all they can be. No wonder the system fears us!

The Difference School Makes

In the most recent edition of the Home Educator's Family Times, there's an excellent article entitled, "Leaf Jumpers." In the article, the mother describes what happened to her son, who seemed "made for school," when she actually put him in school. She tells how he went from enthusiastically playing the leaves one fall to, "I don't want to jump in the leaves," the next (at age 7). And she explains why she thinks the change took place.

Take a look:

Ben went from playing half of the day in the leaves with his sisters to playing half of an hour on a black top. He went from cuddling on the couch with his family doing math games, reading, and workbooks, to sitting in a classroom in a hard desk with thirty-one other kids, filling out worksheet after worksheet, raising his hand to talk, standing in line – a lot, and keeping his mouth shut. He went from lingering over lunch in his kitchen while talking about the latest topic of interest, to gulping down his food quickly in a loud lunchroom with concrete walls and little windows. It’s no wonder that in just a short two month period this boy no longer wanted to play in the leaves… his spirit had forgotten how. It just didn’t “fit” anymore. He went from actively experiencing God in his everyday life with his family, to mundanely learning about Him on paper…that was the difference.
If you've ever had a child child who seems "made for school," you understand her motivation in putting him there in the first place. My older daughter is like that - she loves other kids, she's a leader, she respects adults and seems to soak up knowledge like a sponge. I've seriously considered putting her in school more than once. But my fear is exactly what happened to little Ben - that she will lose her enthusiasm for life and learning when she meets with situations like those above. And she is turning out so beautifully that I'm very satisfied now keeping her at home.

Fortunately for the author of this article, she was able to pull her son out of school and he regained his joy in living. This year (age 8), he's again anxiously anticipating jumping in the leaves.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

The Homework Trap

There's an interesting article on the Wall Street Journal online site. Written by Jeff Opdyke, it's called "How Homework Is Hurting Our Family," and the life it describes is a fresh reminder of why I'm homeschooling. Here's part of his description:
The result is that my son's life -- and by extension our family life -- is a constant, stress-laden stream of homework and tests and projects. It overshadows everything we do, always hanging over our head. It affects our weekends, our meals, our vacations, our work time, our playtime, our pocketbooks.

And to what end? Maybe I'm missing something, but when did schools determine that the best place for kids to learn math, science and English is at their own kitchen table?

Funny - schools aren't usually the ones proposing this option! And when homeschoolers propose it, schools are generally against it.
It turns out he's stressed out. He told Amy that he wishes he could do better. But he already wakes up on school days between 4 a.m. and 5 a.m., panicked that he doesn't know the material he has already studied. He wakes up Amy to help him go over his notes one more time. He studies in the car on the way to school. Some nights he's up past 10 p.m., writing, reading or memorizing. He spends parts of many weekends reading and doing projects.

Every time I've looked at putting my daughters in school, I've been disturbed by the way the school seems to assume control of their students' whole lives. Even the parents lives are largely directed by the school. Take them here, go there, be here at such-and-such a time, pick them up within 10 minutes or pay a fine, do a project this weekend, read 20 minutes every day this week - as if they didn't already have the kids 6 hours every day, somehow they assume they have the right to dictate what kids are going to do even in their free time.

I had a homeschooling friend a few years ago who told me she started homeschooling when her son was in first grade, because, in her words, "I realized I was doing all the teaching at home anyway - I might as well homeschool him and have him at home with me rather than sending him off to school."

The more I read and hear about the amount of homework schools are giving these days, the more thankful I am that we are escaping the rat race. My kids get to do their schoolwork during their best hours, and they get to have a childhood, too. (HT: Janice Campbell)

Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Marriage on the Mend

On the Townhall blog yesterday, I noted a great article by Michael Medved. I haven't seen Michael on that blog before, but I've always liked what he's written, and this article was no exception. Entitled, "Marriage Gloom-and-Doomers Are 'Divorced From Reality,'" his post highlights a recent New York Times article by Professors Betsey Stevenson and Justin Wolfers, of the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, on the state of marriage in America. And surprisingly, that state is improving!

Here are the quotes he gives from the New York Times article:

The great myth about divorce is that marital breakup is an increasing threat to American families, with each generation finding their marriages less stable than those of their parents,” they write. “The story of ever-increasing divorce is a powerful narrative. It is also wrong. In fact, the divorce rate has been falling continuously over the past quarter-century, and is now at its lowest level since 1970. While marriage rates are also declining, those marriages that do occur are increasingly more stable. For instance, marriages that began in the 1990s were more likely to celebrate a 10th anniversary than those that started in the 1980s, which, in turn, were also more likely to last than marriages that began in the 1970s.”

Near the conclusion of their column, Stevenson and Wolfers cite specific numbers: “The narrative or rising divorce is also completely at odds with counts of divorce certificates, which show the divorce rate as having peaked at 22.8 divorces per 1,000 married couples in 1979 and to have fallen by 2005 to 16.7…. The facts are that divorce is down, and today’s marriages are more stable than they have been in decades.”

The New York Times article also points out why the figures became so incredibly skewed that we began to believe that half of all marriages end in divorce:

The Census Bureau reported that slightly more than half of all marriages occurring between 1975 and 1979 had not made it to their 25th anniversary. This breakup rate is not only alarmingly high, but also represents a rise of about 8 percent when compared with those marriages occurring in the preceding five-year period.

But here’s the rub: The census data come from a survey conducted in mid-2004, and at that time, it had not yet been 25 years since the wedding day of around 1 in 10 of those whose marriages they surveyed. And if your wedding was in late 1979, it was simply impossible to have celebrated a 25th anniversary when asked about your marriage in mid-2004.

If the census survey had been conducted six months later, it would have found that a majority of those married in the second half of 1979 were happily moving into their 26th year of marriage. Once these marriages are added to the mix, it turns out that a majority of couples who tied the knot from 1975 to 1979 — about 53 percent — reached their silver anniversary.

In fact, Medved says, census figures show that "over 70% of first marriages manage to last until one of the partners dies." So, he asks, why do we keep hearing about how bad the situation is?

The left promotes the lie in order to indicate that timeless family institutions no longer apply in the 21st Century, and we need new, experimental, exciting and “liberating” arrangements--- like living together without commitment, or single mother households, open multiple partner relationships, or gay marriage, or whatever. The right goes along with the claims about moral collapse because the bad news conforms to the gloomy, “we’ve-lost-America” temperament of too many conservatives, as well as confirming the (often ill-informed) nostalgia for the recent past.
I'm afraid he may be right. Nevertheless, it's very encouraging to hear that the divorce rate is declining, and that Americans are staying together more and more. As one of those committed "till death do us part," it's nice to know that we aren't the only ones who have been married over 20 years! And as we consider the state of marriage in America, those of us who stand for "forever" marriages need to take heart, and not give up. A divorce rate of 16.7 per 1000 marriages means less than 2% of marriages break up every year. That's not ideal, but it's an improvement, and it speaks well for the future of marriages and families.

Do Teachers Need Credentials?

I'm almost afraid to bring this up, because it's so controversial. But after homeschooling for 8 1/2 years and teaching in the public school system, I think this question has to be asked.

It's generally assumed that credentialing for teachers is very valuable. Liberals and conservatives, up to and including President Bush, advocate for teacher licensing. Every new president's education program seems to require more in terms of licensing for teachers. When a teacher has a teaching credential and specialization in their major, they are considered "highly qualified," and if they don't have the credential, they aren't. In Colorado, someone with a teaching credential is fairly easily able to add a new area of specialization - just take a test, or a few classes, or prove you've had some experience, and voila - you can teach it! But if you don't have a teaching credential, you may as well forget it - you must have that little piece of paper.

So what exactly do teachers have to study in order to get that piece of paper? I was planning to be a teacher for a while; I took the majority of the classes, in an excellent private university. We studied child development - material most of America learns by watching their children grow. We studied classroom management - how to get 30 kids to sit down, shut up, and listen. We studied motivation - how to get 30 kids interested enough that they actually learn something. We studied choosing curriculum - something most teachers don't get to do, because they are told which curriculum the school uses, and that's it. We studied lesson planning - something else teachers generally don't do a lot of since the textbook tells them what to do every day and they really don't have time to do anyway. And we learned a lot of technical jargon and contemporary learning theories, all of which are completely out-of-date and have been replaced by a lot of new technical jargon and new learning theories (and I graduated only 20 years ago).

Much of what teachers study is a waste of time. Most teachers learn to teach by experience and imitation. If they are fortunate, they have a positive experience and draw a good teacher to imitate; if not, they have to make the best of what they have. Many good teachers are already teachers at heart before they take a single class. Hours spent sitting in a classroom listening to lectures do not make a teacher; there is no substitute for actually teaching, a few kids at a time and eventually up to a whole class. And any kind of teaching or other leadership can make that happen - Sunday School, afterschool clubs, piano lessons, homeschool co-op groups, anything that requires the adult to lead groups of kids.

I'm not against teacher training; I'm against the bureaucracies that entrench requirements for classes like "Psychology Applied to Teaching." I'm against requiring a piece of paper rather than actual experience. I'm against a system that allows mediocre and even poor teachers into the classroom and eliminates excellent ones, simply because they haven't taken classes they don't need. I'm against judging the quality of teaching experience based on whether it happened in a school or in another context, and eliminating anything that didn't happen in a school. I'm against principals who don't help beginning teachers with potential, and experienced teachers who seem to think they are better simply because they've taken some classes. I'm against an education establishment who thinks they "paid their dues" so you should have to, too, and who judges the quality of a teacher and the value of their work based on how much technical jargon they can parrot back and whether they understand "contemporary learning theory" - whatever that happened to be when a particular teacher graduated from school.

Instead, I'm in favor of teachers being given guided experience. I'm in favor of teachers' knowledge being given as it's needed, rather than dumped on them before they can use it. I'm in favor of all teaching experience being taken into account. I'm in favor of principals providing support and training for their teachers, and more experienced teachers receiving bonuses for spending off-duty hours helping less experienced ones improve. I'm in favor of good teachers being paid based on their quality, not the number of years they've been there; and poor teachers being eliminated even if they've been teaching for years. I'm in favor of testing that is carefully designed to test the most important things - and then I'm in favor of teaching to that kind of test, and of judging teachers' performance based on that testing. I'm in favor of our kids being exposed to "the best of the best," that lets John Elway teach football and Paganini teach violin even if they haven't taken years of teacher training classes and student teaching.

The current teacher training system is just not working. I see no reason why we should be graduating high schoolers who can't read; why businesses should be complaining about not being able to find workers who meet basic minimum standards. Obviously the classes teachers are taking are not providing what they really need in the classroom. In the meantime, we are eliminating teachers who have years of experience teaching, who have great reputations and turn out excited and motivated students, and who are outstanding in their fields, simply because they don't have a piece of paper that says they've been trained to teach. We are requiring those teachers - who can make more money in the private sector - to take dozens of classes they don't need, and to be apprenticed under a "master teacher," who may not be as a good teacher as they are and for whom they will most likely end up grading papers for a semester, just so they can get that credential.

And what does the testing show about the need for those credentials? It shows that they provide no benefit whatsoever when it comes to results. Homeschooling students whose parents have credentials don't score any higher than those whose parents have a high school diploma. Students in public schools, whose teachers are required to have credentials, score lower than students in private schools, though their teachers often have no credentials at all, and lower than homeschooled students as well. Michael Smith has an interesting article on this subject, and on why high academic achievement among homeschoolers is so threatening to the education establishment. Essentially, his argument is that when homeschoolers do well, it destroys the fundamental assertion of so many education experts - that credentialling is not necessary to produce good teachers. And I think he's right.