So. That post I wrote about charter schools? Where I argued that liberal, educated, reasonably affluent parents (like me!) should keep our kids in public schools, advocate for public schools, not buy our way out of problems in the public schools, and so on? Dana Goldstein made a similar argument against homeschooling recently.
Only some things have happened since I wrote that post, and as it turns out, I’m homeschooling Pseudonymous Kid right now. Not technically: he’s on “home hospital,” which is what the state calls it when a kid is out of school long-term for medical reasons. The way this is supposed to work on paper is that all the kids’ textbooks come home with him and he works his way laboriously through the workbooks and questions at the end of each chapter, and someone from the district comes out for an hour each week to make sure he’s keeping up.
The way it’s actually working in practice is that I’m hiring various people to come out once or twice a week to coach him in math, science, and general learning stuff (like being able to take instruction, developing “study skills”, and so on) while spending hours each day doing online research about “gifted kids” and mental health and behavior problems and blah blah blah, as well as trying to make sure that we inch towards having a schedule where he/we do some math together, read books, write some stuff, and so on. One plan, for example, is that we’ll put together a “Portal / Half Life Encyclopedia,” because I’ve realized he has actually done quite a bit of research into the nuances and corners of those games and if I can get him to write it up and teach him how to do a web page about it he can (1) get some writing done; (2) get “credit” for Language Arts; (3) develop some transferable skills for when he goes back to school.
In other words, for the time being we are no longer in the public school system on a day-to-day basis. We still have a foot in the door, both because the law requires some kind of documented school attendance and because I am not yet ready to take sole responsibility for establishing myself as a “private school” and documenting everything he does so that we can demonstrate that he’s not just playing video games for several hours a day (even though that’s a lot of what he’s doing) when it comes time for him to go to high school or college. God knows I would like to get him back in one of the public schools next year, though probably not the one he was attending, because homeschooling him is pretty much taking over my life and I don’t want to even think about paying $10k or more a year for private school (although at the moment the tutors are costing us $250/week, so). But it is quite possible that we are going to end up doing one or the other, at least for the rest of middle school.
So, yeah: I’ve ended up in the obnoxious zone where I’m not practicing what I’ve been preaching for years.
It turns out that in PK’s case, a “good” middle school with 1500 kids in it meant:
- bullying issues that the school can’t keep on top of. With 1500 students and class sizes of 30-40, there is a lot of coded teasing and snide remarks (“what’s wrong with fish?” is one PK was subjected to—superficially not bullying at all, right? Except that it’s mocking him for frequently having smelly sardines in his lunch box and asking at one point, when someone was making fun of his lunch, “what’s wrong with fish?” You guys remember middle school). PK also overhears racist and sexist crap that isn’t directed at him. None of this is the kind of “bullying” that makes headlines. No one is getting beaten up or fearing for their safety. But it does create a pretty hostile atmosphere for a sensitive, idealistic kid.
- Pretty dull and unrelenting class- and homework. Worksheets every day. Not a lot of project-based or creative learning. Teachers who won’t “give credit” for completed homework if the kid doesn’t “show his work”—in other words, if he’s doing the math in his head, he gets a zero for the homework even though he’s done every problem. Which frustrates him no end (and me too). He’s in the GATE class, and of course, being a “good” school, the administration and teachers are inevitably concerned with test scores, so there’s an underlying anxiety about making sure that The Standards Are Covered—which means the kids write essays that follow the format: “In the story _, the character _ demonstrates the quality of _. She demonstrates this quality through three different exchanges…” Which yes, as a writing teacher, you want kids to get the idea of a thesis, supporting evidence, character analysis. Those are the state standards. But if you’re a kid who actually likes stories and is good at talking about and analyzing them, this is stultifying. (To be fair, this teacher really works hard to make the class more fun than that, but in the end, she has to teach The Standards.)
The combination means that PK has ended up with a pretty significant anxiety problem, a huge chip on his shoulder, and buckets and buckets of hostility towards the system, the school, and his fellow students. Without going into details, we finally made the decision not to send him back on the day that the cops and the Crisis Response Team showed up at the house and interviewed him for an hour. Which as you might imagine, did wonders for his anxiety and sense of trust.
It turns out that the system’s limits, in combination with the things it “requires”—Crisis Teams! Cops!—are not always what’s best for kids. Yes, schools ought to Do Something when a kid is having the problems that PK has. Unfortunately, between what schools Can’t Do and what they’re Required To Do, Something isn’t necessarily the best thing, and might actually be a bad thing.
Ultimately, of course, there is no one right thing. People vary more than systems do. Hence, most kids and their parents learn to make accommodations: yeah, the homework is kinda dull, but just get it done; let’s pack peanut butter instead of sardines; let’s designate your kitty socks and brightly-colored pants as “play clothes” so that you aren’t wearing them to school, learn to “ignore” the bullies, learn not to care when you overhear someone yelling “hey Chinese!” at an Asian kid during lunch. (Or, as the school suggests, “he should tell an adult”—to which PK says, “I’d be constantly running to adults every five minutes, and most of the time I don’t even know the name of the kid doing the bullying.”)
But those are a lot of accommodations, you know. And PK isn’t the kind of kid who makes accommodations easily, and to be honest, he is the kind of kid who requires some accommodations from others: he’s argumentative, he’s got a temper, he can be impatient, he sometimes swears, he likes being “weird”. Some kids, like PK, can’t make all those accommodations without doing violence to their sense of self: sometimes the result is quiet and tragic, and sometimes—like with PK—it’s loud and demands attention.
Indeed, if PK were the quiet and tragic sort he would still be in school. But he’s not.
So I am developing a certain humility, let us say, on the question of what parents “should” do with their kids vis-a-vis public education. I still think that, as a nation, we ought to invest in the public system and work to improve it: give it the resources to deal with all kinds of kids, give teachers the prep time and small class sizes that would allow them to give more attention to the outliers, spend the money to build new schools when things get to the point where the kids don’t know each other’s names.
Because while we can (barely) afford $250/week to hire PK’s old math teacher, an acquaintance with a PhD in biology, and a professional “educational counselor” to come to the house and keep working with him; the health insurance to pay for therapy; and the luxury of a stay-home-mama with her own PhD to research school options, arrange for the tutors, take him to his appointments, and be home during the day so that the homeschooling option exists, most people don’t.
What we’re doing isn’t scalable, and it isn’t an acceptable solution to have a system that’s so standardized there’s not enough room on the margins for non-standard kids—not, at least, if you believe (as I do) that educating kids is an important collective concern and ought to be a national priority.
I don’t know the answer. I suspect there isn’t one, in the sense of a one-size-fits all solution.