How to address the public good

I am actually a very strong believer in public school. I believe we owe it to kids who are disadvantaged—in a whatever way that is—to help them get a good education and have a decent entry point into adulthood.

I am also a strong believer that every kid can learn and every kid is smart and creative if you teach them the right way. Whatever way that is.

So it’s crushing to me that I am taking my kids out of public school and basically giving up on making it good. Because I think it’s hopeless. There will have to be a sea change, and I am not the activist type. I’m too self-involved.

There. I said it.

I don’t want to spend my days making the world a better place. I want to spend my days making sure I don’t repeat my terrible childhood by making my kids’ lives terrible. That is no small feat. The odds are against me.

But I saw this video about Cyber Schools, from education professor Ali Carr-Chellman, and it made me really sad. The bottom line about Cyber Schools is that millions of dollars in public school funding is being diverted to Cyber Schools. Any kid can elect to leave the local school and do school online. The Cyber School has to be a non-profit, but the curriculum company they contract to can be for-profit. So the CEOs of these curriculum companies are making multi-million-dollar salaries by being the single-supplier to a given Cyber School.

School reformers are diverting millions of dollars in public school funding to pay for Cyber Schools. The teacher to student ratio is 50 to 1, and the New York Times did a months-long investigation to determine that the schools are bad for kids and terrible for public school budgets.

I hate that this is happening. I don’t think I will be able to do anything about it. No direct action from me in the near future. But it does make me wonder if I am too isolated in the public debate about how to make society good.

I got fed up with schools and took my kids out. And I’m teaching my kids that if you don’t like it, leave. And here we are, largely isolated, on a farm.

But what about contributing to something larger, and engaging in public debate and social reform? I think this is part of a good education. I’m just not sure how to do it because I hate being part of it myself. It feels hopeless.

Then I thought, well, maybe this blog is that. It’s a way to contribute in a larger way. So, I can’t really think of ways to help kids understand how to contribute to the public good. But maybe you guys have ideas.

Let’s hear them.

23 replies
  1. Al
    Al says:

    Here’s an Inside Higher Ed blog post by a blogger named Dean Dad. He was told by someone “fairly high in state government” that policy changers don’t always do the critical thinking or even look at the research.

    He posts about his epiphany that he’s just a thoughtful nerd (erroneously) assuming everyone else is looking at the evidence from all the angles. You, too, are a thoughtful nerd.

    Giving an evidence-based reason for why the status quo or current plan sucks is useful to people who are bored with research and philosophical questions. Someone needs to examine the problem holistically and spell out the marching orders.

    • Al
      Al says:

      “I had expected to confront differing agendas and priorities, and had prepared accordingly. It wouldn’t have shocked me to hear that some other priority was outranking my own, or that a good idea fell victim to legislative horse-trading. Even a straight-up ideological objection wouldn’t have been entirely surprising. But I wasn’t prepared for “gee, we didn’t really give it much thought.”

      (Readers of a certain age will recall the presidential debate in which anti-abortion candidate George H.W. Bush was asked about the criminal penalties he advocated for women who had abortions. The moderator pointed out that if you hold that abortion is murder, then it follows logically that women who have abortions should be tried as murderers. Bush responded that he hadn’t given it much thought. I nearly fell off my chair.)”

      -Dean Dad’s Higher Ed blog

    • Joselle
      Joselle says:

      I love this from the article you shared: “One of the shockers of adulthood is realizing that most people are pretty much making it up as they go along. It’s empowering in the sense that they’re no smarter than you are. It’s dispiriting when you realize that great harm can be done entirely inadvertently, by people who mean well, just because they don’t get it. And it’s humbling when you realize that somewhere, someone is probably saying the exact same thing about you.”

      You do make an impact with your blog, Penelope. I went to public school and had a great experience in elementary school and then pretty mediocre ones afterwards. I always assumed my kids would go to public school too. I’ve never been critical of homeschooling but never really gave it serious consideration until you started blogging about it. If I can provide love, care, security, clothes, toys, and a home for children, why not an education? Why would we doubt our ability to teach our kids? We teach them whether we know it or not. Why would we ship them off to these factories? So, you are an activist because you have a point of view and are willing to live it. And your words can influence others.

  2. MichaelG
    MichaelG says:

    People want to be part of a group, and since the 1960s, want to be part of a Movement.

    Sometimes change does happen that way, but mostly it happens the way you are doing it — one person at a time. And I think those are the more lasting changes.

    One of the many problems with school systems and government generally is that they chase fads. They want to look like they are addressing a problem, so “do something, anything!”

    This online education company should never have been given such a big, open-ended contract. It sounds like some government agency or politician dived in without giving it much thought. You read this kind of nonsense with government contracting all the time. They just aren’t very cautious with other people’s money. Or with other people’s kids, for that matter.

    Parents need to take control of their kids education, and have some idea of what a good education is. Because if you don’t know what you want, or how to tell good from bad, you’ll get ripped off every time.

  3. Sara
    Sara says:

    I think you are making a difference with you blog. I quit my job as an IT consultant to raise my kids and homeschool. Your blog has given a voice that even very successful parents need to put family first and educate their kids. To read your words takes my guilt away that I should be working in the corporate world. It is a topic that is not addressed on other homeschool blogs.
    I don’t think anyone has a good answer on how to fix public schools. There are so many reasons that schools are failing. Public schools have had problems throughout history, but they are getting worse.
    Anyways, I just wanted to say you are making a difference.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This means a lot to me, thanks, Sara. I am thinking that maybe the way *I* contribute is through public discourse. But what I need is to help my kids find their best way to contribute.


  4. jill
    jill says:

    in terms of working for the greater good; volunteer. there must be a nursing home, hospital, or something nearby that could use some help.

    or go online, find a cause you care about (rescue puppies!) and do something to help.

    any little thing helps.

    and/or: for diversity: in some schools they have programs where the class is partnered with another school/class far away; like japan, or europe, or africa…so that the kids can communicate and learn from each other. maybe look for a pen pal for your kids.

  5. todd
    todd says:

    I don’t know if you’re fishing for compliments, but I’ll bite. The best thing you can do for your kids and your community is to discover and develop your comparative advantage and deliver the highest quality output along that dimension as possible. Fortunately, in your case, I’d say this blog and the businesses you have started satisfy that obligation quite well.

    It is puzzling to me how someone who can so clearly see the importance of escaping a bad situation could be so enamored of the idea of government schools. You feel like you have a duty to the poor and disadvantaged? Then, as jill suggested, volunteer. Or better yet, start a business that will cater to their needs and provide them with opportunities for employment and personal development.

    If it’s childcare for the masses that you think is the most important, then you’ve got a more daunting task because the government basically has that market cornered. Don’t delude yourself that the current public school system has more than a tangential connection to education for the public good. It is a government monopoly run by and for the good of the government employees on its payrolls. And so shall it ever be as long as you want it to be funded by tax dollars.

  6. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    “So, I can’t really think of ways to help kids understand how to contribute to the public good.”

    Accept them for who they are, provide them with the tools they need, and cultivate their interests to make them the best they can be.

    BTW, thanks for this blog and the video link on the cyber school morass. It seems as it’s almost always about following the money. It’s an important part of the details.

  7. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    How do you help kids understand how to contribute in a larger way? I’m no authority, but I will share my thoughts, even though they echo many of the excellent comments here.

    I think you have to show them through the person you are, and the way you live your life.

    If you see the inner beauty in your fellow man, and love them for that, and are willing to work or give your time as an expression of that love, your kids will see that. I believe they will understand and emulate that.

    What contribution you make, the “how,” is going to depend on what value you’re able to contribute to anything. If you are a plumber, it might be plumbing you contribute. If you are a writer and you can move people, then you will get better results doing that, than trying to offer plumbing services.

    Is that going to “fix” anything? No. We don’t get the satisfaction of “fixing” things on a larger scale–we should be very happy if we can fix things on the scale of ourselves and our families. But we certainly can lend whatever it is we can do with excellence and passion. Giving our best is satisfying enough. Many people find it the most satisfying thing they ever do.

    If you cannot think of how you can apply your unique excellence to something within your reach where you want to make a difference–maybe you’re a world class stamp collector–then you can at least, give some of the most precious thing we all have to give: time.

  8. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Are you opposed to the idea of your kids being activists? I think getting kids involved in political discourse could teach them about contributing to the public good.

    In high school, I had an assignment to write a letter to a government office about an issue. I said a stop sign in my neighborhood should be removed. The town did a traffic study, decided the stop sign was not necessary, and removed it. It didn’t change the world, but it showed me that people can influence what goes on in their community.

    Are there any issues your kids are interested in? Maybe your son would like improvements to a public skate park. He could figure out which government agency might fund that project and write a letter to an official. He’ll probably get a response, even if is just a form letter, so there would hopefully be a feeling of accomplishment.

    Are there any causes your kids are interested in, like polar bears or rainforests? Or medical conditions that have affected your family? Your sons can use their entrepreneurial skills to raise money for charities. They can research the problem they are interested in, use Charity Navigator to find an organization, learn about the work the organization is doing to solve the problem. They could also volunteer, as others have mentioned.

  9. sarah-lucy
    sarah-lucy says:

    I’ve seriously considered homeschooling my (future, imaginary) kids in large part because of this blog. So yes, you are contributing to the public discourse.

    And I went to public school and one of the things it taught me is that it’s useless to get involved in politics because nothing ever changes. So, public schools don’t save you from being isolationist.

  10. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    When it comes to the public good (a big subject!) what interests them? Sounds like a great topic to develop a project around. Not everyone is an activist, but everyone needs to learn and practice the skills of advocacy.

    Great to see you posting more – this new crop of posts are just lovely.

    • Mark W.
      Mark W. says:

      A response to Dana Goldstein’s article in Slate (link above) is given in Reason magazine ( ). The Reason magazine piece links to Astra Taylor’s response in n+1 and Conor Friedersdorf’s response in The Atlantic. Good stuff. And where would we be without links? :)

  11. Karen Loe
    Karen Loe says:

    I have been reading your blog and I say “YAY” you for truth and honesty and for always being compelled to say what IS.
    While my childhood was not the same as yours, I still had to learn that same thing: through honesty and truth is good mental health.
    How does this make us great homeschooling parents, you and I?
    We are SO AWARE and vigilant of our kids, their needs, their strengths and growth areas, that we are always seeking to improve ourselves and what we provide to them.
    They learn SO much from that.

    Want to help more? I’m sure you’ve gotten some great ideas above. (I honestly didn’t read anyone elses’ reply) I believe in helping PEOPLE rather than causes. Think about how your life changed with a single spark of truth.
    Help one person. However you can do that. It will change their life as well as your own.


  12. Aubrey Caldwell
    Aubrey Caldwell says:

    I love that you had the audacity to publish this post! The Ed biz is a mess, for many reasons (mostly greed) and I hope to do my part as an advocate for students. It is a miracle that I survived my own public education experience. I wanted to become a lobbyist for education after quitting HS to get my GED because I was so disgusted by the majority of what I encountered and the vacant emptiness I felt. My hunger for education wasn’t met. I was smart, capable,but dubbed lazy and labeled an underachiever. Ironically, I am now considered an overachiever. I learned how to plug into things I am passionate about. That is what I want for my own three children, passion and curiosity fed by knowledge and opportunities to evaluate the status quo and make a difference. I have learned about ADD, Aspbergers, and a variety of other exceptionalities because I needed to in order to be a better mom and a better teacher. I haven’t become a lobbyist yet, but I probably will sooner or later. I think the best we can do as educationists (student advocates serving the best interests of children in any educational setting) is facilitate their natural desire to discover and contribute. The math, science, communication skills, reading, and social studies are simply a natural part of that process. Many teachers complain of students’ lack of motivation, their laziness, ambivalence, and attitude toward learning as a waste of time. My answer to that complaint is, “If they believe it is a waste of their time, then it is. What are you going to do to find out what would be meaningful to them? How will you capture their natural curiosity and what will you empower them with so that they can be creative?” I am also a huge advocate of writing letters to legislators. Perhaps we can make a difference one blog post at a time :-)

  13. Green Mother
    Green Mother says:

    Me too, Me too! Only I am in a different state.
    Your kids grow up so fast. You could spend all your good times with your kids, fighting stupid battles with faceless bureaucrats.

    You give birth, you blink and then they are out in their own lives and you are wondering what the hell happened to the time.

    So I look at it this way: My kids don’t have time and I don’t have time to sort through other people’s baggage and bs. So we didn’t just leave the PS system, I never put them in there.

    Even if you didn’t blog about this, just by raising two, well-adjusted, literate, informed citizens, you are making a gigantic difference.

    Homeschooling doesn’t just lift children out of an ailing system. I believe it lifts whole families out of a broken social paradigm as a whole.

    Keep up the good work.

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