Your school activism hurts your kids

Most people I know are not homeschoolers. Most of them tell me they understand the benefits of homeschooling, but they are scared to do it. They tell me they feel more comfortable being active in their kids’ school to make sure their kid gets a good education.

But I want to tell all those people that being active in your kids school hurts your kids. Here’s why:

1. You have no tools and no information.
After a huge, protracted battle, courts required school districts to give parents access to the record of teacher performances. Now that we have had ten years of No Child Left Behind, we have ten years of data about which teachers can teach to a test.

Don’t tell me you don’t believe in teaching to a test, okay? Because that’s what pubic schools in the US do, so if you don’t believe in it, take your kid out. If you do believe in it, then you are probably trying to find the teacher who does it best.

But it turns out that the data is terrible: inaccurate and incomplete. Michelle Rhee, possibly the most effective school reform advocate in the country, (which is why she has been fired from so many jobs, and, while I’m writing in parenthesis I also want to say that it’s so cool that when she took a job in Washington, D.C., her ex-husband relocated to the state with her and her two kids,) says the statistics are so bad that you can’t learn anything from them, and that parents cannot participate in school reform because they have so little information.

So your idea of participating in school to make your school better is so limited, and undermined, and hard-to-do that it’s a waste of your time. And what you end up modeling for kids is that it’s more important to pretend what you’re doing matters instead of doing something that actually matters.

2. Real activism takes over the family instead of nourishing the family.
A family in Massachusetts is suing to get “under God” removed from the Pledge of Allegiance. I understand the lawsuit. Of course it’s suspect that we profess separation of church and state and we have God in the Pledge of Allegiance.

But to be effective, that family will be fighting this lawsuit for the next ten years. The kids will grow up under the shadow of this lawsuit. The parents are sacrificing part of their family life to activism. I’m not saying it’s bad, I’m just saying that real activisim is real sacrifice. And I think it’s probably a lot easier to homeschool—those sacrifices are nothing compared to sharing the spotlight with the ACLU for ten years.

3. Real activism to create real change is something that really messes up kids.
About ten years ago, my husband (now my ex) was working in prison reform. And somehow—I was never really sure how—he got involved with a group of Palestinians who were in the US, running from the law, I guess Israeli law. I don’t really know. Anyway, a guy was here illegally, and he was put in prison, and he had a sixteen-year-old son who had nowhere to live while his dad was in prison.

So, the night the kid was first homeless, we took him in. He was a sweet boy, and very young. Lots of street smarts, I am assuming, but little understanding of how to talk with adults. He had no money in his pocket, he didn’t know how to make himself breakfast. It was unclear how he was raised. He was not impoverished, but he seemed to be missing basic experiences or basic knowledge. We couldn’t quite tell.

It turned out that he didn’t know how to have a normal day. He was used to being on the run with his dad. Protesting, advocating, challenging the status quo. He didn’t know how to just be him. He didn’t know how to hang out in the living room and do something he enjoyed. He didn’t know what he enjoyed because he was always advocating for change.

Whatever that is.

So my point here, is that the idea that you are going to be a school activist is ridiculous. It’s a waste of your time, but more than that, it’s bad modeling for your kids. Activism sacrifices your time with kids, it sacrifices your energy for things you can really affect, and most activism, I’m sorry to say, is just a BS way to sooth your own guilt for the choices you make.

19 replies
  1. LJM
    LJM says:


    Okay. Well…what about parents being active in their small charter or private school which responds to their needs and provides the family with an educational experience they all enjoy and appreciate?

    I know a few families like that. Are they really hurting their kids? Should I warn them that they’re hurting their kids?

    And the Palestinian kid as an example is really, really not very good at all. Because – and I’m surprised that I really need to point it out – being active in your local school is not really anything at all like being an international fugitive.

    I really enjoy your posts on your own personal experience, experiments, and growth as a homeschooling family. Really good stuff.

    But when you start pretending to know how other people are parenting incorrectly (“hurting your kids” “your school sucks”), then you’re basically writing the same kind of baseless, biased, finger-wagging article that Dana Goldstein recently wrote for Slate.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      It’s funny that you say that, because I like what Dana Goldstein wrote. She’s right that homeschooling violates progressive values.

      I don’t care about that. I mean, I live in ground zero for progressive politics: Madison, WI, where, I’m pretty sure, progressivism was born. And as far as I can tell, progressive politics is outdated BS that no one really sticks to anymore except unemployed PHd’s in Madison.

      But really what I think is that I like that Dana Goldstein wrote a finger-wagging piece about homeschooling. I’m all for that. I think we need stronger opinions for this movement as opposed to everyone worrying that someone is offending someone else.

      I think we should all be offensive and say what is right when we think it’s right and correct ourselves when we decide we’re wrong, and then things will start moving much faster. We’ll get smarter about what we’er doing much faster, and we’ll get bravery for more change much faster.


      • LJM
        LJM says:

        I’m not arguing against being offensive when you’re right. If someone is offended that you’re homeschooling your kids, fuck ’em.

        But you can’t make any kind of intellectual case for yourself by stating blatant falsehoods and subjective judgments about people you’ve never met. That’s what conservatives do.

        If you want to argue against public school or simply criticize the way it works, of course you shouldn’t be bothered that some people who have a vested interest in failed system are offended. Absolutely, you shouldn’t let that bother you and you should speak honestly about your experiences and about the objective evidence available on the subject.

        But it’s one thing to offend people with facts and it’s entirely other thing to offend people with baseless assertions about their character. When you tell people that they are harming their kids, that is a big deal. And if anyone tells you you’re hurting your kids without any evidence for it, the first thing you do is stop listening to anything that person has to say.

        It’s easy to preach to the choir, but it’s a challenge to change minds. And contrary to what you seem to think, the arguments you make here are not going to change minds about homeschooling, and they shouldn’t. Because they are very bad arguments. Not bad, as in “naughty” or “offensive,” but bad as in “dishonest” and “false” and “immature.”

        It isn’t brave or progressive or constructive to compare being a school activist with being an international fugitive.

        I worked for years with kids who were actually hurt in a variety of ways by their parents, so maybe that’s why it irks me when you make blanket accusations like that. Maybe it irks me because I spend so much time arguing with anti-homeschooling bigots who just as baselessly claim that homeschoolers are harming their kids. This is the same kind of nonsense.

        Goldstein’s article was bad not because she had an opinion I disagreed with, but because it was an inherently ignorant and, ultimately dishonest opinion. She, like you, makes insulting assumptions about people she’s never met and baseless conclusions about what they’re doing to children. That’s why she isn’t going to change people’s minds about homeschooling.

        • Mariana Mai
          Mariana Mai says:

          I actually want to thank you for linking to the slate article, man, why were you so pissed of? It was interesting to read both sides of the argument, PT’s and Dana Goldstein’s.

          • LJM
            LJM says:

            Mariana, I’m not pissed off. I’m frustrated. I get more frustrated with homeschoolers who act like anti-homeschoolers than I do with anti-homeschoolers who act like anti-homeschoolers. Probably because I’m a homeschooler.

        • Mark K
          Mark K says:

          LJM, that was so well-written, I have to think this was a poorly executed joke:

          “But you can’t make any kind of intellectual case for yourself by stating blatant falsehoods and subjective judgments about people you’ve never met. That’s what conservatives do.”

          If it’s not, it is the most ironic thing I have seen in a long time. You have me agreeing with your point, and then you immediately do exactly what you are arguing (wonderfully) one should not do: judge 50% of the US in one swoop.

          • LJM
            LJM says:

            Mark, I’m so tempted to say that I just forgot to put a winking icon ;) at the end of that, but what it was really was a poorly phrased expression of a minor point that I should have taken out of my larger point.

            It certainly would be silly of me to accuse all conservatives of making baseless judgments about people they don’t know while doing the exact same thing. Then again, I am frequently a very silly person.

            The feeling that clumsy sentence comes from is a belief that fear and judgment are inherently conservative motivations. Fear and judgment are the driving forces in things like the opposition to gay marriage, reflexive admiration/application of the military and authority in general, xenophobia, religious fundamentalism, etc.

            Perhaps it would have been better to say that fear (Don’t do that! You’ll harm your children!) and judgment (How can you harm your own children?) are conservative motivators. Things that break from tradition like homeschooling, secularism, sexual liberation, and tolerance for those things come from a (classical) liberal tradition of non-conformity, non-judgmentalism, and the rejection of fear. Interesting, because lots and lots of conservatives homeschool, which I consider to be a fairly liberal act. Unless, of course, the motivation for it springs from fear and judgment. (This is like a see-saw, isn’t it?)

            I do believe that while we can classify philosophies as liberal or conservative, it’s much harder to do that with people, who are, more frequently than not, a mixture of the two.

            Obviously, the words “conservative” and “liberal” have changed so much over the years and have become so subjective as to be practically useless. And I guess that’s a good reason to stop trying to classify thinking into those rather simple categories.

            So, thank you for pointing out that terrible sentence, and forcing me to attempt to clarify my thoughts.

  2. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    I have this posted on my blog, but it fits here as it addresses changing society — do it big or go small?

    John Holt writes on changing society for the better, and it’s not by going along with the crowd:

    “…lasting social change always comes slowly, and only when people change their lives, not just their political beliefs….In time, 1 percent may become 2 percent, then 5…10,20,30 percent, until finally it becomes the dominant majority, and social change has taken place. When did this social change take place? When did it begin? There is no clear answer, except perhaps that any given social change begins the first time any one person thinks of it…..What I want to do is find ways to help those who want to move in [a new] direction to move that way….”

    “Are the things [the minority] are doing things that many others..could do if they wanted, without undue risk or sacrifice? And are these people, as they change their lives, telling others about what they are doing and how they might also do it? Private action, however radical and satisfying, only becomes political when it is made known….”

    “Though many unschoolers may not think of themselves this way, they are in the truest sense leaders…[going] their own way without caring or even looking to see whether anyone is following them….Charismatic leaders make us think, ‘Oh, if only I could do that, be like that.’ True leaders make us think, ‘If they can do that, then by golly I can too.’ They do not make people into followers, but into new leaders” (p.63-64, Teach Your Own, 2003 ed.).

  3. Mark K
    Mark K says:

    LJM, your last comment was at the max thread depth for comments. So I just started over. I really wanted to respond. There are points I would quibble with, but perhaps e-mail would be better for that, I’m easy enough to find. At least you can tell me where you write, because I would like to read more.

    What compelled me to comment one more time was the desire to highlight what a wonderful example of maturity the overall tone of your comment provides. It’s such a thoughtful response to criticism. Culminating with a thank you…powerful stuff.

    Humility is such an overlooked virtue; generally caricatured as helplessness and poverty of self-esteem. And then dismissed. Your post demonstrates the immense strength and power of healthy, true, humility.

    We damn ourselves to a life surrounded by people who have little to offer us intellectually–because they see everything the same as we do–when we always want to be right. And acting like that somehow has become a cultural norm. In the political sphere it is the cult of bickering, and it means we’re always in a state of cold-civil-war instead of working together to make things really better.

    The funny thing is your example tapers so well with what Penelope is saying about discourse. If I get it, she says that we’ve become too timid about disagreement. The dirty fighting of the internet fora have taught many of us how useless conflict tends to be, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing, so we end up avoiding controversy altogether. Instead, Penelope argues we should seek debate because that is where we’ll find growth, and where our ideas might actually make a difference.

    The blogosphere has potential be a place vibrant with interesting and worthwhile discourse, rather than a networked series of boring and ultimately useless echo chambers.

    Your example supports her thesis in a fascinating way. We *should* be courageous and argue. But we’ll only get something worthwhile from it when we make a sincere effort to argue with maturity, honesty and clarity. She says we need more debate. You refine that to say what we need is more dialectic.

    You demonstrate how mature adults listen to, understand, and consider the points of others when they debate. It’s not a drunken bar-brawl, it’s an ancient discipline for synthesizing new knowledge from the clash of different viewpoints that others offer us as free resources. Which brings us back to homeschooling. How do you teach anyone anything? You show them. :)

  4. Monica
    Monica says:

    What fun! This is the best comment section in a long while. It would be so fun to meet for coffee. Too bad the virtual world can’t oblige. You all must surely live in places more civilized than I. Thank you all (especially Mark K and LMJ) for making my day.

    • Gordon
      Gordon says:

      You live in a world without coffee? Heck, even Salt Lake City has coffee shops.

      Seriously, unless you’re living in a fire spotter tower in northern Manitoba, one can meet others for coffee and civilized discussion. Start with your neighbors. You may, or may not, agree with their worldview. But by making the effort to understand it, and from whence it comes, will do wonders for your own.

      The side benefit is that when you face a crisis, you’ll have a cadre of folks who can, and will be willing to, help you.

  5. Julie Stout
    Julie Stout says:

    This is such a really weird statement, I am not sure exactly how to word my response. I don’t think that some low-level activism is going to harm your family. It could, but if it is harming your family, then I agree that it is probably not responsible. I really doubt attending a school board meeting or running for school board is intrinsically harmful because presumably it would take up some of your time. How do we measure “harm?”

  6. Mledding
    Mledding says:

    Please change the spelling of pubic schools to public schools in the fourth paragraph.

    This mistake could generate some confusion.

    Thank you.

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