School reform talk is escapism


The Washington Post announced that Sarah Wysocki has been fired. She got great reviews for her classroom performance. Kids liked her, her principal liked her. But the test scores of her students were not good enough.

There is wide agreement that teaching to the test is a vapid way to educate kids. There is wide agreement that young kids should be on the playground way more than they are right now. It’s just that we can’t think of another way to manage education on such a huge scale as the US public school system requires.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation put enough money toward solving this problem that we have enough data to know we have nothing that even approximates a solution.

Here’s the most important information we have: It’s clear that we should evaluate teachers on something besides test scores. But everything else is valid only after years of data collection. So, for example, both Michelle Rhee, a leading explorer of of school reform, and research funded by the Gates Foundation conclude that you cannot know if a teacher is a good teacher, really, unless you evaluate over many years, to account for difficult, or especially good, groups of kids.

What’s news is that parents cannot tell if they have a good teacher or not. And when parents ask a parent of a kid who had the teacher the year before, that parent doesn’t have good information either. The data pool is too small.

So parents have very little good information to manage their kids education. None of them have access to long-term data, unless they live in LA or NYC where journalists have demanded access under the Freedom of Information Act.

So what blows me away is that this article, about the teacher being fired, has 1000 comments. It’s parents who know they are sending their kids into a lousy school system but the parents can’t admit that they can’t influence it.

I think we are mired in denial. Parents don’t want to face the real problem, which is that the prospect of homeschooling is overwhelming. To create real reform in your kid’s education—by homeschooling—that would be difficult and scary.

Settling for a discussion about school reform is a path of denial. The real issue is that you have to scale back your spending and your career goals and your idea of how exciting your adult life will be. Your adult life will need to be much more focused on your kids. And obsessing about school reform is a way to avoid the realities of adult life.


16 replies
  1. todd
    todd says:

    I am certainly no fan of government schools but I think you are kind of begging the question, or at least, it’s not clear from your post what you imagine the purpose of schooling is. Parents (like all people) have a vast array of different goals and desires for themselves and their children. It may be that many merely want their kids to grow up to be decent adults and aren’t particularly concerned about how much they enjoy their day at school. Out of sight, out of mind. In that regard, I still think government schools are far from ideal, but a lot of kids go through them and come out fine on the other end. All this is just to say that your prescription of massive sacrifice rings a bit hollow. I don’t think there is any evidence that you have to forsake your own ambitions to the extent that you claim in order to turn out decent members of the next generation. Give yourself (and everyone else) a break.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    School reform, homeschooling, unschooling, private schooling, …
    You know what? I just like the fact that all the options are out there and available for parents and their kids. No one size fits all. Whatever choice is made should be made in the best interests of the kid and the family. This is the question IMO -How is the kid going to get the best education with the resources available? Homeschooling has a lot of potential when executed properly but it just doesn’t work for all families. I’m not in denial but I do think all this talk about school reform is good. It’s the discussion we need to spotlight the good and bad aspects of education for kids.
    I read the Washington Post article about Sarah Wysocki. She may be a very good teacher but she’s not a good fit for the D.C. school district. It’s their loss and she’s in a better place … for herself and her students.

  3. karelys
    karelys says:

    It may be my youth, therefore lack of experience, but I refuse to believe that you can do what is right for your kids (like homeschool) and avoid advocating change or pushing for change.

    I think we can do both. I think that kids watching their parents changing the world gives them a sense of purpose and the awareness that you can, in fact, change the status quo.

    But I remember what you wrote about the kid who you took in because the dad was taken to jail. He wasn’t sure how to just be because they were always on the run. I don’t think that’s healthy either.

    But knowing of a problem and not doing anything about it because it would take away from your kid’s time and childhood is telling your own kids that it’s okay to know that things are bad but as long as you are okay then don’t bother doing anything about it.

    They won’t know right now because you don’t discuss it with them. Maybe you do.

    But they will know when they grow up.

    Maybe the most powerful change is to have THE KIDS along with the parents push for change.

    Help your kids with a project that makes money. It may sound ridiculous but the fact that school produces future compliant workers that can earn money for their families may make homeschool look like it does a disservice for kids. But show the world that homeschooling actually teaches your kids being self sufficient. I love the story of the eggs and your youngest one.

    If kids can learn to earn money from an earlier age rather than waiting for parents, the government, adults in general, to spoon feed them what they need it speaks volumes of the benefit.

    Then have the kids advocate for reform of the system. Or at the very least have kids that teach other kids.

    This thought is forming as I write so I am a little scared that I sound crazy but I am convinced that you learn best when showing someone how to do something. Even if you are not a master at it you can help someone learn the basics and then that person gives you ideas on how to get better. No spoon feeding.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      I think it’s an issue of time and energy. I read once that you can only do three things well. For most people that is: take care of their kids, earn money, and take care of their health. Or their marriage. Some people swap the kids/money/gym troika and put marriage somewhere in there instead.

      But my point here is that time is really really limited once there are kids. So the idea that there is also time for activism is hard to get my head around. I mean, which do you give up: kids/money/marriage/health in order to make activism a high priority?

      i think most real activists are either professional activists, and they are effective. Or they are delusional activists and they use activism as an excuse to spend time doing something that is easier than the stuff they really care about, like having dinner with their kids and spouse.


      • Greg
        Greg says:

        It seems to me that you have combined two activities under “taking care of kids”. The first involves the chores and face work involved in meeting their physical and emotional needs. The second is providing an education. Most parents manage to stick to three activities by outsourcing education.

  4. Nowgirl
    Nowgirl says:

    I am currently volunteering to start a project-based charter school in my school district. We’ll submit the grant this spring and get the school off the ground in the fall of 2013. Next year, while we’re planning the school, I’ll be cooperatively homeschooling my daughter. If the charter school doesn’t get close enough to providing what I consider a quality school experience, I’ll keep homeschooling… but it’s possible we will create something new and great.

    My activism isn’t lame-duck, or escapist, or hurting my family (the school planning process is really interesting to my kid.). It’s time consuming, at one evening meeting plus some web work every week, but not terribly so.

    You have excellent insights about education but I think project based charters are a way of solving the problem that you may have written off too soon. There is more compatibility between you and Seth Godin than you think.

    Consider visiting some great project based and passion based charters. Homeschooling isn’t the only way to get out of your kids’ way. We can create lots of different structures for that. And some of those structures have the benefit of being useful to kids who don’t have the option of being homeschooled like my kid does (my family has made a lot of sacrifices, including health insurance, to free me up to educate; those sacrifices aren’t right for everyone.)

    I love both your blogs and thank you for the work that goes into them.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      I think the education reform movement has already moved past charter schools.

      Here’s an analogy. Slavery was really bad. Like, destroying peoples’ lives. You could say, let’s get slaves good home. That’ll really help things. But it would be BS.

      The civil rights movement said get rid of slavery. The cotton industry will look totally different.

      The real education reform movement says get rid of schools. The education arena will look totally different.

      Charter schools are not fixing the problem, they are masking the problem. They are buying better homes for slaves.


      • Nowgirl
        Nowgirl says:

        At what point does something become a “school” and therefore a “home for slaves?”. Will my cooperative homeschooling be a home for slaves? Does it depend on how I do the homeschooling?

      • Greg
        Greg says:

        I think this is a totally valid analogy. It is radical though. You are getting to the heart of the matter from my perspective, which is how should we treat children.

  5. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    “Your adult life will need to be much more focused on your kids. And obsessing about school reform is a way to avoid the realities of adult life.”


    Heard NPR while driving, a discussion about empowering teachers to deal with emotionally challenged kids, how to interpret kids who come “from other cultures” how to avoid rewarding them with suspensions. People call in and mince the same details: it’s the administration. It’s money. It’s no support at home. Same ole, same ole.

    School used to be The Place to pull one’s self from the ghetto or from obscurity. Now it IS the ghetto. It IS obscurity. It’s a dying model, and they keep dragging out the resuscitation paddles. However, a major replacement requires–as you say–pouring a part of each day back to that up & coming generation, more than a pat on the head between dinner and bed.

    It means being adult enough to decline a continual childhood (“But what about WHAT I WANT!”) for the sake of your children.

  6. Bernie
    Bernie says:

    I just had to say I love this discussion and I loved Jennifer’s comment above. I feel like the school discussion is an onion and I peel layer after layer after layer and at the core is “we need to work to pay taxes so school needs to be there to manage the kids while we do that”. Every time I try to peel it a different way but that’s always in the middle. Kids don’t really feature, but some would say ( school help them become the next lot of good tax payers. I don’t have a problem with paying tax, but it is what it is.

    • penelopetrunk
      penelopetrunk says:

      The onion analogy is great. That is exactly what I feel like. I keep thinking any day now I’m going to really feel like i have a handle on this topic. And then some days I peel away a layer and I think to myself, “I’m not even sure what topic it is that I’m talking about.”


  7. victoria
    victoria says:

    Penelope, your homeschooling writing has always fascinated me. Partly because I find the subject matter per se fascinating, and partly because I find your take on it interesting.

    I am someone who’s read a lot on homeschooling — John Holt, John Taylor Gatto, some of the empirical research, Paolo Friere, some of the classical homeschooling/Charlotte Mason stuff — though I’m not a subject matter expert. And my husband and I chose not to homeschool our child because we didn’t think it would be best for her (although I don’t rule out that possibility for some time in the future, depending on our circumstances). In our case the decision wasn’t economic; I was working from home when we made that decision and I could’ve made it happen fairly easily. Rather, it has to do with the fact that I come out 100% extraverted on a Myers-Briggs and my child — an only! — makes me look like an antisocial hermit. I don’t buy that there is an inherent problem with socialization among homeschoolers, but I was deeply skeptical that I could give my daughter the amount and type of social contact where she would thrive.

    So we send her to a constructivist school where classes are capped at 12, there’s lots of free time (about an hour a day of free reading/writing/art-making time, plus an hour a day and most of an afternoon a week of outdoor recess), and the kids work at their own pace in reading/math/what-have-you. Parents come in and cook lunches every day, there’s lots of lab science and field trips (especially as the kids get older) and heavy emphasis on art, music, and collaboration. And lots of age-mixing, sometimes formally, often informally.

    Is it perfect? Nope (although it feels pretty darned close!). For my kid I feel very comfortable saying that it’s the best environment we have available to her at the moment, including homeschooling.

    So I guess the questions that come to mind when I read your writing are: 1.) What is my daughter losing by virtue of being in a school environment (even one that lacks a lot of the trappings of a traditional school environment)? She’s not being “taught to a test”, her work isn’t 100% led by curriculum or whatever the class is working on (although there is some of that). I can say that she has more structure than she’d otherwise have, she does have some homework (not much, but it’s there), and she can’t spend the day at the museum a few times a week like she’d probably enjoy doing. But she couldn’t spend all her time at the museum if both parents are doing something to bring in an income anyhow.

    And 2.) If the type of education she’s getting is a “good one” (I happen to think so, although you may vehemently disagree!), then why wouldn’t it be scalable? It’s definitely a dent in our budget to send her to school, but tuition is less than five figures a year, and less than half of what our local public school pays to educate each student. (Which is, of course, a bit of a red herring; there are a lot of expenses a public school would have — special education for children with profound physical and mental disabilities, free lunch programs, transportation, athletic programs, counselors and nurses — that this school does not.)

    But if it is a better/more humane way to educate kids than our existing systems, and it is scalable, then is reform really escapism/ridiculous? Could the actual problem be that we’re just not thinking dramatically enough when we talk about reform?

  8. Jim Capatelli
    Jim Capatelli says:

    I don’t know if I can find the words to tell you just how absolutely obtuse, and—no personal insult intended—ignorant your “education” postings truly are.

    It’s incredible. Do you really believe this drivel?

    Home schooling is an oxymoron—with an emphasis on “moron”, a classification that fits most young adults I’ve met who tell me they’ve been “home schooled”.

    If “home schooling” is so “effective”, why isn’t it being used for post-secondary school as well? Why send your kids to a college, when you could keep them at home for a few more years and confer “Mom’s B.A.” on them.

    FYI…I’m an employer in a small business. “Home Schooled” kids need not apply. I prefer educated people.

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