Results-focused research about school is misleading and useless

My son is obsessed with fashion. He wakes up in the morning, tries on ten outfits, and when I laugh, he says, “Mom! Don’t laugh! You know fashion is really important to me!”

Just the fact that he talks about it like this blows me away. The rest of us barely even change our clothes. He quickly learned that buying clothes in the store is way more fun than online so now when we drive to the Chicago suburbs for cello, we also go for clothes shopping.

He buys an outfit, puts it on in the store, and then goes outside to create a fashion shoot. “Mom. Take the picture here! Wait. I need a serious face. Okay. Now.”

This nonstop fashion extravaganza is part of our homeschooling. It’s letting him be creative and express who he is.

A friend sent me this article from Time magazine that says that parental involvement makes a bigger difference in school than what school the kid goes to. My first instinct was, wow, this is so understated. I mean, the IQ your kid is born with impacts your kid way more than any classroom, so of course which parents you have matters more than which school you attend.

But I think the point of the article really is that parents have a big impact on how well kids perform in school. The problem is the underlying assumption that the goals of school are a good use of the kid’s time with the parents. Is is a nice childhood to have parents doing math homework with a kid who will grow up to be a poet?

Why should the goals of the time the kids spends in school be the same as the goals of the time the kids spend with parents?

My favorite thing about homeschooling is that people don’t tell me how to spend my time with my kid. We form our relationship based on what will be a fun, fulfilling childhood. I am still reeling from the book I read by economist Bryan Caplan: Selfish Reasons to Have More Kids. It’s about the the nature/nurture debate, and how overwhelming nature wins over nuture. The book, which is absolutely teeming with research to support the nature conclusion, shows that the only thing a parent can really do is to make childhood full of good memories.

And when Time magazine tells parents to help their kids meet the school’s testing goals, the researchers are not thinking at all about that.

14 replies
  1. Daniel Baskin
    Daniel Baskin says:

    After having read your blog for a while, it’s so weird to hear (on the radio, or in writing) about a school’s effectiveness or ineffectiveness based on it’s test scores or test scores improvements. It’s an argument assuming that test scores are a valid representation of what kids need to be successful. Anyway–stating the obvious. Really enjoyed the post.

    • Meghan
      Meghan says:

      Haha – yes, it’s funny how after a few months reading Penelope’s homeschool blog a few times a week has changed the way I think about how the rest of the media treat school. I saw some back-to-school commercials for lunch meat this September (!) that played off parents’ (mothers’) fears that their child would be ostracized and miserable at lunch…unless of course they had this awesome lunch meat to enjoy. Made me think of all the little ways school can suck.

  2. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    We live in an obsessively technology-based world. Everything needs to be quantitatively measured and reported to the Nth degree. It spills over to areas in our lives where it doesn’t belong or it’s used in excess. I don’t believe testing is the problem. However, I do believe how, where, and to the extent testing is being used is the problem. A child’s ability and ways they learn and their future success is determined by parameters some of which we don’t even understand quantitatively. I believe evaluation of a child’s learning is best served with the correct mix of quantitative and qualitative measurement. Schools will necessarily heavily rely on the quantitative measurements due to high student to teacher ratios relative to a child who is homeschooled.

  3. Stephanie
    Stephanie says:

    Your son is amazing!!! That photograph of him rocks. Maybe he’ll want to get into fashion design or photography or something like that when he grows up – or he’ll grow out of this and want to do something else. Either way, please let him know that his outfit is perfect.

  4. Adam
    Adam says:

    That’s so cool that your son is into fasion and you let him explore it! I’ve read a lot of the same research as Caplan, and I think there is something to be said about having a good childhood when nurture matters. There’s a great blogger and youtuber by the name of Antonio Centeno who makes great resources for men’s style, you should have your son check out his youtube page RealMenRealStyle. He also lives in Madison so who knows, maybe he could be a great coach or mentor for your son.


    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Thanks for this link. And, I’m going to go a little off-topic to say that recently, a company contacted me to do videos with them. And I have been studying YouTube channels to try to understand what works and why it works.

      This guy’s videos are so interesting because they are so made for YouTube. He is doing the kind of thing that would only work in that medium. It’s a great lesson on how to do a YouTube channel successfully. So, thanks for that, Adam.


  5. Brenda
    Brenda says:

    Penelope, I just want to echo Adam and Stephanie on this one. Your son has awesome style, and great hair! I wish my denim jacket would fit like his does. My favorite line in this post is:
    “It’s letting him be creative and express who he is.” What a great goal and learning experience, for him and for us. I wasn’t home schooled, and it took me 2 decades after graduation to figure out how to be creative and express myself, because that was not a value in my public school system or something that my parents particularly supported. As you have mentioned in many other posts, much of the point of school is to file off edges and make us more alike. I love the idea of letting kids lead and sharpen their own edges, to learn to be like themselves, and confident with it.

  6. Ebriel
    Ebriel says:

    Even though my parents couldn’t be bothered to drive across town for my university graduation or senior thesis show because they didn’t agree with my getting an art degree, they had always encouraged my creativity when I was a young child. They always feigned interest in my paintings, drawings, and stories, no matter how tired they were. They’d draw on demand, and watch the puppet shows and dance performances I choreographed with my sisters.

    And that positive foundation was even more important than validating what I did once I decided my own path.

  7. patraq
    patraq says:

    Do you recommend Caplan’s book? I was just reading about it on Amazon, and I’m fascinated, but a little frightened about what I might read.

  8. Amy
    Amy says:

    I love the pic of your son posing! How cute! I think it’s awesome that you are allowing him to express himself this way. My daughter is really into fashion also and sometimes it’s tough for me to keep my mouth shut and let her wear what she likes. I’m learning. And she has learned quite a bit from her interest in fashion and design.
    Letting go of the school model and allowing my kids to enjoy their lives (and learning to enjoy it with them) has been a long process for me. I KNOW that our relationship and connection is the most important thing in their lives right now…I know that they learn so much more and feel so much better about what they have accomplished when they take the lead and pursue their interests…but I occasionally slip back into school mom mode.
    I appreciate this reminder. :)

  9. Gerdi
    Gerdi says:

    While it is great to be conscious about clothes and fashion and being creative, it is equally very important to realize where our contemporary clothes come from. The are made by the hands of children and women in a highly weak position, often earning a salary of barely 30 Dollars a month and having to make a living with that money for the whole family (Bangladesh, India, Nepal, Vietnam etc…)
    It is our responsibility to inform our children in what kind of world we live in, where millions of weak people have the intolerable and unfair task to make colorful clothes for millions of people living convenient lives.

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