The take-home folder is a magnifying glass on public school

I have a box of all the stuff my kids brought home from their time in traditional school that made me want to homeschool them. I wish I had known that I was going to have a blog about homeschooling, because when the box was nearly full, I started throwing stuff out. I worried that I’d become a bitter, depressed, and ineffective parent if I allowed myself to have a box full of stuff that makes me angry about school.

But the take-home folder gave me a good sense of what’s going on in traditional schools.

The best thing that I threw out was a coloring book. I saved a bunch of coloring books because it was absolutely unbelievable to me how much the kids colored in class. I saw the coloring as the only way for a teacher to get a break. But that didn’t keep me from going beserk when my son brought home one coloring book that was titled “Things to Play With” and on the last page was the word “Target” and the kids colored in the logo for Target. The store.

I didn’t take my son out of school the next day. But I did start looking for another house in another school district.

That was back when I thought the school district was maybe the problem. Now I know better. But still, I was able to collect materials from many school districts. Each item belies a different problem in the schools.

The obvious ones are teacher-student ratio (I’d have the kids color all day, too, if I had to handle 30 preschoolers all by myself.) Another is lack of funding. But the Philidelphia Inquirer reports that these are not the real problems of public school. The schools have money, they can hire enough teachers—the problems are more complex and therefore harder to solve than money and teachers.

The picture up top showed up in my son’s take-home folder in our rural school. It’s an advertisement from a local church. They want people to send their kids to the church after school. The church subsidizes the program because it includes prosthletizing. Back in the olden days, two years ago, when I thought being friends with the school principal would help me navigate the school better, I called the principal to find out what was going on.

“This is a violation of separation of church and state,” I told her. “You can’t use take-home folders of a public school to advertise a church activity.”

Then she explained to me that there are a lot of kids who have nowhere to go after school. There is not an after-school program at the school. There is often not even a parent at home after school. She said that it’s probably better for the community to let them know there is a safe place for kids to go than to protect the separation of church and state.

Actually, I have to agree. Then it became clear to me that the problems of educating a melting pot as large as the one we have in the US are enormous. I write a lot about how schools are in no position to manage project-based student-directed learning; it would be chaos to let even a small classroom of kids do that with a single teacher. But there are other issues as well. The problems we face as a society are so huge, that I have to agree that the school principal should be worrying first that the kids are safe after school.

There are many, many trade-offs we make as a society when we prioritize what’s important for our schools—including homeschooling too, for sure. But the biggest trade-off we make to send our kids to traditional school is accepting that the education of your kid is not, actually, the top priority. I took my kids out of school when I realized that I couldn’t even justify arguing that educating my kids should be the school’s top priority.


14 replies
  1. Jennifer
    Jennifer says:

    You touched on so many issues in this post! I’ve been homeschooling for over 5 years. My kids have never been in public school and my oldest is 12. I attended public school as a child and also taught in public school for several years. The teacher student ratio is the number one problem when it comes to educating our kids. There is just no way one person can teach 30 kids, most of the time it’s hard to just keep them out of trouble and well behaved. There is a tremendous amount of time “wasted” on non-educational things in public school. Of course, as a child, I didn’t think anything of it but when I became a teacher I was shocked and as a parent I would be outraged. The time wasted in public school is one of the top reasons I homeschool. It is clear that public school is so inefficient that it fails to educate the majority of our children; there’s really no argument when principles have to deal with everything from after school programs to bomb threats. The question is how do you fix this broken system? Homeschooling is not for everyone or every family. My heart breaks for the kids that fall through the cracks and loose their sense of discovery and curiosity and end up not wanting to learn anything. I believe that it has to start with more responsibility going back to the parents, but most parents have been conditioned to believe they can’t be educators. Also, major reform is overdue in the public school system. Unfortunately, I don’t have the answers so I just opt-out and homeschool…….:) My concern is for children and families that don’t have that choice. There has to be a better way or at least we should try different ways. What do they say? “The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and hoping for different results” There’s got to be a better way for a country to educate their children.

    • Aunty Alice
      Aunty Alice says:

      Parents are the best facilitators of learning…by listening and responding to their children, by ensuring they are safe, well fed and intellectually stimulated. Schools can only do this in a limited way in a limiting environment.
      I was in a supermarket the other day and listened to a noisy mother trying to stimulate (harass) her child by feeding in language. Here is a sample. ” Oh look, sparkly things, shiny things, things in different packets, different colours and different shapes. We’re at the supermarket.” She was feeding in thinking… her thinking. One cannot think without language, and one needs the words to begin with. If he child understood “big”, it may have been much more educational to say , “Here is a potato. Can you put ten potatoes in this bag that are bigger than this one, while I go and find the milk? ” That child would be thinking very hard around the concept of “big” and ” bigger than” for at least five minutes and would have felt valued while helping mum with the shopping. The difference is subtle but very important. One is using the language he understands to stimulate growth in thinking. If he doesn’t understand it there is an opportunity for the parent to model the sorting activity for him whilst feeding in specific language.
      By the way this is my first ever “posting” on “facebook”.( I am also learning new words and skills in a new context). It never really stops does it ? I’m 72.

  2. gordana dragicevic
    gordana dragicevic says:

    I live in a (secular, btw.) country where it is almost impossible for children to avoid religion classes, and brainwashing – at state-run elementary schools. Which is of course only one of the problems with the school system. And homeschooling is here illegal. If i had kids, i’d probably spend much of my time on activism to bring about change in local education law.
    Now Penelope, it is clear that you dislike school activism for the valid reason that it takes the parents’ time away from the kids, but i’m sure this blog is read worldwide, and i wonder what you’d advise the parents who live in places where it is impossible to legally homeschool? It’s a challenging one, and seems like no-win situation for the families..

  3. Mark W.
    Mark W. says:

    The separation of church and state. The separation of commercial interests and state. Always good to try and maintain separation between these entities but not always possible in practice as they sometimes blur as evidenced by trials in the courts. As you mentioned the diverse patchwork we have woven for this country is enormous which brings with it enormous problems. While growing up the blur for me was so complete that for most things I didn’t concern myself with these distinctions. I think I saw things like church and business endorsements on the stationary and pens and pencils I used and recognized it for what it was and shrugged it off. However I will admit there were other issues in the church and school that I considered to be bigger fish to fry!
    My Mom kept a box of stuff I worked on while I was a kid. I still have that box. It’s full of elementary school and Sunday school stuff all mixed together. So I guess you could say that’s me – all that scholastic and religious stuff together. I rummaged through that box today. I found a poem typed out on a piece of paper and glued to a paper plate along with some other “artwork”. It’s titled “Kind Words”. I’m pretty sure I didn’t know who wrote it, though, at the time. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. I’m glad my Mom saved that stuff for me. So I guess what I’m saying here is – be careful what you throw out!

  4. Julie
    Julie says:

    That last line captured my feelings exactly. I took my daughter out of kindergarten after a very difficult four months. I honestly couldn’t blame the school or the teachers. It was very frustrating on many levels and it would have been very satisfying to think that they were at fault. But there was just no way that my child was going to get what she needed in a classroom with twenty-six other children and only one adult. I could not ask that everything be about her and that meant she couldn’t be there.

    I just discovered your blog and am enjoying it very much btw. And I seldom read blogs.

  5. Irina I
    Irina I says:

    This blog is dangerous for 20-somethings like me. By the time I have kids, you will have influenced me enough to think that there really is no alternative to homeschooling :-).

    You continue to be my favorite writer online. You and James Altucher are the best.

    • Denise
      Denise says:

      Yeah I second this reply. And as I am about the embark on a teaching career I’m thinking maybe I could do more for the kids by being a content creator than a classroom teacher.

  6. Julianna
    Julianna says:

    I’m really very happy with my public school in Brooklyn. 18 kids with 2 teachers. “Extras’ every day: drama, dance, music, cooking — all paid for by PTA. (they raise 500k annually. this is part of the secret to the school’s success).

    And yes, there is a bulletin board where I saw this exact “pandamania” announcement along with announcements for tot shabbat, muslim culture club, cobble hill ballet, le petit ecole, etc etc etc.

    Most of all, my kids love school. It’s not all bad out there. Sure, I wouldn’t send my kids to the school you sent your kids to, but if you want to find a good school and work to make it better, they are out there.

    • Caroline
      Caroline says:

      Your school is likely an exception, not the norm. After pulling my kid from a supposedly exceptional public school, I’ve learned how less-than-exceptional all of it is after experiencing home-based learning.

      Perhaps your school’s success is due to the effort talent and gifts in your community. Though I don’t see you doing it here, it troubles me that people often try to justify modern federal & state-funded compulsory schools for all on a few minor examples that do not exemplify the rotting bureaucratic leviathan this system is.

      • Julianna
        Julianna says:

        Well, I’m not doing that here and why would I? The fewer kids that go to my kids school, the better. Parents would love to have about 600 kids at that school, but there are 700 and growing.

        I think everyone should do what is best for their kid.

  7. K's mom
    K's mom says:

    Although I agree with your sentiment that public schools waste a lot of time (e.g coloring), homeschoolers sometimes seem more tolerant of deviations from optimal education when it happens at their home than they might be if it happened at a public school. For example, you mentioned in a earlier post (which resonated with me) your frustration over your sons spending the day on their DS. If that happened at a public school, it would be a good reason to pull them out. But at home, it is possible to rationalize that things will be better tomorrow, and anyway, they’re learning something from these games. Public school teachers make the same rationalizations about coloring books at school — it’s not every day and the children are learning fine motor control.

    Whether the schooling is at home or at school, it is as good as the teacher and the classmates. I pulled my kid out of public school because it was contentless behaviour management, and I felt my daughter would be better off reading and drawing at home. But rather than having her disorganized, impatient, preoccupied mother (myself) give up her good job to become the kind of teacher that would make me want to fire myself, I sent her to a semi-private school for the arts where good teachers teach a whole range of interesting topics in small classes of motivated kids. On the weekends, I supplement with my personal specialty, unstructured reading and drawing time.

    Homeschooling is not the only way :-)

  8. Anna
    Anna says:

    There is an amazing non-profit Campaign for a Commercial-Free Childhood ( that works to keep Target coloring books and similar atrocities against learning out of schools. They’ve also done incredible things in general to keep kids free of corporate marketing, and even things like Panda-Mania.

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