Stop putting the onus on kids to make school work. And Teach for America sucks.

The New York Times has a parenting advice columnist who answers a letter from a parent whose kid thinks school is boring.

The advice to the parent is amazing. First of all, the kid should talk to the teacher directly. Really? What will the kid be able to accomplish that The Gates Foundation has not been able to accomplish after $9 million in funding? Is there some secret to making school interesting that the world does not know about?

Any child whose curiosity and passion has not been crushed will find school boring because school is about putting your own curiosity and passion aside in order to meet national standards for your age group. Or maybe the standards for your gifted program. Or (God forbid) your not-gifted program.

The only thing more pathetic than parents thinking their activism can make school work is parents thinking they can dump the project on their kids.

It is a reallyreally broken system. When parents put their kids in school—even private schools—parents accept the limitations of putting twenty kids in a classroom with one teacher. If you have a kid smart enough to tell you that school is boring and stupid, you should not punish that kid further by making that kid tell the teacher or the principal.

Teachers and principals do not live under a rock. They know that mandatory schooling is not working for this country. They don’t need your kid to tell them.

Here’s a touching blog post from a girl who entered the Teach for America program. The unsaid hypothesis of Teach for America is, of course, that the current teachers are incompetent and Teach for America will save the day, one disadvantaged classroom at a time.

But this girl points out that the majority of a teacher’s job is discipline, so experience rather than innovation is what you need for classroom discipline. This is true for both rich kids and poor kids. Because if your kid is at such a great school that there is self-directed learning, then the teacher can just stay out of the way. I know, because I do self-directed learning at home and the only thing my kids need me for during the day is a a computer and a clean pair of boots.

So the best teachers are the ones who can keep the discipline problems from ruining everyone’s day. This makes sense. It’s a reason why school reform doesn’t work, and it’s a reason why Teach for America insults our intelligence.

Parents who encourage their kids to talk to the teachers and principals about how school isn’t working actually encourage those kids to be discipline problems. Because any kid who speaks up against the school system during school is a trouble maker. How could one teacher deal with twenty kids doing that?

And this is a microcosm of why all school reform doesn’t work: because the system is so fundamentally flawed that dealing with any single problem only creates more problems. This is true of putting smart motivated teachers in a classroom and it’s true of telling smart motivated students to ask for a more stimulating environment.

30 replies
  1. Ellen
    Ellen says:

    It’s a myth that talking to the teacher, parent or child, will result in change from the behemoth monstrosity of public school. It is a system designed to function for the teachers, not the students. I can’t imagine trying to go through the backflips that are suggested in the Motherlode article. What a waste of time. By the time you completed the busywork suggested by the columnist, the school year would be over. And the only things that might result in real change for the child are shot down in the end of the article. Mass education is for the masses, not the individual.

  2. Liza
    Liza says:

    Penelope- I love this.
    I am a homeschooled 10th grader, I started homeschooling in 7th grade. I remember filling out a school evaluation form thing when I was eight, and writing that I didn’t like being at school because it was boring.
    The teacher later pulled me aside in the lunch line to say, “You don’t like being at school?! You’re going to make me cry!”

    I still can’t believe that she never suspected that the non-social girl who just wanted to read a book might be bored at school!

  3. Jill
    Jill says:

    What your kids need from you is a computer and a clean pair of boots? Give me a break. They also need a big farmhouse, parents with money, cellos, violins, a piano, a chauffeur, gymnastics lessons, swim teachers and a nanny. Please try to be a little more honest in your tirades against school.

    • Q
      Q says:

      We unschool, too, and are only slightly above the poverty level. My fiance works, I stay home with the kids, we live in an apartment in a small city, we don’t have much money to spare, but are kids are still in the activities of their choice (swim lessons, soccer, dance, etc., the public library is a great hub for finding free or inexpensive resources in our community for the kids to be involved in). But, yeah, most days the tablet and sneakers for running around at the park are all they need from us. I think the majority of kids would be satisfied with that. I don’t think Penelope was dishonest at all with that statement.

    • erinn
      erinn says:

      I really enjoy this site, but I agree that the message seems to be that only rich married people that can afford to homeschool (with tons of electronic gadgets, expensive lessons, etc.) should have children.

      I don’t doubt that the public school system fails many children. But I am a single person, planning on starting my own family, and not planning on giving up my career/income (which by default means my future children are going to be attending school). And I don’t feel guilty about this in the least. My responsibility as a parent includes fostering my child’s interests, which I fully intend to do around a school and work schedule.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        Look, if you’re choosing to have kids alone, it’s fine, but then you need to also choose to not complain that people who parent in teams are at an advantage. You can team up, too. Finding someone to parent with isn’t magic Cinderella. It’s compromising on everything for the sake of making raising a family easier. So if you are not compromising to have a teammate to parent with then you’re choosing to compromise on your financial and time resources.

        Married people have opportunities for parenting that single people don’t because of resources. But single people don’t have to compromise. The message of this site is we each choose what we give up in order to get what we want.


        • erinn
          erinn says:

          I’m not complaining; I am very happy with my choice, and I do not begrudge other people the resources that they earned. I agree that homeschooling is probably a great choice for many, many children, and I also agree that school cannot foster individual interests and needs. And I even agree that one does not need to be rich to homeschool their children. I completely respect those parents who choose to homeschool.

          I am simply suggesting that this is probably not a viable option for a lot of parents (especially single people). This is not a complaint, I am not bitter about this, but this is reality. You either have to a) have a partner that works enough to support the whole family unit, and/or b) a lot of money from *somewhere*, or c) have a job that can somehow be done at home while you are simultaneously trying to watch or teach your children. It’s not impossible, but it’s not as easy as it’s being made out to be.

          I don’t believe I am a horrible parent for planning on enrolling my children into school. And more importantly, my children will not necessarily fail to thrive just because I choose to put them into school.

      • Ellen
        Ellen says:

        I’ve been married for 22 years. We have 3 kids, 19, 17, 13. My husband has been the sole breadwinner, with great success, the entire time. We did 5 years in public school, kindergarten through fourth grade, before turning to homeschooling. Even with the financial, two-parent advantage, raising a child from birth on is massively demanding of even the best two-parent team. By the time you make it to the school age years, public school demands will consume your after-school hours, and you will still be trying to get a meal prepped, chores completed, and mabe a few minutes alone to save your own sanity at the end of the day. Unless you earn the really big bucks and can employ someone to carry the responsibilities of parenting, it’s going to be unrealistic that you will have the resources in money, time, energy, and focus, to foster a child’s interests around work and school. You’ll be in survival mode.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I think the point is that they would be fine with just the computer and the boots. The other stuff is wants, not needs. Big difference.

    • Caroline
      Caroline says:

      The you-have-to-be-rich-to-homeschool assumption is a myth. Penelope is a good earner but she doesn’t represent most homeschoolers. More often than not people who preach tolerance and fairness are assuming, ignorant, and intolerant. It seems their judgement is a reflection of their own insecurities and hate.

  4. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I really love the photo of the boots and the old door. :)

    When I was in school my favorite parts were the extracurricular activities, like theater and sports. I was bored to tears in my classes but I had no other way to participate in the extra stuff. These days there are so many other ways to have access to the extracurricular stuff that I loved so much for my kids without having to bore them to tears in school.

    And no; you don’t need to be wealthy to homeschool, it helps, but I know mothers that find really creative ways to still make homeschool work on a shoe string budget. Other single moms that have to work; choose to work from home so they can homeschool. The wealth argument is just an excuse to not homeschool your kids.

    • mh
      mh says:

      My average outlay on schooling materials (including craft/construction materials but EXCLUDING Legos (important)) runs under $400/kid.

      Music lessons, specialized sports instruction/team, major field trips, minor enrichment activities add to the costs, but this is important: I would be spending that money *even if my kids were in school.*

      We would still be going to the symphony and to theater productions. We would still take a long road trip to DC or NYC or the Revolutionary War sites or the Battle of Little Big Horn. We would still hit the National Parks. We would still pay for athletics and coaching. We would still pay for music lessons and drawing lessons and robotics club and chess club and archery club and rocketry club… Those costs are just built into raising children (for us, at least), and they are significant costs in time and money.

      School costs next to nothing. Learning can get expensive.

      (BTW, almost all our curricular needs are covered by our library cards and our curiosity)

      So I agree, you don’t have to be wealthy to homeschool. As with anything, money makes more things possible. But we have homeschool friends with low income, and their kids are every bit as charming and well-adjusted as our own. Which is to say: imperfectly.

      • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
        YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

        You know, that’s a true statement that we would be doing all the extra stuff even if we didn’t homeschool! The only difference is that we’d be on the same school schedule as everyone else going to crowded vacations together. Also, the kids would be exhausted from being in school 8 hours plus all the activities on top of that, plus homework. No time for family time when you have to cram all the activities around a traditional school schedule.

      • jill
        jill says:

        “their kids are every bit as charming & well-adjusted as our own.” yes. i love it.

        we homeschool on such a tiny income (my huz prints t-shirts in our basement; i spend my heart & soul on my kids, our home, & our family) it’s almost comical. & the more we get into it, the more we realize how well the kids are flourishing because we leave them alone & let them do their own creative endeavors.

        today is saturday. when i was a kid, i spent saturday mornings watching cartoons. my kids (ages 10, 7, & 4. the toddler is napping.) are downstairs shooting a stop-motion movie, having created their own backdrop out of a huge bulletin board we got at a college surplus sale for $2.

        homeschooling can require as little or as much as you want it to. :)

  5. Isabelle
    Isabelle says:

    It is obviously a much harder equation to solve for single parents, and I’m not one myself so I won’t comment on it, but in my opinion there are a WHOLE LOT of couples living on two incomes who- if they wanted- could live on one. We live in a very high COL area and live on one moderate income, and live very well. I get tired of people complaining about how they can’t afford to have one parent home, when really they have just made choices about what is important (big house, 2 cars, prioritizing retirement savings over all else) and it isn’t having a parent home.

  6. Jill
    Jill says:

    I’m not trying to say that only rich people can homeschool, or that kids can’t survive with just a computer and a pair of boots. But realistically, kids are part of a family, they don’t just exist on their own. In order for Penelope’s family to thrive, they need a lot more than just giving their kids boots and a computer. She needs to work, so they need a nanny. She also wants to have them be educated in music, so they need music teachers. And on, and on etc. Without these things, the family would not function well. I just think that this post is a bit of a misrepresentation of the actual needs of the kids and the family as a whole.

    I love reading this blog, but sometimes it gets so adamant that it annoys me. Not every single thing about every single school is bad.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      I appreciate your frustration with the fact that I write about how everyone can homeschool when I have such a relatively large income. The truth is that I only need the large income, so I can work all day. If I didn’t want to work I wouldn’t have a nanny. Working is expensive whether you put your kids in school or don’t put your kids in school. There are people who put their kids in school and put all of their income in childcare as well. So I think it is important to separate the cost of working vs. the cost of raising children.

      The other thing I want to point out is that you don’t need a blog to talk about the good things about sending your kids to school. You tell yourselves those things every morning when you send your kids to school. This blog is to talk about things that are counter intuitive to what we have been told. We have all been told sending kids to school is the right choice.

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      It is always amusing to read the comments posted here by people who feel the need to argue that while homeschooling may be a worthwhile initiative for some kids, school is a valid option as well. Who are you trying to convince? Not most of the other posters, most of whom are current, former or future homeschoolers. I can only conclude that you are trying desperately to convince yourself because, at the end of the day, homeschooling is not something you are willing to do. Even if you know deep down that it is the right thing to do.

      • erinn
        erinn says:

        Saying that your way of parenting is better than another parent’s way of parenting isn’t a helpful dialogue. It’s judgmental and ignorant. School did not fail me–I’m a succussful litigator. My brother is an aerospace engineer. One needs to attend some sort of organized educational institution to achieve these careers. We were raised by a single parent with a low income. Would we have been more successful if we had been homeschooled by my mother? Probably not. That doesn’t mean that my way is better than yours or vice versa.

        Insinuating that school is a terrible choice and homeschooling would solve every child’s problems won’t convince me, just like I assume that me telling you the opposite would convince you. It’s not about *convincing* someone to homeschool or not homeschool. I come here to read the blog posts because alternatives to public school do interest me, and seeing happy boys run around on a farm all day learning valuable lessons is convincing. I just don’t see why it has to be a fight.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Hi Erinn,

          I’m assuming you don’t have children yet, but I’m not sure. However, I understand that you will enroll your future children in traditional schools and that is your choice. But what happens if you have a child who doesn’t fit the mold, is really creative, has adhd, has dyslexia, has autism spectrum disorder, or is bored and NOT thriving at school like you did. Would you be open to homeschooling and still being a successful litigator? You can’t really plan for what type of children you will have; and more times than not traditional school will fail those kids who don’t fit inside the one-size-fits-all standardized box. I’m glad that you are seeking out and perhaps considering homeschool as an option even if you can’t really envision it at the moment.

  7. Stormclouds
    Stormclouds says:

    I thought it was stupid to have the child speak directly to the teacher too. I do think there is value in having children face issues directly, but between a child and another adult the child is coming from lower status and power by too much. I have made my kids do this before (we homeschool, so at activities) but only with my presence, so I can monitor the situation and command respect on the kid’s behalf right by them. The value of teaching children to navigate uncomfortable situations and speak up even when it is difficult is so important to their happiness and success as adults that I can sort of understand why it was suggested, even if it was offered in a clumsy way.

  8. Judy Sarden
    Judy Sarden says:

    The point of teachers needing to be disciplinarians is well said. Whenever I report having had a difficult day with my son, my husband replies that if the kid was in school we wouldn’t have any discipline issues with him because the school would not tolerate it. So even though we are in our second year of homeschooling and the kids are thriving, my husband still thinks school is better because they do a better job of disciplining kids and making them “do what they are supposed to do.” The fact is that my son has sleep apnea and when he doesn’t sleep some nights, the next day is unpleasant. We can certainly manage that much better in a homeschooling environment than we ever could in a traditional school environment. But it is hard to change people’s mind about the “system” when we have all been indoctrinated in it.

    • Splashman
      Splashman says:

      Wow, nothing to help the day along like an ignorant husband, eh?

      I can’t imagine anyone (even people who are part of the system!) actually believing that a school can deal with behavioral issues better than a concerned and involved parent. The very notion is bizarre!

      I feel for you. I wish you the best of success in eventually educating hubby. He needs ‘homeschooling’ just as much your son! :)

  9. Grace Conyers
    Grace Conyers says:

    I had people asking me about Teach for America the other day. I had no idea what to tell these bright, hopeful, and utterly ridiculous college students that believed in the system as it was, but hoping to do something good.

    I’m glad to know something more about the way Teach for America actually works now. I’m also glad that I told them they’d learn more about teaching from working outside the system and to volunteer at a museum.

    As always, thanks for the insight, Penelope.

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