Structural barriers to school reform we never talk about

When we talk about school reform, we never talk about the problems that are impossible to overcome. So often I hear people talking about opting out of tests, volunteering in the classroom, improving arts education—as if these things will make a significant difference.

But that stuff doesn’t tackle the problems with school that are structural. Most of those serious problems arise because no one represents the children’s interests at school.

1. Schools go directly to kids with the school’s gospel.
I didn’t vaccinate my youngest son. We have autism all over both sides of our family. So if there was one little chance that vaccinations are related to autism I didn’t want to be a part of it. The families who don’t have a history of autism can be the ones taking the lead on vaccinations for the rest of us. I’m fine with that.

And apparently, so are the rich parents of Los Angeles. Because it turns out that the majority of rich families there don’t vaccinate.

So you know what the LA doctors did? They found this documentary about vaccinations and made sure kids saw it in school, where their parents couldn’t filter the information toward their own views.

At first I was outraged. Then I thought: homeschoolers should use tactics like that in school as well. The data that shows kids should have a self-directed education is just as strong as the data that vaccines are safe. So what about going around the parents to get to the kids?

2. Politicians run long-term school reform efforts, but politicians are measured by short-term success.
Newark public schools are the worst in the country, both in terms of gun shot wounds and failure to graduate. The New Yorker published a blow-by-blow account of how the mayor of Newark wrestled $100 million from Mark Zuckerberg and friends and then blew it on the pop-up consulting companies of friends and donors and Newark schools have nothing to show for it.

The Newark school system is the story of how the politician’s goals are not aligned with the parent’s goals because school reform is long-term but politics caters to change that wins short-term elections. The New Yorker article also sheds light on the fact that schools problems are local, and family-focused, and parents know the problems better than anyone else, but no one is asking them. There is so much money in school reform that there is no time to ask parents their opinions because you have to work so fast the spend all the money before the next election.

3. No adults have their interests aligned with the kids.
Parents want free childcare. We know that. But teachers are paid way too much for the babysitting they do.

It’s amazing to watch the legal hoops states have to jump through to convince teachers that they should have the same level of job security that everyone else in the workforce has, which, frankly, is pretty much zero. California had to go through years of battle so they could fire old, ineffective teachers. New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg spent the majority of his extended mayorship wrestling control of school from the teacher’s union, and it’s still an on-going battle.

It makes no sense to me that our elected officials have less control over education spending that non-elected, non-impeachable teachers do. Yet the problem was outlined clearly when the governor of Wisconsin tried to outlaw collective bargaining for teachers.

Parents feel that if they put teachers in charge of their kids for eight hours a day then they have to defend teachers when they come up against the politicians. Parents support teachers to fight hard to maintain the status quo, even if it’s not good for their kids.

It seems fine to me that teachers should have to learn to job hunt and work twelve months a year, and fund their own retirement. This is what adults do in today’s world. But teaches unions disagree, and this is a huge barrier to changing education in the US.

18 replies
  1. jessica
    jessica says:

    I was wondering what happened with that cash…..Reading the New Yorker article is like looking a car crash. Yikes. Is it not obvious, the true nature of a politician?

    Education reform cannot be a top-down process. Start with the kids, ask what they want, and support them. Where are the kids’ surveys in all of this? Would it be so bad for there to be 4 hour recess with scattered classes suited to the children’s wishes?

    The thing is, kids learn a LOT faster than school allows. Look at the kids that go on at 12-14 to start careers, attend university, etc. Why are we holding them back?

  2. Sarah
    Sarah says:

    Your first point – are you saying that homeschooling parents should somehow implement pro-homeschooling information being spread in public schools? How?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      That wasn’t actually my point. I don’t think it’s nice to use the kids as pawns. But maybe when it comes to educating the kids, there’s no choice. I don’t know.

      I do know that the best advertising for homeschooling is when my kids are playing with other kids and homeschooling comes up. My kids are old enough to say we unschool. They say they learned to read and do basic math without having anyone teach it them. They say they play video games all day. When kids here this they are blown away. Definitely not as defensive as parents are when they hear it — more curious.


      • jessica
        jessica says:

        You know, it’s so weird to me how some parents get really defensive.
        I’ve found the parents that are more confident in their own choices regarding their children are respectful and supportive and our relationships are more sustainable.

        • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
          YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

          Pushing against the status quo isn’t generally well-received, however; I find that when I run into techies from Silicon Valley they like hearing about how I unschool my kids. People that don’t generally go with the flow will not be perturbed like others who have a level of disdain for not doing what is traditionally accepted.

  3. Jana Miller
    Jana Miller says:

    I would love to see a school that offered different classes in all the classrooms and the kids could pick where they went and what they wanted to learn. And recess would be one of the options too.

    That’s kind of what we do when we surf the internet…right?!

  4. Jennifa
    Jennifa says:

    Yes. How can you influence a child in school, who will most likely remain in school, yet let them know that what they have been told is true up to this point in their life may not be? And how to do it without undermining all the love and adoration they presently have for their parents, whom they probably regard as the greatest people on the face of the earth? Then when you expand their minds a little, can you just leave and say, go ask your parents about that? Treading on very dangerous waters, I can see telling kids they have other options than being in school akin to telling them they don’t have to marry someone of the opposite sex and god may or may not exist! I’m not saying it isn’t a great idea, but it would have to be so carefully constructed.

    There are plenty of TED talks out there already about education, etc. etc. It would be an interesting project to have kids do a design-your-own-school project. Listen to some podcasts together, then start talking and sketching and reinventing their own school building and school day. They would probably have fun doing it and come up with usable ideas.

  5. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Babysitting 20-30 kids is definitely worth at least $50K. Teachers aren’t paid too much, they just are providing a different service than the one that everything thinks that they are, and everyone bears the cost equally rather than having people with kids incur greater costs than those without kids.

    However, parents really need to step up and say, “do I want my kid to be cared for with 20-30 other kids? is that a great environment for my kids?”
    And, “What’s the likelihood that my kid will be the one kid who will be inspired by their teacher this year?” (the answers to these might be why if you’re youngest son still wants to go to school it wouldn’t kill him).

    I can’t possibly align my interests with all the children’s interests, but I can look after my own son’s interests and I can hope other parents do the same.

    • Jennifa
      Jennifa says:

      Hannah, so true! Calling pre-k – about 3rd grade daycare, and not school, is the single biggest thing I think that could be done to revolutionize education, without spending any money (aside from changing the names on the school building!)

      Wouldn’t it make parents pause and think it through if they were sending their kids to daycare everyday, with the expectation that the government is providing this service so their children have a safe place to go when they are working! And then it could be daycare that actually works, it could cover all the hours parents work.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re right – they are not overpaid as babysitters. But it’s not very good babysitting. Good point.


      • Meghan
        Meghan says:

        Penelope, I have never, ever commented on your blog or anyone else’s for that matter. Even though I am a public educator, and have been for 15 years, I am currently considering homeschooling my children. Making the decision has been a struggle for me, and I often visit your blog for information and inspiration. I generally agree with your posts, but this one is making me second guess that. Hopefully I am not going too far by assuming that you have never been a public school teacher, and therefore have never been subjected to all that public schools teachers have to endure. I can’t speak for every public school teacher, but every single one of my colleagues joined the profession with noble intentions. I have NEVER personally met anyone who chose to teach because of the union, the pension, or the time off. And many (many) of them have been slowly beat down and jaded by the system. Our union is one of the only entities that helps teachers keep striving to try to do right by the students in our care. Is the union perfect? No. But I would never claim to know all there is to know about homeschooling, so I wish people who have never taught would stop claiming to know all there is to know about public education. Teachers are not babysitters. Teachers are not the problem. Teachers’ unions do not stand in the way when it comes to improving education in the United States. People who believe otherwise are part of the problem. I could get into why, but I think it is fair to say that I know this because I am intimately involved in the system. Just as homeschoolers get annoyed when people say that homeschooled kids aren’t socialized, teachers get tired of hearing how they are the problem. You know for sure that homeschooled kids are socialized. I know for sure that teachers are not the problem. And I am hoping after I post this and walk away, I can convince myself that you do actually know what you are talking about when it comes to the best ways to educate children.

    • Caroline
      Caroline says:

      Why did you decide on unschooling vs a different approach? Schooling has become the end all be all idol god. I liked this TED talk. School has become like church in so many ways : one way is how it creates a community, and the administrators are like the priests and pastors and judges.

  6. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    My three blocks to structural change would be:

    1. Government can’t reform anything. You want change, keep government out of it and let the market rule.

    2. For the ruling class, school is working. It institutionalizes children away from their parents: what’s not to like?

    3. The people that would really benefit from better schools, the poor, think of school as a jobs program for adults. See Michelle Rhee, former chancellor of DC schools.

    The only thing that’s going to fix the schools is mothers walking away from them. As you folks are doing.

  7. Teryn
    Teryn says:

    I know many local public school teachers that are homeschooling their children and the irony is always funny to me. Even the teachers themselves agree that public school is not a good option when it comes to education.

  8. Jessie
    Jessie says:

    I love this post.

    And it makes me shriek with frustration.

    All the parent angst and complaints and PTO efforts and school board meetings lead nowhere because of these barriers (which are never discussed).

    And don’t forget the NEA and others who throw up barriers to protect their piece of the education money pie.

    I spoke with my vote hungry legislators this summer and urged them to throw the current unsustainable system out and think out of the box. Now they are voting to consolidate school districts.

    Why can’t these barriers be brought into the public forum?

  9. kt
    kt says:

    “It seems fine to me that teachers should have to learn to job hunt and work twelve months a year, and fund their own retirement. This is what adults do in today’s world.”

    That’s why I am not a teacher. Doesn’t pay nearly enough for the above sentences to hold true. I can get a much more remunerative and less stressful job doing something else.

    Teachers are paid relatively poorly and have to put up with a lot. They’re paid for that in summer and in job security. If those are taken away, we shouldn’t be surprised that many teachers would leave and those who’d stay aren’t the folks we’d really want even for 8 hours of babysitting a day.

Comments are closed.