Friday, August 5, 2011

Unschoolers Learn What They Want, When They Want: A Response

[By guest blogger, C. Leigh McInnis. McInnis has published poetry, fiction, and essays in several journals, magazines, and newspapers, is the author of seven books, the editor and publisher of Black Magnolias Literary Journal, and he teaches creative writing and world literature at Jackson State University.  He can be contacted at Psychedelic Literature or C. Leigh McInnis .]
Hey Y’all,
The following comments are my response to the article, “Unschoolers Learn What They Want, When They Want,” which was sent to me a couple of days ago. 
Mostly, I am not against alternative types of schooling, whether it is homeschooling or any other program that a parent thinks will induce the best from their child.  And I also realize that many children do learn many different ways, so I am not quick to minimize any form of learning.  However, what often bothers me when alternative forms of schooling, such as homeschooling or charter schools, are presented or celebrated is how very basic facts are omitted for the sake of showing the alternative form in a better light.  For instance, “Approximately 90% of Sudbury Valley’s graduates go on to college (compared with 69% of graduates from the public education system).”  The problem with this statistic is that it does not consider two variables.  One, parents who tend to opt for alternative schooling, such as homeschooling, charter, and private schools, tend to be more affluent with a higher level of education, which translates to their children being exposed to a more constructive or positive atmosphere regarding education as well as having a solid academic foundation developed in the home.  (And this is true of most of my friends whose children attend African centered schools also.)  Two, the top ten percent of public school graduates tend to perform at or equal to the same level as the top ten percent of alternative schooling graduates, and the common link is that these two groups have parents who invest the proper amount of time and effort.  In contrast, then, what lowers the percentage of college enrollment for public school graduates is not the curriculum or the teaching but two very simple facts/variables.  One, public schools must admit students with all types of learning and behavioral disorders whereas private and charter schools tend to have a very low number of students with learning and behavioral disorders unless they specialize in this area, and, two, public schools have a higher percentage of parents who, for whatever reason, do not invest the same time and effort with their children as the parents whose children perform in that aforementioned top ten percent.  So, if we consider all factors/variables, it seems that the success of alternative schooling is not based on the curriculum or the teachers but on the types of parents who are able to enroll their children in various types of alternative schooling.
A second fallacy presented is that public school “…keeps trying to do what it can’t do, which is make every child learn everything in the whole wide world. It’s like heading toward a cliff.”  Maybe I have not attended the same type of public school, but I have never experienced this.  If by saying “learn everything in the whole wide world,” one means public school is designed, ideally and for the most part, to make a child a well-rounded being, then, yes, an effective education exposes a child to various aspects of life, working to show the common links in those various aspects, teaching the child how to find “hidden likenesses,” to use a Jacob Bronowski term, in seemingly unlike things, which enhances the child’s critical thinking ability.  So, world history should coalesce with world literature or algebraic reading problems should coalesce with basic grammar, syntax, and semantic development.  Again, my issue is not to minimize alternative schooling but to show the flaw in the premise that public schooling tends to expose children to needless information that they will never apply.  The problem or hurdle for public school is that the focus on “high stakes” testing limits if not impairs the development of critical thinking because the emphasis is often on the answer and not how one arrives at the answer.  So, many students graduate high school with some facts but limited knowledge, and knowledge is understanding how to use facts to improve one’s condition or situation.  Yet, this emphasis on “high stakes” testing is not something that grew organically from public education but moreso is a reactionary, political element that serves mostly to widen the gap between rich and poor students.
Third, I return to the notion that education must be seen as a joint effort between parents and teachers.  “They have, and I think this is true of [Sudbury] alumni in general, an incredible sense of who they are and how they work, and confidence in their abilities,” Sadofsky said. “Not that they know everything, but they know how to find what they need.”  It seems that Sadofsky does not realize that this “sense” of knowing oneself and having “confidence” in one’s “abilities” is a trait that is planted and nurtured at home first and then affirmed through organized activities in the school.  Therefore, I would argue that the reason the Sudbury alumni “in general” have “an incredible sense of who they are and how they work, and confidence in their abilities” is because, in general, they are the children in that top performing ten percent who would have had these traits developed initially by their parents regardless of attending public school or an alternative school.  Accordingly, the second part of Sadofsky’s statement, “they know how to find what they need” is a trait/skill mostly developed by schooling, but teachers can only be effective in developing this trait or skill if the student has a constructive attitude, focus, and understanding of the academic process, which must be developed by the parent.  So, again, this “incredible sense of who they are and how they work, and confidence in their abilities” is not unique to alternative schooling but is a trait that most students develop if they have parents who make the proper time and effort investment, which allows the teachers to develop and teach the child how to use those personal characteristics in developing academic and professional characteristics.
Let me be clear.  Parents have a role, and teachers have a role in the effective development of a child’s academic being.  However, the academic institution is being asked to fulfill the role of parent and teacher, which puts more responsibility and weight on the academic institution than it was designed to carry.  Or, let me put it another way.  In many inner city, high poverty areas, dilapidated housing exists for three reasons.  One, the houses are old.  Two, the people living in those houses are unable to afford proper maintenance.  Three, which relates to this discussion, often there are more people living in the houses than the houses were designed to accommodate.  A three bedroom house is not designed to accommodate seven to ten people.  Those extra bodies are asking that house to do something it was not designed to do.  This is the primary issue with our public schools.  Yes, they are severely underfunded.  I would argue that they are purposefully underfunded, but the main problem is that society is asking underpaid and overworked teachers to be parents as well.  No matter how much of a great role model our favorite teacher was, that teacher was mostly affirming the values and sensibilities that the student was bringing to the classroom.  If the student is not bringing certain values and sensibilities to the classroom, then the teacher is forced to spend valuable time teaching these values and sensibilities, which limits the amount of time spent exposing the student to the academics.
Finally, the four major issues for public schools are low teacher wages (which keep the schools from attracting highly qualified and invested teachers), not enough funding to decrease the classroom size as well as to add an assistant teacher to each classroom, poor funding and management of special education services for both special needs and gifted children, and an increasing number of uninvolved and uninvested parents that have negative attitudes (for various reasons) toward education, which is passed to the children, creating an adversarial relationship between parent and teacher as well as parent and child and is made worse by the employment of underpaid, overworked teachers.  Even in a situation where a charter or private school states, “Give us your worst performing students from your worst areas,” often three of the four variables or hurdles facing public schools are removed.  Again, because private and charter schools only admit a small percentage of the students that public schools must admit, there is a smaller classroom size, which provides more effective services to identify and service gifted and special needs students.  Secondly, the teachers are less stressed, which creates improved morale in the classroom and between parent and teacher.  Yet, where charter schools are concerned, this is done with public funds.  Oh yeah, they don’t just want your children; they want the your tax dollars also.  However, if one checks the statistics, one will realize that most charter schools do not achieve greater success than public schools, especially as it relates to the top ten percent of the public school students.  So rather than creating these voucher systems for private and charter schools that only serve a select few students, how about cutting funding to prisons, defense, law enforcement, and the expense accounts of our elected officials and invest that money in education because every study proves that proper education not prisons decreases the crime rate.  I don’t want every child properly educated because I love young people.  I want every child properly educated because each child properly educated is one less person likely to rob me.

C. Liegh McInnis

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