The Educator’s Candidate

Education — education is the civil rights issue of this century.

Equal access to public education has been gained, but what is the value of access to a failing school? We need…We need to shake up failed school bureaucracies with competition, empower parents with choice. Let’s remove barriers to qualified instructors, attract and reward good teachers, and help bad teachers find another line of work. When a public school fails to meet its obligations to students, parent — when it fails to meet its obligations to students, parents deserve a choice in the education of their children. And I intend to give it to them. Some may choose a better public school. Some may choose a private one. Many will choose a charter school. But they will have the choice, and their children will have that opportunity.
-Senator John McCain, in his acceptance speech to the GOP Nomination, September 4, 2008

My perspective on education is unique because I have been a public school teacher, a private school teacher, and now am a homeschool teacher. There are few things in this world that get me fired up more than the subject of education!

The other day a neighbor told me that she admired me for homeschooling but didn’t know how I did it.

It’s the middle of the summer, and my kids are driving me crazy! I can’t wait until school starts so someone else can take over for awhile!

That is a common refrain I hear from friends, family, and strangers all the time when they learn that I homeschool. And then when they hear that I used to be a classroom teacher, suddenly their opinion of me rises, as if my college education and the exclusive classroom experience taught me mysterious tricks that allow me to be an effective teacher.

I hope my son gets a good teacher this year. Last year his teacher just didn’t connect with him no matter how many times we tried to talk to her, and we could not wait for the year to end. I ended up having to spend all our nights and our summer getting caught up on the things he was supposed to learn in the classroom, but didn’t!

Sadly, that, too, is a common experience of parents whose children attend public — and private — schools. There is a reason that our country is now 19th in high school graduations but first in incarcerations among industrialized nations, and the reason is staring back at us in the mirror. It’s ourselves.

We have allowed our collective idea of what it means to be educated to be folded neatly into grade-by-grade sections, creased, and fitted into a box. We have bought into the idea that only specialists retain the ability to pass information and knowledge along to our kids. The minute we allow the school systems, public or private, to herd our children into schools and classrooms based on where we live (or where we can afford to drive), without regard to our child’s learning style or the teacher’s teaching style, we have willingly given up our rights as parents.

Many parents who live in poor-performing school districts are rightly outraged because they do not have a choice on where to send their kids. But parents in all school districts ought to be outraged because they do not have a choice within their schools, even in well-performing schools, on who their child’s teacher will be or even what the curriculum will entail.

What is the recourse when a child is stuck with a “bad” teacher? The process varies from school to school, but most times parents must meet with the teacher, document problems, meet with the principal, and basically raise h*ll until a change is made. Then many of the other teachers (speaking from experience here!) don’t WANT the new kid in their class because the faculty has heard rumblings about the “over-zealous” parents. (Yes, politics is alive and well in schools!)

The minute your child climbs aboard the school bus, you forfeit your right to direct your child’s education. This bears repeating: the minute your child climbs aboard the school bus, you forfeit your right as a parent to direct your child’s education. You become “partners” with your child’s teacher and school, but you have no power over what curriculum is used, over what teaching style the teacher uses, over what amount of homework is required, over what kinds of disrespectful and even anti-social behaviors your kids will be exposed to, over how the principal leads.

So what, you say? Well, what if the math book contains errors? Over 86,000 of them, in fact? Or what if the math curriculum is ridiculed as “fuzzy math” by leading mathematicians who claim the textbook waters down content? What if the textbook in question is an Algebra book that does not begin an algebraic problem until page 107?

Let’s pretend that you have a very active eight year old who is in the second grade. You notice that when he does his math homework, he rocks back in forth. When he does flash cards with you, he taps his feet to a beat only he can hear. If you make him stop moving, he gets frustrated and can’t remember his math facts. Now fast forward to the classroom. He’s taking a timed test on his math facts. To help himself remember, he taps his feet on the tiled floor and hums a tuneless rhythm. The teacher repeatedly tells him to stop, so he does for a moment, and then he gets caught up again in the work and begins to hum. Other students are distracted by his humming and complain. You son ends up in trouble for disobeying and gets a poor grade on math facts that you know he knows. The teacher sighs and refers him for possible problems with ADHD.

Let’s go warp speed ahead to your daughter’s junior year in high school. She is a steady, responsible student who keeps up with her homework, but this year’s work is just over the top. She comes home every day and immediately gets to work. You bring her dinner to her desk and then, when you go to bed, she is still working. At 1 AM, you get up to check on her, and she is asleep with her head in her book, pencil still in her hand. If she was slacking off you’d understand why it took her nine hours to do her homework. If she was a procrastinator you’d understand. But she’s not — she has an overwhelming load. Much of it is “busy work” and does nothing to encourage critical thinking. What can you do about it? To whom can you complain and get results?

That’s just it. There is no real answer or remedy, because your right to control the environment in which your child is educated has been forfeited to the state (or private institution).

The Democratic Party Platform recently adopted addresses education, but it does so in a way that makes the state top-dog. Parents are still without choice. Instead, the federal government “invests” in education. Take a look at this statement, straight from their party’s platform:

We will work with our nation’s governors and educators to create and use assessments that will improve student learning and success in school districts all across America by including the kinds of critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that our children will need. We will address the dropout crisis by investing in intervention strategies in middle schools and high schools and we will invest in after-school programs, summer school, alternative education programs, and youth jobs.

That doesn’t sound too bad, does it? Actually, it does, because it keeps doing more-of-the-same. Nowhere in their statement do the Democrats say anything about parents having the right to choose, although they do state that each child deserves a “world-class education,” and then go on to speak of public education as if it is the only education worth talking about. But the most dangerous part of that statement is the one about creating and using assessments that will “improve student learning and success in school districts all across America by including the kinds of critical thinking, communication, and problem-solving skills that our children will need…”

Let me tell you loud and clear something that any teacher worth her salt will proclaim: no ASSESSMENT can ever improve student learning or success. Assessments do not teach. Assessments do nothing except assess! Think about it — what did you ever learn from a test in school? Learning takes place before the test, and the test is the teacher’s way to find out if you learned the material. Teachers teach.

I agree that our children need critical thinking skills, and communication and problem-solving skills as the Democratic party states. But I say there is another way to do school, beyond the current public schools and private schools.

For our family, that way is to homeschool.

Yesterday was not a “perfect” day in our homeschool academy. My fourth grader was not in the game, so to speak. She missed half of her math problems not because she didn’t understand the process but through careless errors. Now, had she been in a classroom, I would not have seen the paper with only half of the problems correct until at least a week or so had gone by — it takes a good while for teachers to get all those papers graded and recorded. As I went over her work with her, we were able to talk through each problem and see where she was making careless mistakes, and I had her correct each problem. If she was in a classroom I would have required her to make corrections when she brought her paper home, but at least an entire week would have gone by! What if she didn’t understand the material but the teacher moved on to the next lesson anyway? She would have had a giant knowledge gap that got larger and larger. The flexibility of homeschooling allows me to tailor the instruction to my child on a day-by-day basis.

My child is a kinesthetic learner. She remembers what she learns when she is using her hands. The flexibility of homeschooling allows me to let her build a tower out of cuisinaire rods while I read her our history assignment. When she gets older and reads those assignments on her own, she’ll keep her hands busy by highlighting important facts (as long as we are still homeschooling and actually own the books she uses) or taking down notes. I get to teach her how to use her learning style to her advantage.

Any parent can do this, not just teachers who happen to be homeschoolers. I purchased a curriculum and follow the teacher’s guide. Some curriculums even include a script for teachers (parents) to follow. The other advantage of homeschooling is that I am in control of the curriculum. I do get to tailor my teaching style to match her learning style. I also get to enjoy her progress in a way that few parents understand. It is a special moment indeed to read a report your child has written about a topic that you taught, and you realize that she really does get it! Or you enjoy a great book together and spend hours talking about it. My daughter doesn’t have to raise her hand to give me her input. I get the joy of seeing how she thinks. (did I mention she will one day be an excellent debater?)

As homeschooling parents, we don’t have to worry about whether or not our child gets a “good” teacher this year because we shoulder that responsibility ourselves. If there is a breakdown in her education, it is becaue we failed her. But as her mom, of course I don’t want her to fail! If she ever got “stuck” and we ran into a wall in terms of learning, we’d seek help just as a public school parent would seek help if their child was falling behind.

I do realize that homeschooling is not an option for many families. Public education is the only way some children will ever learn, and I by no means think they deserve any less than my own child. So what’s the answer for them?

I believe it lies in choice. Not just school choice, as Senator McCain favors, but also in teacher choice and in curriculum choice. Our public education system needs a comprehensive reform…one that will shake up education as we know it and make it into something completely different that gives parents a measure of control. Why shouldn’t parents have control? As taxpayers, we are the ones footing the bill! So why do we allow the government to control the schools?

Let the teachers be interviewed and hired each year by parents. Find out what a teachers’ preferred teaching style is (visual, auditory, kinesthetic) and then match them with students who learn best that way. Allow parents to have input on the curriculum used in each classroom. So many times parents are bashful when it comes to their children’s teachers and schools. It should not be that way! Teachers work for the parents, and parents who choose to use public schools ought to have a say not only in which school their child goes to, but also in which teachers teach their child.

(I can already hear the chorus of disagreement from teachers in the trenches who are comfortable with the status quo and rightly hold on to their professional status. Yes, a teacher is a professional and should be treated as such. But even Chief Technology Officers must undergo interviews and reviews by peers, customers, and employers. Why should teachers reject the same? Why would a teacher who is more comfortable teaching to the visual style of learning not like having many students who learn that way in her class when it would make her more effective?)

A teacher spends about 35 hours a week with your child. That’s 1,260 hours in just one school year. Do you trust the government to choose the right adult for your child?

Let me tell you a horror story. It happened when I was in the fifth grade. My teacher was mean. I say that as an adult with a full understanding of what the word “mean” means. There was a boy in my class who was very poor. He wore the same olive green pants and the same out-of-style shirt that looked as if it had been his father’s because it was much too big for him. He smelled bad, as if he didn’t get a chance to bathe. Many of the kids were ugly to him, but I did try to be nice. For that reason the teacher often paired me with him. Mostly I felt sorry for him. This lady berated the boy every single day. Every morning she’d say,

Boy! Didn’t I tell you to bathe before you come to my class? You go to that bathroom right now and wash up. There’s no excuse for filth.

She’d mutter and grumble, some of the kids snickered, and the boy would shuffle out of the room to the bathroom where he’d try to clean up a little. It was hard to hid the stink of unwashed clothes, however. This went on every single day, sometimes several times in one day.

Today, as a parent, I cringe to think of that poor kid. I wonder what happened to him. I wonder what his living circumstances were. Was he homeless? Did they not have running water? Lest some people think that the teacher was being a racist, if she was, it was the other way around. She was a person of color, and he was white.

I wish I would have told my mother about him because I’d like to think she would have helped me help him. As it was, she did not hold this teacher in high regard…her notes home to parents were misspelled and grammatically incorrect. In my mother’s eye, that was a huge no-no! But there wasn’t anything she could do. She had no power over my education, and neither did the parents of the boy who was ridiculed every day. I find it hard to believe that the principal did not know how frequently the teacher berated this boy because she did so with the door wide open — she had a very loud voice.

Do you have power over your children’s education? McCain/Palin is this educator’s choice for many reasons. Today I am proud to support them because of their stated belief in the civil rights of parents to choose the right education for their children.

More on this topic to come…

2 thoughts on “The Educator’s Candidate

  1. What a great post! I love hearing your point of view on this, especially since you were once a public school teacher.

    The political side of homeschooling and school choice isn’t talked about enough, in my opinion. I truly believe that if the democrats get enough of a foothold in government, our educational rights (what few we do have, that is!) will one day be taken away completely.

    As a side note: My fifth grader ALSO struggled with her math this past week over little, careless mistakes. Glad to know we weren’t the only ones!!

  2. This is a really well thought out post with great points. (I disagree with you on the McCain/Palin ticket. I’m probably going to be voting for Baldwin/Castle as part of the Constitution Party.) I think it would be a WONDERFUL opinion piece in a metro newspaper or online major network website.

    Absolutely AWESOME.

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