Parents would never out-source the religious upbringing of their kids. “Oh, sure. We are devout Christians/Jews/Muslims/Atheists, but we tell the kids to believe whatever they want, to worship with whomever they choose.” Words no parent ever spoke. To the contrary, parents encourage their kids to come to church/synagogue/mosque/or not/ with them.
Yet these same parents expect schools to be responsible for educating their children? Because except for rare instances—kids who would likely learn in any educational setting—schools are uniquely incapable of teaching your kids much of anything that you would like them to know. Most kids learn in spite of rather than because of direct instruction.
Here are two of my favorite examples, although far from the most egregious:
- Eighth grade students are required to memorize the names of the 67 counties in Florida. (Upside: at least you don’t live in Georgia where there are 130 counties to remember.)
- High school seniors are required to learn the names of the members of the state cabinet. (Upside: if the Internet goes down, maybe you could win trivia bets.)
In other classrooms, homogenous groupings mean that some children are numbingly bored while others are tragically lost. Of course, teachers could address individual needs and be sensitive to different learning styles. Teachers could allow advanced students to work at their own pace while remediating those with imperfect backgrounds. Meanwhile down the hall, puppies and unicorns could frolic over glowing rainbows covered with blossoming flowers. It’s a rare pedagogue who can facilitate anything other than lecturing to the jaded and disoriented. Not with 30 kids in a classroom, five preparations a day, and compensation of $40,000/year.
It’s easy to blast overworked, underfunded school systems and employees. That good teachers are deserting classrooms in droves is not a headline. Luckily, I write about parenting rather than teacher-ing. I don’t know that I would have any cogent advice for my colleagues in the classroom. And it has been 40 years since I stood up in front of a roomful of high school students.
But my guidance for parents is as straightforward to understand as it is difficult to implement: moms and dads have to accept responsibility for the academic education of their kids in the same way that parents remain in charge of the religious instruction or lack thereof for their children.
There are two ways, neither of them easy nor obvious, in which parents can take over—not just supplement—what is happening in the imperfect classrooms.
- If your eighth grader is being assigned stupid, vacuous, illiterate books, make sure that she is reading REAL books as well. In first-year college literature classes, all the other students will be familiar with Animal Farm, The Scarlett Letter, Their Eyes Were Watching God, To Kill a Mockingbird, The Great Gatsby, Catcher in the Rye, The Grapes of Wrath, The Odyssey, Night, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings, and, oh yes, Hamlet. To matriculate without having read and understood these and others is like showing up to a gun fight without a knife. Or weapons or any kind. Or clothing.
- Take your kids at their word. If they tell you that their curriculum is stupid, let them substitute. If the kids are assigned, The Secret—stranger, if not more horrible things have happened—tell them they don’t have to read it.
I know you can’t quit your job to homeschool. But you can make your home better than a school nonetheless. Read the first chapter of Pride and Prejudice aloud. I defy any tenth grader not to be entranced and read the rest of the book on their own.
"Never let your studies interfere with your education," said somebody who is remembered for being fairly bright and accomplished enough for most purposes.
If your kids are thriving in their traditional classrooms, it's still a great pleasure to connect with them about the wonders of literature and math and science and politics and language and every fascinating aspect of our wonderful world. If you're kids are struggling in school and you have already tried everything to help them perform, it might be time to consider taking more responsibility for their education in the broadest sense and accept that parents remain our children's first and best teachers. Just promise me you won't insist that your children learn the names of all the counties in Florida!