Thursday, January 20, 2011

Public, Private, or Home - Which Education is Best?

Sorry. That was a cheap way to get your attention. I'm not actually going to tell you which is best, and I don't even expect you to really care what I think about the choices, but I heard a story today on NPR that caught MY attention. The segment was of particular interest because a discussion broke out on the CSC Public mailing list/Yahoo Group last week about this subject. Somebody inquired about available resources for homeschoolers, and unsolicited opinions about homeschooling versus public or private schools started flying as everyone retreated to their respective corners and lobbed their best (or worst).

This is one of those subjects where folks immediately get defensive when it comes up. It falls into the same category as stay-at-home versus working Moms or spanking versus not spanking, etc. Anything that challenges our choices as parents will inevitably get us on our soapboxes to justify why we've parented in one way or another. It comes from the right place since the VAST majority of us clearly want to do what's best for our kids, but the guilt and stress associated with that, along with our fragile egos, can bring out the worst in us.

Case in point, you may have heard the recent uproar about the memoir by Yale Law Professor, Amy Chua, entitled, "Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother", in which she describes the incredibly high expectations that Chinese parents, and Chinese mothers in particular, impose on their children, and how she applied this type of upbringing to her own daughters. She attempted to make it clear that she was not necessarily endorsing her methods over another - that she realized it had its drawbacks and that she had made errors - but that this was her unique experience, warts and all. I relate to some of what she describes, for I too battled with my kids on the piano bench to the point of tears and punishment. Although I don't think I ever threatened to burn their stuffed animals or made them stand outside in the cold over it, they did get sent to their rooms on more than one occasion.

The point is, this woman has been bombarded by attacks from parents and professionals from all directions. She has even received death threats and been accused of abuse, simply for recounting her honest experience with child rearing. She has two lovely, fabulously accomplished daughters who by all appearances love and respect their mother and father, and seem to be in no more need of therapy than the rest of us. While the conversation is a useful one, is it really our place to judge so harshly someone that we don't even know? What are we all doing so right that we are in a position to call her out? I'll admit, some of what she subjected her daughters to was harsh, but so does she, and in the process of writing about it, she has gained perspective as a parent.  We should all be so introspective.

Who of us can say for sure what is the right or wrong way? After all, we only have one shot at it, and all we have to go by is what we know from our own upbringing and maybe the latest study, which usually contradicts the ones just before and after it. We can read all the parenting advice manuals that exist, but when push comes to shove, we fall back on our ingrained firsthand experience. Spanking? Reasoning with 2-year olds? Time outs? Chores? Allowances? Hands off? Hands on? Indulgence? High expectations? TV? Video games? Facebook? I've seen success stories and inexplicable underachievement from all fronts. Different kids respond to different stimuli and methods, and there are myriad variables, but in the end, kids fundamentally need to know they are loved and accepted and have some source for developing their senses of confidence and right and wrong. The way to do this varies from kid to kid and parent to parent, household to household, and culture to culture.  The only truly wrong thing we can do is not care.

So, back from my Tiger Mother tangent to schools. When I tuned into NPR on my way to the gym (I ended up losing half my workout time sitting in the parking lot at Big Vanilla listening to the radio), I caught an interview with Chicago parent Jacqueline Edelberg, who along with Susan Kurland, principal of her local public school, authored the book, "How to Walk to School". Ms. Edelberg lived in a part of Chicago with a subpar public school - one that most of us would agree did not provide the kind of educational experience we would want for our kids. The city schools suffered what many of our inner-city or rural or name-your-struggling public schools suffer. Middle class families, unhappy with the quality of their local public schools weakened by inadequate funding or policy, send their students to private school or move to the suburbs or elsewhere, and public schools are left even weaker as the tax base and core student population departs.

Ms. Edelberg is a woman after my own heart, a believer in public education and its importance to the strength of our nation as a whole. She decided rather than abandon her public school, she would enlist the energy and talent of the people in her community in cooperation with the principal of the school to create the environment that she desired for her children's school experience. They improved what they could improve - the appearance, the extracurriculars, parent participation - and provided input with respect to curriculum and nutrition. They solicited the skills of local artists, craftsmen, business people,and parents to make their changes at very little cost. Within less than a year, they saw dramatic improvement in both environment and test scores, and in the next few school years, families who had once opted for private school started sending their kids to the neighborhood public school, and as she says in the interview, all boats were lifted by the rising tide.  Here is the link to the project website and a YouTube video that highlights her neighborhood school:

This may not be as workable in every situation, but I expect it could be in many - for those with schools just getting by with a base of solid teachers in a community of concerned citizens. Many just need that boost of attention and effort from a few good people (maybe even pain in the tush people - it often takes some of those) to raise the quality of the school to a level that would please just about any of us. Clearly if there are serious safety and security issues in the picture, this becomes less tenable for the typical parent to tackle or accept for their children, and requires a different approach.

I know what an impact an active parent community can have on the quality of a school, because I've witnessed it for myself right here in Cape St. Claire. While Cape Elementary is a very good school with fine teachers, I think most would agree that the quality of our kids' elementary school experience is raised to a whole new plane by the time and effort put in by the PTO and parent volunteers in general. This level of commitment by our community makes it a school that draws great teachers and faculty, and the quality rises even further. Even the very good public schools that I knew growing up in CA did not hold a candle to what my kids have experienced here in the Cape.

For the record, here are just a few of the things parents and volunteers, in cooperation with the faculty, school board, and local business community have contributed to Cape Elementary. The new kindergarten playground equipment? PTO fundraising and planning. Smart board and document camera technology in the classrooms? PTO subsidized. Colorful rugs and bookshelves in kindergarten? PTO. Destination Imagination? Dedicated parents as team managers and PTO sponsorship. Fun Run? PTO. Assemblies, 5th Grade activities, Ice Cream Social, Holiday Shop, Field Day, cafeteria sound system? PTO. The list goes on and on. Parents identify something that could be improved or beneficial and in cooperation with the faculty and staff, make it happen. And the beauty of it is that not only do these parents' children benefit, but the whole student body reaps the reward, and in turn, our community, county, state, and country thrive.

I know it's not all cupcakes and paper roses. Plenty of room remains for improvement, as is always the case. But I consider us tremendously fortunate to have a powerhouse PTO at our disposal with just enough high energy parents to lead the way and enough of us support crew parents to do the legwork. And I don't mean to take away from what our teachers and faculty bring to the success of our schools. They are up to their ears trying to funnel all kinds of knowledge into our kids' ever expanding brains. It isn't that they are coming up short. The needs are just so great and the resources so slim. It takes the backing and support of the  community to turn a good public school into one to be envied and that gives most people little reason to look elsewhere.

This is the gist of what Ms. Edelberg conveys in her story. Rather than turn away from struggling schools, perhaps consider putting the energy that would go into homeschooling or the money that would go into private tuition into elevating the quality of your local public school for everyone. We are much quicker to bemoan the failure of our public schools than to take some of that responsibility on ourselves and help create the setting that we all desire for our kids. Some have more time, energy, and resources, available than others, but all of us can contribute in some way - a couple of hours to lead a book discussion, or a weekend day to spread some mulch or paint a bathroom.

I realize there are individual situations that don't lend themselves to this approach. Perhaps your child has health or emotional or developmental issues requiring special accommodation that just can't be adequately met by the public school system. Maybe you feel strongly about your child receiving religious instruction in a daily educational environment, which is not possible in public schools. Or maybe you grew up attending private school and it's just your preference. There are plenty of legitimate reasons for seeking alternatives.

For me personally, I had the good luck to grow up within a strong CA public school system, and my children have the good fortune to attend terrific MD public schools. There were kids in my graduating class that went to Harvard, Duke, Berkeley, and Stanford. I expect my kids to have everything at their disposal at Broadneck High to take them to any one of those schools or another of their choosing if they work hard enough and are smart enough.

It's hard to say if I would have opted to fight the good fight if circumstances had been different. I know for a fact that homeschooling would not have been an option - either my kids or I would not have survived it, and even with both undergraduate and master's degrees under my belt, I don't consider myself anywhere near qualified to teach them, and ultimately, I want them exposed to a wider range of ideas than just my own (just in case I'm wrong...). As for private school, it's just not part of my life experience. I know people who received a wonderful private school education, and I also know those who pay a lot of money for something that does not seem substantively superior. I guess I couldn't resist getting on the soapbox just a little...

For those like me who believe a healthy, robust, fair, top notch, public school system is critical to the wellbeing, strength, and security of our nation, do what you can to support your local schools and make them strong for everyone. And rather than allowing our insecurities to fuel condemnation of those who choose otherwise, focus instead on making your school the envy of the region. Today is the 50th anniversary of President Kennedy's inauguration when he famously challenged us to "Ask not what your country can do for you - ask what you can do for your country". This includes our public schools. We are all going to need to embrace President Kennedy's timeless call in the years ahead if we hope to better our nation instead of waiting around for her to do all the work. She's a little strapped at the moment, and we all need to take up the slack where we can.

OK, I promise to back off on the heavy material once we get out of January!  I didn't mean to take this blog down the path of social issues - at least not in a steady bombardment of consecutive posts. So far this year, I've delivered a stream of consciousness about LBGT tolerance and rights, race relations, and now public education. I swear I will lighten up. I still haven't told you about my Roomba!  Cleaning up the world and making it a better place one dog hair at a time...
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1 comment:

Cheryl888 said...

Thought you might like to join in this discussion, it references The Tiger Mother!