Education problems? Families are the solution

If you’ve read my blog much at all, you may have noticed that I have a few passions: I care about and advocate for mental health issues, education, and other issues related to the media (content that’s suitable for families and kids, better accountability on issues like image and portrayals of women).

In the 14 years or so I’ve had kids in school, I’ve been involved in different aspects of education. At times, I’ve attended school board meetings and advisory meetings; at other times, I’ve been involved with specific organizations like the band boosters. I’ve always gone to my kids’ parent-teacher conferences and back-to-school nights and open houses and so on. I’ve helped out in classes sometimes and gone to activities. In all this time, I’ve observed all kinds of problems, some of which I’ve written about.

But in all I’ve done to participate, read, ask questions, and educate myself about education in the United States today, I’ve realized one thing underlies most of the problems and concerns: families aren’t playing the role they should in the development of children and their overall education.

I’ll say that again: Taken on the whole, families (i.e. parents) in this country aren’t teaching, supporting, and nurturing their kids. Why? Lots of reasons. But to be brief and try to get at a core issue, families simply aren’t “whole” anymore. I read a great overview of how there is no “average American family” anymore and it provides a few revealing statistics, taken from a new book: “Take 100 children who are representative of American life, … and 22 live in families where mom stays home and dad earns the income — the ‘typical’ family experience of 65 percent of kids in the 1950s. Another 23 live with a single mother; it’s a 50-50 proposition whether that single mom was ever married. Seven live with a cohabiting single parent and three each are being raised by a single dad or grandparent.”

If many kids are living with just one parent, and that parent has to do the job of two parents, and is necessarily away from the home working to provide for the family, it follows that those kids won’t have the level of involvement in their day-to-day lives and school lives as a household in which there are two parents. And in those households in which both parents are working (because that’s their choice or because of economic necessity), kids will have more involvement in their lives than the families with one parent around, but they simply won’t have the time dedicated to them that a family has with two parents with only one parent working outside the home. I’m not casting blame here at all; I’m simply looking at the realities of time constraints and what kind of actual QUANTITY time kids have with parents, as opposed to the oft-talked-about “quality” time.

The reality is that quality is great, but a certain amount of quantity is vital. As a stay-at-home parent (I do editing work from home on my own schedule, which is a luxury I really appreciate), I get lots of face time with my kids, who are all in formative periods of their lives. They come home from school and have questions or comments or needs, and I’m there for them. They are lucky to have a parent there to help them with needs and to do informal teaching. Kids’ learning really happens during moments they have questions and someone can answer tailored to their interests.

So with the new reality being kids living in homes with single parents who must be absent and with two parents who are both often absent (during those crucial times of afternoon into early evening), kids aren’t getting as much time for informal learning from their parents. That learning includes all kinds of topics: building character, learning to manage finances, learning about interesting topics that schools don’t necessarily provide classes in, getting opportunities for family “field trips.”

Schools are places to learn the sciences, literature, math, writing, history, etc. I was quite good in all the school subjects when I was growing up, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable teaching advanced math or sciences to my kids; I’d rather they have teachers who specialize in each subject and who are particularly adept in those to help them learn about those topics.

I guess I sound rather old-fashioned. But the reality is that it’s not the job of schools to teach character, for instance. Schools can’t take my kids on trips very often at all to learn about different areas of our state or country. Schools can’t teach faith, and they don’t often have time to focus on basic life skills that are more easily learned informally at home.

Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn't enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.
Character Counts is a nice program, but it isn’t enough to replace parents teaching their kids about character 24/7.

Time in school is finite, and as I’ve observed at a variety of meetings with other parents and educators, it’s becoming more and more difficult to fit in during a school day all the core subjects, let alone other things schools are having to teach kids because their families aren’t doing it very well or at all. In our town, elementary schools focus on a different character trait every month to teach students: respect, responsibility, caring, trustworthiness, fairness, citizenship. Why? The “Character Counts” program was started to “combat youth violence, irresponsibility and dishonesty” by stressing positive character traits. This means that the community and schools were finding that kids and teens were acting badly and needed to be taught values; families weren’t doing the job.

Over the past dozen-plus years I’ve been actively participating in community education, I’ve seen all the problems that exist. I’ve also seen all the programs school systems have started or turned to to combat the problems. I’ve seen how little time and money exist for schools to be able to surmount all these issues by themselves. And the simple fact of the matter is this: no matter how much schools try to do to “raise” kids into good, contributing members of society, they simply can’t parent kids. Parents parent. And no one else can do that very challenging, intense, nonstop, VITAL job.

I’ll continue to be involved in school meetings and advisory panels and so on. I’ll continue to give ideas on how better to teach and support all kids, mine and everyone else’s. But nothing I or the schools can do will take the place of the home. The solution is to support families and homes. Our nation, our communities, absolutely must find ways to strengthen families. In the article I mentioned earlier, Brad Wilcox, director of the National Marriage Project at the University of Virginia, says this: “Kids raised by their own intact, married parents are more likely to flourish. Given that, public policy should help strengthen both the economic and the married foundations of family life for kids in the United States.”

Until we change our attitudes about marriage and family life, our children (including their education) will continue to suffer.

Education system leaves kids behind left and right

I haven’t been a fan of “No Child Left Behind” since it started. It’s clear to me that essentially saying, “We’re going to make education the same for all kids and make them all perform well” isn’t going to work. I have two major gripes, addressing kids on both ends of the spectrum — and I know whereof I speak. I have a child with Down syndrome whose IQ and certain academic abilities are far below normal. Yes, she is a bright, alert and involved girl who’s eager to work and do lots of things, but she will never grasp certain concepts, at least not well enough to pass a test on par with her non-disabled peers. Though I do want to push a little to see where my daughter’s boundaries (and full capacities) lie, that doesn’t mean there aren’t some real limits to what she can do compared with people who don’t have her intellectual disabilities.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have daughters who do not have that genetic limitation, and they are very intelligent and talented. Problem is, though they have been tested and shown to have high capacities (IQ, academic abilities, creativity, what-have-you), there are no active programs to encourage them as they develop those skills. Our school system in this city has what’s called a Gifted and Talented program (GATE), but it’s essentially just a pretty, shiny sticker to put on my girls’ academic folders. It means absolutely nothing because it has no funding and no activities besides maybe a field trip once a year to see colleges or something similar.

I have to chuckle when I think about the contrast here with my experience in the great gifted program I enjoyed in my middle school years. Here’s why: it was in Mississippi, which many basically consider the educational laughing-stock of the country. But despite the truths and/or misconceptions in that assumption, it provided for the gifted students. We spent a good part of one day per week exploring other parts of our brains, creating and thinking differently. It was challenging, interesting, and lots of fun.

My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.
My oldest daughter has enjoyed the fun and creative challenge of the Odyssey of the Mind program.

Now I find it extremely frustrating to have children who have the need to explore, create and “think outside of the box” but have no program that addresses those needs. My oldest has been lucky the past two years to get involved with a program called Odyssey of the Mind — but only because she had a friend who was already involved at another school. She was allowed to participate in the program by special arrangement, because she attends a different high school in the district. Thank goodness that was allowed to happen. This is a really neat opportunity for her to create, stretch herself, think outside the box, and so on. Now I would like to see my younger daughters involved. But I’m thinking the only way that’s going to happen is if I pay for the program and take charge of it myself. (I may very well do that.) It fits very nicely into what I envision as being a perfect GATE program. Why doesn’t our district use it?

So this has been on my mind for years, literally, and for the past few weeks I’ve been thinking about how to improve things a bit just here in my younger girls’ schools (middle school, elementary). But, again, this is a much bigger problem that’s not affecting just my kids; it’s affecting all the high achievers throughout the country. I read a great piece in the Boston Globe on the topic today, and I sat here nodding my head, shaking with frustration. Why can’t we actually tailor education to different kinds of students with differing natural abilities? Why do we have to act as if students all can be equal if we just say it’s so or should be so? (That’s another topic as well….)

Here’s a great excerpt from the article:

In 2002, President George W. Bush signed the No Child Left Behind Act, which penalizes public schools that don’t bring the lowest-performing students up to grade level. The federal Individuals with Disabilities Education Act regulates special education and provides schools with more than $11 billion annually. A provision of federal education law called Title I allocates some $14 billion to schools that have a higher proportion of students from low-income families, to pay for programs designed to keep them from falling behind.

The smartest kid in class, by contrast, is not an expensive problem. A boy or girl who finishes an assignment early can be handed a book and told to read quietly while the teacher works on getting other children caught up. What would clearly be neglect if it happened to a special-needs child tends to look different if the child is gifted: Being left alone might even feel like a reward, an acknowledgment of being a fast learner.

Not surprisingly, programs oriented toward gifted children get barely any federal funding.

Once again, we see a problem that affects kids from varying economic and social backgrounds. There are bright, capable kids from immigrant families, from families that are poor, from families that aren’t well educated. But they could really over-achieve and give back to society in a big way if given extra attention. Problem in our current climate is this: if they were underachieving, they’d get more attention. ISN’T THAT INSANE?

I am lucky to be able to give my daughters lots of enrichment because I’m college educated and well-to-do enough to have the funds to introduce them to museums, good classic films, art, books, etc. I also have time to spend with them. That’s great for my girls. But, as I said in my previous post, it would sure be nice if I didn’t feel I HAD to provide all their enrichment because the schools are shorting them. Given these issues, again, Why can’t education be tailored to kids with different abilities? Why can’t we say, Yes, these kids could use some enrichment and encouragement in their naturally gifted ways? And other kids who have disabilities need special help and concessions, and we need to help them reach their highest potential, but not expect that potential to necessarily be the same as kids who don’t have those intellectual disabilities?

Gah! It’s enough to make a mom and concerned citizen scream.

Hair-raising school policies

Photo from Fox 23 News
Photo from Fox 23 News

So I saw this Yahoo news item about a little black girl whose parents withdrew her from a charter school whose dress and grooming policy forbids dreadlocks. Here’s what happened: Tiana, age 7, sometimes wears her hair styled in short, skinny dreadlocks. The school told her she didn’t look “presentable.” She cried on camera about it. The parents chose to take her out of the school and send her to a different neighborhood school, where there is no policy against dreads.

Of course, as the parent of a little 6-year-old black girl, I had some immediate knee-jerk reactions: “How dare they?!” “They must not know how difficult it can be to style black hair.” “That poor little girl!”

But here are the facts: the school is a charter school, which can set whatever policies it feels are best. The policies have been in place for a while, and parents have read them and are aware of them. According to comments from other readers, the school has mostly black students, as well as an “all-black” school board.

So that rules out racism, as well as school leaders not understanding what it’s like to style black hair. What this boils down to now is a parent knowing full well what the policies are (ludicrous as some seem to many of us, including me), ignoring them, and throwing his child to the wolves. When he sent his daughter to school in violation of the rules, he was the one who exposed her to school leadership telling her that she couldn’t wear that hairdo and it wasn’t “presentable.” His actions led to her crying.

Also to note: the school didn’t toss her out; her parents chose to withdraw her because of that hair policy.

Honestly, I don’t quite understand what the school board’s problem is with that particular way of styling hair; it seems neat and not “faddish” to me (a big “fro,” however, I can see as being faddish and more likely to attract attention and therefore distract from schoolwork). But the board must have some reasons for the decision they made. If Tiana’s parents disagreed with the policy, their first responsibility was to go discuss it with the board and even rally support to possibly have that particular part of the policy changed. Then, if the board still stood its ground, the parents would have had a decision to make: either follow the policy, disobey it, or leave the school. In this case, they just went straight to disobeying it.

Schools can be crazy, and school policies can seem completely random. And so many things about rules and school leadership can make ME crazy. But the only thing we as parents can do is to address the policies we disagree with with school leadership and try to make change. If the problems are bigger, we can address those with political leaders. We can then try to raise awareness in the community, in part by bringing the item to the attention of news outlets.

I think in this case, the parents went straight to disobedience of a policy and then whining to the media. I definitely understand their concerns, but they didn’t handle them well.

Safety: is it just an illusion?

Again, in reference to recent hotly debated issues, I’m not going to address gun control. I do think, though, it’s interesting to think about what constitutes true “safety,” or implied or felt safety. I’ve been thinking that most of the safety measures that are being implemented in schools right now, for instance, are really more there to create the illusion of safety than really, truly making our kids completely free from danger during school.

Kids are smart enough to figure this out really quickly, too. I have children at a high school, a middle school, and an elementary school. Soon after Sandy Hook, all three schools immediately started sending home letters and providing recorded information via phone calls about their stepped-up efforts to ensure students’ safety. Honestly, my first reaction on hearing the first phone call message was, “Right. Like changing which gates are going to be open at which times and which will be locked all day is really going to change things that much.” Yep. I was skeptical, and I’m still skeptical a month later.

fenceThe high school started locking more of its gates two days ago. When I picked up my child and a friend at the end of the school day, I heard a good amount of reasoning from the backseat about how they viewed the new policies. Mostly it was this: it’s not going to do any real good. For one thing, the fences surrounding the school are just about six-foot-tall chain-link numbers. My little teen girl has jumped them any number of times (for good reason, let me just say; she’s not a rule-breaker) when she’s been at school outside of regular hours. So locking more gates isn’t exactly going to keep anyone out who really wants to get in.

The kids also observed that the recent threat that actually occurred at the school was by a student, and he had told a classmate about his intention to harm someone the next day at school (I think on a Facebook page). Allowing only students in to a few particular gates in the morning would not have kept this kid out because he belonged there!

The door to my kindergartener’s class is now locked every day the second the kids have all lined up and marched inside. If we arrive even 30 seconds late, then she has to stand outside, knock, and wait for someone inside to open the door. This is the only change I could see as making some kind of difference. The classroom’s only access is that door, and because of the design of the schools here (we’re in California, so the weather’s temperate, so the buildings all have rooms that open directly to the outside, not using any hallways), the room is then secure if the heavy door is locked. There are some smallish windows, but it would be difficult to get in through them. So I think this is the only measure that makes sense, though it stinks if we’re running late. That’s OK, though.

Aside from that, all the gate-locking in the world is like having a basic home alarm system: it helps the most as merely a deterrent to the casual intruder. But someone who is absolutely determined to get in will easily find a way around it.

These are just a few simple examples of how the schools are trying to demonstrate their increased commitment to our children’s safety. But really, it doesn’t mean much to me. Life is impossible to secure. Wacky, random, and tragic things happen everywhere. It’s impossible to fortify ourselves or everywhere we go to a point that we will be completely safe from any threat. Stuff happens. People are crazy. They do stupid, crazy, horrible things sometimes. Yes, it’s good to do what we can to reduce the harm, but so much of what the schools are doing really just seems pointless. I want to be safe, and I sure as heck want my kids to be safe. But neither I nor anyone else can guarantee their safety anytime, anywhere.

That’s the thing: we can talk about gun safety, about gun control and rights, we can talk about making security better in all kinds of contexts. But (yes, TSA) there are always holes in the systems and loose ends and cracks of some kind or another, whether it’s human error or breakable machines, etc. Stuff slips through all the time.

Thinking we can actually keep everyone safe in any situation is just fruitless and ridiculous. We can try. I’m not saying we shouldn’t. But in the end, all the measures in the world are merely an illusion of security. Because life and other people are unpredictable and not safe. We can just do the best we can to go about our business and take care of each other in the meantime.

Parents’ and schools’ responsibility to young readers

So I received an email through my Rated Reads site, asking me for guidance on resources that can provide information about content in books for younger readers. It got me thinking again about the place for parental involvement and potential restrictions on books for elementary-school students. I suppose I’m a little late to the game in terms of this topic because Banned Books Week was over a month ago, but here goes anyway.

Before I say anything else, I’d like to make clear that I am against “censorship” in general (let me restrict this discussion purely to books). That entails actually suppressing and forbidding the viewing or use of particular passages or entire books. It’s not my place to decide what kind of content should be completely forbidden, and it just sets a bad precedent. I wouldn’t want someone else to have the power to forbid what is viewable by me or my family members.

So while I am against forbidding things entirely to most readers, parents and educators do have a responsibility to young children to make sure they read material that is appropriate for them. Even then, I hesitate to ban books entirely because, while I wouldn’t want a child getting hold of soft porn, for example, I wouldn’t agree with those people who were eager to ban Harry Potter because of its theme of magic.

What I am a proponent of is information. That’s why I started Rated Reads, a modest effort though it is. But at least it’s something. We have nearly 1,000 books featured with content ratings and moderately detailed paragraphs explaining what kind of potentially objectionable content is in each book. I firmly believe that each reader and, in the case of children, each parent should be able to have resources to find information that will allow him or her to make a decision.

I would like to think that books that are selected for a children’s library are going to be appropriate for young readers and acceptable to most parents, both in thematic content and possible sex, violence, or bad language. But young readers who are ready for young adult books, for instance, deserve to not be shocked by what they read or to have their parents be shocked. There are a lot of great young adult books that are fine for younger readers, that don’t have strong language or detailed violence or sex scenes. But there are just as many that I wouldn’t want my younger kids reading.

Since elementary schools generally have limited space, I think it would be wisest to select books that will be most age appropriate and least objectionable to parents. But at the same time, there may be a few YA books that would be great reads, in terms of stimulating thought on various topics, that might be nice picks for those libraries. And some of those might have some violence or other scenes that could be objectionable to parents or their kids. In these cases, it seems it would be particularly smart for everyone to include a kind of electronic ping with further information for the student and her parent when it comes to checkout time. This would allow parents to give a yea or nay to their child reading that book; a note could be sent home before the book is approved for checkout, providing details about why that book could be a poor choice, including themes, sex, violence, and language.

Now there are going to be some parents who are very careful about using this system, saying no to some books and yes to others based on their consideration of the information provided; there are definitely going to be other parents who simply won’t care. And that is their business. If I were that child’s teacher, or a fellow parent, I might not agree with those parents’ decision, but it wouldn’t be my responsibility to override or actively disagree in some other way. As long as a parent hasn’t been declared unfit, it is his or her responsibility to make decisions regarding his child, and that needs to be respected.

But there is no doubt in my mind that more information should be available so readers and parents of readers can make more informed decisions. I don’t think it’s always possible or practical for a parent to read every book a child would like to read, becoming the child’s first reader. We just need more information. Again, that’s why I’m doing Rated Reads. But I’d love to see more coming direct from publishers or something similar (I suppose that’s kind of another topic, but in brief, I don’t see why it would be so hard for the editor to include a brief description that states how much language or sex or violence is in it…). There’s simply not enough information available about most books.

So. What are your thoughts? Do schools sometimes need to be more cautious about what they choose to stock in their elementary libraries? Do parents need more information, and how should it be provided? And what about junior highs/middle schools and high schools?

Mama bears unite

Education nowadays is topsy-turvy.

I ran into a friend in a Wal-Mart parking lot yesterday after dropping off my youngest at kindergarten. She asked how I liked the teacher, and we ended up launching into a fiery discussion about the schools. Issue after issue arose, and we resolved to get more involved and have a say by going to school board meetings.

This isn’t the first time the education of my little ones has caused me to rise up in righteous indignation. Before we moved to California, we lived in a small town in the South in which there were a number of problems with the school system in town. One big problem was that of “white flight,” quite honestly. Even though the town was maybe half and half whites and blacks, with a very small sprinkling of other minorities thrown in (which included our family since my husband is Filipino), a huge percentage of the students in the system were black. Now I had no problem with that at all except that things basically had split along economic lines. Many whites and the more educated and better-off-economically blacks had moved to different neighboring towns or the county (which all had separate school systems: don’t get me started on the craziness of that: what a waste of resources), and most families left behind were poor. Again, not a problem in terms of how I viewed them, but it definitely had an impact on the system and how things ran. Before I end up having to write a lengthy discourse on all the issues, let me just cut it short here by saying there were many issues, and I started going to school board meetings and speaking up. I didn’t want to just join in the “white flight”; I wanted to see if I could stay and make things better.

Needless to say, I realized that it was a fight I simply couldn’t fight alone. We ended up moving to California, where we found a great neighborhood to live in and in which the school setup is a much better one, with small neighborhood elementaries that seem to work well. But that doesn’t mean that all is great.

First off, the economy is bad. Like THAT’S a piece of news for everyone. But it certainly has affected our schools. In California, the economy and the schools have been hit particularly hard. What once was a wonderful, thriving system is now scraping by.

I could write a whole doctoral thesis on each of the facets of the larger issue here, but let me just say a few things as I see them.

First, there is no question that the breakdown of the nuclear family has contributed to the difficulties we face in schools today. Divorced and single parents have it harder in terms of trying to parent their kids and be available for them when it comes to schools. The economy has made it incredibly challenging as well. When every parent out there is working and no one is able to stay home even part-time, it makes it difficult to have the parental support needed for great education (volunteering, fund-raising, time just spent teaching children at home casually). Collapse of family structures has led to children not being taught or modeled all the things they need to help them be secure, (somewhat) well-behaved citizens of society. What has happened is that schools (and teachers) are now expected to teach young people EVERYTHING they need to know to be good members of our society. And that is impossible. Historically, families have nurtured and taught children, and schools have simply focused on making sure they know how to read, write, do math, know history and science. Now the schools have to teach citizenship and get kids to learn to behave, when that should have been a priority at home. Again, simplifying here tremendously, but this is the Cliff’s Notes version. Suffice it to say I have heard so many stories from teachers about the issues they have to deal with and what they are expected to do to, basically, parent children. Teachers have never been paid enough for the work they do, and they certainly aren’t paid enough to parent 30 or 100 kids.

Second, I have had to conclude that the more the federal government has tried to get involved, the worse schools’ situations have become. It’s been well-intentioned, I’m sure. But as more and more laws and guidelines have been created and passed down (with badly needed federal dollars attached by a thousand strings), the more hamstrung districts, individual schools, and teachers have become. They’ll do anything to qualify for those federal monies. What infuriated me yesterday was learning that our school system had instituted a new teacher-inservice time that’s incredibly inconvenient for just about anyone (parents and teachers alike, as far as I can tell, and any parents, whether working or stay-at-home) just because having the meeting every Monday morning from 8 to 9 a.m. would allow fewer kids to arrive late to school. Yes, they’d had such problems with students arriving late that the district then could not count the students as present. And an absent child means no money that day from the government. So the district thought, “Hey, we’ll have this meeting at this precise time so kids won’t be late and we’ll get the money.” I can appreciate that in some way, but it just riles me up that 1) the district had to inconvenience everyone with this new stupid plan and 2) the district is in such dire straits and in such desperate need of every penny from the government that they’d have to do this. Again, the government should not have such power over the schools as to cause this kind of stuff to happen.

I could write pages here. But what makes me angry is that as a parent who cares deeply about my children’s education, I have had to put in a ton of time and effort to make sure that it’s a decent one and they’re getting all they need. I shouldn’t have to check up on every little thing or be mightily inconvenienced. Education should be something that I can trust in. But I have to figure out how to squeeze in yet another thing in my already heavily-loaded schedule (which, might I add, is not full because of trips to the spa; it’s loaded with things that benefit my four children, who range in age from high school junior down to kindergartener) to just be sure that crazy things aren’t going on.

Sure, there are definitely places and people who have it worse. Sure, I’m grateful that we have a free country and one in which it’s a priority to provide a free education to all citizens (and non-citizens…). I’m generally glad to participate in the process and do my part to volunteer. But my mama-bear instincts sometimes make my claws come out when I find out about all the problems that exist.

I don’t know for sure how to solve the problems. I know one solution would be to strengthen families. But that’s certainly a big one, isn’t it? Another is to get the federal government less involved in education and cut a lot of the strings tying funding to a ton of regulations. I’ve learned that No Child Left Behind has flopped. There are still tons of children being left behind. More testing of students, more teachers being judged by frankly meaningless numbers, and more oversight by big government isn’t going to fix anything. It’s just made things worse.

Yep, this mama bear is super-busy already. But now I’m going to figure out how to find some time to get even more involved. I wish it were possible for more people to do the same.