Well, I’ve become what I never wanted to be: one of those parents who’s wringing their hands over school choice decisions…and my kid’s only three. When I was growing up, preschool was just for fun and after that, you went to whatever school was in your district. There was nothing to think about.
But times and circumstances have changed. I’m no longer in a rural part of the Midwest where public schools only have 15 kids in each class. And everybody knows everyone else. I live in a city now, and as it is across the country, districts have merged and now there are mega schools, with thousands per grade. There’s a lot of poverty in rural America, and my school was not wealthy. But the issues in big cities are more than just income inequality, they also include gangs and other complexities that I want to shield my son from, if I can.
I believe in public schools but…
I believe in the mission of public schools. Every child in this country deserves a great education. It’s what separates us from banana republics. Education provides upward mobility, and it shouldn’t be restricted to those who have rich parents. Besides, schools bind communities and are an important social outlet.
My husband and I both went to public school, and my mom spent her career teaching at public schools. I literally don’t think I met anyone—through my time in college—that didn’t go to public school, and we all learned plenty and turned out fine.
However, I know that as my mom approached retirement, she had far fewer resources and way more responsibilities in the classroom. The corporation let all of the aides go, so she was the only adult in a room of 25 five-and-six year olds. Art and music were cut. She was even responsible for serving and cleaning up breakfast before class could start because the administration wanted to save on custodial and kitchen staff. The results of kindergarten test scores in part determined her pay.
It’s not possible to provide the same educational quality to 30 kids as it is to 18. It’s not possible to make time for creative, thematic lessons when the school district’s survival depends on the test scores. Furthermore, it’s not possible to closely monitor the behavior of dozens of kids alone. Lots can happen outside of the supervision of adults, and I’m sure everyone here remembers from experience how mean little kids can be. The chances of bullying grows when children are left to their own devices.
Charter schools: the Goldilocks option?
Charter schools are supposed to split the difference, right? Free like public schools, yet smaller and more personalized like private schools. In theory, that’s how it works, but in reality, it’s not. Charter schools are public schools that are administered privately. Sometimes that leads to great results, but nationwide, there’s no evidence that charter schools out-perform public ones. All of the pluses and negatives of public intuitions apply.
Home schooling is a thing now…
More Americans are choosing to home school or “un-school,” and it’s not restricted to the population you’ve always associated with home schooling. In other words, it’s not only about religion anymore. People are looking for alternatives for their kids to learn faster and to avoid some of the pitfalls of peer pressure. There are no bullies at home, at least none that can’t be punished by Mom.
Yes, you’ll have to deal with people you don’t like throughout your life. And you do need to figure out how to cope with jerks and mean girls. But do you win anything by slogging through that every day, starting at age 8? (Or 6?) Let’s be honest: those labels of “loser” or “cool” or whatever are often internalized and stick with people throughout their lives.
I know many people who think they learned valuable lessons by standing up for themselves in the school yard, but for most people it’s a horrible experience. How much character do you really build by being beaten up? Or by being ostracized by your “friends”? On the other hand, not all social interactions are negative. Kids also meet friends at school, and without that outlet, your children won’t have a chance to develop meaningful relationships with their peers.
An advantage of home schooling is that there’s no requirement to sit still all day or walk in a straight line from room to room. You can zip through the material and not waste time on the mechanics of corralling herds of little ones. But, you’re a parent, not an educator. You aren’t trained in the subjects you’re teaching, and your child could miss out on a more enriching experience if they’d been taught by a professional.
Private school quality varies but the price is the same: expensive!
Private school wasn’t an option when I was growing up. Our area was so rural that there was only one place to go: your regular school. If you were willing to drive, there were a couple of parochial schools, but that was it. Secular private institutions simply didn’t exist. The only time I saw ultra-expensive private schools were on Law and Order after someone committed a crime.
I’ve always thought private schools were reserved for elitists who didn’t mind buying their kids A’s and a chance to rub shoulders with the rich and famous (ouch). I’m sure that’s true for some, but there’s another side to private schools too. They can be amazing. Like educational utopia amazing. Sometimes you get what you pay for.
I recently visited one in our area. The design was an open concept with glass walls and an atrium-like cafeteria, with trees inside. It had 3-D printers, a robotics lab, daily foreign language classes starting in preschool, a production studio, and two teachers for every ten kids. There were wide open green spaces, playgrounds, and an organic garden. Their mission is to teach kindness, critical thinking, and innovation, and there’s no reason they won’t be successful.
The problem? First grade costs more than my entire undergraduate education.
Just one year ago I thought anyone stressing about their preschoolers’ education was neurotic. (We Midwesterners don’t like fussiness.) Yet here I am. Some people might say that early childhood is too soon to worry. Aren’t kids just learning the “easy stuff,” like sounds and numbers? Let them be kids. But there’s ample evidence that the foundation is being built now. And the foundation is more than knowledge, it’s desiring to learn.
By the fifth grade I started “throwing” my quizzes and homework so I wouldn’t have the highest score in class. It was embarrassing to be called out, even for something positive, because I was a shy kid. By age ten I understood that it simply wasn’t cool at all to be too “good at school.” I got the message that enjoying my lessons made me a nerd and that being mediocre helped me blend in—something a lot of kids are desperate for. After that, I tuned out and didn’t really try again until college.
We all want what’s best for our kids, and that has to intersect with the opportunities in our area and within our family’s budget. The world is changing fast, but one thing that remains the same is that these early years are the greatest chance to imprint on our children. People always talk about college, but by the time your “kids” go to college, they’re technically adults. They’re going to take the values with them that they learned at a much younger age, and you’ll have virtually no say in their peers.
In other words: now seems like a great time to stress.
Q: What are you looking for in your child’s education? Are you happy with your choices?