Monday, November 18, 2013

Educating our Children: My Thoughts on School, Homeschool, and the Common Core

Before I get into this, I want to make something clear.  I am not an expert on the Common Core, I am not an expert on homeschooling, and I am not an expert on public school.  I am a parent who is concerned about my children getting the education that is right for them.  And I am an American concerned about the future of all of the children in our country.

There has been a lot of buzz about the implementation of the Common Core standards in New York State.  There are a lot of people who are unhappy with it.  There is a lot of propaganda out there on both sides of the issue, and it is very hard to sort it all out without specific information.

Here is my take:

I believe that parents are ultimately responsible for their own children's education.  

We began homeschooling because our son was having a very difficult time in kindergarten.  It was not the work that was difficult - he was actually a little bored, because most of it had already been covered in his preschool.  His difficulty was in concentrating within a group of 20-something other five-year-olds.  He was constantly in trouble for being too "bouncy and noisy," and had begun to believe that "There is only one good boy in my class, and only one bad girl."  This was not the way any of us had pictured his first year of "real" school to be.  We found out that kindergarten was not actually required in our state, so we pulled him out of school for the rest of that year.  He did so much better at home, that we have continued homeschooling.  He is now in 5th grade, and our daughter is home learning kindergarten material at her own pace. 

I have many friends whose children are in the public schools.  I do not believe that every child should be homeschooled.  All parents have to make decisions about what is right for their own children.  For some, this is homeschool.  For others, it is public school or private school or another kind of education.  For some, the right thing changes from year to year or from child to child.  But the ultimate responsibility for making sure their children are learning falls on the parents.  And for parents to carry out this responsibility, they have to be informed about what their children are learning.  This is easy in homeschooling - we pick out the materials to use, and spend time with our kids helping them to use them.  This becomes more difficult when the child is in school most of the day, but it still needs to be done.  The children bring home homework, and the parents need to be able to support them in finishing it.  The parents need to know if there is something being taught which is different from their own beliefs, so that they can help their children to understand the different points of view.  It is sad when professional people are unable to help their fourth graders with math simply because they learned a different way of coming to the same answer, but that perfectly valid way is not acceptable for the new "standards."

The Common Core takes power away from the parents by keeping them uninformed about what their children are learning.  They are unable to help their children with their homework, because there is no explanation of how things need to be done.  This undermines respect, as children can determine that their parents are not "as smart as a 5th grader."

I believe that teachers want children to learn, and have the training and the creativity necessary to make that happen.  

One of my many "lives" has included being a classroom teacher.  I am also the daughter of a public school math teacher and the sister of a college professor.  Children do not all learn the same way.  That makes teaching large classes in school difficult, because you have to constantly evaluate the group and try to meet each of the kids where they are.  This means that some kids need more help, and some kids need more challenge.  

I am a part-time substitute in my local school district, and have been required to teach lessons from the common core-aligned math curriculum to several different elementary grades.  The system is scripted, which means the teacher's manual tells you exactly what to say and how to teach.  There is a large amount of written work each day, some of which requires writing skills rather than math skills.  I have taught in the regular classrooms and the special education classrooms, and they are all required to use the same format.  This means that the child in the kindergarten special ed class who cannot yet count is responsible for the same material as the child in another kindergarten class who is already capable of first grade work.  They are using the same books, in the same manner.  It is very difficult for the teacher of either classroom to give extra help to the child who needs it, or challenge the child who craves it.  

When I was in middle school, many many years ago, I had my mother for my math teacher.  She taught a unique math class.  Her class included, any given period, an eclectic group of students made up of 5th through 8th graders who were either above or below the general level for their grade.  She used the very basic Spectrum math books for all, giving each student a book based on his current level.  She then worked with each of us individually to help us learn at our own pace, explaining things as necessary.  We also did extra projects, like finding the volume of different containers by pouring water into them, creating geometric designs, and experimenting with a very rudimentary computer - we were actually connecting wires to see what would happen...who knew I would be typing on one today so that people around could read my words the minute they are published?  

When I was in 8th grade, the school district discontinued the program, and my mother was transferred to the high school to teach.  She has since retired, but continues to help students (including her math-phobic grandson) to learn in their own way.  She still has former students thanking her for explaining things so that they could understand, as she was still able to help them individually while teaching large classes algebra and geometry.

The common core takes power away from the teachers by making it impossible for them to have a personal impact on their students.  They are unable to meet their students' needs, because they have to spend all their time making sure the students can pass the tests instead of making sure they understand the material.  This undermines respect, especially because students now have the ability to get teachers fired simply by not doing well.

I believe that children are individuals, and have individual educational needs.

I had a conversation with my stepmother yesterday.  We are both having trouble with our computers, and need to get new ones.  We were discussing the merits of laptops, desktops, and all-in-one's for the different things we use computers for these days.  We also had a brief discussion about the telephone party lines we had grown up with.  Talk about change!   She had been on a line with six houses, but when I was young our line only had two.  Now, many families have a different phone number for each family member!  My generation has had to teach ourselves to use computers, VCR's, DVD's, video cameras, MP3 players, microwave ovens, and programmable coffee pots.  There are countless job opportunities that didn't exist when we were in school.  There was no way for our teachers to teach us everything we would need to know for the world we live in now.  We had to know how to learn things on our own.

What will our children need to know by the time they are adults?  We don't know.  Teachers don't know.  And politicians don't know.  There is all this talk about "skill sets."  Supposedly every child needs the same one.  Do they really?  Do a chemist, a rock star, and a cashier need the same skill set?  What about a nurse, a computer programmer and an archaeologist?  I'm thinking probably not. What they all need is the ability to learn how to do their job.  That learning will look different for each of them.  The common core prides itself on getting children "college and career-ready."  How can you do that if there is so much emphasis on everyone knowing the same thing?  Colleges and careers require countless variations of skills.  What happens when there is so much time spent on testing a narrow set of skills, from the time spent teaching what will be on the test, to practicing taking the test, to actually taking the test?  There is little time left for anything else.  When can a musician practice, or a scientist experiment, or a carpenter build?  Children need to have time to try all of these things, so that they can make choices for their own futures.

The common core takes power away from children, by fitting them all into a common mold.  They are unable to develop their own interests.  The bright ones are pushed down, and the struggling ones are pushed off.  This undermines self-respect, because they are all expected to be good at the same things, and have no way to let their true abilities shine.

In temporary conclusion...

As I said, I am not an expert.  I believe my experience has given me a little insight, but I am sure I do not know the impact the Common Core will have on this generation of students or those who will come after them.  I think it will weaken our country, in the long run.  I don't really have a problem with a standardized list of things that should be taught to children in our country.  There are things everyone should know, such as history so that we don't repeat it, and respect for others.  I do have a problem with people who are not educators themselves dictating how things need to be taught.  I have a problem with holding teachers responsible for the test results without consideration of the real needs of the children.  I have a problem with children being so stressed out from testing that they hate school, and learn that learning new things is painful.  I have a problem with families having their personal lives monitored in the name of education.  And I have a problem with a government that thinks throwing more money at a problem is the only way to fix things.

I realize that I have only mined the surface of what is happening in our schools, and that there is more that can be said on every side.  I also realize that I am speaking from small amounts of information and large amounts of emotion, here.  But hey, it's my blog so I can say what I like, right?  I would love more conversation about this topic, but please be respectful of everyone!  What do you see, from wherever you are?

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