Parent, Heal Thyself

by Linda Szugyi

My experience with education is a love/hate relationship.  In elementary school, I loved getting ‘A’s, reading books, and writing poetry.  (I wanted to be a poet when I grew up.)  I remember adoring the standardized test at the end of the year.  It was so exciting:  the solemnity, the necessity of filling the bubbles neatly, the fun of trying to deduce the answer when choices were unclear (darn you T/F problems, I see grey in almost everything!), and the thrill of competing with every same-grade student for that top percentile standing.

But I hated the tendency schools have to be bureaucratic, even before I knew the word ‘bureaucratic.’  Rules that didn’t make sense, either as a practical matter or as a matter of justice, burned me up with anger.  The application of rules in an overly dogmatic manner did the same thing.  The smaller and more inconsequential the rule, the worse it was somehow.

A good example is the kindergarten teacher’s assistant who made me turn the picture I was coloring right-side-up.  It was a picture of a toy soldier.  She said he can’t march while standing on his head.  Good grief lady, I am left-handed and it’s hard to color while the paper is in that position! is what I would have said if I had the wisdom to do so, which I did not.  So I just tried to finish the picture without crying, and didn’t really understand why her nonsensical rule upset me so much.

The other thing I hated was the tedium.  The reading comprehension questions at the end of a short story were often so banal, so lame, that the requirement to think up and write down complete sentences in response made me, once again, burn with anger.  Good grief, why are you wasting my time? is what I would have said if I had the wisdom to do so, which I did not.  So I just tried to answer the questions as quickly as possible, and didn’t really understand why sometimes, the end-of-reading questions made me so mad I wanted to scribble them out with dark, forceful strokes of my #2 pencil.

I hope all this doesn’t sound like a brag about being too smart or too much of a special, special flower for school.  My point may be even worse than bragging, though.  My point is that every kid is too smart for schools as they currently operate and have operated for several decades.  That is, all children have their own unique strengths and weaknesses.  A rigid approach to educating these unique individuals will inevitably mute some strengths while exacerbating some weaknesses in every child who endures it.

This complaint is hardly new, of course:

That’s why Common Core proponents have a point when they ask, why in the world do you assume a national set of standards and testing will be so different from the state standards and testing already in place?

Common Core is worse, what with all of its copyright limitations and data-collecting spookiness.  But much of it is nothing different from what has gone on for a long time.  If anything, it’s the next logical step, given the direction we’ve allowed our education experts to march for so long.  Proponents are probably quite bewildered by the way the name “Common Core” has unleashed a backlash that keeps spreading like wildfire.

In a sense, all Common Core did to ignite this wildfire was finally provide a label–a name for something most of us never really understood, but which nevertheless gave us an inchoate, uneasy feeling first about our own education, and later about the education of our children.  I can hardly blame Common Core proponents for reacting, in their bewilderment, by calling critics things like hysterical, or overprotective white suburban moms.

Wait a minute.  Yes I can.

Anyway, the problem with American education is older and deeper than Common Core:

“The current debate about whether we should have a national curriculum is phony; we already have one, locked up in the six lessons I’ve told you about and a few more I’ve spared you. This curriculum produces moral and intellectual paralysis, and no curriculum of content will be sufficient to reverse its bad effects. What is under discussion is a great irrelevancy.”

John Taylor Gatto wrote those words in 1991.

“In our dreams . . . people yield themselves with perfect docility to our molding hands.  The present educational conventions [of intellectual and moral education] fade from our minds, and unhampered by tradition, we work our own good will upon a grateful and responsive folk.  We shall not try to make these people or any of their children into philosophers or men of learning or men of science.  We have not to raise up from among them authors, educators, poets or men of letters.  We shall not search for embryo great artists, painters, musicians, nor lawyers, doctors, preachers, politicians, statesmen – of whom we have an ample supply.  The task we set before ourselves is very simple . . . we will organize children . . . and teach them to do in a perfect way the things their fathers and mothers are doing in an imperfect way.”

John Rockefeller’s General Education Board penned those words in 1906.

I know there is no perfect solution.  There will always be times in both childhood and adulthood when we have to put up with some boredom or other discomfort.  I’m not suggesting a sunshine and rainbows world where the children run free in the meadow all day, and yet still magically learn how to be musicians, doctors, electrical engineers, and all the other things we need them to be in the future.

But the education system in America today has become so calcified that it harms not just special little flowers like me, but even the more resilient among us.  Can you imagine any seven-year old resilient enough to handle getting handcuffed at school for having a nonviolent meltdown, for example?

We are unfortunately forced by circumstances to focus on Common Core and its repeal in state legislatures.  It is unfortunate because by doing so, we are focusing on merely a symptom of the problem, instead of the problem itself.  After all, if tomorrow every state in the union repealed Common Core and burned every page of Common Core-aligned material, our schools would still be a hot mess.

I hate to admit it, but the real problem . . . is us.  The parents.  We need to realize that our reliance on education experts and their academia-speak is an impediment to learning.  We need to realize that teaching from a script written by those experts is a phony kind of teaching that sucks the air out of a classroom.  We need to accept the fact that there is no magic formula that the school system can apply in order to open every child’s mind to learning.

Homeschooling parents are included in this problem, by the way.  We have a hard time trusting our own judgment and abilities, where education is concerned.  We are just as prone to rely on experts as everyone else.  That’s why homeschoolers tend to research, analyze, and discuss curricula until they are blue in the face, always searching for the elusive “best curriculum” and “best teaching style” for their children.  Homeschoolers often end up reading from a script, too.  That script may be more ideologically to our liking, but it can also be as awkward and phony as a Common Core lesson.

I should know.  I’ve tried to use the detailed teacher instructions and worksheets included in Sonlight curricula for two years, and I’ve felt guilty for the times I’ve skipped them.  I’m not criticizing the Sonlight product–they assemble a wonderful assortment of textbooks and fiction that weave together a rich and engaging story.  I’m criticizing my own over-reliance on the supplemental material.

Anne Sullivan didn’t succeed in teaching Helen Keller because she was an expert, or because she relied on expert material.  She succeeded because she had a gift for teaching and a passion to do whatever it took to open Helen’s mind.  In the long-term, the only real solution lies within this kind of individual passion.  Whether it’s public school or homeschooling, the solution will always be found where the rubber hits the road–a teacher passionately sharing knowledge, and a student striving to gain it.

We can’t get there from here.  First, we have to get rid of the Common Core threat to teacher autonomy.  Next, No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top need repealing.  Heck, just go ahead and shut down the Department of Education.  Only then can the states work without their hands tied, and find their own ways to reward the talented, passionate teachers who open our children’s minds, and either retrain or fire the rest.

Even then, such fixes won’t succeed unless we parents fix ourselves.  The pro-Common Core education experts currently hold sway because we ceded to them the responsibility of knowing what’s best for our children.  We gave them the power they now abuse.