Tuesday, November 27, 2012

The Plight of the Parent Education Advocate

Guest post by David Bernstein

I’m relatively new to the battle for wholesale educational change, but have fast learned that fighting for a different school model while parenting kids who go to fairly traditional schools requires a tortuous mental balancing act. On the one hand, I’m agitating for change to a badly broken education system, and on the other, I’ve  got to make sure that my own alternative-learning-style kids come out of the school system in one piece.
I love the movie The Matrix, not because it’s such a fabulous piece of art, but because of its powerful message of fighting back against a dehumanizing system that few fully understand.  The film depicts a future in which reality as perceived by most humans is actually a computer simulation meant to subdue the human population, while their bodies are used as an energy source (a little like factory schools producing kids to fuel an industrial economy that no longer exists). Once the main character, Neo, becomes aware of this manufactured reality, he joins a rebellion against the computers. Neo is constantly forced to move in and out of The Matrix in order to challenge it.
Scene from The Matrix
 
Such is the plight of the parent education advocate, fighting the education matrix from without one moment and engaging it from within the next; making sure our children get their work done one moment, and fighting to make sure the schools bend to their and other children’s needs the next.
In his blog for Talentism, Jeff Hunter waxes poignant about this agonizing existence with his own son: “As a parent I am caught between two worlds. I am 100% certain that school is doing great damage to his future prospects, but I also know that the game is rigged to be in favor of kids who get the right grades….We can't force him to do something he thinks is wrong. And my personal hell is... he is right.”
I must concede to my teenage son that a given homework assignment is ridiculous but demand that he do it.
I sometimes mentally roll my eyes at school officials who promulgate what I consider to be outmoded educational practices and, with a straight face, express support for their efforts.
I point out the absurdity of demanding that my son take chemistry but pay for a tutor to help him through it.
challenge the existing orthodoxy that every second grader must be able to read at a high level, and then force my younger son to receive extra reading support so he can keep up with the masses.
In his dozens of interviews with parents who are dedicated to raising out-of-the-box, innovative children, author Tony Wagner relates that “dealing with their children’s schools, creating space to let their children fail, and being “different” parents were recurring themes in my conversations…some parents had to resist teachers’ efforts to force their children to read. They also had to frequently define and defend their children’s “differences” with school authorities.”
Unfortunately, many parents who face these struggles with the education system limit their battles to making sure that their own children get what they need in order to fit into the school structure. Here’s a typical comment, which I received on an earlier a post I had written for The  Answer Sheet: “The reality that many of us parents of children with ADD/ADHD is that our children exist today in the environment you describe and it isn't going to change overnight. Medicating is a tough decision that most parents don't take lightly….My job is to make sure my son is successful in the world that he is living in.”
True enough, but where’s the outrage that the schools are failing her son or that they are forcing him to conform to an unnatural learning method that may stifle his intellectual growth? Let’s at least state, loud and clear, that  alternative learning styles such as ADHD are not inherently bad and should not have to be molded to fit into the current educational program; rather, the current one-size-fits-all educational program is bad and should be made to fit alternative learning styles.
It’s really ok and even admirable to leave the matrix every once in a while.
Moreover, the world that her “son is living in” is not confined to the experience of school. We are adapting our kids to an educational system that no longer reflects the vast opportunities of the world beyond the walls of school, a world that’s increasingly ok with and even demanding of people who don’t fit the mold.  Yet we force and even drug our kids (like this one and this one and this one) into fitting the mold.
When are more parents going to join in the battle for educational change? It may be a challenging juggle, but our kids are worth it.
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David Bernstein is a nonprofit executive from the Washington, DC Area and a father of two sons. You can follow him on twitter @DavidLBernstein
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