Sunday, January 6, 2013

Why no school is the best school if you can't afford an independent school

A friend recently asked what school/districts I recommend near New York City. When my boyfriend and I discussed this a few years back I rattled off numerous schools and districts like this one.  Back then my job consisted in part of supporting schools with something called the Schoolwide Enrichment Model (SEM) which honors students passions, talents, interests, abilities and learning style. My advice today is very different.

What learning looks like for the children
of the wealthy or highly educated.
Those SEM schools are gone for the most part, though some hang on by a thread with an after school program.

Priorities have changed.

Gone are the days when we saw our children as creative, unique individuals and educators as the ones who could help them discover, explore, and develop their passions.

Today our teachers and students know they are nothing more than mere datapoints who will be fed a pre-packaged, curriculum that is measured by numerous One-Size-Fits-All tests that line the pockets of publishers like Pearson, fill the egos of politicians who don't know better and hurt our children.
Penelope Trunk, a wildly successful career advisor explains it this way:
"Test-based curricula is irrefutably ineffective and bad for kids. I'm not even providing a link, because it's so widely reported. However no one can think of a better way to run such a large and diverse public school system as the one we have in the US, so test-based curricula will persist for a long time."
Trunk, who makes a living by telling people how to get the best careers possible, now homeschools her children and advises others to do the same because in the days following NCLB & RTTT, she explains that, "to receive public funding, public schools must have test-based curricula. This is true for charter schools as well. They are public schools. They need public funding." Unless this changes, our nation will have two school systems. One is where the masses go to be processed and spit out on the other end ranked, rated, and sorted into neatly packaged datapoints.
Trunk points out however, that the wealthy and powerful do not send their kids to test-based schools. Those kids go to independent private schools that function more like homeschool. And the fastest-growing group of parents taking their kids out of school are parents with a bachelor's degree and a household income in the range of $50,000 – $75,000.
All of this leads me to why I told my friend that if an independent school is not on the table, my best advice for her would be to move somewhere with a rich environment like NYC and homeschool
As long as testing is the way students, teachers, and schools are ranked it will continue to be terrible. If it wasn't, the wealthy and powerful, who are fond of testing other people's children, would be sending their own kids to these testing factories. Instead wealthy parents are putting their children in the independent schools and more and more not-so-wealthy, but educated, parents are taking their kids out of public school and homeschooling them. In New York City, which leads the nation on the testing and accountability movement, the number of homeschoolers has increased a whopping 36% in the past eight years!
I agree with Trunk's advice. If you want to do what is best for kids and you can't afford an independent school, the best you can do is to  take them out so they don't get left behind.


  1. My home schooling Mentor told me that as a home schooler, I am educating my child the way the wealthy and affluent have done for hundereds of years. They take care of their own.

    1. @Stephanie,
      This is so true. I'm just finishing up an eBook about the Uncomfortable History of American Schooling. In it I share how education occurred before our compulsory, Prussian model of schooling and it was as you describe...and not just for the wealthy, but the community/village served as the classroom for many full with apprenticeships, mentors, and the like.

  2. As a public education teacher, I might be running myself out of a job when I say I agree with this article.

    Public education in a democratic nation is about freedom of choice. There is no "public" education if it is compulsory. Therefore, though I'm an ardent supporter of public education, I must therefore be an ardent supporter of the right to attend private schools, home school, or any other means of providing what a parent thinks is best for a child.

    When I think of this historically and allegorically, I think of a large and powerful invading army sweeping over a land. In cases where resistance to the army was futile, the populace had only two options: Succumb,or burn everything and leave. Only the later has been an effective resistance.

    Perhaps in urban areas where for-profit charters and a weakened public school system struggles, a mass protest that pulls every child out of the system until it is rebuilt for true common good will be the only effective means of re-establishing a public school system. (An improbable task, I am aware.)

    I'm alarmed to think of a shrinking public education system. A mass exodus from public schools is unthinkable. However, mandatory indoctrination or allowing a nation of students to become demoralized and unskilled is unacceptable.

    If there was one point I would contend it would be your statement to "move to NYC and homeschool." Replace NYC with "a farm" or "the wilderness" and "visit NYC often" and I could agree to that.

    Ms. Nielsen, this article has given me much to think about and has helped revise and clarify my thoughts on education.

    1. Thank you for your thoughtful comment @John Stoffel. You remind me of a story that came out last year I believe when the students did just that. They left school in protest of the terrible conditions and united to provide themselves with something better.

      Unfortunately, I think the way things stand in some districts, no school is indeed best. Especially in these times where I hear principals and teachers saying that they know they are hurting kids and making them physically and mentally ill, yet there is nothing they can do about it.

      Regarding your statement about NYC...
      Ironically, Penelope Trunk who I cite in this article did just that. She was an New York City girl who picked up and now lives on a farm in Wisconsin with her two sons then travels to Chicago often for a visit to other activities. So, yes. Another smart option indeed :)

    2. One bit of hope that I've been contemplating is the idea that the rise in homeschooling might actually be a "market force" that pushes politicians to see the light and change the way that public schools are run.

    3. @Lisha,
      I'm not sure if that will be the case. The wealthy and powerful don't see a good montezation scheme in homeschooling like they do with the corporate ed reform movement. I saw this come to light last fall when Education Nation was aired. I had the fortune to influence some of the planning of the education coverage. I brought up the fact that the percentage of kids who are homeschooled is equal to that who attend charter school and that homeschooled kids have more success on traditional measures. I then pointed out that 80% of the coverage was focused on charter schools while there was no mention at all of homeschooling. I put together a list of home education folks that could be at the very least invited to some of the panels. They politely dismissed this as a story idea. Homeschooling does not go with what anyone wants to portray as the way of life in our country and I think that has a lot to do with the fact that the media and others can't see how it can help them to profit off our kids.

  3. I have a Master's Degree in Education and began homeschooling my 3 sons in 1982 and continued through the years until they graduated. For a good read, find John Taylor Gatto's books, especially "A Different Kind of Teacher". Gatto was twice honored as the NY City "Teacher of the Year" and quit teaching after being honored as the NY State "Teacher of the Year". He has since been a supporter of homeschooling.

  4. THANK YOU from the bottom of my heart when you talk about public education. I am a former public educator and I just want to say kuddos to those who home school.

  5. > If you want to do what is best for kids and you can't afford an independent school, the best you can do is to take them out so they don't get left behind.

    If you can't afford private school (aka independent school) it may also be that you're poor generally, and can't afford to have one parent stay at home all day. Is taking your child out of school the best option in that case? How to two-working-parents manage to do homeschooling?

    1. To answer that, I suggest reading my "Working homeeducator's guide to success."

      It is possible even for those who are not wealthy. It is possible even for those who work.

    2. That's not an answer, it's a link to a paywall. What's your version of the answer?

  6. See the work of Mortimer J. Adler and members of the Paideia group, circa 1982. They recognized and reported that our nation's educational system was a wreck. Unlike "A Nation at Risk"--a report that followed the Paideia Group's analysis, they presented "The Paideia Proposal" and later "The Paideia Program" as ways to attack this problem. Most of their ideas were centered around the examination and discussion of rigorous text, writing about that text, using complex, academic vocabulary, coaching students, and designing teaching and learning to be active, not passive. If that sounds familiar, it's probably because it is, for the most part, CCSS for RWSL. As a matter of fact, if you only look at the table of contents of Adler's "How to Read a Book" you will also see, basically, The CCSS. Of course, this was anchored in the notion of "The best for the best is the best for all" idea--career and college ready citizens who are life-long learners.

    When it comes then to the issue of schools, schools are as only as good as the teachers in each classrooms. "Good" schools are really just a collection of "good" classrooms where the learning rate is phenomenal. The work of Dylan Wiliam, as well as his work and research w/ Paul Black have supported this idea through their work with formative assessment or "Assessment for Learning". With that in mind, really teacher preparation, teacher education, teacher support, and quality professional development are at the heart of our "schools" problems. Good teachers are good coaches and facilitators, building relationships and partnerships with students, and challenging them through exploration, dialogue, discussion, and an array of literacy practice. They arrange time for 1 on 1 discussions and conferences, and join for a common cause. Adler would call it moving for a state of lesser understanding to greater understanding. Home schools have this relationship piece (and small class size-wink) built in, and many charters are committed to the same ideas and concepts. In truth, this type of instruction is driven by formative assessment, which is, in my humble opinion, it the BEST assessment tool we have.

    Here's the thing, to close w/ a connection to the testing theme. If teachers can create classrooms where learning is active and not passive, where some of the things I've mentioned above are present and reinforced in all classrooms in a school, then it doesn't matter what assessment is given. Students will show growth and achievement. It has to happen one classroom at a time.

    1. In theory this sounds good, but it doesn't work when kids can't read the test because of special needs or because they don't speak the language as is the case for many in our inner-city, public schools.

  7. I was hoping for more of a conversation about this and less of a dismissal. I'm confused, but that happens often, so I'm used to me. I'm not sure which Theory" you're responding to in my reply. Was it:
    "The best for the best" idea
    "The teacher/coach/formative assessment idea, or
    "The creating an "active, not passive" idea.

    In any case, they all translate very well from theory or practice, so I guess, with out any hard data or the time to devote a drawn out conversation, I suppose we'd have to agree to disagree. I suppose you can draw from your personal experience and the data you encounter every day, but then so can I.

    In my experience, which includes working with the Pa Dept of Ed, Special Ed Division (PaTTAN)teachers are deeply concerned and caring about supporting special needs students, so that then not only can read 'the test' but they can read 'life' and be life long learners. In my current position, which includes an urban school district that is as "inner-city" as anything you'll find in NY, teachers are expected to hold students accountable for "speaking the language" Through frequent and deliberate practice w/ the R,W,S and L skills as defined by the CCSS AND previous, as well as future standards.
    So then, in your reply you tell me that kids can't read the test because of their special needs, or because they don't speak the exactly what does that mean? You say that the current "home school" movement may help politicians revamp our current system, but yet see seem to, w/ your reply to me, throw in the towel on the teachers who are doing exactly what they are supposed to do. Who is going to home school the inner-city students who have no one at home? What is the answer? Charter Schools, maybe, but we both know that also is a money making enterprise.

    I've read a number of your blogs, I see you have many awards, and I don't doubt your expertise, but I think your reply to me was flippant, not very well thought out, and dismissive. That's ok. it's your blog. I was just expecting some rich dialogue.