Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Pulling Schools into the Twenty-First Century May Mean Redefining the Term "School"

When I published my most recent post, I knew that I would come under fire. My stance on education is not a popular one. I'm not anti-school. I just think our school "system" is broken and needs a serious overhaul.

But for the record my ideas do not stem from some elitist ideals – like the fabled let them eat cake. In my time, I have been a poor working mother trying to support my family on minimum wage while I was also going to school full-time; a public school teacher struggling to work with students for whom the system clearly was not working, never had, and never would; and a parent of publicly schooled children, who were doing well, but could never be said to be “thriving” in that environment. We won’t get into my personal experiences in public school, but suffice it to say that I was a very good student, but never could one be so deluded as to think I “thrived” in spite of my academic and perceived social success. It was those combined experiences that resulted in my decision to home school my younger children.

My ideas are not based on some bourgeois position of entitlement, but rather from a very long history of experiences with the public school system and an intimate knowledge that the current “system” does not work for anyone – even those children who seem to be “thriving.”

One of the arguments against my idea was that an un-educated populace is the fastest way to societal decline. First, I would argue that our society is already in decline, but that’s beside the point, because the implication is that our current system “educates” our population. I disagree. One hundred percent of our children between the ages of 7 and 17 are enrolled in some sort of educational program. Under penalty of law, children can NOT be withdrawn from some sort of educational equivalency program until they exceed the maximum compulsory attendance age (between 15 and 17 depending on the State). As such, 100% of America’s children receive an education from Kindergarten through, at least, the 10th grade.

In 1992, the National Adult Literacy Survey found that 50% of adults tested at Level 2 or lower on a prose literacy scale. That doesn’t mean much, until we add that a number of national and state organizations … have identified Level 3 proficiency as a minimum standard for success in today's labor market . source

But it gets worse than that. According to this article 32 million Americans can’t even read. They are functionally illiterate … but that statistic is just the ones who can only read enough to go to the right bathroom. What about the ones who can do better, but only slightly? There are no statistics for them, but I’ve known them. What are their job prospects? Even the military requires that recruits have a minimum of an eighth grade reading level, and, believe it or not, I've actually known people who took the test, but couldn't meet the minimum educational standards required to enlist in the Army.

And I wasn’t going to, but I will mention those absurd “on the street” reports in which Americans are quizzed about trivial sorts of facts that should be common knowledge and invariably are not. Like, we’ve been at war in the Middle East since 2001, where is the Middle East? And respondents can’t place a pin even in the general area. Or, who’s the Vice President of the United States? Or any other fairly pertinent piece of fact that we should, as an “educated” population, know but don’t.

Arguing that transitioning away from the current system would result in MANY children falling through the cracks and that it would result in an uneducated populace is ridiculous, as many children fall through the current system, and we, arguably, have a fairly uneducated populace already. The current system, for all the money we pay toward "educating" our children, is not even providing them with any marketable skills, and invariably, if they want a "good" job, they have to do some sort of training program after they graduate. Hanging onto our current system has resulted in MANY children falling through the cracks (at least 10%) and an uneducated subset of adults who have little or no job prospects in the kind of service-oriented economy we have developed here in the US over the past several decades.

The fact is that our current system doesn’t train our population to do anything but sit and take orders – great if we’re all going to join the military, but *see above*.

I never suggested that everyone should be forced to home school. What I suggested was virtual school, which means that teachers wouldn’t be working part-time, rather they would be working full-time, but 3/5ths of their school week would be telecommuting in a virtual classroom.

Of course, there really does seem to be a huge misunderstanding about what telecommuting actually is.

I work from home and have done so for more than a decade, but I do not “telecommute.” I am self-employed and have a home-based business. I am a freelancer, an independent contractor. I have clients, but not an outside employer. Nobody gives me a W-2 at the end of the year.

I do recognize that not everyone can be self-employed. It requires a willingness to let go of the security of having someone else do the job of making sure there’s work for which one will be paid. I have no such assurances, and if I want to earn money, I have to find people who are willing to pay me. I have no safety net when it comes to my job – no vacation pay, no health insurance, no sick-pay, no tuition reimbursement, no 401K, no guaranteed paycheck, and no legal recourse if the person paying decides he no longer needs my services (i.e. no unemployment).

That said, there’s also very little over-sight, no micromanaging and no time clocks. I do the work, in the privacy of my home office, at my leisure, when it suits me. I get paid for a completed job, and while my clients always have an expected turn-around time, I am completely free to work when it pleases me and to sit on the couch and read all day if I decide I don’t feel like working. As long as I get the work done when they need it, they don’t care if I work from 9 to 5 or at midnight. If we wanted to apply the analogy to education, being self-employed is like home schooling.

The only real similarity between my home-based work life and telecommuting is that a telecommuter gets to work at home. Often, however, there are designated “work hours”, and many telecommuters will be connected to the home office via an intranet or the Internet during these work times. The telecommuter is an “employee” and must meet certain expectations with regard to accountability. That is, the employer will want to be assured that the employee is working the required number of hours.

The telecommuter has all of the perks the on-site full-time employees have, namely, the safety net of having an employer that includes set wages, vacation/sick pay, health insurance, and should there no longer be a job, the opportunity to apply for unemployment benefits.

The virtual school I proposed is like telecommuting. Students (and teachers) would be required to be, physically, at the school for a minimum of two days per week. The other three days, they would be telecommuting via the Internet to a virtual classroom, where the teacher would be available to help.

Our national education system is over-bloated and extremely costly, and it is a significant financial drain on our local economies. My community is required to pay 50% of its revenues to support the school, and even that isn’t enough. So, we drive on broken roads; make do with a public library that was built to accommodate 3000 residents in a community that’s grown to three times that size (and the community doesn't bat an eye about paying $10 million per year for schools, but balks at a request of $2 million to upgrade our library); and keep our fingers crossed that the out-dated and under-sized sewage treatment plant won’t explode, this year. Half of our town’s revenues go to support an educational system that doesn’t really educate, while our infrastructure is crumbling, because we can’t afford to fix it.

My community is not unique in that respect. It’s happening (has been happening) all of the country for a lot longer than this current “Recession”, and yet, no one wants to provide any solutions other than the same kinds of fixes that have been tried and failed and tried and failed, and the general consensus seems to be that if we just had more money for education or if we just had a shinier, newer building ....

All of the solutions proffered by anyone who is trying to come up with solutions are ways to make the current system do better, but it’s the SYSTEM that is flawed, and no amount of propping up with more money is going to make it work. It’s like we have this old car with a seized up engine, and rather than admitting that the engine – the part that makes the car actually *do* something – is dead, we put on new tires and get a new paint job. Our solutions to the problem with our schools continue to be cosmetic and never really address the fact that the model on which our system is structured is antiquated and doesn’t serve our modern needs.

Perhaps, telecommuting students isn’t the answer either, but at least, it would save a significant amount of money annually on building maintenance and upkeep. It’s far cheaper to supply 1200 kids with laptop computers and have them in a physical classroom for only two days a week than it is to pay for the general maintenance, heat, electricity and water for a school building. For just energy requirements for the average-sized school, it costs $270,000 per year. My community could save half a million dollars per year, if they would just close two of our three school buildings and have students use only the third building.

The bottom line is that our current system is not working, it's too expensive, and, as I say in Surviving the Apocalypse in the Suburbs, it will fail. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, schools closed in record numbers, and in places where the schools stayed open, teachers worked for "vouchers" and not for pay. We're headed in that direction - where we will need to make very hard choices about what to keep and what to let go, as we and our communities become poorer.

Seems to me, instead of negating ideas because we can't concieve of how they might possibly work, we should be trying to imagine other solutions. Maybe home schooling isn't the univeral answer, but wouldn’t it be better to start doing something else, right now, to ensure that EVERYONE has some access to some kind of education, rather than trying, vainly, to hold onto the current system as it slips through our fingers like melted butter?


  1. I agree that our current education system has some deep flaws, and also that a "virtual school" could save money and might allow for more self-paced education. What concerns me is that a lot of kids don't have parents or other adults at home during the day, and having the eight-year-old home alone seems like a poor plan (and possibly illegal--it would be in Massachusetts, I think). Something to consider.

  2. Let me repeat what I said in the comments section of my previous post teachers are not babysitters and the purpose of our schools is not to provide childcare for working parents.

    I imagine the onus would be and should be on the parents to make "legal" accommodations for their children while they're working.

    This argument keeps cropping up, and I ask - what do working parents with non-school aged kids do? Why should parents of school-aged children not make the same arrangements?

  3. A thoughtful and apposite post. If, or when, the financial state of nations gets worse as we work through the financial crisis these issues are going to have to be faced. There is only so much money around and when it isn't there something has to give.

    You are dead right that teachers shouldn't be child carers, but I think one of our problems is that is what many are reduced to and that is a very real problem for our disconnected society. On the whole we no longer have extended family who work together for the good of the whole to make finances work so we all do better. But I think somehow we are going to have to find a way to deal with the issues or everything will just come to a grinding halt and parents will have children at home anyway with their teachers out of a job. What bothers me is that programs to support families with disabled children/family members will be one of the first to be cut, rather than one of the last. If families where everyone is mostly healthy have trouble coping without a school, how much worse is it for families who have someone massively disabled?


  4. Perhaps, just as the education system needs to change, then maybe our social structure also needs to be reinvented. Is there an aunt or neighbor who could stay with the children during the day? Do we go back to the "old ways" of having several generations living under the same roof, and grandma would be there to watch the children....and start dinner ;)

    Great discussions on these two posts!

  5. I bristle at the idea that as a working parent I would treat a school as a babysitter. I have always made arrangements for my school aged child to not be hanging out at home alone while I and my husband have been at work.

    That ranges from private after school care to dragging him to work to curl up in a ball under my desk because I didn't have the sick time available to take to tend to him. (Maybe it's not just the EDUCATION system that's broken. Maybe it's the whole damn machine.)

    But should I pay to have someone watch him while he hops on a laptop and completes his studies for the day two days a week? If that's the case, then I'll just send him to private school.

    With all of this damn standardized testing they do these days too--he's given extra homework where he "telecommutes" after school hours and on weekends to complete lessons and practice tests online already.

    I appreciate the fact that you're bringing light to the fact that as Americans we're slowly sliding into an abyss of stupidity.

    How about we teach those kids attending the average sized school that sucks up $270,000 per year to heat how to build a BETTER school? How about we teach them to install solar panels on the roof of that school to provide a portion of that schools electricity? How about we teach those kids how to design and build and occupy their own greenhouse? How about we teach these kids how to remodel one of these empty buildings languishing and contributing to urban blight into a center for real learning?

    This is exactly what the kids at the school my husband teaches at are being taught how to do.

    There's no magic bullet, but I think a combination of what you're talking about, what your governor is proposing and the kind of hands on vocational skills that I'm talking about could make up a small portion of the answer.

  6. @ Kaye - YES! Absolutely. There is no single silver bullet that will solve all of our woes - but it's clear that we need to start - like two years ago - implementing some pretty drastic changes, because of we don't, instead of making choices regarding our children's educations, we'll struggling to clean up the mess left by our failed system.

    I would love to see kids trained in some practical skills - like installing solar panels on the school roof - instead of always having them sit idly in a classroom memorizing facts they'll forget in a month.

  7. Completely agree. In many of the school systems my children have been in its the transportation (busing) cost that really put the schools over the edge. Millions of dollars a year to run the buses. A school where they only had to run them a couple of days a week would also cut down that expense. And sorry, but I think parents should be responsible for sports event rides. It sucks that the school cant buy math books but shills out millions in extra busing fees to the bus companies for the football team to go across town. That's just wrong.

  8. I think the idea of a virtual school is a very interesting one.

    You asked what people of school-aged kids do for childcare (after securing child-care in the early years). I think that is an interesting question. I'm fortunate in that I've worked at home for several years (as a way of providing care for my young ones).

    I am planning to spread my wings a little and work outside the home more and more very soon. My husband and I have had to coordinate a change in schedules to allow this to happen.

    Such juggling is possible for us, but I wonder how reasonable it would be for most people. Many employers simply cannot (or will not) get into the mindset that some - and I would argue MANY - of their positions could be done after the typical 9-5 timeframe, and even that more of those things could be done at home.

    Attitudes have to change across the board. Employers need to become more flexible. Job shares, telecommuting and other arrangements can be very mutually beneficial for both employers and employees.

    Recognizing that folks with kids can still be very productive while also providing care and education to their children probably would require many to evolve their way of thinking.

    I think that we'll see that as time passes and fossil fuels become more of an issue, driving around in cars to get to jobs will need to scaled way back. Employers will *HAVE* to then realize that finding ways for their employees to do work at home or in a more flexible way is in everyone's best interest.

    I believe in my heart that that time is coming. Then, the virtual school idea I think will have more teeth to it, as it will be seen as more 'doable' for more people.

  9. I would argue that MOST people in the US don't work 9 to 5 jobs. In fact, I found this quote on a website that listed America's Top 10 employers: The firms on the largest employer list are predominantly retail companies .... Wal-Mart, Target, Sears, Kroger and McDonald’s ....

    When I was a full-time college student with a full-time job and two children, my employer (a restaurant) was able to be very flexible with my "work" schedule, and we did what I call "tag-team" parenting so that someone was always home with the kids.

    If I had to work outside of the home, Deus Ex Machina and I would have had a similar arrangement so that when I had to work, he would be home, etc.

    I agree that many employers can be (but aren't always willing to be) more flexible with work schedules, and I also agree that, in time, we'll be making some significant adjustments to traveling for work - but I don't think those changes will come on the corporate level. That is, I don't most corporations are going to give a rat's ass about their employees' personal problems with childcare or whatever. In fact, in this economy, most of them will just think they can easily get a replacement. It's the same attitude that's currently permeating the retail industry - "Dear Customer: I don't care about you, because you're a dime a dozen." Unfortunately, I may be a dime a dozen, but because I was treated so poorly, they are now down to eleven customers, and pretty soon, that number will dwindle to nothing, and they'll be sitting there wondering where all of the customers are.

    With regard to employers, though, I think, as people realize that they can't afford to drive 20 miles (@ $5/gal for gasoline) to work for $10 an hour, when they begin to realize that they have to work for an hour just to pay to get to work, I think most folks will be looking for something closer to home.

    Unfortunately, if we wait until we are forced to make the changes, the transition is going to be a lot more difficult, and it would behoove us to start looking at changes now, when we have time to make mistakes.

    Maybe virtual schooling won't work, but if we never try, we'll never know, and if we wait until we have no other choices, and it doesn't work, then, we're screwed.