How I Got Schooled: Goodbye Public

When our firstborn, the unfortunate guinea pig that she is, came of school age, we thought we were good to go.  We had purchased our home in an A-rated district, had a bright child, and had four college degrees under our mutual belts.  We felt prepared and had confidence we were doing the right thing.  But as her first grade year went on, we saw an ordinarily extremely peppy, outgoing, and bright girl wilt a bit before our eyes.  She was learning a very average amount—nothing exceptional—but seemed swept over by a combination of the large school environment, the extremely varied home environments that her peers were emerging from each morning (read: behavior problems abounded), and frankly did her smarts did not work to her advantage because there wasn’t much teaching that was being directed at her (individualized learning), much less challenging her.

It seemed day by day through my intuitive mama eyes that she was changing, that her sweet spirit and eager curiosity was being caged in and unwittingly cut at the quick.

Soon after, her brother entered the same school, and having tested gifted in Pre-K, was put right away in the K-2 gifted program alongside his sister.  This experience consisted of 20-30 minutes each morning of board games and group competitions intended to stimulate their minds.  Fun, but I couldn’t help think—wait a second, ya’ll!  Is this ALL there is to learning?  Shouldn’t it be more?  I watched them go from mind games to random writing prompts (in preparation for FCAT) to black history month instruction to my favorite time-waster, Guidance (that's my job, public school).  Isn’t there a rhyme or reason to all this random and piecemeal stuff you are putting before them?

Hush, hush, I thought, as I assured myself that we had done our absolute best for them.  Here they were, in a roundly-perceived “good” school, in a gifted track—but folks, it was just blah.  It wasn’t interesting.  They were spending precious days with not much to show for it.  Collin’s only goal as he understood it from the teacher was to “get a marble in his jar.”

I was bothered that they were apart from me for all their best hours, when they were the most alert and energetic, and yet there was nothing productive going on.  In many cases, they were sitting around waiting for others to learn what they already knew.

What was the breaking point for me?  Was it the crying on the playground as former preschool friends teased Madeleine for her good grades?  Was it the fear she felt at a tender 7 years old of the self-described “gang” of three mean-spirited, rowdy girls in her class?  Was it the way she placed into the highest reading level of Accelerated Reader, which catapulted her into books in the library that no young child should be reading, and caused her to experience confusion and frustration in her reading as the teachers only rewarded the volume of books read (and AR points gained) and disregarded quality of content as long as they had a black dot on their spine?  

I think the writing was on the wall when Collin came home with a simple single-digit addition worksheet that he had essentially failed (I admit I can’t recall the exact grade but there were red marks all over it).  I asked the teacher why he had a poor grade since the numeric answers were spot on.  Her reply was that he had to draw little bubbles for each digit and bubbles under the answer, which, as she explained it was “how they were starting to teach math under the new national standards.”  She didn’t want to see any exceptions to how she was teaching the math, either.  Now, this was several years ago, and Common Core was very slowly being rolled out in Florida, so this was the first I had heard of it.  But I tell you what, every parenting instinct I had told me to turn around and run.

Time to insert a visual here.  The following picture is a (different) math worksheet independently completed by my son, in which all the answers are “wrong”:

So, tell me, how many ways CAN you subtract from 3?

Isn’t 3 minus 100 negative 97?  Isn’t 3 minus 400 negative 397? 

According to Collin’s logic here, there is an infinite number of ways to subtract from three. THIS KID KNEW MATH INTUITIVELY. He was all of five years old when he did this worksheet by himself.  What was this federally mandated approach to math going to do to his natural skills?  When someone instantly knows 5+13=18, are you really going to make them draw bubbles to correspond to the numbers? 

Doesn’t this kill the fun of math for a little kid, possibly for good?

Another great example of the dangers of one-size-fits-all education was the computer challenge lab that allowed students to work above their grade level through a program that monitors correct and incorrect answers.  This lab works as a placebo for mothers like me who fear their children are not challenged during the day.  “Well, at least they’ll get some tough questions in Challenge Lab.”

I finally sat in on the actual lab one day, and one question I will always remember:  “How many rectangles are shown?”  It was a series of overlapping rectangles and the student had to master the visual tricks and sort out the correct quantity.  Madeleine got it wrong.  I watched an expression of total confusion cross her face.  She counted again.  Wrong again.  She turned to me, “Mom, what IS the right answer?  I counted 13 but when you look at the rectangle surrounding the question, it’s 14!”  Well, she was right but how could I argue with a computer?  What means of discussion did she have to justify her answer? Was there even a teacher around on all the other days that she got the "wrong" right answer?  Such experiences end in tears and extreme frustration for children who care.

They certainly did with mine.

So I’ve laid out a the warning flags that I was getting as a mother: many times the instruction didn’t make common sense, it was completely segregated by subjects, there was no consideration of alternative patterns of thought or problem-solving, there was a labyrinth of social and behavioral issues to contend with each day, but worst of all—and this is the crux of Common Core--there was a one-size-fits-all mentality towards educating the wonderfully unique, creative, and one-of-a-kind minds that God had given to my children. 

Mother's instinct blared in my head with each passing day: this is wrong and I am allowing it to happen day-in and day-out to those I love best.

Public school and that first wave of Common Core seemed, at best, like a mediocre and generic path and, at worst, a poorly thought-through experiment in education that would squander my children’s gifts, abilities, and potential for the future.

And the fact is that regardless of where and how my children are educated, I remain personally the one accountable for their education before God.  They have been given directly and with specific divine reasons into our care, entrusted to our decision-making and supervision by the Lord Himself.  Am I going to say on that day of accountability that we were victims of the public school system and this Common Core was unavoidable stuff and gosh that principal was stubborn and the teacher cared but was too burdened by federal expectations to help, so hey now--what could we do?

Am I honoring my holy stewardship of these precious children with such wild justifications?

So, with all these things in mind, I prayed a whole, whole bunch and set out to find an alternative.  Because when we felt the door closing on something that had become unacceptable, Christ was faithful to guide us to the next step, one unknown to us at the time: to classical education.  Through the recommendation of a friend, I started reading The Well Trained Mind by Susan Bauer.  I saw my children's dilemma and such a brilliant opportunity for learning spelled out and explained throughout those first few chapters.

And, wouldn't you know it, there is an exceptional classical school right here where I live.  The tuition is low and the standards are sky-high. The deal was sealed, and we've never looked back.

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