Thursday, January 31, 2013


Every kid is an oddball kid.

As the United States progresses toward the middle of the twenty-first century, we are finding ourselves more and more immersed in global-scale realities.  Many of my memoiric tales tell of growing up in a small town that no longer exists.  The local department store no longer anchors downtown.  The corner grocer is now a 7-ll with no fresh meats or produce but lots of big, fizzy drinks.  The independent hardware store is a dying breed. We shop Trader Joe’s for that local feel, but purchase foodstuffs from as far away as one can be and still be on the planet.  A trip to the men’s department at Penney’s finds us buying Levi’s manufactured in Mexico.  I did this yesterday.  The computer I type this on was manufactured in China.  Likewise, the market for the area’s almonds or rice or navel oranges is no longer limited to the roadside stand or the Hershey factory down in Oakdale.  It is global.

There is good and bad associated with this evolution.  On the plus side, consumers can purchase product at favorable prices.  On the negative side, locally based industries face competition from across the globe.  On the plus side, we are afforded more and more selection of – on the negative side – things we don’t really need.  No longer is there a US economy.  The economy is worldwide.  We are all in this together.

What does this have to do with schools?  Education leaders are discovering that the market for their product – the 18-year-old high school graduate – is no longer limited to the community.  The market is global.  If a high school student from India is more prepared to maintain the machine that solders together solid-state componentry or uni-body automobiles than the graduate from Happy Valley High, guess who’s likely to get the job?  Or, worse, guess where the job is going to go?

Schools of late have been charged with ramping up curricular offerings to produce world-class graduates able to complete on a skills-available basis with any other kid of his or her age anywhere.  Thus, in California, students are pushed into higher levels of mathematical application, technical comprehension, and scientific reasoning.  Coupled with these new-basic skills are the ability to think critically, problem solve and get along with others.  These are the tools with which students must be equipped in order to win bread in 2050.

Parents cannot protect their children from the rigors that will be demanded of them – rigors the parents, as kids, were never asked to achieve.  Teachers, for that matter cannot rely upon that which has always worked, because, in essence, the goal posts have just been moved, and they aren’t going to stand still.  Therefore, parents and teachers may need to adopt a credo of the life-long learner if only to keep one step ahead of their kids.

How does the global view manifest itself in schools?  In the education industry’s most recent past – and I am a huge proponent of the public schools, one who served in a site-level or curriculum leadership position for nearly 25 years – efforts have been made to feed students more content and test it out the other end.  (Yes, I know what that sounds like.)  Higher levels of mathematics instruction are being addressed at younger ages.  Reading more complex works is occurring at earlier grades.  More time has been devoted to these old basics as success is measured by objective, easy-to-score tests – while those new basics (mathematical application, technical comprehension, and scientific reasoning, the ability to think critically, problem solve and get along with others) have gone unaddressed.  Also unaddressed have been the arts: literary, visual, performing and vocational.

Teachers have had to demand compliance of students because there is too much on the agenda to screw around with the oddball child who learns differently or requires more attention.  Besides, the No Child Left Behind Act mandated, yes mandated, that 100% of all students be performing at or above grade level by 2014 – this includes the kid who arrives from the Ukraine the week before annual testing began – or the school will be labeled underperforming.  Teachers, administrators, and local realtors hoping to jack up the price of homes, don’t want this.  Meanwhile, parents grow frustrated because the child comes home frustrated because the frustrated teacher didn’t take time to meet the frustrated kid’s needs.  The whole thing is, well, frustrating.

How should the global view manifest itself in schools?  With the advancement of nationally based common core standards, we can expect some of the nit-picky factoid regurgitation to go away.  Still for schools to move kids to higher levels of competency, they will need to build curriculum not around facts and algorithms and technical comprehension, but the application of facts and algorithms those things comprehended to solve problems through critical thinking.  Checking for understanding (and parents can do this as well as teachers) will need to evolve asking such things as
  • How did you arrive at that solution?
  • What other solutions did you evaluate?
  • Can this solution be used to advance new knowledge or applied to solve another problem?
  • How might his idea have helped (name an historic figure) in (name an historic circumstance)?

Public schools will deliver the goods in terms of creating viable, competitive citizens when they depart from the teach and test cycle and embrace instruction that demands application of knowledge in new and different ways.  And they won’t be able to test this type of learning with fill-in-the-bubble assessments.  Sure, critics will toss up the straw man argument that Joe-High-School-Graduate didn’t even know that Lincoln was president when the south seceded.  That’s because Joe had more important levels of learning to accomplish and, besides, Joe probably knows how to look up the Lincoln answer on his Smart Phone.

What options exist for today’s frustrated parent?  Having served 19 years as a site principal, I have heard from parents that the school is not meeting the needs of the student.  I have also heard from teachers that they have 32 children who’s needs they feel they must address.  As budgets tighten there is less resource available for anyone’s kid.

So, what about private school?  Choose carefully.  Private schools are not required to adhere to content or curriculum standards.  Private schools may not necessarily employ teachers who hold valid teaching credentials or certificates.  This doesn’t mean the teacher can’t be successful, but just as there are qualification standards for those who drive semi-trucks on the highway, standards for those to whom we entrust our children’s education are probably a good thing.  Private schools are under no obligation to serve students with learning disabilities or who present behavioral issues.  Many students who return to public schools after years in private schools find they are behind the curve when compared to their grade level peers. 

What about Charter Schools?  Charter schools are publicly funded.  They may not have to employ credentialed teachers.  They get to try different things.  (So do traditional public schools, but there are some statutory limits under which traditional schools must operate, particularly when it comes to curriculum adoptions.)  Some charters are sponsored by school districts.  Foundations or corporations sponsor others.  Charter schools may have a focus like basic skills, science and engineering or the arts.  Charter schools may not deny admittance to students who apply but they may “be full” and place the interested student on a waiting list or they may suggest that, after review the student’s record that the student would be “more successful” elsewhere.  For some reason – hmmm – many charter schools serve fewer students who are educationally disadvantaged or come with an IEP.  Thus, some charter schools are able to mine for the cream of the crop students in an area.  Oddly, as recently as 2009, assessment results for charter schools in California lagged slightly behind those scores for their traditional counterparts.

How about Home Schooling?  Home schooling is a viable option for some but it is not without restriction.  School districts or county offices of education are the gatekeepers for those wishing to educate their kids at home.  A credentialed teacher meets with the provider-parent for a minimum of an hour per week to set out the curriculum that must be covered.  Kids are assessed using traditional public school assessments annually.  Scores for these home-schooled kids are figured in with the scores of the student’s home district for some reason.  The district or county may revoke the home school privilege if the parent refuses to address the curriculum or the student fails to make progress.  There are many sound reasons for wanting to school off-spring at home, but some parents choose home schooling simply if their child demonstrates difficulty with school-peer relationships.  This is shortsighted.  The way to deal with a problem like, say, a hangnail, is not to ignore it.  Parents of home-schooled children often form associations so that their "students" may interact with others.  Good solution!  Often, home-schooled kids reenter the public arena behind their grade level associates, however, just as often, home-schooled kids knock the socks off of their peer group.  Some even enter the university one, two or three years ahead of their contemporaries. 

What about another public school?  Districts in urban or suburban areas often times have more than one school serving the same set of grades.  A shift from one school in the district to another (or a shift to a school in a nearby district) will mean educating the student outside his or her neighborhood.  If a child needs a fresh start, this is a good option.  If the child is running away from a problem it is not.  A child moving to a public school outside his or her attendance area or to a school in a neighboring district may be kept on a short leash in terms of behavior.  Some school administrators will dismiss a “visiting” student who fails to perform (because it impacts the school’s scores) or exhibits behavioral problems (because it impacts the teacher/principal’s time) without due process.

My recommendation?  The local public school is the best option unless something completely unforeseen happens.  Parents working with teachers can generally move the child forward.  Ensuring that the child knows that the teacher and the parent are on the same path often presents a mountain just high enough that the kid won’t want to peek and see what’s on the other side.

Schools are under both political and economic pressure to demand excellent performance from their students.  And parents need to back ‘em up.  If questions arise about how “excellence” is defined, those questions should be asked privately, understood thoroughly and followed through upon religiously.  Beyond what the schools can currently offer, outlets for extra-curricular activities in the arts or athletics can give a kid a reason to go forth as well as a valuable means of self-expression.  Back in the day, we could depend on the school to provide these.  As we progress toward that mid-twenty-first century mark, hopefully we, like the Chinese and many European countries, will embrace the value of returning these elements to a full and well-rounded education.  But that doesn’t help the current mom or dad or the current student with the current “right now.”

Bottom line?  Even with the sharpest or most mild mannered child, it isn’t going to always be easy. Some children require more malleating than others.  (Malleating is a word I just made up.  It is based on the word malleable, and it may involve use of a mallet.)  But insulating children from the consequences of non-performance, lack of compliance, or inability to be a good friend, in the end will not serve the kid in adulthood.  And, collectively, preparing the next generation for success is the most important thing, we as a society, can do.

Finally, consider this:  Public education is a little like service from PG&E.  The utility company gets the power to the house, but it is our job to flip the switch and turn on the light.  No fair cursing the darkness.

© 2013
Church of the Open Road Press


  1. Added thought: A business professional of whom I am a client just moved his/her children from his/her home district to the district for which I used to work. "Communication is better. Instruction is better. Kids just seem happier and more challenged." This particular change worked out. Great!

  2. Great insights Dave. I'd really encourage parents to check out schools, teachers, programs prior to enrolling their children anywhere. So much is dependent on the individual teachers.

  3. I have been working at a public primary school as a Teacher Assistant for the past six years in Mississippi. The past two years we have been adjusting our standards to fit, "The Common Core" standards and it has been rather frustrating and a tremendous adjustment on the kids. The school that I work at is in a low income school district, so along with that comes poor test scores; the adjustment of standards have been a difficult transition for all including the teachers.

    In my own personal life with my son who's in the fourth grade (also @ a public school), I've seen a lot of adjustments as well. He now has anxiety about school and often cries because he feels so rushed and pushed. He mentions there's no time to complete assignments because of being rushed; this has affected his grades.

    've been contemplating home schooling Gabriel to see if it may help him with his anxiety; I've heard some great info. on some online programs and some Christian home schooling programs; I believe it would be worth a try.

    It seems the writer of this blog is most in favor of the public school system because of keeping up with our society and world, each parent needs to do what's best for your own child.

    1. Quoting anonymous here: "Each parent needs to do what's best for his or her own child."

      No doubt about that. It is, indeed, a good thing that parents in this country have choices available to them. The author recommends that parents make those choices with a lot of reflection and a lot of research - research that goes far beyond "My child's having a rough time at school."

      Having said that, recall the great American philosopher Yogi Berra who said, "It's tough to make predictions, especially about the future."

      My experience informs my bias. The public school are best equipped to prepare children for an unknown future HOWEVER they may not be best equipped to prepare EVERY child for that unknown future. Again: choose thoughtfully, choose wisely.

  4. Good post, Dad. Thank you for your thoughts on this subject. I wonder why parents who home-school and whose kids go to charter school seem (on Facebook anyway) to be more satisfied with their child's education than the average parent of a public school kid seems to be. Is the thought that they have invested significant time and effort into their choice indicative of a more involved (maybe more responsive) parent? The kind of parent who will read to their child daily, who limits screen time, who volunteers in the classroom and who quickly implements new study tools when their child is struggling in an area.

    I've always believed strongly in the value of the public school system, in the importance of providing free public education to all children. But those high ideals are different than the nitty-gritty of one teacher plus 32 kids, 6 hours a day. We can all agree that those numbers aren't ideal, but that they are a fact of life when budgets are strained. Then we're left with the tension of standing firm with our ideal (hoping that funding increases, that our student somehow gets a teacher who can do more with less in the meantime) and the practicality of wanting "what is best for our child."

    You're saying that statistically "what's best for our child" is probably public school. I wonder about these questions though:

    If a feature of a charter or private school is smaller class size, what is the benefit of having a smaller class size?... What are the real benefits to "individualized attention?"

    If a feature of an alternative form of education is more time to pursue a creative outlet, what is the benefit of the creative outlet?

    Are students in any educational setting inspired and equipped to follow their dreams (as opposed to just land a decent job or compete with the Chinese)? And does it matter in the long run?

    Are students involved in alternative forms of education statistically happier than their public-schooled counter parts (because they are "learning at their own pace" or "focusing on their passion" or "doing more hands-on activities than bookwork" or "not expected to just sit still and be quiet all day")? If so, would this happiness translate to more happiness/contentment later in life or would the "underlying behavioral issues" which motivated their parents to seek alternative education come back to haunt them?

    I don't know. I hope that makes sense. Thanks for starting a discussion.

    1. Good discussion all right!

      Here's a tidbit to mull: I suspect that the more a parent is involved in the education of the child, the more satisfied the parent is with the result. In the home school circumstance, the parent is supremely involved given that they are, in fact, the service provider. In the Charter School parent involvement can be a condition of student acceptance into the program. Same with a private or cooperative school.

      As one who surveyed "customer satisfaction" for my schools, I found the parents most satisfied were those who were involved. The results prompted me to conclude that you can't work or volunteer at a school and not be impressed by the work that goes on there.

      There are very few reasons (parent work schedule comes to mind) that a parent cannot be deeply involved in their child's education in a public setting. (If the teacher balks at this and I'm the principal, believe me, the teacher isn't going to be balking for long. The public school IS a public school and the parent IS the public. No teacher ever got very far trying to argue the point with me.)

      With the exception of the unfortunate decline arts instruction - mainly due to budget, the public school (either in the traditional or charter form) is the only institution required to offer a comprehensive education.

      Other models may offer a comprehensive program, but whether or not they actually do might be a bit of a gamble.

      Now, about the arts: Yeah, we absolutely need to incorporate more of them into our pubic institution. One way is through that parent involvement component. The district from which I retired really relied upon parents to coordinate the art docent program. Very charter-esque, I might opine. We even lengthened the day at primary to allow more time for many things - including art.

      And the level of satisfaction of those folks who volunteered to support the art program? Overall, they thought the school was doing a fine job.

      Just food for thought.

    2. Good response. This is key: " The results prompted me to conclude that you can't work or volunteer at a school and not be impressed by the work that goes on there." I wonder, practically speaking, how I might be able to be more involved at my child's school.

      It's great that the district you retired from had an art docent program. Very charter-esque, very necessary to a well-rounded education and very dependent on parents.

      At Grace's school they have Chinese lessons once a week. Seems a little charter-esque to me. Definitely something Grace looks forward to, I appreciate the program not because I think she'll retain much language, but because it expands the students' horizons (and she has learned to use chopsticks). So cool!

  5. Part 1 of 2: I am going to bash this comment in the blog: Many parents choose home schooling if their child demonstrates difficulty with peer relationships.

    I believe that to be an inaccurate statement. Maybe some parents choose for this reason, but I believe that the majority has other reasons for choosing to homeschool. When we made our decision, our first child had started in private school. This is not the most affordable way for the size of our family. Elementary and junior high public schools in our area were rated good though I am not sure that 2 suicides in two years and reports of bullying were considered in this rating. That wasn't comforting so we chose to homeschool using charter funds.

    Homeschool is a large community with co-ops so that families can connect with others and are not isolated. This gives lots of opportunity for kids to interact with parent supervision near by if needed. Plus I like knowing the families, which was difficult to do when my child was in school. I didn't know her classmates or the mom/dad very well.

    In addition, my desire is to help my children develop relationships with each other, which would be difficult to foster in an environment where they are away from each other 7 hours/5 days per week. I also feel that whoever my children are spending most of their waking hours with is who will influence them. In the public school case, it would be their peers. Something I have noticed with my children and other homeschool children is how they are able to relate with all ages not just their age group and they are able to articulate well and carry a conversation with older people. My second daughter visits the 80-year-old neighbor weekly to play card games and have dinner with her.

    Flexibility in our schedule is another bright spot to homeschooling. My oldest daughter (age 11) is able to pursue music through the use of charter funds. It supports the local music store and she is "not tired" after spending all day in school. She is able to practice when she is fresh and alert and spends 2 hours per day pursuing her talent/gift and has been composing music for the past year. This could not have happened in a public school setting because we would not have had funds to pay for this nor do I believe she would have had enough stamina since she would have arrived home from a bus loaded with homework which would have taken priority.

    I also like the fact, that my 5 year olds can excel at their pace. One has already moved into 1st grade math while the other excels in reading. Their areas of weakness, we can slow down and take time "to get it" before moving on. I personally like the fact, that they can also enjoy life. They are not sitting "at a desk" for long periods of time, but they are able to be creative and use their imagination. They go outside and build forts and make mud pies and set up "store". In addition, my 9 year old makes crafts and sells her "goods" and has earned money with her own creative ideas and is getting ready to take cake decorating classes because she enjoys baking and wants to own her own business one day. In homeschooling, you can open the whole world to them or limit their exposure. In private and public, your options are limited because there are time constraints based on the number of hours you are able to spend with your kids educating and encouraging them in their gifting.

    Of course, I haven't even begun to talk about the spiritual side of things....I just shared the practical reasons why we have chosen to homeschool.

  6. Part 2 of 2:

    Is it a huge sacrifice? Yes. No doubt about it. I don't get nearly enough breaks, but Alisha Trask shared once with me, as she interviewed various moms whose kids were done with school. The running theme was that moms who sent their kids to public/private school wish they had more time with their kids and the moms who homeschooled didn't feel this same way, but were thankful for all the years they spent with their children. No regrets.

    It is a personal choice what you choose for your children. No one can tell you what is best for your children. God gave them to you and your husband and you both are their covering and are encouraging, guiding, and training them as you feel God has placed on your hearts. Be at peace with what you choose and do not be swayed by family and friends, but be convicted by the Holy Spirit and what God desires for your family.

    A homeschooling mom

    1. I do not disagree with anonymous's two comments. The home school option may be perfect for some kids if the decision is made for the right reasons - and it appears those "right reasons" are what drove anonymous to his/her decision. Great.

      However, believing that the statement "Many parents choose home schooling if their child demonstrates difficulty with peer relationships" is wrong is, well, incorrect.

      Folks who, out of anger or frustration, choose the home school option without fully realizing the responsibility it requires will and do end up returning to the public setting with their children having missed valuable instruction time. Fortunately, this is a small number of would-be home schoolers.

      Thankfully, most who home school show the dedication expressed by anonymous.

    2. I completely agree with Anonymous's statements.

      We can speculate all day, but unless there are statistics to back things up, or unless we are doing a full-fledged survey with a very broad focus group, then what are we really talking about?

      The truth is that, whatever you're involved in, you are going to be biased. A person who has been in the public education arena is more likely to be biased that way. A person who homeschools is more likely to be biased that way.

      Though I can't provide statistics, I can tell you what has been my experience. I have been around a LOT of homeschool families, via homeschool networks (because I homeschool my kiddos) and also because my business is a vendor with all the local charters schools.

      Of all the homeschool families we've come to know, NONE of them chose to homeschool because they were having difficulties with peer relationships. In fact, the majority of families have never even had children in public or private that is a very moot point.

      I do agree that "most who home school show the dedication expressed by anonymous." The majority of parents who choose to homeschool (again, no statistics for back-up at the moment, though this does prompt me to begin researching) are GREATLY concerned with the responsibility of educating their child, not the opposite. It is overwhelming at times, in fact. But this is the very thing that causes homeschool parents to be better educators. They have to go far beyond the status quo in many ways. And I believe that is the very thing that causes homeschool parents to be more satisfied with their children's education.

      I think it's time I go research the latest stats on homeschoolers... :)

    3. Pardon me for noticing this, but some of our home school friends responding to this entry seem to be more than a little bit protective of or defensive of or sensitive about their decision to home school their children.

      Nothing in the post indicated that the home school option was a bad idea as long as it was entered into for the right reasons. It was simply opined that a child not socializing well at school may not be among those "right reasons."

      The fact that within the cadre of those who home school, an individual parent knows of "no one" who selected this option for a less than sustainable reason, doesn't mean that some parents don't wander into the option with the wrong objective. It simply means the commenter hasn't been exposed to the full universe of those who attempt the option.

      Home school people, again: Congratulations on making the right choice for your child and for demonstrating the dedication necessary to ensure your child/student's success.

      Do not, however, attempt to suggest that everybody who home schools is successful and do not attempt to suggest that someone who points this out is somehow attacking the option.

      To do so appears narrow in focus and might cause the casual reader to wonder in what other elements of life a similar narrowness might arise.

      Please accept that the author respects those who home school but that the author, in his role as a public school principal, has helped those for whom the home schooling option didn't work get back on track.

      One size does not fit all. It is a mark of our greatness that options are available to us.

    4. Well said. If a feature of homeschool is the ability pick and choose what a child is exposed to (whether academically or socially), what is the benefit? While I can imagine some short term benefits, such as not exposing a child to drug or sex education at a young age, I have difficulty thinking of longterm benefits. With the example of moral issues in particular, there seems to be greater benefit in being exposed to a variety of viewpoints.