When School Is the Problem

1326285_graduation_2In only a few weeks, our son will graduate from college. I can hardly believe how fast his growing-up years have gone, and I have spent more than a little time recently recalling with fondness his childhood and adolescence. I feel lucky, because homeschooling allowed us to spend more time as a family than a traditional school schedule would have allowed, so my memories are rich and filled with quantity time as well as quality time.

Our primary reasons for homeschooling—both at the end of his second grade year and later in our son’s decision to homeschool through high school—were not primarily academic. They were more about giving him an environment that best matched his personality, social needs, and drive to learn (which, unfortunately, is often different from academic progress). Until recently, I was most grateful for our homeschooling years for how well they nurtured our son’s social and emotional life.

Only now do I see how well homeschooling also prepared him for the critical and creative thinking and the long-term planning required in higher education classrooms.

Don’t misunderstand me: I’m not saying that he did well in college because of what we, his parents, taught him at home. We were not teachers in the classroom sense. Not even close.

I’m convinced that his thinking and study skills developed because we—and school—got out of his way.

He has told us that he feels homeschooling made him more ready for college learning than classroom education would have provided, in part because he wasn’t already burned out from a college-prep high school diet of jam-packed class schedules, AP exams, and spoon-fed but unrelenting assignments. He had practice in the slow, deep studying needed at the university level and the long-term planning required for end-of-term projects. He was used to giving himself his own assignments based on larger goals, and he had the luxury of time to make occasional missteps and learn from what did not work as well as from what did.

Two recent pieces in The Chronicle of Higher Education make me more grateful than ever that we stumbled into homeschooling early in our son’s education. First, in “Top Students, Too, Aren’t Always Ready for College,” Elaine Tuttle Hansen writes of a trend I see all too often in my own classrooms: “The truth is that not all of the smartest kids who have jumped through the hoops required for selective college admissions are ready for the demands of college-level work.” She continues:

“Evidence suggests that academic talent is quite specifically diminished, not developed, by the school experience. A Fordham Institute study of how young American students testing in the 90th percentile or above fared over time found that roughly 30 to 50 percent of these advanced learners lost ground as they moved from elementary to middle school, or from middle to high school. And the focus on low­-achieving students in public schools has disproportionately left more smart minority and low-income kids behind, creating a well-documented ‘excellence gap.'”

Michele Goodwin voices similar concerns in “Law Professors See the Damage Done by ‘No Child Left Behind’.” Goodwin argues that “a culture of test taking and teaching to the test has dominated elementary and secondary education in the United States, even at elite public and private schools. And now its effects are being felt by professors.” She writes that law professors have found that the “challenge of learning on their own is so overwhelming to some law students that it has become far more common for students to demand their professors’ notes.”

The ripple effect of the emphasis on testing at the expense of critical thinking, from elementary school through high school and college and into graduate programs and careers, will take years to undo. One partial answer for some high school graduates may be to take a gap year, as Dona Matthews suggests, not as a way to prepare further academically but so as to spend some time working and learning without the influence of out-of-control standardizing testing.

Other families might want to take a closer look at getting school out of their child’s way.

4 thoughts on “When School Is the Problem

  1. Congrats to you & your son, Lisa..and thanks again for your insightful commentary~

    In order to address the problems we have with education, we must be honest with ourselves. I appreciate your honesty and heartfelt concerns for all our of children.

    • Thank you very much, Joy. Being honest with oneself certainly isn’t always easy, but the payoffs extend far beyond ourselves. I hope to see you in person again sooner rather than later!

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