When Public Schools Fail

Updated: May 13, 2019

Over the years, we’ve tried a brick-and-mortar school (including immersion and open-concept classroom styles), online school (also known as public schooling at home), traditional homeschooling, classical homeschooling, wild schooling, and unschooling. We’ve learned a few lessons and are still trying to figure out the best fit after six years, so it definitely doesn’t happen overnight.

When we began our homeschooling journey, I faced the standard barrage of questions from well-meaning family and friends: What if you forget to teach something? What about friends? What about social activities? How will you know if you’re doing it right?

Hmmm, how does someone know when they’re doing something “right”? Often, it boils down to simply recognizing when something is wrong, and that was clear to us from kindergarten. We kept up the routine for three full years before throwing in the towel. Something just felt wrong. But what was it?

At first, it was easy to blame the physical and practical factors:

• The school didn’t have a parking lot, and it was a major hassle to get to and from the building each day.

• The classrooms were open-concept and crowded, and it was too difficult to concentrate without distractions.

• The curriculum didn’t include enough STEM or history, and none of us liked Singapore Math.

• Students didn’t have enough art or music activities, nor options to learn instruments or participate in sports beyond PE class.

• Lunch was a largely unsuccessful cattle round-up, with barely 20 minutes to sit and eat.

• There weren’t enough parents involved in the PTA, and the few of us who tried to run it were overwhelmed.

I began to study homeschooling and soak up the concept of unschooling. I spent countless late nights reading books and blogs, scouring Facebook groups, and making sense of a life I was afraid of. How could I be a good teacher? How do I not screw up my kid?

At last, I found my groove and set up a master schedule and general outline for each year. As the present began to distance itself from the past, I began to see my true complaints about public schooling. Sure, the list above was still accurate, but the real problems dug a lot deeper than pesky inconveniences. At the time it had been hard to put into words, but eventually these key points became clear.

School and education are two different things. A school is a place, a building. Education is the actually learning itself. True education should never stop– not during spring break, not in the summer, and not after graduation. Education is part of everyday life, and children are naturally eager to learn. School, however, can squash a lot of that vigor by institutionalizing the process and focusing on testing, rather than learning.

Schools teach everything out of context. Subjects and topics are randomly disconnected. Did you know Leonardo da Vinci’s “The Last Supper” was painted in the same decade as Christopher Columbus sailing to the New World? Traditional school tackles subjects in isolated time capsules, focuses on Western topics, and attempts to connect a puzzle with half the pieces missing. The natural order of the world becomes fragmented. Many important but lesser-known figures are left out of the story, and children are left confused about how it all fits together.

Schools encourage class position. Traditional schools train kids to stay in the class to which they belong. Children are numbered, ID’ed, and grouped together by age in classrooms. Rarely are they moved forward or held back based on their intellect or maturity levels. They are not allowed or encouraged to explore other classes, grades, or options, with the assumption every one of them is a neatly uniform square peg.

Schools prompt indifference. Imagine a group of kids sitting in a classroom, learning how birds fly. They must give their undivided attention, regardless of their level of interest or understanding. Everyone is expected to participate, yet the moment the bell rings the countdown is on to shut down, pack up, and move along to a completely new topic. The intervals of learning are identically spaced and nothing is ever finished. How can kids truly learn and embrace something new when it’s taken away an hour later?

Schools promote emotional dependency. This one hits hard with most kids. With gold stars, check marks, prize boxes, and certificates, students are taught to constantly seek approval and attention from others and from adults. They learn that by conforming they will be rewarded, and acceptance is earned based on the labels applied to them. Report cards and test scores teach children they are constantly being judged and their self-worth is reported on a piece of paper.

Schools create intellectual dependency. Even with only two years in public school, the aftermath of this is still felt in our household. Traditional schools teach children that a “good” student waits for a teacher to tell them what to do or how to think. The lesson is to wait for someone smarter, stronger, or better equipped to make sense of the world for them. My tween daughter still pauses a moment, looking to me or another adult to nod approvingly, before she makes a decision. She is finally beginning to understand she can hem her own pants, cook her own food, or change her own oil just as well as the next person.

Schools establish a surveillance environment. Fire drills, earthquake drills, active shooter drills. Students are taught no one can be trusted and that surveillance is essential to keeping a society under tight control. For our first year of homeschooling, my daughter continued to raise her hand with two fingers pointed– a silent sign used in her 1st grade classroom to indicate needing the restroom hall pass. It took at least six months for her to understand she had autonomy and free will.

In the end the clearest point is that everyone is indeed unique, and what works for one person may be disastrous for another. Public school teachers are doing their best with what they have to work with, but the influx of larger and more varied populations creates a difficult environment for anyone to truly thrive on their own terms. Not everyone has the luxury of time for homeschooling, and I too find myself wondering if we’ll be able to pull it off year after year. The fear I had at the onset of our journey has subsided, mostly because I learned a lot about myself in the process, and was able to connect with my daughter at her proper level and adapt to her particular needs. A parent’s love and devotion to his/her own child(ren) will always triumph… the learning and growth will come naturally. I’ve met a lot of homeschooled children at this point, and their stamina, acceptance, individuality, and earnestness are second to none.