Thursday, August 7, 2014

American Public Schools: Worthless and Costly At the Same Time

 "Education is what remains after one has forgotten what one has learned in school."  - Albert Einstein

Earlier this week my wife and I registered our son for kindergarten at our local boundary school here in Denver, and even though school hasn't started yet, my reservations about it continue to grow.

When we were first putting in the application several months ago, we discovered that only half-day kindergarten was part of the paid public schooling, and full-day kindergarten in Denver Public Schools requires parents to pay tuition. It was a bit of a surprise to me, but I thought we’ll just roll with it and find how much we would have to pay. And how much is that? $310 a frickin’ MONTH, or $2,790 for the school year. $2,790 just for covering the other half of the school day for KINDERGARTEN, and from what my sister-in-law tells me, even with full-day enrollment there’s still a large number of ‘half-days’. If I’m going to spend that kind of money, I might as well send him to community college! Needless to say, we told them we wanted the half-day option. We faced some resistance initially, at which point it became apparent that half-day kindergarteners are the exception here and not the rule. Apparently most of the other parents are actually ok with paying that (un-bloody-likely), or their stated incomes give them very substantial tuition assistance (much more likely). We are a two income family with professional jobs and so we are way beyond any so-called ‘tuition assistance’, unless we lie about our incomes, which may well be what some other families are doing. Their insistent "your child won’t get the full educational experience if on half-days” spiel stopped quickly enough though when I told them how much it would cost us.

But despite my griping about the kindergarten ‘tuition’, IMO the real cost of this schooling is not monetary. The cost is that of wasted time and lost independent spirit & creativity.

So on the subject of wasted time…. think back to your own days in the school system. How much wasted time would you say was involved there? I remember in elementary school in the 80’s whipping through the classwork through the early part of the day and spending the rest of the time pretending (not very well I might add) to pay attention. For every 8 hour school day I probably spent less than 2 hours picking up whatever needed to be learned AND doing my homework for the next day. And boy did some of my teachers hate that second part…. “Homework is supposed to be done at HOME!” Yeah well if I already know the material why shouldn’t I get it over with now instead of wasting my time listening to you repeat what I already read? Now junior high and high school involved more effort on my part due to gifted and AP classes, but most of the other classes I could have covered and passed in a fraction of the time. Now sure I was a smart kid, but I sure wasn’t a Sheldon Cooper child prodigy (probably not even a Howard Wolowitz). Even the average kids in class, or at least the ones that bothered to do the reading and the work, didn’t need even close to the full school day for all that garbage. The plain truth is that the school curriculum is a one-size-fits-all system, and the bar is perpetually being lowered so the lowest performers can pass. And the tragedy is that many if not most of the “lowest performers” are not stupid; they simply either learn best through a different method of instruction or they are distracted by troubles at home or social problems at school. We probably spend less than 5 or 6 hours a week teaching reading & math to our 5 year old, and that includes reading during bedtime. And I suspect he reads far better than most kids already in first and second grade.

Regarding independent spirit & creativity being subdued in the school system, I want you to think for a moment about the most successful people and how they achieved success. Was it from the things taught in school, or in spite of the things taught in school? For that matter think of the times in your adult life and career where you achieved success, and what skills and knowledge best allowed you to carry that out? Odds are they had little or nothing to do with K-12 standard education. What is it that is most often drilled into us in most schools?  Rote memorization of events and facts (typically without much discussion of the surrounding context or any active discussion between students and teacher)..... Grades and test scores are more valuable than creative thought..... How to shut up and sit still..... Obey and don’t question your teachers (i.e. authority)..... Conform with those around you and accept the social hierarchy..... and above all, DON”T CHALLENGE THE SYSTEM AND DON’T ROCK THE BOAT.

It really wasn’t until my 20’s where I was able to unlearn and break free of that BS picked up in school and start on a path truly of my own choosing, not just what’s expected of me by society. And many of us live our entire lives without ever managing to break free of that mindset.

But now think what it is that the most successful people have in common. The ability to think creatively and outside the box..... The will to rock the boat and take risks when appropriate..... And the willingness to question conventional wisdom and authority.

So contrary to what we are usually told, what we have is a public school system that is designed NOT to teach our kids to succeed, but rather teaching them how to obey authority, do as they're told, and how to be obedient cogs in the economic machine. Now some adults are naturally disposed to that and content with it, and if it makes them happy then that's fine. But subjecting all children to that sort of environment is squandering and diminishing the potential of millions of our kids. Especially in the Internet Age, where so many more alternate avenues to education exist. How many cures for diseases or technological innovations are we depriving ourselves through our insistence on sticking with a one-size-fits-all, conformist model of education?

Now that all being said, I’m reluctantly willing to enroll our son in public school kindergarten. Primarily because the first couple years of school still encourages creativity and personal exploration. But I can’t see keeping him in an American public school past that, because I don’t want him to go through the same nonsense that I had to endure. I would rather spend a few hours each weekday homeschooling him in the basic requirements, and giving him the rest of the ‘homeschool day’ to pursue projects and reading that is of interest to him. I think back to when I was in school, and how I would have LOVED to have the opportunity to be homeschooled and spend half or more of my day on my own interests. I could have spent that time sketching & painting, tinkering around with the computer and various electronics, learning carpentry from my dad, or reading books of my choice. Wouldn’t that have appealed to you?

I don’t want to come off as saying that schools teach nothing of worth, because there are some valuable things being taught. And I did have a handful of teachers that encouraged independent thinking and active discussion rather than rote memorization and lecturing straight from the book (but these were the exceptions and not the rule). My point here is that, in general, public schooling is an inferior option, and reinforces behaviors that hold people back from real success. So I want more parents to explore other options. For some it may be homeschooling, of which there’s an incredible variety of plans and community activities. For others it may be private school, at least some of which are worthwhile. And yet for others it may be one of the small number of truly innovative charter schools and experimental schools. There are other options. Do the right thing by your kid(s) and start exploring them…

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