Lipsticking the pig and other delusions

One Volusia County Schools graduate–ready for the adult world

It’s a tough time in the world of education in the good old U.S. of A. I think about this a lot. A lot. It keeps me up at night, wakes me early in the morning. One of the terrific things about the past year has been the fascinating situations I’ve been invited to be a part of. Each case is so different from the last! I’ve worked with home schooled, public schooled, and privately schooled children and adults; I’ve worked with adults out of school; I’ve worked with faculty and administration in both public and private K-12 settings and in colleges and universities. I’ve worked with the children of people across economic and social spectrums from the extremely wealthy to the homeless. With children who are only children, who are part of a large family, who were adopted, who are being raised by grandparents. For me, this diversity has been a beautiful reflection of what it means to be a citizen of a nation which is still a great experiment.

One frustration for me has been (and this is consistent with my experiences as a public servant) misperceptions about public education. Public education is an entitlement program. When I posted that in an education forum on facebook, outrage ensued. Entitlement! That cannot be! Entitlement programs are not for people like ME! That’s for people who don’t pull their weight! NOT ME OR MINE! 

Sorry. Public education in the U.S. is one of the largest entitlement programs, if not THE largest. It may be a bitter pill for some to swallow; get over it. Count yourself blessed that you are so used to free K-12 education that you take it for granted. Don’t let emotion confuse you. Or, politics. Facts are facts, and just as that wonderful commodities program implemented during the Great Depression (and continued at the back doors of churches all over town this week, next week), you may get blueberries, you may get cheese, and you may get canned beans; you take what the bureaucrats dish out, which depends on a tangle of factors it would take several lifetimes to sort, or you get off your wallet and head elsewhere.

This takes me to myth #2, the one which really burns my bacon; your child is entitled in this great socialized system of education not to free and red carpet, but, free and appropriate. Once you accept the debunking of your first illusion that you are above entitlement programs because you are this terrific, capitalistic, maximally independent and contributing John Q. Citizen and realize you not only drive on public roads but follow them to the doors of public schools; this pill is easier to swallow and will help you understand your child’s education sooooooo much better than you do right now.

The largest obstacle I have run into this year is parents who can’t get past their disappointment in their child’s teacher, school, district. What do you expect from welfare? A red carpet? A custom-designed program for little Johnny’s favorite things; that his teacher should teach him using the harpsichord because he has a talent for it, the 32 flavors because he knows them by heart, and a celebration of his taste in sports team T-shirts to protect his fragile little ego?  Parents say they are so very concerned about the way teachers are treated by the School Board (us: we elected them), but turn right around and complain about these public servants, these bureaucrats, these teachers. Teachers are, by and large, AMAZING people. But they are public servants just like firefighters, cops, nurses at the public health department. Teaching is, for most, NOT some holier-than-holy, mystical calling which ebbs and flows but reaches a climactic moment accompanied by angelic singing when your daughter earns that honor roll certificate. It’s a job. For some, a career. It’s a low paying job, where professionals are often treated like morons by their bosses and by the public, where the donation of time is expected. I am a huge fan of my profession, because I know that the overwhelming majority of teachers are amazing at their job. If they weren’t, they simply would not last. It is that difficult. I promise you.

Teachers not only have to deal with professional parameters which are so dynamic they are pretty much liquid; they have to deal with the little individuals in their classroom! They can’t customize twenty-two educations! And, if they did, they’d be ripping your child off from the education they are entitled to; based on the fabulous American culture of education, which includes not only research-based programs, but literally hundreds of years of trial and error; legal, ethical, and curricular precedent; the ability to participate in thirteen years of preparation for entry into that unique on the planet social experiment–our society.

So, maybe dial back your expectations to match reality. Quit lipsticking that porker; stop coming to the free lunch table and expecting a five-star meal, or even meat-and-threes. Don’t get me wrong, there’s something for everybody, and the payoff for your child can be enormous. There is, to my mind, no substitute for the diversity present in public schools. Diversity of exposure to concepts, styles, individuals. This, folks, is a reflection of the real American world. Diversity of authority figures. Diversity of problems. It can be very difficult to navigate. It is much more appealing to think of sheltering your child, home-schooling. But think about what that teaches them. I am not right for what everybody else gets. This affects different learners in different ways, as you can imagine. But, the worst myth about homeschooling is that many parents think they can teach because they know their child best, and because they went to school. That’s like thinking that because you broke your arm in the third grade, you can do orthopedic surgery. Sure, there are parents who have the education to be teachers (they’re called “teachers”)! Sorry to be so blunt. Just debunking myth #4.

Right now, education is in crisis. That’s not news. In a crisis, we need to come to grips with the facts, discard illusions, and get busy working together. I’ve worked with parents who absolutely, positively, understand all of the above, and come to the table to work with the schools with clear eyes and heads. Sure, they’re upset and get it straight when their child’s educational needs are not addressed, or when a teacher or administrator screws up—psst: educators are human—but they get it solved. They are available to the school and they know the school. They work within the system to change what they can, and find creative ways with the help of the educational team to go around what they can’t. And, because they know that public education can absolutely, positively, be the very best place for their children to prepare to become contributing members of our democratic society, they sweat it out and stay there.

A momentary backtrack, before I close. It is very, very important for you to know what you want for your child when they are small and in school. Later, it becomes important to know what they want, as well. Do you want them to earn lots of money? Do you want them to follow their muse, find their heart, peace-out their way into the cosmic consciousness?  Do you want them to enter politics, medicine, space? Do you want them to be brave enough to jump into the ever more complex, ever more precarious world of love and parenting? Do you want them to enjoy the journey, or to set a goal and get there? Do you want them to fulfill your dreams? All of these things, these big-picture, global issues, factor into the appropriate educational setting for your child. Be honest with yourself. Wade through the myths, hype, and crap out there and communicate with the educators before deciding.

Or, you could always yank your child out and plop them into any one of many available private, unaccredited settings where the teachers might, or might not, be teachers. In the state of Florida, anybody with a high school diploma and a clean criminal record can teach in private school. Sure there’s great ones around–Sacred Heart in New Smyrna pops to mind–but there are far more masquerading and lusting for your public dollar.


Public Education as Welfare

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