Editor’s note: this piece references the education system in one part of the United States — we’re aware that public education operates differently elsewhere. — Stephanie
My ninth grade homeschool son is really enjoying the dystopian literature course I designed for him. A few days ago he began reading Lord of the Flies by William Golding and he instantly was pulled in.
Yesterday while I was tending to a plumbing problem my kids were doing their homeschooling. My older son was in my line of sight quietly reading in his bedroom. He looked up from Lord of the Flies to ask me when I read the book (he knew from a prior conversation that I’d read it). I said it was about three years ago, or maybe four. He asked why I didn’t read it in school.
I called my eleven-year-old upstairs and said I had something to explain they should know. My kids have never been to school and they don’t really know how it all works, ranging from the daily goings on of the students and the big picture issues.
I explained that Lord of the Flies is a book that typically was read in high school, but that in some schools it has been designated as a book only to be read by certain kids. They looked at me with confusion. I went on to explain that schools say they want the best education for all students but not all kids in a school get the same education — that schools divide kids up and decide what they will have access to learn and do while in the classes.
I said that some classes are the harder, more rigorous classes that are reserved for (supposedly) the smartest kids, then there is the larger pool of kids who are in the middle, then a smaller number of kids are in the bottom track. The hardest track prepares students for college and hopefully for admissions to the most rigorous colleges, while the middle group may seek college or may not, but if they go to college it may be a less competitive one. The bottom track may seek an associate degree at a community college or may go to vocational school or go directly to work in an entry-level position or at a job that relies more on hard physical work than requiring knowledge of school subjects (i.e. cashier, waiter, painting, construction, or road work).
I went on to explain that when I was in school near the end of middle school I was in some of the hardest classes but wound up being moved out of most in grade nine. I was burned out of school and chose to not study much. I focused on having fun with my friends and let my schoolwork slide and my grades started to slip. I didn’t want to do the work in grade nine Honors Science so I asked to drop it and to go into the “regular” science class. I was still on the college track but I was not in the Honors English class in high school, so I was never given the assignment to read Lord of the Flies. I was busy reading Stephen King for fun in my out-of-school hours.
At this point my fourteen-year-old interjected that Lord of the Flies is so good that he couldn’t believe everyone in school is not reading it. I then explained that schools actually wind up limiting access to people’s futures. Schools help some students achieve their goals but they can stand in the way of other students. The school controls what the student learns and what classes they take. If you don’t get certain grades and certain test scores in middle school it can seriously hinder the path the student accesses for grades 7 and 8 which will impact the classes accessed in grades 9-12.
When the student chooses a career they sometimes have to have certain college degrees. To get that degree you have to have done that type of work in the high school years. If a student is kept out of certain classes and is restricted from reading certain classic books they are instantly prohibited from seeking certain degrees at certain schools.
(I did not say this but it just occurred to me that I could have also said that reading high quality literature expands a student’s vocabulary which is vital to know for the SAT exam which is yet another key to college admissions. Even test prep books for the SAT explain that there is no substitute, there is no cramming or test prep class that can be taken in place of not having spent years reading quality literature to help prepare them for the SAT.)
I told my kids that not everyone can be at the top and schools participate in a selection process that either helps students get to the top or prevents them from ever getting to the top. My eleven-year-old asked some questions that indicated he completely got it. He also said something to indicate that the schools wind up having power over the futures of the kids.
Yes son, they do.
My fourteen-year-old asked if all of this is one reason we homeschool and I answered in the affirmative. I said that with homeschooling we have freedom, we could access anything we want, learn anything we want, and read any literature that we want. I could plan courses out or find classes for them to take for a fee — however, their education is only as good as their participation in it.
This is when I gave them the zinger that sometimes they are their own worst enemy by not cooperating. If I know they should learn X math topic by Y grade in order to get all the math done needed to seek that college major to do that career, but they don’t cooperate and don’t do the work, they are preventing themselves from attaining their goal. I said I could only do so much, I can’t do the learning for them. I said that I and their father are trying to give them a very good education which happens to be a home education but if they resist and don’t cooperate they will be the reason they fail.
They seemed to get that point also.
I realized on that day that I have not had enough conversations with my kids about why they are homeschooled. I think about homeschooling and education reform and alternative education so much and have talked with other people so much (and blogged) yet I perhaps have not talked about it enough with my own kids. Shame on me and shame on my husband.
On the other hand sometimes discussing a topic in small segments like this is really best when it is spontaneous and is the result of a question asked by my kids rather than me sitting them down for a lecture out of the blue. Short conversations over time are probably better than giving them a gigantic lecture in one sitting also.