Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Are liberal homeschoolers hypocrites?

I recently went to an interesting talk by Heather Gerken on the various ways that political minorities can influence policy within a federal system like ours. I won’t go into her specific thesis here, but she built on the work of earlier scholars such as Albert O. Hirschman, who recognized that people can influence institutions through both “voice” and “exit.” In other words, you can try to change the system from within by speaking up – though, if you’re in a political minority, you might find yourself outvoted. Or you can influence the system by voting with your feet; if enough people “exit,” the institution might eventually have to change.

I thought about those ideas when I read Dana Goldstein’s article titled “Liberals, Don’t Homeschool Your Kids.” Goldstein argues that liberals are violating their own ideals by withdrawing from the public schools. If they really cared about “society as a whole” and not just themselves, she says, liberals would “flood” the public schools with their kids, “and then debate vociferously what they ought to be doing.”

I suppose I’m someone who has taken the “stay and fight” approach, though more because of circumstance than principle. But I think Goldstein’s argument is myopic. She ignores the potential of “exit” to bring about positive change, and overestimates the potential of “voice.” Unlike Goldstein, I fully expect that for all my attempts at vociferousness, my kids – like those of countless people who have “stayed and fought” – will graduate thirteen years later from an utterly unchanged institution, if not one that has changed for the worse. If you were trying to design an educational system that would minimize parents’ “voice,” it would look a lot like this one.

Goldstein argues that if people who can afford to homeschool sent their kids to public school instead, less advantaged kids would benefit from their presence. I think that’s probably true, at least to some extent. But she doesn’t acknowledge that there are costs to that choice as well – not just to the kids who would have been homeschooled, but to society as a whole. Goldstein seems to think that liberals should send their kids to public schools no matter how illiberal those institutions are, and no matter how successfully they are instilling illiberal values in the kids who attend them. I think today’s schools are profoundly undermining liberal, humane, and democratic values. Why should that ever change if liberal parents continue to patronize them regardless of what they dish out?

Again, I’m not a homeschooler, and I don’t particularly care whether anyone thinks I’m sufficiently liberal. But I certainly don’t judge anyone who chooses to take their kids out of these schools. There’s no one right answer to how to make this world a more humane place, and the homeschoolers’ answer seems at least as wise as Goldstein’s. If anything, I instinctively distrust the idea that we can create a more liberal and humane society by putting our kids into less liberal and humane environments. By treating kids as instruments for social improvement, that argument mirrors the very same instrumental treatment of children that I object to when it’s practiced by “reformers” who treat kids as soldiers in the battle for global competitiveness. The homeschoolers think that you build a more humane society not by using kids to achieve this or that social end, but by treating kids humanely, one at a time. Can Goldstein be so sure that they are wrong?

More on liberal homeschoolers here. Related post here.


Xphial said...

Schools should not be education-factories and expect cookie-cutter approaches or TQM-like micro-management (aka PBIS) to work for everyone.

Chris said...

Xphial -- Thanks for the comment. The TQM reference really made me laugh -- so right on the mark.

LAB said...

Many of my liberal friends decided to homeschool when their kids were just babies, before they'd even stepped foot in a public school. Since I strongly believe that we desperately need secular public education for all in this country, I fought on behalf of the public schools. After all, if reform-minded parents bail to homeschool, the schools will be emptied of progressive thinkers and there will be nobody to challenge the status quo. The public schools, I argued, needed these vocal parents, the ones with good ideas and good questions, to stay, to make things better. If these parents grab their kids and leave, we all lose.

Then my kids started in our local public school.

Our school experience was such a disappointment, such a challenge to everything I had believed my whole life, that I ended up in sort of an existential crisis.

School is not what it was when I was a kid. Our school is an authoritarian, oppressive, cruel, soulless place, where "teaching to the test" is the least of the problems. Any discussion with the administration was fruitless. No topic was open to discussion. My questions about homework policy were waved off, my questions about the constant, arbitrary punishments for minor infractions were ignored, and my desperate pleas for a more compassionate approach in the classroom fell on deaf ears. Even my concerns about Christianity being taught in the school were dismissed.

If you want to work to change the way things are done in your school, all you have in your arsenal is parents. And this was the most disappointing thing of all for me. I could not find one other parent--not one--willing to stand with me to try to bring some positive change to our school. The reason is chilling: parents know their children will be targeted by teachers and administrators if they go against the grain. In the end, the oblivious parents don't see a problem, the fearful parents keep their heads down and soldier on, and the angry parents pull their kids out of the public school and look for something better.

One key issue is that some towns, like mine, are very, very conservative. Nearly everybody here--from teachers and school administrators to parents and their kids--is decidedly not liberal. So if I'm the only liberal parent (or at least the only one willing to come out of the shadows), how can I stay and fight when everybody else in the building is on the other side? When, for example, I talked to other parents about the discipline and punishment used in our school district, they all seemed to believe that this approach was good for kids. The schools need even more of it! My fellow public school parents concluded that I was some kind of crazy hippie who wanted kids to run wild in school. No rules! Anything goes! So when you live in a conservative stronghold, being "liberal" works against you in every way. People in big cities assume public schools are full of liberal teachers and administrators, but this is simply not the case in regular America.

So as much as I agree on paper that liberal parents should stay and support the public schools, it did not work for us in practice. My kids no longer go to our "good" suburban public school, and this has created great financial hardship for our family. But that's how desperate we were. I haven't ruled out returning to a public school system at some point in the future, but my kids will never step foot in our neighborhood public school again. My kids are in private Montessori now and everything is one hundred percent better.

KD said...

Interesting thoughts by LAB.

Even though the blog author and I live in a seemingly liberal leaning doesn't really see that reflected in the way our school district is run, or how our school board operates. In my view, our school board is more worried about the process of properly running a school board, at the expense of listening to community concerns and acting on them.

I saw this article mentioned elsewhere. Someone else commented that there probably aren't enough liberal homeschoolers to flood the system to really make a difference. As a person who briefly considered homeschooling after one of my kids was already enrolled in the public school system, I'm not sure that Goldstein understands that people who aren't in the system have left so they don't have to deal with the frustrations. They want to have less frustration in their lives...not more. Even if they decided to do what the blogger proposes...the system will likely remain unchanged as Chris points out.

I thought a lot about this during the last school board election. Whoever I voted for would have the power to act(or not act) in a way that would more than likely influence the remainder of my oldest kids's school days. Let me say, I didn't feel very optimistic.

Lastly, I've heard variations of Goldstein's article before, especially when it comes to send their kids to private schools. People say the same are supposed to send your kids to public schools and be "involved".If you don't send your kid to a public school you are somehow disloyal to the concept of public schools.

Karen W said...

The Goldstein piece reads like just another variation of the Mommy Wars columns. Your choice isn't just different from mine, but it makes you a bad parent, a bad liberal, and a bad member of society, too.

The article is not really worth responding to, but I think you make a good point about voice versus exit. I'd love to see Goldstein take another crack at the topic by looking for voice driven success stories. I think that it is much harder than she suggests, perhaps for reasons that LAB encountered (thanks for sharing your story, LAB)--parents are a tough group to organize.

LAB said...

@ KD

You are correct-one big reason we left public school was to reduce frustration in our lives. We were so miserable with the school that I feared our family was falling apart. I could have stayed, gone all Norma Rae, fought for change. Who knows if it would have made any difference. But through it all my kids would have been caught in the crossfire, and our whole family would have been taken down by the stress.

I shouldn't have to fight my school to make them, for example, allow my child to finish his lunch. I shouldn't have to fight my school to make them stop rewarding/punishing and start teaching. I shouldn't have to force my school to take a long look at a policy that says something like "getting a drink of water is a privilege." Things are so out of hand at some schools that I don't know how anyone can stop the madness at this point.

Rivka said...

Excellent post! I couldn't even address that Goldstein article, because it made me too irritated. Thank you for this articulate response.

Chris said...

Thanks everyone for the comments.

LAB, you sure have my sympathy. As KD points out, we live in a very liberal town, if voting patterns are any measure, yet it's hard to see how that's at all reflected in the school system. Living in a much more conservative area -- being a political minority even at the local level -- must make the situation seem even more hopeless. The idea that you have an obligation to leave your kids in those schools is just absurd.

KD, one of the things that bothers me about articles like Goldstein's is that they assume that homeschoolers can't *also* "debate vociferously" what the public schools should be doing. For example, given how politically-minded many liberal homeschoolers are, I wouldn't be surprised if they voted in school board elections at a higher rate than the average voter, or even the average parent of school-aged children. (It wouldn't take much.) Goldstein's attitude seems to reflect the (not very liberal) idea that only people with kids in the schools are entitled to have any say over how they are run.

Karen W -- Great point about the Mommy War attitude. I thought also of the way that many "mainstream" liberals are dismissive of any criticisms of Obama that come from left-leaning perspectives. Apparently the only "good liberalism" is inextricably bound up with supporting existing institutions and power structures, no matter how flawed.

Rivka -- I felt the same way when I first saw the article, and probably would have just ignored it if I hadn't already been chewing over that idea of exit versus voice. I suspect that Goldstein got quite an earful in the comments -- I didn't read them, because there were over two thousand.

Readers: I should point out that Rivka posted her own thoughtful take on this subject a year and a half ago. I didn't know about it when I wrote this post, but her points have a lot in common with mine, and with those of the other commenters here.

WendyN said...

Chris, I was so excited to see you address this article. I've been steaming over it since I read it. If I thought any change in our schools was in the horizon I might be convinced the "stay and fight" tactic would be worth it. I have no confidence that in 10 years things will be the same, same, same. The administration making decisions and parents left to just deal with the aftermath. I'm just not willing to sacrifice my kids education on a gamble.

LAB, I could have written that exact post! I was stunned with what I saw in out public school and the lack of response to any issue I brought up. I find myself in the same "crisis" you wrote about. How do I justify sending my child everyday to a place that I feel is failing at providing what my child needs? We at least did have an option of a public charter school but 1 1/2 yrs in I am discovering many of same issues. While on the surface things seemed better a closer look reveals many similar themes. So I find myself right back where I was and the next option for us might be homeschooling.

Talk about a existential crisis!

Chris said...

Wendy -- Thanks for the comment. One of the things that annoys me about the article is how Goldstein claims to agree that schools should "be less obsessed with testing," but then justifies her argument that school benefits kids by citing studies saying that it raises test scores. Similarly, she writes, "Of course, no one wants to sacrifice his own child’s education in order to better serve someone else’s kid," when in fact that is clearly the upshot of her argument. She cites a lot of statistics, but I wonder how much interaction she has had with an actual school.

LAB said...

@ WendyN

That's the problem with charters--they're still part of the system that stinks. As a friend of mine says, why not just take all the existing public schools, call them "charters," and revamp the approach and curriculum? I just don't understand opening new schools (or, worse yet, adding schools-within-schools) as a way of addressing problems in the old ones.

This all reminds me of a common sight in rural America, where you see a once-nifty old house, decrepit and abandoned, with a newer house (or sometimes a trailer) built on the same lot right beside it. The owners allowed the original house to fall down around them, then just walked away (literally) into a lesser but newer place. How long before the slapdash new place is an even bigger dump?

I am a life-long public school supporter. My public high school was a liberating place, full of options and possibilities. So it sickens me to abandon something I feel is so important and so good at its core. I never would have graduated high school, though, if mine had been like the schools today. No way I would have even lasted two years in one of these prison schools.

WendyN said...

another great reply to that article was from here: and the best quote: She argues that by keeping their kids at home, parents passively reinforce social segregation, allowing students at low-income schools to fall even further behind due to the absence of positive “peer effects.” I have sympathy for this view. But, truth be told, the minuscule number of secular home learners nationwide is dwarfed by the huge population of liberal parents who do everything in their power to get their kids into the best public schools possible, moving their families to more competitive districts, those desirable zip codes, and perpetuating inequity in the process. According to Goldstein’s logic, real progressives should, instead, be enrolling their offspring in the worst possible public institutions in order to improve them, and while that sounds good in theory, I’ve never met a single parent doing such a thing. Instead most liberal parents are desperate to help their children climb to the top of the meritocracy—to the top of an exclusionary pyramid that, as I discuss in my essay, has largely been rigged in their favor all along.

It's easy to pick on parents that leave their home district in search of an it private school or homeschooling. This doesn't even come close to addressing the real problems with school funding and why 2 schools 10 miles apart can be night and day based on the neighborhood and tax bracket. Lastly the fact that we are supposed to let our kids take on the responsibility of social justice with disregard for their own education seems just not right to me. Why oh why are the smart kids always, always expected to take one for the team?

Another Chris said...

Chris, I have to side with you on this one and I am a public school teacher. From an insiders perspective it is as bad as you think and probably worse in many respects. Teachers have lost all control over what happens in the classroom.

In many places we now have “walkthroughs” which is the latest fad quick-fix and principals and boards love them because they are all about keeping teachers “accountable” and under control.

Administrators and district employees do frequent, short drive-bys in classrooms with checklists of what they “should” be seeing in “effective” classrooms. There is no discussion before or after in most places but rather a notice in your mailbox of how badly you were out of compliance and how short a time you have to remedy this error.

The very idea that a 3 - 5 minute inspection provides even a tiny snapshot of the dynamics of teaching and learning with a group of diverse children is offensive yet this is a major tool in evaluating teachers now in most of the country. Horror stories from teachers abound, from kids hiding under the desks when the “scary people” come through to kids challenging the visitors on their rudeness in interrupting their learning.

Curriculum is carefully controlled from on high and one of the checklists’ major foci is to make sure each teacher is doing the prescribed lesson in the prescribed way at the prescribed time. You will be penalized if off track no matter how well-reasoned your explanation, such as individualizing instruction.

Our president, whom I campaigned and voted for, stated in his big education speech last month that teachers need to “stop teaching to the test!” which was very cognitively dissonant since his own education department’s Race to the Top program has required all participating states to make test scores anywhere from 40 - 60% of a teacher’s evaluation, which elevates a single test score to prime importance. So we’re supposed to ignore the biggest part of the decision on whether we get to remain employed or not and/or even retain our teaching license and risk losing years and years of college education, continuing education, and thousands of dollars invested in both?

Discipline was married to test results by the political and business “experts” and created such monstrosities as PBS. Teachers are held accountable for everything from reducing incidents to attendance as part of our yearly evaluation and pay package. I guess we should awake before dawn and make home visits to make sure kids are awake, fed, dressed, and sent to school?

You already know about the time crunch test prep has created in our day and how recess, arts and crafts, music, and PE have suffered. We are told quite frequently that we are free to leave and find employment elsewhere if we don’t like the current models since they are based upon “research” (which is anything that is published and uncritically accepted as gospel truth).

Hucksters by the dozens are making millions off school boards by selling untried, unproven, and unfounded reforms that sound politically appealing but have no basis in reality. The new Common Core Standards are a good example -- they will be in full force by 2014 and they have already subsumed every educational publisher and training system yet they have no proven record of success.

Because I care so much about children I would urge any parent who can to remove their child from public school. It is a sick, deteriorating system that is only getting worse and the forces arrayed against it, from Bill Gates to Arne Duncan have billions of dollars backing their interference. There will be no good change anytime soon, at least until they succeed in destroying the system completely and losing a generation of children in the process of proving their political theories.

Chris said...

Thanks for that post, Another Chris. I'm reprinting it in full as its own post here.