Poverty, Riches, Girls, Complacency, Empowerment, and Homeschooling. (Whew!)

Poverty, Riches, Girls, Complacency, Empowerment, and Homeschooling.  (Whew!)

I’ve been reading Half the Sky: Turning Oppression into Opportunity for Women Worldwide. It was a beautiful, wonderful, awful book, that I read as fast as I could so I could get it over with and give my brain a break from the images of forced prostitution and maternal mortality and systematic rape.  And female genital mutilation and 10-year-olds marrying and countless fetuses aborted because they were female.  I didn’t leave it lying around the house because no child should read its contents.  But I couldn’t stop turning the pages, although the stories made me weepy and nauseous.  The stories of redemption are powerful enough to compensate.

While reading Half the Sky, I was also reading about a first world problem:  our broken public school system.  In America today, trendspotters like Seth Godin and Penelope Trunk are saying that increasingly schools are factories that provide babysitting so parents can go to work and get a break from their kids.  Many stateside schools are not doing well.  And more and more parents are pulling their kids out, and managing their children’s educations themselves–at home. But if you want to improve the plight of impoverished girls in the developing world, you send girls to school.  You subsidize their uniforms.  You feed them lunch.  You might even pay their parents for their good attendance or high test scores.  Keeping girls in school longer does good things for the girls–and for their communities.

I was struck by the irony.  In America where I live, “ineffective” is an adjective that’s preceding the word “schools” with increasing frequency.  But for poor girls in the developing world, schools mean literacy, vaccinations, a later age of marriage, a lowered birthrate, a reduced chance of contracting AIDS, and perhaps–an emergence from poverty. The issues involved are complicated, no doubt, but the potential for change is real.

And I’m surprised at the common difficulty of getting a good education, no matter which side of the world you live on.  Too often, a good education is a privilege reserved for the rich, and almost impossible to get if you’re poor.

Readers, what’s your take on the American school system?  What adjectives would you use to describe it?  What are your thoughts on schools in the developing world?  Post thoughts to comments.

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  1. KT says:

    I’m blessed to live in a great public school district, one of the top in the country. I went to high school here after experiencing a combination of private school and homeschool for middle and high school. My husband and I have just purchased a house in one of the best high school pyramids in this district for our children. We made it a priority to be in a place where we had lots of schooling options. If we were able to afford it, which we probably won’t be, there are good Christian and secular private schools in the area. Our church has families in all types of schooling so if it is best for our children I’ll have some great homeschooling resources (besides my memories and my mother) in the men and women who are going before me. But I do know that if I moved just a few miles in one direction, a few counties in another I could wind up in school districts where Teach For America sends their best and brightest to try and turn things around. I’d be in places where a good charter school has a waiting list that is impossibly long and families can’t afford to have anyone take enough time off for homeschooling. Is it anyone’s job to provide a comprehensive solution? That I really don’t know. In the 19th century a good number of Americans would have said that local communities should be the ones determining schooling rather than state governments with federal input. I wonder if that would make any change.

  2. Wow, that is a very interesting juxtaposition!

    As someone who had a degree in education and desperately wanted to find a teaching job (but never did), I think the biggest problem is that our education system is controlled by non-educators. If teachers, 99% of whom love their job and are passionate about it (but you always hear the media focus on the few bad teachers!), had more autonomy, school would be so much better. And perhaps that’s why it is so much better in third world countries, because teachers can make decisions about how they teach their students. So many teachers or potential teachers I know left teaching because they couldn’t deal with all the bureaucracy that prevented them from actually teaching! And because of the lack of money to schools, people like me who would love to teach (and I hope would do a great job), there aren’t any jobs for us, so we’ll end up going into different fields.

    And there is something to be said about the sense of entitlement American students (and parents feel) compared to the those students in third world countries that are so grateful for their educational opportunities. When I was student teaching, I didn’t have any harder working students than my Somali students who had to dodge bullets to get to school before they became US refugees. They spoke barely any English, but they worked so hard because they didn’t take their education for granted like (many of) my American students.

    Wow, that was a long comment – guess you could say I’m passionate about the topic!

    • Anne says:

      Mandi, I had to glance back up at my post to see that some pretty ugly stats didn’t make the final cut. True, teachers have more say-so, but teacher-student abuse (sexual and otherwise) is rampant. No easy solutions here, I’m afraid.

  3. DFrazzled says:

    Wow. That’s a doozy of a post, Anne. Very thought-provoking and worth continued discussion. Have you found any research on the means by which homeschool teachers became educated? A girl in Afghanistan cannot be homeschooled by her mother to know anything that than her own mother knows. Many first world parents, and increasingly women, are college-educated, so I’m betting that they have a broad knowledge base to draw from when teaching their children. We also have amazing resources, curriculums, museums, to help homeschool teachers and enrich our children.

  4. Linda says:

    My little from Big Brothers and Big Sisters of America, did not know her continents. Did not know that Asia is not a country. Thought “West America” is a continent, as well as “East America.”

    She doesn’t know her times table.

    She’s almost 12.

  5. Meredith says:

    I have been a faithful reader of your blog since discovering you via Betty Beguiles, but I find it hard to believe that a modern, accomplished woman would simply parrot Seth Godin’s assumptions. I strongly disagree that schools are babysitting factories. I know firsthand that this is not true–as a parent, as a former biology teacher, and as the wife of a school administrator.

    It is demeaning to every modern, accomplished woman who has invested her life in teaching and learning.

    • Anne says:

      Meredith, thanks for your comment, and I’ve revised the post to indicate that the opinions that schools are babysitting factories belong Godin and Trunk, not me. Although I think it is very interesting food for thought. And as a homeschooling parent, I hear “I could never do what you do. I need a break from my kids!” 10 times a week. At least.

      I think there are many good schools in America. My own children used to attend one; we made the homeschooling choice largely because of schedules and finances; not because of the quality of education taking place at the school. It was an excellent school, with exceptional, caring teachers, competent, thoughtful administrators and a wonderful student body. But the waiting list is a mile long, in part, I think, because such a school is hard to find in my area.

      I suspect, based on your passion and experience, that the schools you speak of are excellent schools, and I am so glad that your firsthand experience is so positive. I do believe there are many schools like these in America–but I wish there were more.

  6. Jamie says:

    I too read Half the Sky and was amazed by the depth and breadth of its contents. The first word that comes to mind when I think of the American education system is “broken”. As KT pointed out above, schools in America were intended to be handled on a local basis; they were never intended to handle Federal Mandates or to cover the kinds of basic life education they now teach. Reading, writing, math – that’s supposed to be the venue of schools! Not health, sex ed, political correctness or anything else.

    At the risk of stepping on some toes, I’d also rank teachers’ unions and the tenure system at the top of the problem list for public schools. I can’t tell you how many awful teachers I’ve seen take advantage of that system while fantastic teachers get fired, let go or abandoned because they didn’t have tenure yet and were trying to improve the system.

    I do not have any children of my own, but if I did they would not go to public schools. I just couldn’t stomach sending a child to the politicized chaos of a school knowing how much time and energy they would waste learning things I’d have to un-teach them when they got home!

  7. Anne says:

    Again, Steven Brill! I heard him discuss this topic briefly on the radio and am very interested in reading a fuller treatment.

    Many people I know and respect have chosen to send their children to public schools. I wouldn’t dismiss them categorically; it may be worth looking into when you do have children.

  8. As a parent, a former educator and just a concerned citizen, I have quite a bit to say about the educational system!

    Someone further up mentioned that one of the biggest problems is that schools are run mostly by non-teachers. I could not agree with that more! You have these corporate suits who see nothing but money . . . how to cut costs for this and how save money but getting rid of that. You have funding that is based on a grossly flawed system of high stakes testing. And I won’t even get started on No Child Left Behind! The difference in funding in this country from suburban schools to inner city schools is disgusting . . . and then we wonder why the inner city schools do so poorly.

    That all being said, I put equal blame on parents. I live in a city with a poor education system. Instead of standing idly by, I researched and found the best charter schools in the district. We applied to nearly a dozen of them and my daughter is now attending a fabulous school. But in addition to the education she receives in school every day, she receives and education at home. I am constantly teaching . . . whether it’s because of something we see on TV or a question asks about a insect she see or a word she wants to know how to say in sign language. I go over her homework every night. I read aloud to her every night.

    These things do not take a lot of time and if parent invested more into their children, they would notice massive results. You don’t have to pull your child out of school to homeschool . . . as a strictly homeschooling parent once said to me, “All good parents homeschool in some way.”

  9. 'Becca says:

    I think that many American public schools are really pretty good, and the rest could be improved if only the many strategies that have been proven to “work” could be implemented instead of being stalled by bureaucracy and funding cuts. Mandi, Jamie, and Dayle made some good points. I support teachers being unionized in order to get reasonable pay and working conditions, but some of the specific things teachers’ unions have done are horrible for schools without really benefiting teachers.

    Here’s a great article on how to improve public schools.

    I mean no offense, but I think that if you are concerned about the state of American public schools, homeschooling is one of the worst things you can do. Instead, stay in the system and work to improve it. If you used the time you spend homeschooling volunteering in a school, imagine how many more kids would benefit! Dfrazzled’s good point about an Afghan mother’s inability to teach her daughter what the school can teach applies not only to third-world families but also to many American families. Do you think Linda’s Little Sister would have learned more by being home all day with her mother (if her mother could afford to do that, which is unlikely) than by going to her school?

    But for poor girls in the developing world, schools mean literacy, vaccinations, a later age of marriage, a lowered birthrate, a reduced chance of contracting AIDS, and perhaps–an emergence from poverty.
    For poor children here in America, schools mean
    better odds of literacy than if they stayed home watching TV while their parents, who may be only semi-literate themselves, are working;
    vaccinations, because schools require them–although there are exemptions available in most districts, schools at least prompt parents to think about getting their children vaccinated and connect them to free or low-cost vaccinations;
    a later age of marriage and greater odds of getting married ever (when you compare high school grads to dropouts);
    a lower birthrate and later age of first parenthood;
    education about how to avoid catching AIDS (in most schools);
    and, perhaps, an emergence from poverty.
    So if you compare poor children in America to poor children in the third world, there’s much less difference than if you compare middle-class American children with college-educated parents who place a high value on education to poor children in the third world.

    My son attends a great public school. The public schools his father and I attended were not as good, with many obvious weaknesses particularly for academically gifted students like ourselves, but even for us they were far better than no schools at all. When I think of the things I would have missed if my parents had taught me at home, I’m staggered. I did learn a lot from my parents at home, too, in the many hours I was not at school. But many of my peers did not learn much at home other than shut up before you get hit, how to work the TV, and where daddy keeps his cigarettes–they needed school so much! I am glad that both my parents volunteered extensively in the schools and continue to do so. They have taught and inspired many more children than just my brother and me.

    As for your attitude toward parents who admit to needing time away from their kids: We all have our strengths and weaknesses. It is better for parents to admit that they cannot do what you do than to pretend that they can, do it badly, and resent their children. I am certain that I am a better mother in the evenings and weekends, after spending my weekdays in the office while my child is in school and then at home with his dad, than I would be if I spent all day, every day, at home with him–but I don’t think that means every mother needs to take a full-time job.

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