10 Tips for Parents Who Crave More For their Childrens’ Education

Are you frustrated with the educational opportunities for your children? Do you find yourself wishing that there was something more, something better? Or, have you already taken things into your own hands, seeking out or creating an alternative to the standard schooling options? If any of these are true for you, please keep reading. I have 10 tips for parents who want more for their children’s education.

Are you a teacher who is not content with the educational opportunities available to many children today? Are you convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach risks becoming a one-size-fails-all approach? Do you love education and kids, but believe that there has to be a better way? Are you frustrated with the amount of boredom or bullying, testing and grading, ranking and rating, and the overall lack of time talking about how to nurture curiosity, character and a love of learning? Or, have you already taken things into you your own hands to create better alternatives to the dominant systems? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please keep reading. While my comments are mainly directed at parents, I think you might find value in them as well.

Some, maybe even most, parents are happy with the current education system. They drop their children off at school or send them off to the bus stop, and they have little concern about the school day. Generally, they trust the system, the teachers, the leaders, the curriculum and the community. They are happy with the quality of the education and what their kids are learning. It is not uncommon for them to argue that it was good enough for them and it is good enough for their kids. They know things will not be perfect, but they are good enough. They know there will be that occasional ill-prepared, unfair or unpleasant teacher whom their kid has to endure. They reason that this is okay. It just prepares the kid for the real world when she will need to work with sometimes unpleasant bosses and co-workers, or live by an unfriendly neighbor.

They realize that bullying and boredom can and will happen (more or less depending upon the school), but also see that as a chance to develop a thick skin. Or, the parent is just confident that their kid is not one of those bully-able children. That is for “those” other children. They hear their kids talk about school being boring sometimes. The parents are alright with that too because that is what the parents thought about school when they were kids. School is just boring sometimes. You suck it up and work your way through it one grade at a time. Besides, these parents also console themselves by noting that not every moment is boring. There are also engaging and wonderful teachers, lessons and learning experience; again more or less depending upon the school. Sometimes they even see their kid liking what they are learning and talking about how much they love school.

Along the way, these parents are happy that their kids will make school friends, participate in some valued extracurriculars, get decent grades, and then move on to the next level of school. They rarely question the grading system, the nature of the community, the curriculum, or whether they system could be better. It is what it is, and it is good enough for them.

Besides, school is also a community for the parents, sometimes building friendships with other parents. It is one of their connections with the community. It makes them feel like they belong to something, and belonging, even when it is not perfect or when it is unpleasant, can be an important factor.

Some of these parents are largely submissive to leadership in the schools. They grew up learning not to question teachers and school leaders, and they stick with that approach. They might not consider themselves qualified to question leadership or they just consider it best to leave these decisions to the “professionals.” They might have moments of doubt and frustration, but in the end, they will usually just go with the flow.

Other parents are actively trying to shape the school to meet their needs and the needs of their children. They might volunteer. They might use their refined skills of influence and social pressure on parents, teachers, leaders, and even board members. They speak up for their kids if the parents are unhappy with how things are playing out. As such, they might not love the system, but they get enough of what they want to be content. They do what they can to make sure their kid is taken care of or maybe even given a little advantage over others. They might even see it as a game, and they are going to help their kid win it.

All of this is typical, but it isn’t the only way. There is a different breed of parent that is breaking new ground, exploring lesser known (but increasingly traversed) pathways, and becoming more informed about the greater array of possibilities for their children’s education. They are sometimes bold, but other times a little (or more than a little) nervous about stepping out of the traditional and ready-made system.

nagging aching desire of parents These parents are not like the parents mentioned earlier in this article. Their concerns and needs are too great for them to just go along with the system because they are not content with it.These parents have a nagging, evening aching, desire for something different for their children, and it moves them to action. It makes no sense to them why we would overlook or downplay bullying as a necessarily social rite of passage. They don’t accept that boredom should be standard practice in school. They believe that learning should be engaging, rich, deep, rewarding, challenging, impactful and something that their children value and love. They believe that schools can be a place where each child is valued and helped to discover and develop his/her passions, lives, and abilities for personal well-being and service to others. They know political debates about national standards, standardized tests, integrating technology and the rest are not the pathway to better schools. They don’t want to settle for less. They want to know that their kids are safe, challenged, learning, growing, and helped to discover and nurture their gifits and abilities.

They also don’t accept that schools claim that they are ideologically neutral but then turn around and disregard or downplay their family’s values and convictions by supporting teachers and curricula that sometimes aggressively attack some of their deepest held convictions. They realize that their kids need to learn to live in a diverse world, respecting and relating with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, but then they are confused when the school seems to welcome certain types of diversity while labeling other types as unacceptable or even unethical. I”m not just referring to religious or ethical convictions. This is also about deeply held beliefs and convictions about education and children.

This blend of discontent and a dream of something better drives these parents to expand their search. Some are turning to homeschooling, although life circumstances or other factors make that challenging for certain families. Those who opt for homeschooling are finding that the variety of software, curricula, and community education opportunities are often so vast that they can quilt together an intellectually and socially rich learning experience. Others are looking to private and charter schools that have been bold enough to create a clear and focused vision to become a certain type of school. Even as people are rating these new charters based on narrow criteria like standardized test scores, they are looking for so much more out of a school experience then test-taking acumen, and these niche schools meet their needs and affirm their goals and values. Others are happy with a blend of homeschooling and alternative school options. Then there is also that small group of parents who venture into educational entrepreneurship, delving into a school or other learning community startup.

If you are one of these parents or teachers, or you are thinking about becoming one of them, I have the following words of encouragement and tips. While I’m writing these for the parents, teachers will find plenty of applicable insight in here as well.

You are not alone.

What you are thinking and feeling is not weird, undemocratic, or anti-social. You are in good and significant company. People around the United States and the world are thinking and feeling the same thing, and their courage to do something about it is driving some incredible new schools, new educational pathways, as well as some promising school reforms.

You are not a label.

Some will try to label anything that challenges the status quo as corporate education reform, neo-liberalism or some other category where they feel like they can easily label and then dismiss you. Don’t accept it. Just because they make up a category and put you in it doesn’t mean they really understand your position, how you came to that position, or your motives.

Your convictions matter.

I had a wise teacher once tell me that, “We learn too late that our convictions matter.” Don’t accept the rhetoric that you must suppress your convictions. For a little inspiration, take a moment to reread the 1st Amendment in the Constitution and consider whether the standard education system is deeply shaped and informed by that Amendment. Then consider whether the system is supporting and helping you to embrace and protect those personal rights by what they are doing. We can’t claim that public education is a democratic education unless we create an educational ecosystem that is truly shaped by the 1st Amendment, not to mention the others.

Find your tribe, but still mingle with and learn from other tribes.

The great part about life in a connected world is that you can find people who share your convictions and ideas from all over the world. You can support and inspire one another. You can collaborate with one another in pursuing your goals.

Stretch yourself. The other great part of life in a connected world is that you can also learn from people who are different from you. Explore the models and practices that don’t align with your beliefs and convictions as well. There is much to learn from the diverse practices and viewpoints. Some might even challenge you to reconsider some ideas. Others will help you clarify your convictions. Either way, this will deepen your understanding.

Get informed about the possibilities.

There are so many possibilities available to you and your children today. Take the time to learn about them. Read, interview, observe, and experience the wealth of options available.

Don’t accept the “good of the community” argument.

Every so often you will run into people claiming that you are self-absorbed anti-social if you are not signing up for the “assigned” public school for your area. People might tell you that it is somehow your civic duty to send your kids to that school, that this is something bigger than you and your children. I encourage you to challenge this idea. Yes, life is not all about you, but being a parent who is all in on supporting your children and their education is a civic duty. In fact, the family unit is an important part of positive communities. Muzzling your own rights and passively going along with someone else’s ideas about education is not a more noble or democratic path.

Respect but don’t accept the expert myth.

Yes, those working in education often bring great expertise and insight that individual parents do not. That is no argument for you to sit on the sidelines or submit to whatever they say. Even the medical field recognizes this. Doctors don’t order you. They advise and recommend. Those working in schools exist to serve and support you and the children, not to rule over you and the children. It is great to respect their expertise, listen and learn from them, but you still have the final say; and your ideas and convictions matter.

Go for it.

You might opt to stay in the legacy school system, homeschool, go the charter school route, or select a private school. You might even choose to create a new school. Along the way you might need to re-evaluate. All of that is good and okay. Don’t feel badly about it. It is great to find wise counsel amid the decision, but there is no one or perfect choice. Any of these options can be a good and positive experience. At the same time, don’t feel like you need to settle. I realize that circumstances and resources might limit your options for a spell, and that is reality. At the same time, even amid fewer resources, chances are that you have more options than you first realize. Explore the possibilities. Weigh the benefits and limitations. Seek wise counsel. Then go for it.

Respect the decisions of other families.

Sometimes, after doing all this work and thinking, it is easy to become a powerful voice and advocate for whatever you choose. Sometimes this can also turn into way to assure yourself that you made a good choice. My advice, however, is to beware of turning your choice into the choice, trying to convince everyone to do and choose exactly as you did. This is not a one-size-fits-all decision. The legacy school is a great option for some and not for others. Just as you examined your own convictions and ideals, leave room for others to do the same. This doesn’t mean that you can’t boldly advocate for what you truly believe to be good and right, but consider bringing a good measure of humility to such conversations. While I believe that there are certain ideas that are universally good (like keeping kids safe), there is still plenty of room for difference, and that difference might actually be part of what makes the overall educational ecosystem healthy.

Don’t be limited to what “is.”

Part of why are seeing so many wonderful experiments in education is because more people are willing to not stop at what already exists. They are willing to imagine what could be and they are working to make those things a reality. I invite you to at least consider whether you might be one of those pioneers, visionaries, or educational innovators to add more good and important option to the mix.

parents who crave more

Do Schools Make Students Socially Awkward?

Compare homeschool and traditional school populations. Which ones have the largest list of documented social challenges? Which one has more cyber and old school bullying? What are the teenage pregnancy statistics across the two populations? How about if we compare criminal records or incarceration rates across the two populations? These are provocative (and even a bit misleading) questions and I realize the title of this article is equally provocative, but both are inspired by a common stereotype about homeschool students. Many have this image of students sitting at the kitchen table going through workbooks each day. If you homeschool, how do people react when you share that your children don’t go to a private or public school? Sometimes subtle, other times direct, people are drawn to a conversation about how kids are “socialized” or their social experience. Here is what some of the research indicates:

  1. When Dr. Jeffrey Koonce conducted his 2007 study on the smooth transition of home school students to public school, he discovered that “negative perceptions of school personnel” topped the list. As such, could it be that many perceptions about home school students come from confirmation bias on behalf of the teachers followed by self-fulfilling prophecies? Or, what about the possibility that the social norms in a school don’t always align with the values and norms from which students come?
  2. Yet, there is research to show that people’s assumptions are right. There is a significant difference between those who are home schooled and those who are not when we look at social traits. In a study by White, Moore, and Squires (2009), they examined populations of students to discern how they rated on the big five personality inventory (openness, conscientiousness, extraversion, agreeableness, and neuroticism). They discovered that those who had been homeschooled scored higher in openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness (and as a quick aside, conscientiousness is a trait consistently associated with academic and work success). While this correlational study isn’t adequate to conclude as much, it leaves the door open to the possibility that the decision to homeschool seems to impact the social development of young people, and sending your kids to traditional school might result in students being less open, conscientious and agreeable.
  3. I just asked a colleague to conduct a review of how homeschool students did when they attended the University where I work. They do just as well as everyone else. This didn’t look at social skills, but I thought I’d throw it in here for good measure.
  4. When we look at large enough populations, the studies seem to consistently come back showing that homeschool students as a population are doing well on the socialization front.

As a playful way to explore this subject, allow me to return to the provocative title of this article. I wonder if students who attended public and private schools are socially awkward. What other part of society limits almost all of your daily interactions to people within a 2 to 3 year age range? What employer separates the teams by 52-year-olds and 25-year-olds? In fact, working and interacting in society today requires that we know how to interact well in intergenerational teams. Or, what about the dynamic of interactions in schools? How much of the typical school day is directed by an adult determining when, if, and how you are allowed to communicate with the other people in the room; carefully monitoring you and correcting you instantly if you break the rules? This, of course, is just as false of a stereotype, because there are a myriad of different types of classrooms and social arrangements in those classrooms. There are amazing teachers and really bad ones, rich and positive social classrooms and others that are toxic. There are teachers who pretty much do all the talking and the job of the students is the be quiet and take notes. There are other classrooms where the teacher guides and empowers students to work in teams, collaborate, debate, support, encourage, and challenge one another. This diversity of contexts is a reality in public schools, independent schools and homeschool settings.

Yet, people often want to share their anecdotal experiences of homeschooled kids who lack social skills. “These kids are different,” they might explain from their personal experiences. What that doesn’t do is tell us whether the percentage of such young people is different across the entire homeschool versus public or private school populations. The fact is that people are different in their social skills. Sometimes a change of contexts helps a person develop in some areas and struggle in others. We can’t forget about the huge influence of parenting, like this source that points to studies suggesting that parents not only have a greater influence of socialization, but also on academic success. Consider that for a moment, the idea that parenting impacts academic achievement more than anything done by teachers. Or, think about the differences between what researchers refer to as “concerted cultivation” versus “natural growth parenting.” Such differences impact the development of children.

If we want to talk about anecdotal evidence, I’ll add a few names to the conversation: Virginia Woolf, Woodrow Wilson, J.R.R. Tolkien, Teddy Roosevelt, F.D.R, Florence Nightingale, Mozart, Robert Frost, Pearl Buck, Ansel Adams, Lewis Carroll, Benjamin Franklin, George Washington, John Adams, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Winston Churchill, Sandra Day O’Conner, Alexander Graham Bell, Orville and Wilbur Wright, John Phillip Sousa, Fred Terman (Standard President instrumental in nurturing what is now Silicon Valley), Andrew Carnegie, Joseph Pulitzer (yes, as in the name behind the Pulitzer prize), Margaret Mead, and Harace Mann (yes the father of public education). They were all homeschooled for part or all of their formative years. We can argue that some of them were socially awkward or a little outside-of-the-box, and we could have repaired that if only they went to public or private school. I don’t know about you, but I’d rather stick with them as they are: wonderfully diverse, sometimes awkward, and beautifully brilliant.

http---www.pixteller.com-pdata-t-l-143321On a more personal note about anecdotal evidence, I’ll offer one example that I know quite well…me. I went to public and private schools and, if you ever met me, you’d probably conclude that I’m a little weird. In fact, my family champions and embraces weird as a badge of honor. We make sometimes counter-cultural decisions about how to function as a family. My work and writing challenges many traditional conventions, which can be considered a little weird and socially deviant, or maybe just socially awkward. Think about it. I’m an academic who believes that blogging is a valuable form of scholarship. You can’t get much more socially awkward than that in the halls of academia (although that is changing in some circles). I challenge the efficacy of the letter grade system, doubt the value of driving instruction by standardized tests, push for greater focus on learners, champion alternative (which by definition is not mainstream) education, believe that nurturing non-cognitive skills should be a higher priority than universal standards, advocate for alternative credentials, and cast the vision of a world with multiple pathways to gainful and skilled employment, pathways that go far beyond the purview of formal learning organizations and outside accrediting bodies. I also jump across close to a dozen disciplines amid this work as if it were one giant bowl of intellectual stew.

Beyond that, I have this socially awkward bent toward striving for an open critique of all positions, including (even especially) my own, looking at the world of education largely from the perspective that everything has both affordances and limitations. That means I risk isolating myself from almost every educational “club.” I champion for homeschooling, but also rejoice over charters, excellent traditional public school, and a myriad of private and faith-based schools. I’m even closely connected to a weird cult known as Lutheran education. I rally troops around the power and possibility of self-directed learning, but then I follow that up witha celebration of the great work happening in some of our best classical education schools. I am a product of the schooling system, I clearly have “social conformity issues”, and I’m not alone. Maybe it was my formal schooling that is to blame.

We are wonderfully diverse people and we all have our quirks. Some people fit into the mainstream better than others, but isn’t our world a better place because of the diversity of personalities? Every educational option has benefits and drawbacks. There are many ways to nurture psychological, emotional, social, cognitive, and spiritual development; and it can happen whether you are in a legacy public school, charter or magnet school, independent school, or homeschool setting.

People are different. There are shy people. Some know hardly anything about sports, and others know hardly anything about classical literature. Some people interrupt too much. Others don’t speak up when they have something important to say. Some speak with confidence and eloquence while others struggle and stumble to find the right words. Some judge others too quickly while others can’t seem to take a stand on anything. Some fall prey to the slightest peer pressure while others always seem to take the road less traveled. Instead of trying to fit more people into a mold, maybe we are better off embracing a little more diversity of personality in the world. Let’s start a movement.

“I used to think anyone doing anything weird was weird. Now I know that it is the people that call others weird that are weird.” – Paul McCartney

Digital Badges & Academic Credentials for Homeschoolers

Homeschooling is one of the faster growing sectors in K-12 education today. As I’ve argued in the past, one of the reasons for this growth is the increased access to free and inexpensive communities and resources. We are no longer talking about a handful of curriculum providers. Open education resources, free learning resources and tools, and the constantly growing number of high-quality online learning communities are available at the click of a mouse (or the tap of a screen). For example, if you were homeschooling your sixteen year old son or daughter today in math, in less than a few hours of searching, you could find a dozen quality adaptive math software solutions, free online homeschool courses in math, MOOCs designed for high school students, several personalized learning math resources, along with access to affordable remote math tutors (some with impressive credentials in math, education, and/or real world accomplishments). As many homeschool families have discovered, there is no reason why a young person needs to be limited by the knowledge or expertise of the teacher…any teachers. There are resources available to help anyone from the struggling math student to the prodigy.

There is still a challenge (although far from an insurmountable barrier) for some who are considering homeschooling or currently engaged in it. I’m referring to obtaining credentials that are understandable and widely recognized evidence of homeschool student achievements. Homeschooling families address this challenge in several ways: using scores on standardized tests, issuing report cards from the home, creating transcripts or using a transcript service, creating portfolios that represent achievements, through a GED, through diplomas provided by a homeschool co-op, through partnerships with local independent schools that help with credentialing, and by enrolling students in some traditional or online courses that provide transcripts and credentials.

As with all things, each of these have their benefits and limitations; but I still stee gaps. What if there was a highly customizable, low-cost solution that provided grade reports, transcripts, diplomas and widely accepted academic credentials for homeschoolers (and others who wanted to provide evidence of student learning)? Now consider some of the things that I’ve been writing about with the potential of digital badges. Imagine a a largely open and democratic communities that specialized in creating and issuing digital badges based upon widely diverse academic programming, serving everyone from the unschooler to the classical education homeschool student. It could provide (but not require) benchmarks for progress and, when students demonstrate that they meet the benchmarks, the credentials are issued. I see the open badge infrastructure as being a useful framework for such a project, and we can expect to see this in the near future.

I realize that some homeschool families would not like this option, as they prefer full control within the home. Yet, there are many others who would see this as a relief and a solution to a an area that is still a struggle. Most homeschool families recognize the value of the learning in their homes/schools. Yet, there is some nervousness about how to provide evidence of that learning in a way that colleges, employers and others will easily understand it and recognize it. I think that digital badges (attached to more traditional formats like transcripts and diplomas) can help.

I’m considering launching an initiative to explore such a solution. What do you think?