Sunday, January 20, 2008

Why Education is Not Like Making Ice Cream

I'm currently reading a very interesting but highly depressing book called Tested: One American School Struggles to Make the Grade by journalist Linda Perlstein. Tested follows the struggles of the 3rd grade teachers at a government-run elementary school over the course of a school year to improve the test scores of its poor, primarily African-American and Latino students (scores are up but basically the entire year until March is spent doing little aside from reading & math test prep).

Anyways, while reading Tested, I came across a fabulous quote that just sums up the problems facing government-run schools. It's from a former corporate CEO named Jamie Robert Vollmer. He was giving a speech to government schoolteachers about how schools should be run more like businesses when a veteran English teacher asked what happened if his ice cream business received a subpar shipment of raw ingredients. He admitted that he would send it back:

"And so began my long transformation. Since then, I have visited hundreds of schools. I have learned that a school is not a business. Schools are unable to control the quality of their raw material, they are dependent upon the vagaries of politics for a reliable revenue stream, and they are constantly mauled by a howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night."

You can read the full Education Week article from which the quote was taken here.

This quote just goes to demonstrate why homeschooling is able to provide a superior education to children. While parents do not have control over the innate intellectual potential of their children (that's up to God or Nature, depending on one's beliefs), they do at least have control over the environmental influences. Unlike government schoolteachers, home educators can ensure their students get enough sleep, eat a healthy diet, do not watch excessive television, have regular medical & dental checkups, etc. They can consistently provide loving but firm discipline. While there still can be occasional family crises such as illness, death, job loss, or divorce (though I suspect that the divorce rate among homeschoolers is significantly lower than the general population much as it is among users of Natural Family Planning), at least homeschooled children won't have their education disrupted by classmates acting out in response to crises within their own families.

Should a homeschool budget need to be scaled back during an economic downturn, parents have control over where those cuts will be made and can minimize the negative effects on their children. Class sizes & guidance counseling loads won't suddenly go up. Electives won't disappear such often happens with art, music, PE, foreign language, etc. in government-run schools.

Those "howling horde of disparate, competing customer groups that would send the best CEO screaming into the night" as Mr. Vollmer puts it? In homeschooling, there really aren't too many of them. There is obviously no conflict between teachers & administrators, teachers & parents, or administrators & parents. Politicians and corporate interests have little power to meddle. No special interest groups complain about what is included in or excluded by the curriculum. The ACLU and NAACP don't stand watch threatening lawsuits. There is no controversy over military recruiters visiting the school (if one does, it's by invitation). All the political and ideological battles that distract government-run schools from their missions are virtually eliminated in homeschooling.


L. said...

xI know many families for whom homeschooling is indeed optimal. There is only one problem with holding up homeschooling as an ideal for everyone: some parents (like me) are absolutely unwilling to do it.

For us, school is indeed like a business -- essentially, we are outsourcing our children's education, and the children (families) are the customers, not the raw materials.

Crimson Wife said...

I realize that not every family is able or willing to homeschool their children. That is why I believe there ought to be true school choice for all families in this country. Right now, only the wealthy are able to choose the educational option they feel is best for their children. They can afford housing in a neighborhood with a decent government-run school, or private school tuition, or the foregone 2nd income and other costs associated with homeschooling.

For low-to-moderate income families in America, government-run schools function as a monopoly. Monopolies are not exactly known for providing their customers with a quality product at a fair price.

L. said...

Well, the wealthy have "true choice" when it comes to everything. They can choose careers they think are most rewarding without worrying about salary, they can consult the best doctors without worrying about their health insurance coverage, etc. I don't see "true choice" as giving every person the same kind of choices that the truly affluent have. There will always be hideously expensive private schools with lavish facilities and tiny student/faculty ratios, and public schools will never be able to match those. The question (for me) is, how to improve the public schools.

My kids were in public school in Tokyo. When we moved to SF, we looked into the public school system and found it sorely lacking. I now send them (at great personal expense, and very much against the wishes of my Buddhist husband) to a Catholic school. In some ways, it is a great fit, and in other ways, it is not.

Also, I admit I sometimes feel as if I'm turning my back on the public schools by sending my kids elsewhere. Often the best way to change something for the better is from the inside.

Crimson Wife said...

Why should your children and mine be able to get a decent education and children from lower-income families not?

I personally find it very hypocritical when parents who sent their own children to private schools or who live in tony suburbs are against vouchers and/or tax credits for low-to-moderate income families.

L. said...

Vouchers and tax credits are great, but will only go so far -- some private schools will probably figure out ways to limit the number of voucher students. And some passive parents simply won't bother using either, and will continue to send their kids to the closest public school.

Parochial schools do offer both part- and full-tuition need-based scholarships, so that they aren't out of reach to any parents who want their child to have a Catholic education, no matter how limited their means.

Dana said...

Great post, Crimson Wife!

There are so many difficulties facing public schools, it is often easy to dismiss them as the fault of schools. But oftentimes, we are only seeing the effects of deeper problems the schools are not equipped to handle.

Blind adherence to a standard doesn't help matters.

Alasandra said...

Wonderful post.

I think true school choice would not only enable the parents to get quality educations for their children; in the long run I think it would improve public schools as they would no longer have a monopoly and would be forced to provide a quality product in order to get customers (students).

Elisheva Hannah Levin said...

I also agree with the idea of school choice, but I wonder why the money should have to go through state and federal bureaucracies to then be handed back to the parents? The smaller number of hands through which the money must pass, the less of it that will be skimmed off the top to pay for office buildings, salaries, benefits, etc. So I think vouchers ought to be handled at the most local level feasible. I am not sure whether this should be the county or state. I imagine it will depend on the locality.

I am a homeschooling mom, however, I recognize that not all parents would choose this option. It is my idea that parents have an array of options so that they can choose what is best for their families.

Finally, none of the above should be taken to imply that I think homeschoolers should receive funding. IMHO that would open the door to state interference into private matters. I'd rather not go there.

Jane said...

I have heard that quote with it's "raw materials" many times. I kind of bothers me because it sounds negative. The truth is that we teachers can not control the quality of our student's home life, diet and care. Each day we deal with whatever comes to our classes. Mostly with love and pride. I am impressed by so many homeschooling blogs and the love and care that goes into their children's educations. I just mourn for all the public schools who lost those well run families. If those "parents who can"- would, public schools would be awesome for everyone! Dr. King's dream has died in the public schools, not because of our students,their struggles, the teachers or politics. I believe that it is the mass exodus over the last 30 years of those "parents who can" to private schools and homeschooling. That said, when I become a parent, maybe my love for my own children will far exceed my dreams for and belief in public education. It's just that it could be so great for everyone.