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This article is intended for the 10 - 20 percent of parents who want their children to learn more in school than schools typically teach.
I've made a mistake for the past 20 years. Some of my friends and acquaintances made it for 15 or 20 years before that. I presume there were others before them, and that there will be plenty that come after me unless this prevents them from making the same error and wasting their time and energy. I will suggest a better alternative.
The mistake was in thinking that schools and school systems would improve academically, helping students learn more, understand better, and mature faster if they heard what parents thought their children needed of a more intellectually challenging and stimulating nature.
Many parents in the past have gone to individual teachers, and then to principals, sometimes even speaking with superintendents, all privately. Others have organized groups to show this was more than a personal issue. They spoke privately and publicly to make their cases. I wrote numerous letters to administrators and school boards, and had many meetings with them, trying to explain the needs and possible remedies in as rationally persuasive ways as I could. I wrote letters to the editor and op ed pieces which were published. All to no avail. Schools are basically large, and essentially monopolistic institutions that are not easily moved to change. And most parents, at least in the suburbs, are pleased with the quality of their schools. Test scores are good relative to others in the state. Graduates go on to colleges or get good jobs, grow up to be productive citizens, and raise nice families. Most people think that particularly with suburban schools, life is good; schools are good; there is no reason to do more.
So this article is just for those who do not believe that. My advice is don't waste your time trying to get schools to change. They are not going to change. If anything, with the state emphasis on multiple choice testing, schools are going to become worse with regard to providing students with deeper understanding and more intellectually interesting study, because almost no administrators and only a minority of teachers see that would be better for students and would actually improve test scores in the future. Like any businesses that sacrifice long term improvement for short term success, schools are going to teach those things they think will best improve student test scores here and now. Moreover, the education profession more and more comes up with faddish, simplistic pedagogical methods that are guaranteed to be the next panacea, all based on the idea that the form and method of teaching material is more important than a thorough, or even really good, understanding of its content.
The best recourse I think parents have is to augment school programs academically, in any or all of three ways: by taking a more active role in mentoring their own children where they can, by finding people who can teach their children the things they cannot (just as they would find a piano, tennis, or karate teacher), and by establishing, with other parents, after school or weekend programs that are the academic equivalent to the sports teams that parents and communities voluntarily organize because they know that school P.E. is insufficient. But children also need intellectual and cultural instruction and opportunities to use their minds and develop their artistic talents in ways that schools cannot provide.
This does not mean children need to be subjected to more boring instruction or that they need to attend additional school after school every day and every weekend. The idea is to make challenging, stimulating, and helpful instruction available on a timely basis, not simply to oppressively extend the school day. Children don't need badgering after they have been at school all day all week. But they need an environment, whether at home or elsewhere, where they can be receptive to teaching that takes them further and deeper. Some students may like a lot of this, but most need it just in key areas. There are typically certain particular places in math and in non-fiction reading and writing that students need deeper and better understanding than teachers can usually provide. "Place value" in math, fractions, rate-time-distance problems, and algebra in general are some of the important conceptual areas where students often have difficulty, and which teachers know they have trouble teaching. There are similar places in science and other verbal areas.
Most parents who want their children to understand their work better have faced the situation where a child asks for help with homework. The child may ask what a word means or how to do a particular subtraction problem where you have to regroup or "borrow" from a zero. The parent may want to fully explain the math or want to discuss the reading; and typically the child, intent on just getting his or her homework done, will say "No, I just want you to tell me how to do this one thing. Don't explain it; just tell me, so I can finish my homework. We don't need to know that other stuff."
What was interesting and frustrating to me was that even though I would teach it my way anyway and even though my kids would like finally seeing the light, and like even more being able to answer the teacher's harder questions the next day, coming home excited about that, nevertheless the next time they needed help we still had to go through the whole fight again.
What is worse is that as children get A's in school they feel they have learned and done everything they need to. Parents who want them to learn more are seen as unnecessarily demanding, because school doesn't require more. Unfortunately for kids later, when algebra becomes difficult because they don't have a foundation in numerical relationships or when they want to go to a really good college and find other kids far more educated than they are, then it is much more difficult, or impossible, to catch up or to do well. Or many kids just give up on school or on certain subjects and say that they "must be dumb" or are just "no good at it" or "just don't really like it." It does not occur to anyone that the problem could have been avoided much earlier.
So although parents can do much at home with their own children, it would also be good to have available places where students learn much more together in an environment they find stimulating and interesting. Learning can be enjoyable when children are taught for understanding, rather than made to memorize a bunch of facts and procedures that have no point and make no sense to them. Parents who want that need to try to create it themselves. Schools will not become such a place no matter how much parents ask them for it to be.