In her new book, 'Rethinking Schools,' Susan Wise Bauer offers a host of practical suggestions and alternatives for parents struggling with traditional education environments.
Over the past seven years of homeschooling, my husband and I have been surprised that the biggest objection people have to our educational choice for our children is not that they are educated at home, but that they are not being educated exactly how they would be if they were in the neighborhood public school. People aren’t interested in why we believe in a particular philosophy of education or even whether our children are thriving. They just want to know that the children are being tested every year, they are studying the same things as their public-schooled peers, and they’ll be able to go to college. Americans have largely come to accept education for what we today know as school.
But parents want a better education for their children than what schools are currently providing. In 2017, said they were completely or somewhat satisfied with K-12 education. While the majority are dissatisfied with the state of education, parents aren’t sure what changes need to be made and how to go about instituting that change.
Parents have the great responsibility to oversee their children’s education, but too often we think of it as the government’s job. Joseph Pearce recently wrote that we have given the government the right to define education when we . Pearce is not arguing to go back to a time when the few privileged receive a formal education; he believes all children need to be educated. His grievance is when the government, not parents, are deciding how to educate children.
Pearce says our discussion needs to switch from calling education a “‘civil right’ that Big Brother imposes to a discussion of the ‘civil responsibility’ of parents to raise their children without the ideological intrusion of the government. It is not a question of ‘rights’ to be imposed by the state but of the ‘freedom’ of parents to choose the sort of education that they believe is best for their children. Schools should empower parents to educate their children and should not empower big government to impose its own ideological understanding of what constitutes a ‘civil right.’”
Recent education policies and reform ideas have proven to be wanting. , a former proponent of No Child Left Behind and later Common Core, said that the reform she once supported gave us educational “promises [that] haven’t come true.” To see the changes we want to see in America’s schools, we can’t rely on politicians and new policies. Ravitch said, “If we really cared about improving the education of all students, we would give teachers the autonomy to tailor instruction to meet the needs of the children in front of them and to write their own tests.”
Teachers do need to have the power to make decisions within their classrooms, but more importantly, parents need to have the power to influence their children’s education. The change that students imminently need will not come first from the government or even from local educators but with the people who know and love students the best: parents.
Questioning the Paradigm
Dr. Susan Wise Bauer, a former college professor, an author, and a longtime education leader, has written a new book, , to help parents shape and guide their children’s education, regardless of where they go to school. While Bauer thinks that conversations about school reform need to happen, she also believes those changes will likely come too late for any children who are struggling in schools right now. And that’s why her book is so important—it gives parents ideas to help their child today.
Bauer has been a pioneer in education since her childhood. Born in 1968, she graduated from her parents’ homeschool before most people had even heard of homeschooling. Her indispensable guide, , co-authored with her mother and first published in 1999, has made her a leader in the resurgence of classical education. She also has written several popular history books, including the middle-grade history series .
Now in her latest book, Bauer tells readers that “homeschooling is not the only way to push back against the rigidity of the classroom. You can also opt out of the expert plan by working with your child’s teachers, suggesting alternative plans, taking on one or more subjects yourself—or adopting one of the many other strategies in [her] book.”
Going deep inside of the heart of schools, Bauer tells readers to reconsider our current paradigm by questioning accepted ideas like our learning standards based on age and grade, current testing practices, and inflexible curriculum. Bauer believes that even homeschoolers need to see where they buy into a system that doesn’t work for every child. Too often we try to fix a struggling child by “figuring out what’s wrong with the little psyche that’s causing them to feel humiliation, fright, discouragement, boredom, disengagement—rather than questioning the system.”
Bauer begins by saying that our way of educating has become a powerful artificial system, or a “framework that organizes our existence.” Not all artificial systems are bad, but “when an artificial system classifies and segregates people (as opposed to cell phones, say, or sewage) some people will inevitably fit into the system better than others.” Bauer isn’t being negative towards our nation’s schools, but honest and realistic about the limitations of our traditional school setting. This system “prioritizes a single way of understanding over all others, and it pushes out other important things that children under eighteen should be doing (like daydreaming, exercising, drawing, working, and sleeping).”
We all know children who are incredibly smart but for various reasons aren’t successful in school. They may need to move more, have lessons presented in a manner not conducive to a class of 30 children, or are overstimulated by the classroom setting. These children need their schooling to look a little different than the traditional approach, but “the system, even when excellent teachers are laboring within it, defies adaptation.”
She goes on to discuss specific myths about school and education. Lest she shock readers with scandalous ideas, she has the résumé to support what she’s talking about. Bauer earned her bachelor, two masters, and a doctorate degree (and later guided her children) through a non-traditional education path. So when she says your child doesn’t have to go to an accredited school, study particular subjects every year, or have a high school diploma, she means it.
Many children have “mismatches” that make it hard for them to fit into the system. The book also explains how we do children a disservice by expecting them to develop and learn at the same rate. Bauer provides helpful diagnostic questions to consider when your child doesn’t fit into the expectations for her age and also action plans for parents to implement. Some of these mismatches are caused by disabilities, differences or disorders, but not always. Bauer defines these categories and equips parents to help their child navigate the school system with them. She discusses when a child should skip a grade (hint: rarely ever) and why retention shouldn’t be viewed so negatively.
Practical Ideas and Alternatives
The book then shifts from diagnosing issues to working with them. She starts this section by reminding readers that any great ideas you have for your child’s education will be received better when you approach teachers and administrators with grace. Parents “should always start with the premise that the teacher, the administration, and the staff have your child’s best interests in mind and want your child to flourish. Sure, it’s possible that this belief will be dented over time […] but don’t start with suspicion and hostility.”
Bauer’s ideas for treating faculty and staff seem like they should be an understood part of relating to people, but all schools have their share of terrible parents. If you have a reputation for being a pleasant parent, administrators are more likely to believe you when you do face an incompetent or unhelpful teacher. Bauer walks readers through the necessary research for a meeting with teachers and administrators with the strong reminder to act with kindness and humility.
She devotes the rest of this section to practical and immediate ideas to implement to change a child’s education. First, is a discussion about the current behemoth of education: testing. So much of our system is now controlled by testing even though the people it directly affects—teachers, students, and parents—are largely opposed to it. Tests are actually negotiable, and Bauer offers alternative options for you to consider if your children might benefit from a different assessment.
This is information most school systems don’t want to give parents, but Bauer’s treatment of it is very helpful, especially if you have never researched different testing options. Another chapter is devoted to helping parents make decisions about how much homework to allow their children to complete each night and how to handle the consequences that may come from not doing every assignment. Bauer also offers unique ideas for offering a child-specific education like accelerating in just one subject.
closes out with two sections to help parents consider various options to meet your child’s developmental needs and when to think about opting out of traditional schools. These ideas range from alternatives currently practiced (homeschooling or gap years) to almost unheard of (giving a student extra time to complete high school or single-focused schooling). Bauer even says she wishes she had let one of her sons drop out of high school to pursue an apprenticeship. Most families need an option that falls somewhere between traditional school and homeschooling, but Bauer’s suggestions may inspire you to think outside of the box for your child.
Public schools will serve a lot of children well, but it is impossible for a system so big to be able to meet the needs of every child. Even though American parents have the freedom to make many decisions about their children’s education, we tend not to question how school is done. Bauer provides a helpful framework for families to think through how to provide an education that fits our children’s needs. We shouldn’t be afraid to exercise our freedom to provide the best educational experience for our children, even if it isn’t the most conventional path.
Jessica Burke lives in North Carolina with her husband and their four children. A former public school teacher, Jessica has spent the last decade with a vocation of homemaker and classical home educator. The Burkes lived overseas for three years and have been to almost 20 countries together, surviving some adventures they will never speak of to the grandparents.