Parents & Kids as Fellow-Escapees

March 27, 2017

One of the saddest sights, to me, is to see photos of 20 or 30 kids sitting in a classroom, shut away from real learning, shut away from all meaningful resources, shut away from people who would show them how to do things, shut away from people who would explain things to them, shut away from personal interests, shut away from sunshine and wind and rain and snow and woods and meadows and mountains, shut away from older people and younger people, shut away from communities, shut away from opportunities and possibilities. Maybe some kids are happy that way, but for me it was a burden too heavy to bear, and I know many others who felt the same. I know many kids who feel that way today. 

I found freedom as a child, though it was a risky freedom. I skipped school (three days a week every week one year), hid out in the woods reading books, wandered city streets and hung out in public libraries, sat at café counters hoping the police officer three stools down wouldn’t think I looked as young as I was. I spent cold, rainy and snowy days huddled in an old, abandoned house with a leather pouch full of books, shivering and happy to be free. I learned how to play the system to conceal my truancy (a valuable lesson in itself).

I learned that I could be free. I believed I had a right to be free. I was willing to take risks to be free. Freedom was more important to me than anything. Outrage roiled inside me when I thought about those I knew who wished to deny me my freedom. I walked my own path, breathed air I chose, read what I wanted, thought my own thoughts, recorded my own ideas on topics of my choice.

There are better ways to afford children freedom, I admit. I was often lucky that things went well for me. I had some close calls. I had no choice but to wrestle my freedom from the hands of authority. If I had grown up a generation later, my parents would have felt more freedom themselves and would have been aware of more options. They were fiercely independent folks and chose freer options for my younger siblings. To be sure, children should not have to skulk around like escaped convicts to secure some freedom, though I wouldn’t trade the experience for anything.

Children need their parents in their lives, not as wardens making sure they serve their sentences, but as partners in education and life, even as fellow escapees, for there are many parents who have not experienced freedom themselves.

Freedom is exhilarating, heady stuff. Once you’ve experienced it, nothing else will do, and it’s what you hope for every other human being. Give the gift of freedom to your children — and yourself.

While the Children Wait

September 8, 2016

The annual Phi Delta Kappan poll on American attitudes about education is out for 2016.

The bad news for children attending failing schools is that 84% of Americans think the schools should be kept open and improved.

Haven’t we been trying that for decade upon decade — at the expense of millions of futures, millions of children?

How is it so acceptable to the vast majority of Americans to keep youngsters in hyper-substandard schools while adults battle it out over reforms and the contracts and power attached to them?

It’s time for parents to stop marching outside their kids’ schools with signs and take their kids back. They couldn’t possibly do a worse job of educating them. It’s the one thing that can be done today — literally — to salavage the potential of millions of young lives.

Parents are the answer, should they choose to take ownership of their children.

My Choice

August 16, 2016

Every time I see a group of parents at a school choice rally holding up their signs demanding options, I wonder this: What choices do they want?

What choices would I be thinking about if I were a parent marching with a sign?

Safe schools, of course. Schools that don’t tolerate bullying or disrespect. Schools where teachers view me, not themselves, as the ultimate authority in my child’s life. Schools that reinforce common courtesy and decency.

Obviously, I can’t ask for public schools that teach my religion, but maybe I can ask for ones that at least respect my child’s right to embrace it and openly and respectfully express views in relevant settings.

I personally would like a school that nourishes the spirit with music and the arts in non-controversial ways that respect my child’s innocence. I want my child to have a good chunk of time outdoors each day, breathing in fresh air, exploring, playing, studying nature, learning from the real world.

I want my child to follow his or her own reading interests and see where they take him. I want her to have intelligent and probing conversations with the people I entrust with her education – about the things she’s reading and studying.

I want my child to gain life skills – know his way around a kitchen, a garden, a grocery store, a workshop, the community. I want her to excel in communicating with others, in being both a good and active listener as well as a careful and honest speaker.

I want my child to know how to follow through on an interest – all the way to the end, no matter how long it takes. I want her to learn how to correct a mistake even if it takes 1000 tries. I want him to strive for mastery, not grades.

I’m just warming up, but already I see what the problem is. My choices are not really options in a school funded by the state. What I want can’t be measured in points, by percentages or tests. It can’t be standardized or split up into equal chunks to be learned at even intervals.

When I think of the end result of an education, I envision a human being who is broadly literate, insatiably curious, kind, confident, articulate, observant, wise, generous, savvy but not jaded, honest to a fault, and self-defining.

I don’t think that’s how most schools today view education outcomes. My choice must also be my doing. I may need help at times – but I’ll know what sort of help and seek it out in ways that benefit my child. I know what I must do is be the kind of person I want my child to grow up to be.

I choose freedom and I choose to support others who also want freedom for their children.

102 Words

February 1, 2016

by Tammy Drennan

Thinking about the meaning of education…

Education should, above all things, equip a child to become master of himself. After 12 or 13 years of schooling, what should emerge is a young man or young woman who is a confident decision-maker, adept in the integral skills of literacy, steeped in the history and ideas of humanity, deeply aware of how the natural world works, attuned to and afoot in areas of innate genius, respectful toward others, empathetic, kind, generous, excited by the accomplishments of fellow travelers, not easily led or misled, undaunted in the face of tyranny, hungry to gain further in knowledge and wisdom, humble before eternity.


Letter from School, Parent Responds

January 26, 2016

by Tammy Drennan
Note: This is a fictional exchange that expresses very real issues.

To: Parents
From: A Local Public School Board
Re: School Choice/Vouchers

Dear Parents,

We would like to address the complaints made by a few parents at a local school board meeting. These parents were having trouble understanding why they could not simply receive a voucher and enroll their children in any school of their choice.

On the surface, it may seem like a good idea to give parents a coupon and let them choose what sort of education they would like for their children. Everyone likes the idea of choice, including us. We encourage parental involvement in their children’s education.

But you can see how total freedom of choice, without any oversight or regulation, could become a nightmare.

Many parents are not qualified to make choices for their children due to their own poor level of education, substance abuse issues, emotional or psychological challenges, and other circumstances of life, including poverty. Parents more able to make good choices would be empowered to give their own children an unfair advantage over the children of the less able, creating an even more polarized and imbalanced society than we already have.

Additionally, voucher monies are taxpayer, thus government, funds. The government is not in the habit of dispersing money without careful regulation to make sure it is used in a manner consistent with federal and state laws, including protecting the public from having their money spent to promote private agendas or beliefs or to give one group an unfair advantage over another. Public schools are commissioned with the job of promoting diversity and equal rights and guarding the process of education against aberrant ideologies and personal dogmas. Without oversight and regulation, there is no guarantee that a private school will follow the same guidelines.

Unregulated school choice, funded by taxpayers, is also unfair to those who have trained so long and so hard to teach. Without government oversight, a parent might inadvertently or intentionally choose a school or an individual lacking in the expertise to advance a child’s education – to the child’s and society’s detriment.

A century and a half of work, reform and fine-tuning has gone into creating the publicly-funded school system we enjoy today. It is kept on track and in line with modern thought and education philosophy because of strict oversight and regulation. Do we really wish to throw over 150 years of work to the wind?

We certainly welcome a greater role of parents in our schools. And we’re open to carefully regulated school choice. But we think you can see why we stand firmly against choice that removes authority from government and places it fully in the hands of parents. We stand by our right and responsibility to make sure that all children attend schools that comply with certain interpretations of education and education delivered in equitable, diversity-respecting, measureable ways.

We appreciate all parents who are concerned and involved with their children’s education. We encourage you to volunteer at your children’s schools, help them with their homework, read with them and enrich their lives with cultural activities like visiting museums and travel.

Let us assure you that your children are in good hands, and we will work to make sure any voucher or school choice program remains firmly under our auspices so your children will continue to receive the well-rounded education to which they are accustomed.

Sincerely yours, Your School Board

A Parent Responds

Dear School Board,

Thank you for your enlightening letter that explains how dangerous you consider parents to the well-being of their children.

I would like to share some experiences and a decision I’ve made.

My son, Johnny, has come home three times with bruises inflicted by fellow students since the school year began two months ago. School terrifies him. I took him to the psychologist you recommended, but it hasn’t helped. Not even the anti-depressant the doctor prescribed helped – really, it seemed to make it worse. Further, Johnny is still being harassed at school.

It’s not only the emotional and physical abuse that’s a problem with Johnny. He’s in the fifth grade and is barely reading. You probably noticed, too, that he scored in the 31st percentile in math on the last standardized test.

I know you can’t be concerned with the individual aspirations of every child, but when Johnny was five years old, he wanted to become a doctor. That was his dream until last year. Now he just wants to stay in bed so he can feel safe.

My daughter, Nadine, has been fortunate enough not to have to deal with physical bullying. She’s in middle school, eighth grade. Her biggest problems are the daily inappropriate and humiliating taunts of boys and a lack of opportunity to pursue her strengths in art and languages. She’s bored and under-challenged and losing interest in learning. She used to be such a vibrant girl, full of life and energy. School has sucked all that from her. She won’t even look at her art supplies at home anymore. “They won’t help my grades,” she says.

Forgive me for focusing so much on my own children, but they’re the ones I brought into the world and have a personal interest in. I want to see them happy and independent. If I may be so bold, I do feel I have a deeper interest in their success than you do – I mean their real success, beyond an acceptable score on a generic test.

At any rate, I’m not asking you to address my children’s individual issues – I know you have a lot on your plate. And quite frankly, I hold myself more responsible for this situation than I hold you. I never should have let it get to this point.

Your letter helped me realize that you’re not the people I want in charge of my children’s education and lives. I only wish I’d realized it sooner.

I’m not asking for a voucher for another school that meets your “standards.” My husband and I have decided to exercise our right to take our kids back and provide an education for them ourselves. It won’t be easy, but it will be exciting and worth it.

I wish all parents could know how liberating and hopeful such a choice is! We feel like we have our family and our future back! I’m sorry for the enthusiasm, but when you’re this happy, it’s hard to suppress it. I’ve already arranged for Nadine to apprentice with a local artist in exchange for helping with the lady’s housework, and my husband is setting aside time to teach Johnny anatomy!

Please look more closely at the children still under your care. I’m sure my children are not the only ones who have lost precious time and hope. It’s such a sad situation.

Sincerely, A Parent

Note: This is a fictional exchange that expresses very real issues.

It’s Not Rocket Science

January 16, 2016

by Tammy Drennan

Education is critical for many reasons – creating clear thinkers and confident, self-directed individuals, career success, bettering the world.

But guess what? It’s not rocket science.

Theoretically, it is rocket science. Economically, it is rocket science. Politically, it is rocket science. The many-faceted education industry needs education to be rocket science. If it’s not, they’re doomed.

Well, it’s not. But that’s a fact buried so deep and covered in so much unmentionable stuff, that millions of parents are prevented from taking their kids back by sheer, innocent ignorance.

Before Clara Barton made a name for herself taking care of soldiers during the Civil War, she was a teacher – without any training!! Not only was she a teacher, she started schools. She succeeded where everyone said she couldn’t.

Ms. Barton started a school at a factory. Her students – over 70 of them – ranged from 4-year-olds (no they weren’t working in the factory) to adults. They spoke numerous languages. Many didn’t know how to read. Before long, the town folks were coming weekly to listen to the students’ dramatic readings. Clara was the only teacher.

When Clara moved to New Jersey and discovered, in her daily walks, aimless boys hanging out on the streets, she found a building and secured a few basics, including maps, and invited the young men to come learn. She was told she would fail. She did not – she succeeded fabulously. At first, a few boys trickled in and soon word spread – this lady was talking about things that mattered – the world, government, history, literature, and she listened, too. The impromptu school outgrew its building. Clara was the only teacher.

Benjamin Franklin, with two years of schooling under his belt, was reading Plutarch’s Lives at age nine. Thomas Edison’s mom pulled him out of school after just three months and let him blow things up in the basement. Abraham Lincoln learned on his own, with borrowed books, by candlelight after long days of hard labor – he became a lawyer and then president. Black inventor Granville Woods, owner of 50+ patents, quit school at 10 and had to borrow books from friends, because he wasn’t allowed in the public library. Booker T. Washington taught himself to read as a child. Frederick Douglass taught himself to read and at age 12 was teaching other slaves to read. And whatever you might think of him, Malcolm X copied every word and definition from a dictionary when he was in prison in an effort to improve his vocabulary.

The list could go on and on and on. Patrick Henry, Charles Dickens, Andrew Carnegie, Michael Faraday.

Jack London dropped out of school at the age of 14 and educated himself in public libraries. Louis L’Amour left school at 15 and read his way through the classics while riding with hobos in boxcars, traveling from one itinerant job to another. A list of self-educated women would be long, indeed!

I’d like to clarify one thing. While education is not rocket science, it is hard work. It takes discipline. It takes commitment. In compelling students to learn things in twisted, complicated, testable ways, you rob them of the very skills that promote real education – discipline and commitment. Those two key elements of all successful living are replaced with prizes (good grades) and threats (bad grades), and one of the most wonderful, beautiful things about being human is reduced to a game of cats and mice to see who can profit the most from the wholesale theft of children’s minds and lives.

I could do the usual caveat here: So many dedicated teachers, so many people in the system who mean well. You know the drill and you know there’s an element of truth to it. It’s always nice to acknowledge that there are good people in bad systems. But it doesn’t change the fact that the victims of the system are still victims – and it doesn’t have to be that way.

The situation is far beyond reform of the system, and it’s amazing, truly amazing, that reformers can’t see it. A discussion about creating new options is fodder for another post. For now, every parent who can choose a better way for his or her children should. Every person who can help a parent should. Every person who can encourage a parent should. Every person who can create an alternative should. Every person who can plant the idea of a better way in a parent’s mind should.

Not all solutions have to be huge, earth-shaking, high-profile, well-funded programs. Today is the day to free a child to embrace his or her own education and fly with it.

American School vs Education

September 22, 2015

by Tammy Drennan

I’ve been trying to get my head around the American attitude about education (and I’m American). I sometimes think that we Americans as a whole have no idea what education is. We believe in school, not education.

We say ridiculous things like, “So-and-so started this thriving business in spite of not having a college education… John Doe, a high school drop-out, is now the CEO of Super Place Markets.” We have people in their 60s and 70s taking GEDs — people who have worked, run businesses, raised children, paid taxes, voted. That’s how insane our attitude about education has become, how insecure we’ve become at the hands of the state — so insecure that after a long and happy and successful life, we can feel there’s a missing piece because our intellectual worth was never endorsed by the government.

This is one of many reasons it’s so important to take back education from the bureaucracy and special interests that have literally stolen it from the people.

Every time I write about education and promise myself I’m going to be subdued and mild, I’m fine until I start reflecting on what I see. I start out with the intention of saying all the right things — most teachers are dedicated, most blah, blah, blah…

There are good people in every field, no matter how corrupted the field has become. Many of them are unwitting victims of the system for which they work. Some are missionaries, and I’m not saying they shouldn’t be. But I am saying that it’s so very important for every parent who can to face the truth and make sure their kids really do get an education — because the rest of the world does know what education is and they are increasingly doing it.

I talked to a dad recently whose daughter goes to what is considered a premium, even exclusive public school in my area — one that out-of-district parents pay to send their kids to. He told me the school was in the top 10% academically nationwide. Since I know a lot of kids who go to the school, I thought, “No way.” So I looked up the stats. Only 12% of the schools grads are even considered college-ready.

Our local city council sings the praises of the town’s schools as if they were churning out Harvard scholars, when in fact they are barely churning out factory workers.

The heartbreaking part of all this is that these are smart kids who are being so poorly educated. I tutor very, very smart kids  who are struggling with reading and math for no good reason. They have no trouble catching on when I’m working with them, so I have to wonder what’s going on in the classroom, because I can tell you from firsthand experience (25 years of it), it’s not education.

School is what’s being done to American kids, not education. Education is what people do for themselves and what good teachers and schools empower people to do for themselves. If your kids are memorizing stuff for tests, studying math without understanding what they’re doing, accumulating facts long enough to pass to the next grade — someone is schooling them.

On the other hand, if your kids are using math in their daily, non-school lives, if they’re fascinated by the world around them, if they hunger for understanding, if they seek out unassigned knowledge, they’re getting an education.

American kids are every bit as smart as Japanese and Indian and Chinese and Korean and every other kid in the world. The problem is they’re being schooled while so many others are being educated.

So what to do about it? If you can’t get your kids a full education, you can at least make sure they get enough to empower them to further it once they’re out of the system. Spend time teaching them what you know and have learned in life. Teach them. Explore the world with them. Read to them or with them or to each other. Own your lives — own your world — go places, research things, take them with you when you vote, start a class for them and invite their friends, invite interesting people over for dinner and learn from them, take them to work with you, teach them how to own their minds and their time and their lives. You can do it even if you can’t get them out of the system — you can make school a peripheral aspect of their lives and education a primary focus of their lives.

Will it be easy? Of course not. Is it easy for a poor Indian family to walk their kids miles each day to a private school they’re sacrificing every luxury and many necessities to afford? Is it easy for the African woman teaching a handful of children under a big shade tree every day? Is it easy for the Afghan woman setting up schools in refugee camps to teach English and math?

The sacrifice required of American parents to make sure their kids end up educated instead of schooled is so small we should feel embarrassed to even mention it. We should feel more embarrassed to not be doing it.

You might think many parents have no clue that their kids are not getting an education. I suggested as much at the beginning of this article. But the truth is I’ve talked with many thousands and I think almost all of them have a nagging sense of it. It’s not knowledge or understanding of the situation they need so much as the courage and will to do something about it. They really just need to work up a little righteous indignation and take ownership of their kids’ education. I know it’s not easy for many, but that’s not the point. It’s more not easy for parents in third world countries, and they’re doing it.