When I say I have issues with the American public school system, I speak as someone who went through quite excellent school districts in public schools K-12 growing up (Brevard County in Florida, and Gwinnett County in Georgia). I was in accelerated/gifted programs all the way through, and graduated high school having taken 12 AP classes. (AP classes are one of the two options for accelerated study in high school proper. The other option is the IB program, which tends to only be available in specific schools).
What I’m trying to say here is that I’m saying what I’m saying as someone who has seen and experienced the very best of what public education in America has to offer. You’d think that because of this, I would be a staunch defender of it… however that is not at all the case. I am more critical of the American public school system than most other people I have ever met.
The following sections contain a brief rundown of issues I have with the American public school system. I am not writing this out of any particular animus, but mostly since I’ve been asked by several people why I always seem to favor homeschooling as an educational practice despite going through public schools myself. I want to be able to provide a rigorous explanation to such individuals, and hence this writeup.
As a forewarning, I am fairly confident that I will herein tread on the toes of many stakeholders in public education. However, this exposition is not intended to be a hit-piece on any party or group, and is not written with a spirit of malice to offend. I simply wish to accurately inform parents about the downsides of the American public school system as an option for the education of their children – to present an even-handed critique of the institution.
Another thing that is important to point out: none of this is directed at individuals in any way. I have not seen particularly positive characteristics in many school administrators that I’ve personally observed, but that doesn’t mean that down to a person all school administrators are lazy, incompetent, and ineffective. Of course that is not the case.
I try to avoid dismissing entire classes of people offhandedly, but it is true that I am not a big fan of some particular groups of people (middle managers in school administrations, for example). To all efficient middle managers out there who work hard and have the best interests of students in mind, you have my apologies. My criticisms are not directed at you.
Bullying is poorly controlled
My first big beef relates to a lack of effective controls on bullying and student-on-student harassment and violence. At times, a seeming refusal to treat children as responsible moral agents leads to a lack of true punishment and a perpetuation of awful behavior. It seems to me that bullying is a huge problem in public education (full disclosure: I speak from some degree of personal experience on the receiving end), but as far as I’ve observed, many schools are afraid of getting sued by litigious parents, and this negatively affects their decision-making in this area. When you combine this initial hesitancy to punish bullies with the fact that disciplining children strongly is very much out of cultural fashion, it isn’t exactly mysterious why bullying often seems to go unaddressed in the ways that are actually important.
To be fair to schools, it is a complex and multifactorial problem that often has more to do with the deficient parents and home environments of problem children than the children themselves (i.e., disciplining the children themselves is a waste of time at best – since it won’t in any way solve the root problems – and horribly damaging to the children at worst, as these kids will then be under fire in all environments, with no place of even relative safety). Moreover, it is completely impossible for teachers to constantly have their eyes in all corners of the room to look for bullying while they are also simultaneously trying to effectively teach the material they are responsible for and deal with the very large number of other responsibilities that fall on their shoulders (caring for students, giving advice, grading, etc.).
Nonetheless, valid excuses aside, the fact of the matter is that when it comes to bullying in public schools, as far as I’ve observed, any response that comes (if any comes at all) is too little, and often, sadly, too late. The only surefire way to protect your own children is to make sure that they never encounter the public school environment that may cause such harm.
Pointless educational requirements and failure to teach actually useful things
To hear the thoughts of someone other than myself, have a listen to this song.
If you want a single example that is symptomatic of the wider problem, consider that schools still regularly force children to learn cursive (pointless educational requirement) while simultaneously having a complete lack or seriously deficient program of computer education (actually useful things).
Pointless educational requirements
In my opinion, we are forced to learn a bunch of things that don’t matter in public school (and college, for that matter) in the name of “general education.” As I grew into adulthood, I kept waiting for the things I was told all throughout my education would eventually be important to actually become important. They never did. Let me repeat that: most of my education from 12 years of public school and 4+ years of college is completely useless in normal adult life. In fact, the vast majority of everything I ever learned has turned out to not be important at all, from ancient history to chemistry to calculus. I have now forgotten almost everything I once learned, and that is because I never use it. (“Use it or lose it”).
Mind you, some things are actually essential. I had a couple hardcore English teachers who drastically helped me improve as a writer and communicator. I actually do use basic algebra a lot for this or that calculation. Inasmuch as what was presented to us in high school and college health class was actually science (rather than corporate shilling for the grain lobby, e.g.), I’ve found it to be of at least some practical value. I use knowledge from the statistics class I had in high school to spot bad statistical reasoning all over the place (and believe me, it’s everywhere). Outside of these things though, most everything else that is not related to the practical computer programming classes I use in my job (not abstract theory classes like theory of computation, computer architecture, algorithms, and the like, but actually practical classes like basic object oriented programming and web development) was completely useless, information that I dutifully learned and then subsequently forgot since it was not important.
I would say you could condense the amount of information that is actually useful to me in a practical sense into 2 years of dedicated education, maybe 3. Contrast this with the 12 years of K-12 and then 4+ years of college that I actually went through. That was tens of thousands of hours of my life that are now irretrievably gone, with little real benefit aside from marginally increased discipline and study skills on my part. In my darker moments, this observation really depresses me.
I have been told before that the position I am taking here is too absolutist – that I gain a lot of benefit from general education classes that I am just failing to appreciate. That I’m speaking from a privileged position of having had such an education, and am not being honest about all the ways that such an education has given me a well-rounded intellectual outlook.
I don’t buy it. The internet gives us instant access to general factual information, so why in the world are we ever tested on anything that is rote memorization? In the real world (i.e., how things actually function outside of school), people really do just Google stuff. Nobody bats an eyelash at it. So why do we force children to collectively waste millions of hours of their lives learning things that they will eventually forget and end up just Googling anyway? It makes literally no sense.
So no, I won’t back off my position or apologize for it. I do not use knowledge gained in my high school chemistry class, for example; how does it make me well-rounded if I don’t even remember most things from it? Do you really benefit from having learned to do stoichiometry in 10th grade? Do you even really remember how to do stoichiometry? I don’t.
So what do I advocate for instead? I advocate for introducing high-level overviews of different areas and what practical benefit is derived from them, and then letting children themselves decide what they want to spend time studying, in the manner of Adam Smith’s division of labor. Some people really do need to fully understand chemistry, after all, to make the world go round. The thing I take issue with is making *everyone* waste time learning things that they will not use in the future, having no choice in the matter. It is grossly inefficient as a societal practice. Leave the chemistry to those who want to be chemists.
As I see things, the biggest problem with all this is that education requirements seem to me to be almost entirely divorced from practical reality. I am ignorant of specifics, but I do not think it is an unfair characterization to state that some legislators and administrators sit around and vote on what kids are supposed to know. In so doing, they wield a very high level of power over the lives of youngsters, so let me ask a few questions:
- What are the qualifications of these people?
- What are the checks and balances on their power? Who is looking over their shoulder?
- Are they making decisions according to methodologically-sound, double-blind, peer-reviewed scientific studies done by researchers without conflicts of interest (i.e., the only actually useful basis for making data-driven decisions)? Do they truly have the credentials to understand said research without falling prey to statistical overgeneralization and such methodological perils as confirmation bias?
- Are educational requirements always fully traceable to such a data-driven process, rather than being completely arbitrary?
- Are any people caught intentionally profiting from conflicts of interest swiftly and efficiently prosecuted? For example, as education becomes more and more commercialized, unethical school administrators might make up arbitrary requirements to keep students entrapped and lining their pockets for a longer period of time.
I have my doubts. Many of them. If we give policymakers in this area the benefit of the doubt in their motives (i.e., assume right off the bat that they act entirely out of the desire to educate children in the most effective way possible, rather than out of the desire to accumulate power and wealth, for example), then there is still the issue of their competence and qualifications as an overall group. Well-meaning people can still do lots of damage if you give them power without ensuring that they make decisions in a rigorous way, with checks and balances. In other words, wanting to do the right thing is not sufficient qualification on its own; you must require professional competence as well.
I would personally like to see a lot more transparency in how educational requirements are determined, with people forced to put their professional reputation on the line in determining them, rather than being allowed to hide behind anonymity. I would also like to see measures implemented for challenging such requirements, especially if it is shown that they lack objective scientific rigor and/or practical benefit.
The upshot of all of this: as it seems to me, the only way at present to avoid the existential futility of memorizing and regurgitating vast amounts of useless information to get a meaningless gold star at the end of it all is to avoid the public school system. (And then take great care in what you study in college thereafter).
Failure to teach actually useful things
Off the top of my head, here are some very valuable life skills that are not taught in public schools, since they are there too busy teaching pointless things to cover any of the below topics with the depth they deserve:
- How to most effectively use computers (the basic stuff: how to touch-type rapidly; how to effectively search through files; how to automatically back things up to the cloud to sandbag against catastrophic data loss; how to use browsers, text editors, spreadsheet programs, and email clients; etc.).
- How to most effectively find information on the internet: how to collect sources, vet them, and sift through them. How to perform more advanced internet searches: how to force search engines to do exact matches (with quotes), how to force search engines to do boolean searches, and other things of this sort.
- How to do good science generally, and also how to spot methodological and statistical errors in published scientific research (and especially news reporting about said scientific research).
- Basic task management and organization strategies: how to effectively organize and prioritize work tasks based on sound scientific principles and a nuanced understanding of human cognition.
- Metalearning: learning how to learn. You’d think this would be essential information to teach students, but I never formally learned a single thing about it in public schools.
- How to recognize the signs of mental illness in friends and family, differences between various mental illnesses, and how to best help and support people through their individual struggles.
- What to do if you believe someone you know is suicidal.
- How to find common ground with people of different races, cultural backgrounds, socioeconomic backgrounds, and so forth. How to learn from them while at the same time being comfortable with your own background. (Schools make a token effort here, but not in ways that I personally found to be very effective).
- How to be a good friend.
- How to be a good son/daughter, brother/sister, boyfriend/girlfriend, husband/wife, and father/mother; how to successfully navigate the web of relationships in one’s life.
- How to parent effectively more generally.
- Basic, life-saving first aid.
- Detailed, specific knowledge of nutrition, exercise, and health (as in information relating to the importance of getting enough sleep, avoiding prolonged elevated stress levels, and so on). To be fair to public education, I did take a health class where some information on these topics was presented. However, it was just a single class (i.e., only spanned a few months over the course of 12 years of education), and we went over a very large amount of information at almost no depth. More to the point, we were not taught at all how to sift through the massive amount of misinformation in all these areas.
- How to get a job.
- How credit scores work.
- How to get an apartment.
- How to buy a car.
- How to buy a house.
- How to set up car insurance, homeowner’s insurance, life insurance, and so on.
- How to pay taxes.
- How to responsibly budget and plan financially. How to put money in retirement accounts, how to invest it in stocks to expand your personal wealth (while also helping the economy grow and expand), how to make tax-exempt charitable contributions, etc.
I could go on. The main point I would wish to make is that all of this stuff is super useful, but never taught in public schools, or at least never taught particularly effectively or emphasized as it should be.
If you would rather your child learn useful things like the above instead of pointless things that they are bound to never actually use, then some alternative to public schools is necessary for their education.
If you were to force me to rank my issues with public schools in terms of priority and importance, I would have to put this issue at the very top of the list. The fact that public schools teach an enormous quantity of useless information while failing to teach on most things that are actually practically important is the single strongest argument against public education that one can make, in my opinion.
The plague of standardized testing
Even worse than pointless educational requirements is the ever-proliferating cancer of standardized tests in public schools. Don’t get me wrong: testing is absolutely crucial for effective learning. Management processes have management controls (metrics that measure business performance and drive decision-making thereafter), and education has tests. Tests are good – they provide feedback about how well you are learning things, and make clear areas upon which you need to focus more time and energy in study.
The problem is that standardized tests fundamentally fail at providing good feedback, because they don’t generally measure what students are actually presently learning (unlike the tests given in a specific class – at least if said class tests are created properly), and more importantly, students never receive any feedback, such as what they did wrong. This makes them existentially pointless; standardized testing fails at testing’s primary educational purpose. Additionally:
- Constant standardized testing stresses students out unnecessarily.
- Constant standardized testing wastes a bunch of time for all parties involved (students, teachers, those who have to grade the things, those who have to make the things).
- Constant standardized testing incentivizes teachers to teach to the tests, which is the exact sort of educational pattern that stifles the joy of learning that is actually the key to effective education. This is perhaps the most important consideration of all. Teaching to the test – now rampant in public education, as far as I’ve observed – is a massive problem, in my opinion. We want to disincentivize this practice as much as possible, not incentivize it.
There are additional problems as well. Here are some of my other primary concerns regarding standardized testing:
- Testing students by age or grade level makes no sense because different students that are the same age may be vastly different in their progress. For example, some people take (single-variable) calculus in their junior year of high school, having already completed algebra I, geometry, algebra II, and pre-calculus (trigonometry). Some other people in remedial classes are still on algebra I in their junior year. How can a single test possibly make sense for these two sets of people at the same time?
- Standardized testing judges students that come from vastly different backgrounds on the same scale, and is thus fundamentally flawed. Students coming from affluent families, whose parents have themselves achieved high levels of education, statistically have a massive performance advantage… that has nothing to do with their personal effort level or the effectiveness of the teaching they receive. A student from a much more difficult background might score 15% worse on a test, but be much more impressive overall, given what they have to deal with. Standardized testing in no way captures these considerations, which must be taken into account in evaluating academic performance and teaching effectiveness for metrics relating these things to have any sort of comparative power.
- Standardized testing is now being used to drive decisions about where education dollars go. Putting aside for a moment that standardized tests are inherently not very accurate in determining actual teaching effectiveness (as above), the issue with this policy is that it starts forcing teachers to split their attention and concern. In my opinion, we should set things up such that the one and only thing teachers need to be concerned with is the effective education of their students.
In all the years of public school I went through K-12, I faced days upon days upon days of standardized tests. I do not feel like these things provided a single bit of value to my education, but they wasted a lot of my time, and made me actively dislike school.
I could digress further, but suffice it to say that the only way to avoid having your child go through the endless waves of pointless standardized testing that now plague our public school system is to avoid the public school system altogether.
Students that are less advanced or more advanced than average are not handled well
Students that struggle are inevitably not helped as they ought to be
While educators may try their absolute hardest to ensure that struggling students get the attention that they need, the truth of the matter, by my observation, is that struggling students often have a hard time keeping up with the one-size-fits-all pace that large-group instruction necessarily mandates, and commonly slip through the cracks.
While it is perhaps an unfair overgeneralization, it has seemed to me like many schools are more concerned with getting struggling students in the passing range than actually solving the underlying problems that are causing them to fail. That is to say, when that test score comes back a 65, the focus is put on getting it up to 70 (and then moving on) rather than asking why it is so low to begin with.
In large part, learning is a cumulative process. This means that if a student has holes in their knowledge from grade school, those holes will eat into their ability to understand anything being done in middle school and high school thereafter. (This is probably especially the case for math). The proper approach for dealing with struggling students then, in my opinion, is going back as far as is necessary to get them learning the material to 100%, and then building up from that. Anything less than that is just plastering over the cracks.
Online learning resources like Khan Academy help immensely in this process, as students can go back and watch the videos as many times as they need to until things stick. (Teaching the same thing 5 times in a row in public school classes is not workable as general practice, even though this is what may be necessary to best help struggling students). These students can also do this in their room behind a closed door, eliminating some of the shame that people seem to have in revisiting very basic things as an adult, for example. If you need to start from module 1 out of 100, then you need to start from module 1 out of 100 – there’s nothing to be done about it.
The problem with all this is that this approach is very time-intensive, and must be individualized. In other words, it is done exactly never in public schools, because it is not feasible in that environment. To put things more plainly: because public schools cannot have students go all the way back to square one and work their way back up properly thereafter, public schools are ill-equipped to solve the root cause of students’ poor academic performance, instead only treating the symptoms.
Now, trying to have students push on forward regardless (without solving the previous holes in their knowledge), aside from being ineffective (as above), also does great harm to students’ self-esteem. Many struggling students are trying harder than their peers that are not struggling, but end up performing worse anyway. They are then made to feel like there is something wrong with them, when in reality, it is the system that has failed them. By way of contrast, when students work their way up from a complete base of knowledge with no holes (no matter how low that base starts from), they won’t be forced to put on a fake smile and nod while internally not understanding a thing. Instead, they will be getting up towards that 100% mark on their assessments, and come to see how everything fits together and builds on itself.
When students start consistently succeeding in the tasks you put before them, something very magical happens: they start enjoying learning again, and then everything feeds off itself in a positive self-reinforcing cycle. Most struggling students absolutely hate school (I mean, why wouldn’t they? They try hard and then get kicked in the face despite their high effort), but that negative attitude can change once you start giving them tasks that are actually fair to them.
More than anything else, it will be this change in attitude that will sustainably solve a struggling student’s academic problems. As soon as you can get them to once again accept that their effort level and performance are linked 1:1 (rather than them trying very hard but still failing), you can expect people’s learning to positively take off.
Students with learning disabilities present even more challenges to handle properly
To their credit, public schools do have centers for people with learning disabilities. I have not had any personal interaction with these centers, but as far as I know, they are usually filled with people that genuinely want to help, and resources that are actually useful.
However, to my understanding, such places are chronically woefully underfunded and understaffed, and because they bring no glory to schools (in the administrators’ opinion, at any rate), they tend to get skipped over when new funding comes in. (Despite, of course, being much more important than most other things to spend money on).
In practice then, despite the tireless work of these center’s workers, students with disabilities can still end up not truly receiving the care they need. (Exceptions do exist, I’m sure).
There is also the problem that schools lump all people with disabilities together, as if they were all the same. This is simply not the case. Dyslexia and Down Syndrome may both impact a student’s learning, for example, but the two things are best handled in completely different ways.
Students that excel are inevitably held back from their full potential
Thus far I have focused only on how public schools can end up suboptimally addressing the needs of struggling students and students with learning learning disabilities, but unfortunately, public schools also tend not to be optimal for very advanced students either.
Put bluntly, students that excel are held back by a system that tries to treat all people the same when some are in reality capable of moving ahead at a far more rapid pace.
It is an unpleasant fact of life that some children are greatly held back by circumstances out of their control. No matter how you might try to create educational programs to help such disadvantaged students, you cannot completely erase the differences in capability from within the school environment alone, for the primary problems lie not there, but at home or within the communities of these disadvantaged students.
For various reasons (many of which are laudable, to be fair), there has been a push to make sure “no child gets left behind.” Unfortunately, this instead regularly plays out in practice as making sure that “no child gets too far ahead.”
Many other countries have abandoned this pointless façade of faux-equality and track children according to their abilities from an early age. Unfortunately, a seemingly-impartial strict meritocracy like this can in practice lead to cyclical poverty and cyclical wealth (one’s lot in life being largely predetermined by one’s socioeconomic status). It is not without its own pitfalls, in other words.
Again, regardless of what is actually right and wrong in terms of policy for the public school system (cf. the handling of bullying above), the fact of the matter is that if your child is high achieving (and particularly if they are exceptionally so), they will be quite stifled in the American public school system.
If your child is presently struggling with their studies, if they have a learning disability of some form, or if they are highly advanced for their age, as far as I see things, public schools may not be a good option for their education.
On the other hand, public education does mostly work OK for millions of people, so we do have to give it credit where it is due.
Overt indoctrination is an ever-increasing problem in public schools
In my observation, in recent decades (and especially quite recently), the indoctrination that has always been a part of the public school system has gotten noticeably worse, and much more brazen. Rather than keeping the focus on objective knowledge and objective knowledge alone (how education should be, in my opinion), other things have crept in as well.
You cannot separate public education from social indoctrination; the two go hand-in-glove. Much of the time, the relationship is rather benign. American students are taught that America is great, and Russian students are taught that Russia is great, for example. (Any student of history should hopefully be able to recognize that both countries in fact had and have their good points and bad points both).
However, certain demographics hold disproportionate sway in public education, and some of these people, knowing that their extreme political and social positions will never make it through an actual legislative or judicial process, instead try to sway the hearts and minds of the next generation, abusing their positions as educators in order to shove their views down the throats of defenseless children who don’t know any better than to believe them innocently. I suppose if you can’t defeat your opponents fair and square in the political or cultural arena, you may as well turn their children against them before said children are capable of guarding their own minds against external manipulation.
We are talking about a very small subset of educators that engage in this sort of behavior. Please don’t get the wrong idea and throw them all under the bus.
Regardless of one’s political persuasion, hopefully everyone can agree that overt manipulation of defenseless children’s minds is morally abhorrent. This is true if what is being forcefully shoved down their throats is fundamentalist Christianity, if it is globalism, if it is socialist reforms to Medicare, or anything else. How about instead of indoctrinating children we instead present different positions in an unbiased way and let them choose for themselves?
Perhaps eventually reforms will come to keep education focused on objective knowledge alone, but in the meantime, if you in any way disagree with what is being pushed in public schools (and there are definitely things that are being pushed – whether or not you agree or disagree with the positions in question, this is an indisputable fact, in my opinion), you probably will not want to send your children through public schools and thereby expose them to the overt indoctrination.
To be clear, the right answer is not keeping your child at home and indoctrinating them in your own views that oppose those hammered into children in the public school system. The right answer is instead not indoctrinating your children at all. Letting your children develop their own views naturally (i.e., without overt compulsion) is what all parents should strive for, in my opinion.
Teachers in public schools cannot provide a large amount of individual attention
In comparing scholastic effectiveness, you may hear the term “student-teacher ratio” bandied about. In fact, there is plenty of scientific evidence supporting the fact that students learn better in smaller-group environments, particularly those that foster discussion rather than passive listening. This is not something that is scientifically up for debate; it was settled long ago.
Here’s another fact: American public education is expensive – not just a little expensive, but outrageously so. While explaining the reasons for this is a bit out of scope, suffice it to say that in recent years, struggling state budgets have pressured schools to cut costs to a truly frightening degree. It seems that a common solution to this budget problem is to try and squeeze a few more desks into already-crowded classrooms. After all, if Mrs. Jones can successfully teach 20 students, what’s stopping her from teaching 30? She said she likes students, after all. (Shoutout to all the Mrs. Jones’s out there — we feel your pain).
Once students become nothing more than numbered products, the game of education is lost. Unfortunately, public schools have been there for some time now, and it doesn’t look like this is going to change any time soon. In line with all the other points already made, if you wish to avoid this state of affairs for your child, you must look somewhere other than public schools.
Teachers, even the very best of them, cannot and will not value your child as you do
The vast majority of teachers I have ever met truly love and care for their students. The problem is, it’s still just a job for them. One batch of students graduates, only to be replaced by the next batch a year later. The upshot of this is that teachers can’t get too attached. It’s not just a numbers thing, as above (although rising class sizes certainly do greatly militate against effective teacher-student bonding) – it’s a self-defense mechanism. A teacher’s job is to pour themself out for their students, only to never see them again. If that’s not a noble profession (with overtones of tragic selflessness), I don’t know what is.
The problem is, if they get too close, that parting hurts even more. Of course, not all students completely lose touch, but it’s still not the same after they graduate and move on. Inevitably, kids grow up, and suddenly have their own lives and families and responsibilities. Distance is basically inevitable.
Honestly, I’ve always felt bad for teachers. It must be very depressing to see the products of all your hard work and labor leave to never return. At least parents get to see the fruits of all their hard work in parenting for the rest of their lives (if their grown children stay in contact with them, at any rate).
On top of all this, any appearance of favoritism is completely unacceptable in schools. Even if a teacher would wish to go the extra mile for your child specifically, they will be prevented from doing so because then the righteously-indignant mother of some other child will come in and demand to know why only your child gets extra attention. (To be clear, while there are some parents out there who act quite unreasonably, this righteously-indignant mother here has a perfectly justified point). Teachers’ hands are completely tied in this matter.
I bring all this up because it is an indisputable fact that even the best teachers can and will only go so far for your child. A good parent would willingly lay down their life for their child, and that is dedication that teachers simply cannot match. Since it is incontrovertible that this sort of attention is what is best for your child, and your child simply cannot receive such attention in the public school system…
Teachers, even the very best of them, will not know your child as you do, and cannot structure their curriculum around your child in particular
This is easy to understand. In public schools that have full school years, a teacher might have August through May (or thereabouts) to get to know your child. In public schools that have semesters, halve that time. In public schools that have quarters, halve that again. By way of contrast, you know everything about your child, and have been able to observe them for years.
There is great benefit in having teaching plans tailored specifically to individuals, catering to their personal interest and goals. The mechanism here is quite simple: people effortlessly learn those things that they are very interested in. Effortlessly. But you have to know someone quite well to be able to tailor curriculum effectively for them… which is why everything I pointed out just above is important.
Further, manipulation of curriculum is something that can only be done to a very limited degree in public schools. STEM-focused high schools are about as close to a truly tailored curriculum as I’ve seen in public high schools, and that’s not very individualized, in my opinion. It’s certainly nothing like the customized courses of study that I think maximize children’s learning effectiveness.
All of this reasoning militates against looking to public schools for the education of your child.
Public schools cannot guarantee the quality of your child’s education, or even their safety, because some adults are bad, and these bad adults are not always held to account
I’ve said mostly only good things about teachers, and I will stand by that practice. Most teachers are excellent people, and worthy of praise.
Some, however, are not. I have heard of and even personally observed some rather horrific behavior on the part of teachers. Even laziness and incompetence have rather dire consequences when the outcome affected by these things is the education of the next generation.
It gets worse, however. Some teachers are emotionally abusive. Much in the same way that some bullies end up becoming police officers because it gives them power, so too do some bullies become teachers. Students have almost no recourse in these situations.
It doesn’t help that children actually sacrifice most of their basic human rights the second they step into a school building. For example, immunity from unreasonable search and seizure is not a thing on the grounds of public schools. Innocent until proven guilty oftentimes also goes out the window. And let’s not even bring up such normal legal concepts as self-defense and proportional force. If your son protects a girl in his class from a bully by punching back when confronted with a serious physical threat, he’ll probably receive almost as harsh a sentence as the bully.
We haven’t even scratched the surface of the nightmare-inducing worst-case scenarios. It would be nice to say that there have been close to zero documented cases of sexual misconduct by teachers or administrators in public schools. Unfortunately, that is not the case.
In cases of serious abuse and sexual assault, there is a disturbingly consistent pattern of threats and blackmail on the part of perpetrators, who commonly abuse their authority over the lives of their victims. Such individuals also typically target young women who are more vulnerable. The combination of these factors makes schools an attractive hunting ground for such predators. To put things more bluntly, if a teacher is raping a young woman but in complete control of her grades and school life in general, it can be far more challenging than perhaps immediately apparent for such a victim to blow the whistle and get help.
To step back for a moment, I am not saying that your child will necessarily get sexually assaulted if you send them to public school – far from it. The probability of this occurring is still very low. The thing that is concerning is that it is still a possibility. What would keep me up at night, personally, is knowing that it would be completely out of my hands – that there would be no airtight way for me personally to guarantee that my daughter would never go through some hellish experience at the hands of a bad apple that the system somehow missed. I could do my best to pick good schools with good teachers, sure, but I wouldn’t be able to influence teacher choice for my child by and large, nor personally vet their teachers.
Now, I might feel better about all this if there was a clear history of problematic individuals (all the way from lazy and incompetent individuals to straight up sexual predators) being dealt with swiftly and effectively. Unfortunately, my personal observation has not led me to believe that public schools always do well in this regard – and I don’t think this is just me being negative and cynical. In some circumstances, it seems like teachers’ unions and antiquated concepts of seniority (“Well, he’s been here for such a long time, he deserves to have to work less hard now…”) can make it difficult to fire lazy and incompetent teachers. And when it comes to serious allegations, my observation has been that there has been a pattern of some schools pursuing a hush-hush approach (and even victim-blaming) to avoid a serious public relations black eye, rather than truly working to see justice served.
These are some rather weighty accusations I am throwing around. I would wish to emphasize again that all teachers and schools should not be thrown under the bus due to the despicable behavior of a small few.
Nonetheless, in public schools, covering up gross incompetence and horrible injustice does sometimes happen – all on the taxpayer’s dime – and this is absolutely inexcusable.
Even if the probability of your child having no negative experiences is 99.99%, that 0.01% chance is something that you will never be able to eliminate if you send your child through the public school system, because it is outside of your personal control.
Most of your child’s peers in public school will not be a good influence on them, at least in a relative sense, and you will not be able to control who your child associates with
You may have heard the saying “You are the average of the five people you spend the most time with.” While one might quibble about specifics, the general idea holds. In the development of your child, their peers play an enormous role.
Now, there is not anything particularly bad about children in public schools, as if they are all terrible and some other group of children is 100% excellent and praiseworthy down to a person; in any group, some will be good, and some will not. No, this is not the negative factor in play here. Rather, the big thing that public schools take out of your hands is the ability for you as the parent to control who your child is exposed to and spends time with.
In my opinion, you should be extremely choosy in who you let your child spend time with. If you are taking great pains to cultivate your child to the best of your ability, the sad truth is that most other parents are not doing the same. Through no fault of their own, consequently, most other children will not be ideal peers for your child.
I almost cannot state the importance of this consideration enough. Many people will be thinking right about now “Uh, oh – moralizing Christian homeschoolers getting on their soapbox,” but a good bit of my reasoning in all this has little to do with preventing negative moral influence. That is some of it, to be sure, but a great part of all this has to do with cultivating attitudes of hard work and intellectual curiosity as well. Because only a small number of individuals – adults and children alike – have these sorts of characteristics you might wish to instill in your child (or at least have them to the degree you might be setting as your lower bound), it is in fact completely necessary to exercise a high degree of choosiness in this area.
This is not just something that only affects young children, by the way. I very much wish I had been more selective in my friends growing up and even in high school, as I had no idea what I was missing until I made close ties with a few individuals in college. I can call these people with months passing in the interim, and we’ll pick up as if no time has passed at all, talking in great detail about everything from science and philosophy to politics and religion – all at a speed and depth that far surpasses the kinds of conversations I can have with most people. They inspire me and drive me to do better, and I do the same for them.
It is crucial for the social development of children to have connections and relationships of some form; what I am advocating for is not the isolation of your child in the misguided pursuit of keeping all bad influences away. Overly sheltering children doesn’t work. (Just ask children who grew up sheltered to a problematically high degree – they’ll tell you just how that actually works out in practice). No, quite to the contrary, I am advocating that you find for your child peers worthy of them.
I would suggest not thinking of peers with blinders on. Most of my close relationships today (at age 24 at time of writing) are with people who are 5 to 10 years (or more) older than me… and this was always true. The people I got along best with even as a child were always people who were older than me.
Age is somewhat irrelevant, to be honest. I am a large advocate for treating children as intellectual adults as soon as their brains can keep up (not shoving adult responsibility upon them, but instead explaining the beauty and elegance of the universe as it actually is – with science and reason – rather than dumbing it down and disrespecting their capacity to understand).
In my opinion, this means that you should be more fixated on the moral and intellectual character of people your child might spend time with than their age. If your child ends up being friends with mostly only adults and old people, pace what some people seem to think, I think they will be better off (and by a large margin), not the opposite. Despite commonly hearing the statement “Children need friends their own age, otherwise they’ll end up socially crippled!” spoken directly (or implied, at the very least), I’ve never come across any good science supporting anything even remotely like this.
Actually, regarding this idea, consider for a moment how insane it is to say that children should only or mostly form social relationships with people their exact age. While shared age can give people something in common to bond over, it seems to me like it actually makes it harder for people to develop the ability to look at things from different perspectives. Would you ever argue that your child should only make friends with people who are of the same race and cultural background as themselves? I would certainly hope not. In the same way, letting your children make friends with people of all ages can help them develop an increased capacity for empathy and social awareness.
Anyway… note that at the same time as all of this, there is such a thing as “too much intellectualism too fast makes a child smart but existentially troubled.” In other words, it is crucial to let children be children – playing and carefree. You can play and be carefree as an adult too – that’s one of the great perks of spending time with kids!
In any case, because sending your child to public schools will essentially guarantee that at least some of the primary influences on them will be completely out of your control, if the idea of that bothers you, public schools are not a workable option for the education of your child.
There you have it, Steven’s issues with the American public school system. These reasons together are why despite being a product of American public schools myself, I am not overly enamored with them. (Please do note that private schools suffer from the vast majority of these problems too, almost just as bad. Homeschooling – with your child’s education under your direct control – is the only real way to get around most of them).
I will once again be quick to note that most all these things have almost nothing to do with teachers. With only a few exceptions, my teachers were great all the way through. They are one strong redeeming quality of American public schools. Thanks teachers!
Finally, let me be very clear that my purpose in writing this is not to guilt trip anyone who sends their kids to public schools (after all, my parents sent me to public schools, and I respect the judgement of my parents a lot!). Different people have different priorities and life circumstances – who am I to dictate to others categorically? Rather, I hope that in reading this, people will have a more accurate and complete picture of American public schools so that if they do decide to send their children through them, they will be doing so with both eyes wide open, fully aware of the less favorable side of the equation as well. In this way, I hope that parents will be empowered to make more informed decisions.