A friend sent me a link to an article about unschooling–I think he thought I’d applaud the concept, but all it did was make me mad. Not at my friend; he’s a gifted teacher fighting the good fight on a daily basis. No, my anger was directed at the growing gap between the rich and the poor in this country–those who are provided with excellent educational opportunities and those who are consigned to sub-par schools based on the lottery of birth. To put it simply, children can enjoy the freedom and advantages of a self-directed education in a natural environment if they have parents who can 1) afford to stay home or 2) pay someone else to monitor their children or 3) live within a community that will provide a place for their children to explore their interests.

To be “unschooled,” a child must have parents who are motivated and capable of making that happen. When we pull these children out of the public schools, we also remove the motivated parents–the ones who show up on a regular basis and volunteer to provide activities and services that the schools can no longer afford. When I taught in a rural school district in Tennessee, I was advised by several of my peers to pull my girls out of the public schools and place them in a nearby private school. It wasn’t that my salary did not allow for extras like tuition; I knew that if my children were enrolled in the schools where I worked, attention would be paid. I was always motivated to do the best I could for my students, but my focus was on my classroom. However, when my three daughters entered the school system, the stakes were raised. I no longer viewed the primary, elementary, and junior high schools as an employee of the district; I watched what was going on in those schools with the eyes of a mother. It matters.

I’ve kept several books that influenced me as a beginning teacher—I can see them on my bookcase right now, their yellowing, dog-eared pages a testament to their worth. Most were written by Jonathan Kozol and Ken Macrorie – Death at an Early Age and Uptaught spun my head around and changed the way I entered a classroom. I also valued John Holt’s practical books about What do I do Monday and Why Children Fail. But if I had known he coined the word “unschooling” and had pulled his children from the system, I’m not sure I would have brought them home. It’s kind of like the owner of a restaurant who eats elsewhere—just doesn’t speak to confidence and commitment.

I’m still in love with the public schools—there is no more potent symbol of the American Dream than the belief that all children, regardless of the circumstances of their birth, can enter a building where they are guaranteed a safe environment in which to acquire the skills that will open the doors to their dreams.
Think about it: If for just five years, every politician, every teacher, every administrator would entrust their children to the public school system, I believe we could turn this ship around. And while we’re at it, if the members of Congress had to use the same health insurance as the average American, we’d fix that mess, too. Don’t criticize what you don’t understand—these times need a’changing.