Four Hyperactive Parenting Trends and the Fight of the Shrinking Middle Class

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More and more parents of at-least-modest means are taking their children’s education into their own hands. Without further ado, four trends:

1. Homeschooling (a.k.a. “DIY Education”)

In Why Urban, Educated Parents Are Turning to DIY Education (Newsweek/Daily Beast, January 30, 2012), education writer Linda Perlstein interviews homeschooling moms – only moms – who answer the “why” of the article’s title in highly personal ways. None talks about finances. Linda (I know Linda, or I’d call her Perlstein) mentions that some homeschooling parents work full-time or take on part-time gigs. But I have a hunch you’ve got to have a pretty conventional family dynamic – married, with male parent winning the bread – to pull this off. Maybe I’m wrong. But someone needs to pay for health insurance, cover the mortgage and clothes and food, maybe make a car payment and put some money away for college.

What about household finances? Securing high-quality childcare and school options, especially if a couple has more than one child, often costs more than a second income could bring in. That has to be a factor – at least one among the many others – in a middle class family’s decision to homeschool. Now, I know there are stay-at-home dads. But why is it so often the moms who are staying home? Could the choice be more forced – not only by finance, but also by persistent gender discrimination in the workplace – than we’d like to think? The labor market still favors men. So it would make sense to wonder whether homeschooling moms are giving anything up by becoming their children’s educators. Professors Cynthia S. Levine and Nicole Stephens at the Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern have been looking into it. They published an article this summer called “Opting Out or Denying Discrimination? How the Framework of Free Choice in American Society Influences Perceptions of Gender Inequality.” (Read the press release.)

2. Co-operative and Community Supported Education

Did you catch mom Soni Sangha’s The Pre-K Underground (New York Times, December 16, 2011) on illegal parent co-ops in New York City? This is what it looks like when middle class parents are forced to get creative because the public schools can’t offer them what they need and private school tuition is impossibly out of reach.

I would also lump into this category of “trend” community-supported education. In “Can a Community Support Education?” (Cooperative Catalyst, January 29, 2012), Donna Mikkelsen introduces a private, community-based school called The Garden Road School, which she founded. The school’s story sounds very much like that of a private school in Baltimore called The Greenmount School, and I’m sure there are others like it in cities across the country. These schools are started by parents and represent an affordable independent school option for parents who want an alternative to both the high-anxiety world of upper-crust prep schools – with the endless homework and drive to perform – and the welfare-state interventions of soul-crushing testing dished up by the public schools.

3. Neighborhood School Renaissances

Jacqueline Edelberg and Susan Kurland’s How to Walk to School: A Blueprint for a Neighborhood School Renaissance (Rowman and Littlefield Education, 2009) is an account of the transformation of a public school in Chicago called Nettlehorst. The book includes a foreword by Arne Duncan and a short essay by Rahm Emanuel. It’s a story of what can happen when the grit of mostly not-full-time-employed urban gentry moms meets the unstoppable force of a principal extremely open to change.

I credit Edelberg’s book talk of January 19, 2011 at the Enoch Pratt Library with reigniting my passion for working with my neighborhood public school. A number of parent groups in Baltimore are hopping on this train. I think it’s fantastic and – like all the other tactics listed here – fraught with complexity. Freelance writer Amy Landsman interviewed me and several other parents for “School Choice: Options for City Parents” (Baltimore’s Child, October 2011) at the request of the editors there, one of whom is my neighbor. The article also features Judy Chung O’Brien, president of the Downtown Baltimore Family Alliance and a mom at a traditional public school called Federal Hill Prep. Parents are organizing themselves around schools in Charles Village, Hampden, Bolton Hill. Speaking for myself, if I didn’t feel some serious financial pressure to make my neighborhood public school work for my family this blog wouldn’t exist and I wouldn’t have founded a parent group. It’s more complicated than that, sure. But why not admit money is a driver? A savvy District could do great things for schools now that the housing market downturn will force middle class families with young children to stay in Baltimore City.

4. Parent-Spawned Charter Schools

It’s impossible to talk about charter schools in Baltimore without talking about Bobbi Macdonald and City Neighbors. (In fact, the day after I wrote this sentence, yet another post came out singing its praises.) City Neighbors Public Charter School, which now has two campuses and a high school, has become a shining utopia in what is otherwise painted as an apocalyptic public school landscape. It’s worth remembering that what spawned its founding wasn’t just love but money, or lack of it. The City Paper piece reported by Anna Ditkoff (Late StartBaltimore City Paper, May 12, 2004) starts where the school did, with Macdonald’s wish to find a great school for her eldest daughter. When she couldn’t find one that she loved – and could afford – she started her own, with public funds and pro bono legal services from DLA Piper.

City Neighbors is not the only parent-founded charter school in Baltimore. As far as I know, Patterson Park Charter School, Southwest Baltimore Charter School, Montessori Public Charter School, and Roots & Branches have similar stories, as does the charter-school-in-progress Creative City. The Green School was founded by teachers and a strong cohort of parents. Midtown Academy predates the charter law but is now a charter school, and it includes many parents on its board. I have met parents from every one of these schools. I know some of them very well. We all agree that the charter school model is not an unqualified good – just like every other approach on this list. Though I think the charter school trend represents a social and political menace that none of the others do. (Read this blog.)

What’s It All Mean?

These “trends” – or maybe it would be better to call them “tactics” –  are each a kind of reaction to anxiety among parents who aren’t poor enough to benefit from social services nor rich enough to sniff at the cost of child care and excellent schools. We are the monkeys in the middle. We are often outsiders, new to the communities in which we live, wary of membership in the traditional institutions that used to offer middle class families support. For those of us doing well, affordable childcare and free public schooling add immeasurably to our quality of life. For those not doing as well as our parents did, the anxiety of our kids’ slipping further downward in the class ranks is too much to bear. So we are taking up arms – some alone, some together. We are not going down without a fight.

If I didn’t have a full-time job – a job I truly love, but also very much need – I would write a book.

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13 Comments to “Four Hyperactive Parenting Trends and the Fight of the Shrinking Middle Class”

  1. Reblogged this on Shereese's Blog and commented:
    Great post

  2. We homeschool (mostly) our four children and live in the tri-state area. The oldest with HFA (very high-functioning autism) attends school part-time; after many tries to get school to work for him, I simply asked the school if we could acknowledge the fact that some stuff was beneficial to him and other courses couldn’t be tweaked enough to make it worthwhile. Could we send him for the stuff that made sense? They agreed, and it has been wonderful and allowed him great success within boundaries that are manageable.

    The other three were in a super small school (less than 110 students in Grades K-8), and I’ll tell you, small class size works only when educators know what to do with it. Add to that the fact that the school implemented a one-to-one laptop program while, at the same time, throwing around phrases such as “21st century skills” and “global learning.” Kids suddenly were creating PowerPoint presentations for every little thing and spending hours on Study Island in the name of “progressive education.”

    During lunch and recess, kids retreated in areas in classrooms in front of laptops to facebook and play video games.

    I began noticing (I am an educator/consultant and had been doing some writing work with kids at this particular school) that kids had little time alone working through any problem or issue: school was fast becoming near constant ” turn and talk” partner work, group “collaboration”, and all around integration of technology even if the task or learning didn’t call for it. Any sustained writing kids did was set up in a testing situation; there seemed to be little stamina and purpose for it otherwise.

    I have never been much for all-or-nothing school; that said, before we made our decision, I followed four separate kids around for a full day (in separate grades and different nearby schools) to get a feel for how learning was supposed to be happening.

    In one school, math teachers and the curriculum expert were so divided over whether math facts should be memorized or built into concepts, kids had all kinds of spotty knowledge and nothing consistent they could do with it. Teachers didn’t seem to know what they were allowed to teach. And although math was supposed to be hands-on and useful in everyday activities, the noise level in the classrooms I saw was near deafening and not what I would describe as productive-noise. The kids had clipboards and funky pens to do their graphing but on closer inspection, no one seemed to know what they were learning.

    In another, students in 8th grade couldn’t break a sentence into subject and verb because that was considered “kill and drill” work; they were promoting authentic real-life writing using various texts yet the teacher kept encouraging kids to use “strong verbs”. It sounded okay-ish until you realized they couldn’t find the original verbs to replace them with stronger ones.

    Suddenly the picture of “meaningful learning” was somehow having to do with kids that were always happily engaged and even better if engaged with a device. Deliberate practice of a skill or concept was grouped with other “bad” words such as traditional, rote, kill and drill, repeated practice, tired curriculum. If kids were unhappy (and sometimes learning can be a struggle, no?), the teacher wasn’t engaging or didn’t know how to connect with kids.

    One curriculum expert told me his school was not about having teachers be “sages on the stage”; they were about teachers as coaches, there to guide students in their individual and “inquiry-based” paths to learning. The term differentiation was used heavily during each visit. What I saw as I made my rounds were celebrity teachers, entertaining kids at every turn; it seemed like a big popularity contest and quite honestly, exhausting to watch. English classes had teachers talking about “issues” but they served as provocateurs, and students gave knee-jerk opinions of the moment that seemed rooted in nothing. If they referred to a text or article, it wasn’t specific, and it didn’t seem to need to be.

    So, I work very part-time as a consultant, and my husband works full-time with a day that starts around noon. We both take responsibility for our children’s education. They participate in rec sports and some extracurricular school activities; we would love to have them attend school for an art class or something but until schools can think outside the box about the opportunities home-schooled kids represent (we are not interested in a school measuring our child’s achievement, goal-setting or standardized testing), we have to present to and obtain Board approval for each activity in which they participate.

    We spend a lot less time schooling than you’d think; once our structures were in place, it became easy almost. The decision has been a wonderful one.

  3. Of the four “trends” featured in this post, I’ve tried three, and the worst choice we made was a charter. Having a professional Public Relations campaign, secret and not-so-secret supporters at North Avenue, and the ability to lie (cooking test scores or “waiting list” numbers) without flinching does not a “great school” make. New carpet squares don’t impress me either, or giving things a Fretalian name – “it’s not the room where we keep the crayons, it’s an ATALIER!” Too bad more people don’t see through the carefully projected (and protected) image – that charters are not at heart the spawn of hedge funds and speculators, essentially using our kids as human shields. Even the great Diane Ravitch was fooled for a while, but they can’t fool all the people all the time. Check out her great new site at http://www.standillinois.org.
    Thanks again!

  4. Interesting comment on my comment, Edit! I had never run across that meme–of public education as an aspect of the welfare “system.” (Or what my sociologist friends have taught me to call “the management of poverty”: megabusiness in this country.) A very sad indicator that the late Tony Judt was spot on the money when he noted that Americans have drunk the hyperindividualistic Kool-Aid that the marketers push relentlessly (“You have a CHOICE!” is the code word) and lost all sense of community and social cooperation toward a common goal. Of course if you look at the array of clowns that the Wrong Party is pushing forward for the presidency, this splintering and fragmentation is made manifest in the erratic voting we’re seeing. Unless and until the 99% recapture the sense that “it’s not ALL about ME, ME, ME,’ they’ll get moved around like puppets by the 1%ers (and their hirelings.)

  5. A terrific post! It’s incredible how widely you’ve read and how much information about the “state of education” in 2012 America you can marshal for you postings. I have one small quibble–I don’t really see a connection between standardized testing (which I agree is entirely imperialistic and socially and educationally counterproductive) and the “welfare state” mentality. Not unless you mean corporate welfare; the standardized test companies rake in millions from the taxpayers for their snake-oil theoretically groundless “product.” I could generate a score distribution indistinguishable from the MSAs by asking kids to work with a 50-cent puzzle book from the 5 and 10 cent store (if Walmart hadn’t destroyed the great old “five and dimes!”)

    • Thanks, John. I see your point about corporate welfare. There’s no question that testing is big business. But it’s hard not to see it, too, as a form of state-sponsored discipline akin to what the poor are subjected to in exchange for state-funded services. Many parents and political leaders who send their children to private schools see public education as a welfare program. The message I hear is, if you don’t like it, earn your way out of it. That’s wrong-headed.

  6. Great post – I will be sharing.

  7. Very good read

  8. My kid goes to a pre-k co-op. We love it. I don’t qualify for public pre-k in my area, but a regular private pre-k is at least 800 per month. At the co-op I pay 284 a month and he goes five days a week. No regrets!

  9. I’m so glad you promoted “Two Income Trap”-I think Elizabeth Warren is brilliant and the book captures several dilemmas that middle class families with children face.

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