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If You Think Giving a Child Poorer Options is Good for All Children, You Are a Bad Person: Not Actually a Manifesto

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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Something has been sitting in my craw for a while since reading that clickbait “manifesto” on how people who put their kids in private school are bad people. The author’s gleeful and unapologetic anti-intellectual attitude for one (I didn’t read any books AND I’M TEH AWSUMZ!), troubling coming from someone writing on education. The claim that rich kids (the author’s operating assumption of what kind of student predominates in private school) make public schools better because money equals better (a point disemboweled neatly by the always-brilliant Dr. Emily Willingham). Barftastic both, but I still couldn’t identify the sense of unease the whole thing gave me.

Then, I happened to be hanging out with my dear friend Dr. Anne Jefferson (of Highly Allochthonous, also a badass geology professor at Kent State). Anne is the one who made the connection to something Dr. Isis said recently around Open Access. Dr. Isis made the point that the most radical thing minority scientists can do is get tenure, which means not always (if ever) prioritizing the Open Access movement. Pushing minority scientists to do this ignores their experiences around inequity and discrimination, and what they need to do to succeed and help other underrepresented scientists succeed. Anne followed this up by saying no movement is worth sacrificing disenfranchised or oppressed people on some principle of a “greater good.”

That is why this value judgment about public versus private education, a thinly veiled iteration of the Mommy Wars, is wrong. Children can’t give consent, they live their lives at the whims of their caretakers. One of the reasons kids often develop picky eating habits, or push back on bedtime, or misbehave at school comes from their trying to find some way, any way, to get out from under the oppression of being a constant second class citizen. Once you see how the author’s whole argument is that we should improve education at the cost of kids, it becomes ridiculous.

When it comes to any movement – open access, public education, feminism, or others – do we put the burden on the backs of the most disenfranchised, or those with power and privilege? And how do we lift up all kids and give them better educational experiences?

Being a kid ambassador

My kid learning about mammals through Dr. Katie Hinde’s Mammals Suck March Madness last year

In the case of kids, parents play many roles, just one of them being ambassador. Ambassadors screw up and don’t always quite get the job right of course, but you’re supposed to do the best job you can amplifying the voice of who you represent. Maybe an even better metaphor would be kid union steward.

As far as I can tell, my kid wants me to build the best life I can for her, and to put her in situations that help her grow, that challenge her, but most of all respect her as a human being. Her current school, a private school and research lab affiliated with my university, does that. She is treated with respect as an inherently good person and learner not because it’s private but because it subscribes to Reggio Emilia’s project-based approach.

I am a complete convert to this approach because I’ve seen the wonderful ways it manifests across preschool, kindergarten and elementary education. And I’ve seen what these teachers and this approach have done for my kiddo. The way that school works directly contradicts the kinds of pedagogy we associate with academically “rigorous” schools. Yet my kiddo is internally motivated and explores her interests while advancing in literacy, science, art and math. She is only five, yet is on the brink of understanding fractions, just because they seem kind of cool to her. She once spent three days with her friends building a “pony house” out of recycled materials, and ended up putting a lot into the basic needs of an animal AND basic architectural structures. She reads everything — labels, signs, menus, books. And folks, I love my kid, but I don’t think she is a genius. I just think that when learners are treated respectfully and given resource and attention, they tend to figure out a lot on their own.

Rather than see my role as my kid’s ambassador as one that puts her in situations for supposed benefit of all kids but not necessarily optimal for her, I would rather make the kid ambassador job easier for all the other parents who want access to the right education for their kids. I’ve done plenty of those things, which I won’t document here because it would be obnoxious to do so, but examples include working with your school to lower tuition, or expand classrooms to increase access. You can also learn about the broader historical context of why schools work the way they do, and evidence-based ways to improve it. Because our school is university-affiliated, the director’s job is only half directing the school: the other half of her job is outreach and training with public schools. Supporting this school actually does support public education in our local school districts.

My educational awakening

I remember what it was like to not be respected as a learner, and to have quiet obedience prized over understanding the material. When I was younger, I acted out in response to this oppression. In my Montessori preschool and kindergarten I was constantly sent to time out for being disruptive. In first grade I regularly pretended to be sick to get out of class (I have vivid memories of pushing my stomach into my desk until it hurt so that I could go see the nurse). Second grade doesn’t count, because I really was sick all the time and was hospitalized a few times, so I wasn’t even in school that much. Then by third grade I was stuffing my assignments into my desk and reading my own books because the worksheets were so dreadfully boring.

This experience in third grade might have been the most humiliating of my elementary school years. After weeks of crumpling up assignments and stuffing them in my desk for one class, a change in desk assignments for another class that met in the same room led to the discovery of my discarded work. A parent-teacher conference quickly followed, and my balled-up assignments smoothed out and stapled together. My punishment was having to do all of the worksheets after school.

That same year, I was tested and placed into the gifted program, still a public school institution. I stayed in the gifted program from fourth through sixth grade, until our school district cut the program because they didn’t have the money. My parents were involved, and tried really hard to save it. But in seventh grade it was back to regular junior high.

I loved the gifted program I was in, because it was the first real experience I had where I was respected as a person, where it was assumed I was smart and could do stuff. Now the goofing off I did made me precocious rather than disruptive. Teachers found ways to help me change my behavior without forcing or punishing me into submission – but I was also a lot less obnoxious while there. We had endless opportunities to be creative with the ways we learned. We were trusted.

Respect and trust are in short supply in some school settings, because these are the hardest things to give kids when there are a whole lot of them and only a few of you… particularly if you’re under additional stressors to make these students perform a particular way in a test so you don’t lose your job.

Lifting up all kids

My kiddo spent a lot of time in front of this kaleidoscope projector at the Monterey Bay Aquarium this summer, just trying to figure out how it worked.

Back when one of my research projects involved working in a public school, I was given that school district’s curriculum guide. The “science” section had only four bullet points, which boiled down to:

-Learn to use lab equipment safely when testing hypotheses

-Describe interactions between people and the environment, including space exploration

-Know the basic cell structures and functions

-Observe the properties of energy: heat, light and sound

Fine arts was the real loser with only three points, where phys ed had six points, eight for math, and fifteen for literacy. Fifth grade is a big testing year and so the teachers have to focus all their attention on literacy and math. I’m sure they’d love to do more with art and science, but their school could lose out if they don’t teach to the test.

Science, or the scientific method, is one of the major “ways of knowing” children use to interact with their environment and stimulate their natural curiosity about the world. Yet throughout a child’s educational experience, at least in the US, it receives very little attention. It’s no surprise that over time so many children develop an idea that science is for a specific set of people – a set that rarely includes them.

My daughter’s school experience is inherently scientific: she has some guidance, through the semester’s main topic (this semester it’s “trees”), but then it’s up to her to inquire and learn about the world. The kids get put into interest groups after a few weeks of giving them time to feel out what they find interesting about that semester’s topic. Then the main projects of the semester are motivated by what the kids want to learn and do. Their exploration tends to involve the scientific method in some way.

While we’re working on respect and trust for all children, it would be nice to prioritize science as a way of knowing that helps defend curiosity against boredom, and provide a perspective to children that all kinds of knowledge is accessible to them. We should be working towards a pro-intellectual, pro-science, pro-child educational system. Pitting parents or kids against each other, or wearing a lack of an education as a badge of honor rather than something one might want to independently overcome, is not the way to get there.

Kate Clancy About the Author: Dr. Kate Clancy is an Assistant Professor of Anthropology at the University of Illinois. She studies the evolutionary medicine of women’s reproductive physiology, and blogs about her field, the evolution of human behavior and issues for women in science. Find her comment policy here. Follow on Twitter @KateClancy.

The views expressed are those of the author and are not necessarily those of Scientific American.

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  1. 1. gs_chandy 12:15 am 09/5/2013

    To the best of my understanding, the pre-school and kindergarten that Dr Clancy attended was Montessori only in name. Montessori education IS based on profound respect for the child as an inquiring learner. That said, the rest of Dr Clancy’s article is excellent. I look forward to finding out more about the Reggia Emilia’s project based approach to school.

    Question: Why not ensure a truly effective education system all public schools? I do believe several of the Scandinavian nations do have effective public school systems. How come the USA can’t learn how to develop such? (If the USA does this successfully, many other nations – like India, which is my concern – will seek to do that too).


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  2. 2. Kate Clancy in reply to Kate Clancy 7:30 am 09/5/2013

    gs_chandy, for the most part my Montessori experience was great, and it was a true Montessori.

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  3. 3. rhelynn 11:49 am 09/5/2013

    I applaud this entire article, but especially this: “I just think that when learners are treated respectfully and given resource and attention, they tend to figure out a lot on their own.” And I wholeheartedly agree that science is inherent to the learning process, questioning, learning HOW to learn. Everyone asks ‘why’, and when they find out – they are often intrigued and propelled forward. Science makes us yearn to write and to do math – to ask the questions and find the answers – why is it being all but excluded when it is a natural path for investigation and curious minds?

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  4. 4. The Dude 1:49 pm 09/5/2013

    Kate…Before today, I don’t ever remember reading an article that was a critique of something where I totally agreed with everything the author said. There is usually some bias or prejudice involved and it is always easy to spot.

    You didn’t say these exact words, but the article speaks loudly. When parents put their child’s interests first, and leave themselves out of the equation, parenting is very easy. Bad parenting is the root cause for many problems in our world and is caused by self-interest. Your comment at the end about wearing a lack of education as a badge of honor hits the target concerning parents who want to blame others rather than take responsibility.

    Here in my small Western Colorado town the only private schools are religion-based. Teaching mythology and increasing membership in the cult is the primary goal. My daughter is ranked no. 1 in her public high school and there is actually a stigma attatched to being the smartest person in the school (including the teachers). She even willingly gave up being the best soccer defender on the West Slope of the Rockies to concentrate on academics and make sure she could attend an Ivy League university. The coach called me up and told me to make her play. Sports seem to be more important than education in small towns.

    My wife teaches one hour a day with all the gifted elementary students at the 3 schools in our district. Her methods mirror the content of your article. She’s the superstar of the district with both parents and students.

    I can’t even express how perfectly correct you are in this article. I could go on all day. You made my morning!

    Cheers! Jeff

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  5. 5. MateoTimateo 2:09 pm 09/6/2013

    “As far as I can tell, my kid wants me to build the best life I can for her, and to put her in situations that help her grow, that challenge her, but most of all respect her as a human being.”

    Your decision to send her to a private school is good both for your daughter and for the society she is a part of, but the logic behind it can be stretched to justify less prosocial behaviors and policies. For example, there are economists who argue that since intrafamilial transfers are more efficient investments (by their metrics) than are government transfers, it holds that there should be no inheritance taxes. Or property taxes. Or any taxes.

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  6. 6. bucketofsquid 5:14 pm 09/12/2013

    @The Dude – With the exception of your experiences with a troglodyte of a coach, your post said everything I wanted to. My one and only experience with a coach was very beneficial. I’ve always been particularly bad at sports and this coach worked very hard to help me improve from horrendous to merely adequate. For me that made a world of difference. He emphasized attitude and improvement and rated me rather publicly higher than some of the actual athletes because they were noxious snots.

    I worked with the public schools my children attended and saw 2 very different responses to them. The oldest was labelled a problem and all but 3 teachers his whole school career couldn’t be bothered to even learn his name. The younger one was labelled gifted and had learning coaches and tutors and was given many advanced opportunities. The older one works fast food and the younger is a chemistry major on a full ride scholarship.

    The part that really gets me is that the older one is probably slightly smarter than the younger one. Because he was bored the public schools failed to do their jobs completely. He did graduate high school with a C average and even did a year and a half of college as a 3.85 GPA student. Then he lost interest because he couldn’t get into the university programs he really wanted.

    Public and many private schools in America are more factories than not.

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