Too many parents are patronized or met with obfuscation when they complain
about problems with their schools. If they persist in their complaints, they are
eventually accused of being “against the schools.” Before I tell you of my
public school experience, let me make clear something I shouldn’t have to say: I
am not against public schools. I am against incompetent schools, public or
When I enrolled my first-born child in public school in 1987, I knew the
schools had drastically changed since my five siblings and I had attended back
in the 1950s and 60s. The facilities were newer, had computers, air conditioning
and carpeting. There were separate music, science, gym, cafeteria and art rooms
along with specialized teachers and noon aides for those rooms. Instead of 40
students crammed into a small classroom, my child’s class averaged 23 students
in large rooms with round tables. Special learning stations were placed around
the room so children could work at their own pace.
Seeing all these things, I couldn’t believe my child’s good fortune at being
able to attend such a wonderful public school. I’d been told, “Feel free to ask
questions.” So, I did.
“Why don’t the children use lined paper to print the alphabet?” I asked.
The teacher’s explanation had something to do with “small motor skills”
(motor skills of small children? Motor skills for handling small objects? The
skills of small motors?) and “developmental learning.” The jargon threw me off
balance and made me ashamed to admit my ignorance. Like so many other parents, I
just smiled and nodded my head.
That was the beginning of my asking questions of the system. Over the next
few years I was introduced to many concepts, such as “whole language,” “invented
spelling” (invented spelling?), “Reading Recovery,” “cooperative learning,” and
Parents who are really listening, when exposed to such terms, begin to hear
the first faint alarm bells—that queasy feeling in the gut that says something
could be very wrong here. But they usually can’t put their finger on what it is,
and certainly have no idea what to do about it.
That feeling gets worse when they begin hearing about things that sound fine,
but are difficult to define, like “animal rights,” “multiculturalism,” “values
clarification,” and report cards without grades. After a while, even
innocuous-sounding terms like “hands-on learning,” “constructivism,” and
“child-centered learning” begin to sound sinister.
Rightly or not, I think I might even have tolerated these emphases in the
curriculum and pedagogy if their use or inculcation had been secondary to the
learning of basic academic skills. But such was not the case. In fact, I
couldn’t detect many basic academic skills being directly taught or learned at
all. Too many kids couldn’t read the actual words on the pages of their books.
Spelling was atrocious on papers proudly displayed in the school halls.
Schoolwork came home uncorrected, messy, and plastered with “good work”
When I questioned my firstborn’s lack of reading, spelling, and printing
ability, I was told my child just wasn’t ready to read, and that all those
skills would eventually appear.
I was worried, so I bought workbooks for home use. I hired tutors immersed in
the school’s pedagogy. A thorough pediatric exam including eyes, ears and brain
showed no physical problems. When I confessed to other parents my worry about my
child’s apparent (to me, but not to the teachers) failure to learn, I found that
I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Friends admitted to me that their
children didn’t seem to be learning much either.
Still, our thinking was intimidated by the sheer authority of the public
school establishment. My child wasn’t learning, but what did I know? The
teachers and schools were the experts. I was just a mother, after all. Never
mind that I had lived in four countries, had a B.A. in English, and was a former
insurance investigator for fraud, product liability and medical malpractice. To
them, I was just a mom.
And then one day, something happened. It was a small thing—a mom sort of
thing, actually—one of those little epiphanies that make things suddenly,
The school used tempera paint for art projects, which stains clothes
permanently. My child was coming home with ruined clothes. When I complained,
the teacher advised me to talk to the principal. I approached him with
trepidation—who was I to bother the principal of the school with something as
trivial as ruined clothes?
But I asked him: “Why doesn’t the school use washable paint?” His
unbelievable reply: “There is no such thing as washable paint.”
I was dumbfounded. Of course there’s paint that is washable! I buy it all the
time for my children. When I told him he was in error, he said, “Well, you’re
the only one to complain.” Later, I called friends and discovered that plenty of
mothers had complained to this man and had gotten nowhere. He was lying to me.
Catching my child’s school principal in this seemingly trivial lie had a
profound effect on my thinking, and on my assessment of the authority of the
public schools. I realized they were run by people, people who were eminently
fallible, and that I had every right to question what seemed off-base to me.
It took a few years of asking questions and conducting my own independent
research, but over time I discovered the value of asking questions that elicit
important information about your child’s education.
I invite you moms and dads out there to use these ideas the next time you
talk with your child’s public or private school teacher or principal:
• What kind of reading program is used?
The “whole language” method of teaching reading and spelling—teaching
children to recognize whole words and their placement in relation to other
words—has never, ever out-performed the traditional method, which now goes by
the name of “phonics” and teaches the building blocks of words, grammar and
sentences. “Whole language” has, however, been repeatedly blamed for poor
reading and comprehension among students.
• Do the teachers correct spelling mistakes on student papers?
Invented spelling (phonetic spelling out of words the way children think they
would be spelled) should only be permitted until the second semester of first
grade. After that, all mistakes should be corrected by the teacher so they don’t
• Is memory work required in the curriculum?
Rote memorization doesn’t impair creativity or understanding.
• Does the school stress child-centered learning or direct instruction?
Direct instruction works better and faster than letting children figure out
things for themselves.
•When and how are letter grades assigned?
“Need to improve” doesn’t give the same information, nor does it convey the
proper sense of urgency, as an “F” on a report card. Letter grades should be
issued by the first grade.
• How is the classroom seating arranged and assigned?
When students sit at round tables instead of individual desks, they cheat. At
any one time, as the teacher walks about the room, her back is turned toward a
fourth of her students. That’s when all sorts of mischief takes place.
What is most important is to work with your child and his or her school.
Parents should be vigilant, check all of their children’s schoolwork, compare
what their children are learning with what they learned at that age, and talk to
Just one result of my labors: I taught my youngest child to read before
Kindergarten. And guess what? It wasn’t difficult at all.
Patricia Alspach is a writer who lives with her husband and two children
in Farmington Hills, Michigan.