(1) walker's world

Dec 15, 2020

My goal is to figure out the best way to educate my son, Walker, who for most of his life now has been stuck at home with me and his mother because of the pandemic. Approaching two years old, Walker is beginning his education at a time when conventional schooling has been turned on its head. God willing, COVID-19 will be long gone by the time he’s school age. But I wonder what lies ahead for him. Will education return to normal after this? Should it?

Our son Walker turned 18 months old last week, and it struck me hard that he has not interacted with another child for the better part of a year—make that the better part of his life. Because of the pandemic, he hasn’t played with another kid, grappled over a toy, exchanged a soggy cracker, nothing. He’s mostly just seen pictures of children in books. They exist for him the way dinosaurs do. 

As far as Walker knows, there are only three real people in the world: me, my wife, and his grandmother. We’re the only people he interacts with, God help him. He must worry that he belongs to a race of creatures disastrously limited in number and extraordinarily dull. 

To any other generation of kids, Walker’s world would seem strange indeed—a world in which people wear masks and don’t dare get too close to one another. Where you don’t have friends. Where extended family are like the people on tv, jabberers on a screen. Where the neighbors wave from their driveway but never cross the street. Where you simply stay home and play with your toys and read your books and take your bath and eat your graham crackers and wreck the cupboards and get your jammies on—and that’s it. Mom and Dad are your sole and constant companions, caring for you in alternating shifts, except when Grandma comes by to give them a break. 

It’s remarkable to consider that Walker hasn’t been sick a single day since last February, when the lockdowns began. Under normal circumstances kids his age get a bug or two every month. For him, there’s no exposure, so not so much as a sniffle. He’s like the boy in the bubble. We have no idea what the impact has been on his developing immune system. 

And what does it mean for his future that he’s not socializing with other kids now? Clearly, he’s learning and developing. He’s starting to speak and understands nearly everything we say to him. He knows colors and shapes and body parts, even some letters.

But, we wonder, what’s he not getting? Will he know how to empathize? To share? To lead? To work through a tussle with a playmate? Will he have trouble fitting into a group? Identifying with people his own age? Building relationships?

Who knows?

The strangeness of these pandemical times exacerbate a question not easy to answer even under regular conditions: How do you educate a kid? What’s the best you can do to make sure he learns what he needs to learn, so that he grows up a thoughtful, informed person capable of looking out for himself, realizing his potential, and contributing to the wellbeing of others? 

That’s the central question I’m exploring in this newsletter.

Presumably the pandemic will one day be gone: they’re rolling out a vaccine even as I write. Eventually families will get back to what we used to consider normal—the routine of packing a lunch, dropping the kid off at the neighborhood school or seeing them onto the school bus, picking them up at the end of the day, helping with homework in the evening.

But now that things have been so disrupted and we see how fragile it all is, we might well ask whether we really want to get back to the old normal. Even if it does return, is the old normal really what’s best?

I’m writing this just after the eighth anniversary of the Sandy Hook shooting, in which 20 six- and seven-year-olds were murdered in their school. When normal returns, will the mass shootings resume as well? I think about this as I consider whether we’ll one day send Walker to public school. Even if the odds of him getting shot are technically slim, he would still know school to be a place that anticipates horror as a matter of daily routine. Classroom shooter drills today seem every bit as traumatizing to kids as the duck-and-cover drills taught way back in the days when everyone expected to be incinerated by nuclear bombs.

 So his physical and psychological protection are one set of concerns about a return to normal. Another, of course, is the quality of his academic education. Can the public schools teach him what he needs to know? 

I support public education with all my heart; I believe it’s the very bedrock of a democratic society. But year after year test results indicate that kids aren’t learning as they should. Check out The Nation’s Report Card. The annual results are always dismal and never encouraging. 

There are lots of reasons for this, a main one being that most public schools are overcrowded and underfunded. But it’s also clear at this point that standardized testing contributes to the problem.

Educators rightly want a basis for comparing student performance year-to-year. But the tests have taken on a life of their own, consuming great chunks of precious classroom time and driving curriculum away from authentic learning. 

So if the return to normal means a resumption of the same old testing regimen in the public schools, I’m not sure I want my son participating.

Have you heard of the #purplechallenge? With parents spending so much time helping their kids with remote learning, they’re getting an up-close look at how their children are being taught. And some parents aren’t happy. One mother, who is also a behavioral psychologist, was astonished to find that her first grader could not decipher the word purple on a page if there were no story or pictures around to cue its meaning. The mother discovered that her daughter was struggling to read because she was not being taught phonics, the skills of decoding a word from the sounds associated with its letters. 

Why was her daughter (like, as it turns out, the vast majority of students) not being taught phonics? Because the reigning model of early reading instruction nationwide has for decades been something called “balanced literacy,” which underemphasizes phonics in favor of “cueing.” Balanced literacy teaches kids to guess at the meaning of an unfamiliar word based on context cues such as pictures. The mom’s daughter could “read” purple so long as it appeared in an illustrated story in which a cat paints everything purple. But she could not recognize the word by itself on a blank page. 

As it turns out, there is a bit of a rebellion going on now around balanced literacy. Not only parents but researchers and educators are waking up to the fact that for decades now we’ve been using a faulty method to teach reading. No surprise, then, that reading scores never improve. 

So, I wonder, if schools have been misguided about reading instruction all this time, what else are they missing? Do I really want to turn Walker’s education over to a system capable of such sustained ignorance about its own methods and impact?

(Incidentally, I have no interest in casting blame on teachers or curriculum coordinators or other public school educators. My own sister was an elementary school teacher for years. In my experience, they are good people who genuinely care for students and do their best, usually under very difficult conditions.)

How about charter schools? Are they a better choice compared with traditional public schools? It’s unclear. After 25 years of experimentation, the results are mixed. Some charters have outperformed traditional public schools, while others have offered no improvement at all. In some cases, charter schools have merely lined the pockets of their founders while failing students utterly. Looking into it a while back, I concluded that I can’t always tell when “school choice” is a good choice, but I’m confident about when it’s a bad choice: when it encourages profiteering; when it’s a tool for advancing an ideology rather than education; and when it promotes racial and economic segregation. And it is all of these things far too often.

Home schooling appeals to me, but I know it won’t take long before I reach the limits of what I can pass along to Walker from my own meager reserves of knowledge. 

Calculus? Don’t look at me. 

To homeschool we would need eventually to rely on a curriculum from somewhere else, and I have yet to encounter one that gives me confidence. The homeschool world seems to be its own subculture, much of it motivated by fervent religious belief. We are a Christian household, but I don’t believe we can serve Walker’s education—or his faith—best with any program of study that slants everything toward religion. 

Or perhaps I’m wrong about homeschool curricula. That’s the kind of thing I’m here to find out. 

In Finland, I hear, they don’t try to teach a kid anything formally until she’s “ready”— even if it takes until she’s eight or ten. And Finland has some of the best schools in the world.

As I understand it, Finish school kids run free all day, never knowing the confines of a desk. I imagine them darting from one fascinating activity to the next, guided by a highly educated, well-paid, besweatered teacher with the soft skills of Stuart Smalley. Somehow their kids end up smarter than everyone else.

But we don’t live in Finland. Thus, I’ll need to sort through the available options for myself: public schooling, charter schooling, private schooling, homeschooling, online schooling, “unschooling,” for heaven’s sake—God knows what else. I’ll look at it all and share my findings here.