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Amid Homeschooling, Online Learning, Angry Parents Consider a Revolt

Covid-19 has given parents the chance to see common core education at work. They aren't all pleased.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced public schools to close in 45 states through at least the beginning of April and eight states have closed for the remainder of the academic year. More will likely follow suit as the virus spreads beyond coastal cities. This leaves parents of elementary school students, particularly those between kindergarten and fifth grade, managing the remote instruction of a common core curriculum. Just a week or two into this natural experiment, many parents are wondering if that significant imposition. They are not alone in questioning whether missing elements of the common core taught to young students has any significant long-term academic consequences. 

They are not alone in wondering whether attempting to replicate a school environment in the home is worthy of the time or stress.

Though the common core has been around since 2010, when Obama administration Education Secretary Arne Duncan oversaw its implementation, parents have never before been afforded such a close look at the consequences of standardization in elementary education. From the kitchen tables where many are now working, parents are getting a glimpse of the rigor, monotony and general unfun-ness of modern grade school. Parents have long asked, “How was school?” Many now know. Many aren’t pleased.

“It will be an eye-opening experience,” says Fordham University Political Science Professor Nicholas Tampio. “Parents will say, ‘Hey, our kids need fresh air. They need to be doing stuff. It’s ridiculous to make kids sit for hours and hours in chairs.’ I think that will happen a little bit.”

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There is a long-standing debate in education about who does the educating. Teachers are key, to be sure, but scholars have long argued that it’s kids who really educate themselves — even if left largely to their own devices. Legendary education reformer and philosopher John Dewey, who believed education should help children realize their potential to contribute to society, offered a famous prescription for learning, which Tampio summarizes as: “You make school interesting, you provide a lot of resources and you get out of the way.” Dewey died in 1952, but modern childhood development researchers and reformers have, driven by data, taken up his banner. 

Studies demonstrate a strong correlation between preschool block play and high school outcomes and between make-believe and language learning. In proliferating studies, a causation has come into focus: Open play and unstructured learning can provide children, specifically young children, with the opportunity to learn more organically and just more.

There’s not much play in school and the unstructured, imaginative play that does occur generally happens on the playground during recess and even then the time is fleeting. Based on a 2018 survey from a playground equipment industry group, the average length of recess is only 25 minutes. While kids can move in physical education classes, it’s not free play. The activities are structured (and usually dreamed up by adults). In the classroom, schedules are too rigid for kids to get much time for exploratory play. 

Tampio, who homeschools his own four sons aged 14, 11, 8, and 6, remembers being shocked when he first stepped into the role of at-home educator. His first insight? “Our kids need to eat a lot,” he laughs before adding that they also need to move.  Homeschooling for the Tampio kids means more movement, longer meals, and play. 

But that’s not necessarily the popular conception of homeschooling. The educational practice often conjures images of elite liberal weirdos (the screenwriter/actor parents who homeschooled wunderkind Billie Eilish) or political and religious extremists. Those examples tend to eclipse the reasonable middle who see homeschooling as the child-focused alternative to a one-size-fits-all model. 

“We homeschool because we want our children to have an experiential, intense, well-rounded education, with lots of field trips, outdoor activities, and child-led projects,” says Tampio. “We are part of a community of parents who homeschool to give their kids an excellent education.”

Will other parents wind up following that model during the pandemic? Likely no. For one, it’s incredibly taxing because it requires parents to do the labor of educators. There’s also this: Most schools are asking parents to replicate a standard school day at home. Parents are being given schedules for their days, instructions for logging onto web-based learning apps, workbooks, worksheets, printables and Google Classroom to tie it all together.  For some parents, this new reality means a sudden dive into the not-always intuitive world of online education platforms. Sites like BrainPOP or IXL may seem like educational powerhouses, but they aren’t exactly intuitive. Sites like BrainPOP offer instruction in the form of loud, poorly animated videos. While sites like IXL have a labyrinthine institutional user interface with a heavy emphasis on quizzing. 

Parents are now tasked with trying to get children to pay attention to crowded video-conferences of dubious quality while acting as lunch-lady, PE teacher and the school administration. They are doing much of the labor of homeschooling, but without seeing the upside of customizing a learning arrangement. Understandably, many aren’t having it. 

In a recent New York Times op-ed, associate professor of educational leadership Dr. Jennie Weiner proclaimed, “I’m not going to recreate school for them.” Weiner added that she hoped the moment would allow Americans to “call a timeout on the academic rat-race that was never healthy or fair in the first place.” In a Facebook post that went viral shortly thereafter, a mother posted her 8-year-old son’s diary observation about how his education during the pandemic is going. “It is not going good,” he wrote. “My mom’s getting stressed out. My mom is really getting confused. We took a break so my mom can figure this stuff out. I’m telling you it is not going good.”     

In my own home, my first and third-grade boys use their webconference classes to watch themselves make funny faces. Most of the online learning time is taken up trying to navigate poorly designed learning sites. Both children require constant supervision to keep them from drifting to more interesting activities like building Lego or playing in cardboard boxes. Frankly, opting out feels like not only capitulation but a sensible option. And it may be just that.

Still, a temporary inconvenience won’t necessarily birth a reform movement. 

“Teachers and administrators are going to go a long way to influence the way parents view their experience,” says Tampio. “The message will be, ‘Parents, you can’t do this. Send them back to school and we’ll take care of it.’”

Many parents will buy this. But many parents are also so busy they have little choice. 

“I think that parents are already seeing and grieving the benefits that school provides for kids,” notes Licensed Educational Psychologist and the founder of ed tech outfit BrainMatterZ, Dr. Tere Linzey. “Beyond educating it provides routine, structure, predictability, a social outlet, physical fitness, counseling, food, and child care to name a few.”

That’s a lot, but is it enough? For parents watching their kids attempt to network into grade school classes or follow lesson plans that seem repetitive or irrelevant to a child’s interests, the answer might be no. As they watch kids attempt to pursue school learning from home — following along with a teacher’s syllabus via online platform isn’t homeschooling in any traditional sense — parents may find themselves wondering about alternatives to common core programs designed to give very young kids very minor advantages as they compete for educational outcomes.

“I think they’ll fall behind learning some of the Common Core standards,” says Tampio of the kids held out of school. “Who cares? This is a chance for them to taste real life learning, work with their hands, read what they want and spend time with their parents. This is a chance for them to learn a lot more about life.” 

If the coronavirus pandemic leads to some sort of educational reform movement, that may well be the rallying cry: Who cares? It’s a question pointed at specific curricula often out of whack with the specifics of children. And it’s fair to wonder if rigor for the sake of rigor is worth caring about and if “falling behind” is a meaningful concept.

When schools resume, some kids will pick up where they left off and others will pick up elsewhere. It’s easy to fetishize continuity, but this is unlikely to make a difference for most. What’s more likely is that some parents will, galvanized by their at-home experience, look for alternatives. And there are plenty of alternatives that eschew both rigor and religiosity for learning principles based in play.   

Well-regarded and nearly mainstream alternative learning curricula like Waldorf and Montessori are both easily adapted to the home. Waldorf places a heavy emphasis on learning through arts and crafts. Montessori puts learning in the hands of children, allowing them to follow their interests rather than a rigid track of learning. Both programs have online networks, blogs and guides to help parents get started.

Another popular homeschooling curriculum is Clonlara, established in 1962 by counselor and educator Dr. Pat Montgomery. The goal is to provide children an unrushed and interest-based learning experience that is guided by students. They offer their own online programs and accredited diplomas. 

A more contemporary approach can be found in the Enki method of homeschooling, which was developed by an educator in 1989 for a group of parents seeking a broad alternative homeschooling curriculum. Enki pulls many of its fundamentals from Montessori and Waldorf and adds multiculturalism by adding lessons related to a variety of world cultures and religions. 

Importantly, these alternatives are a few of many. For Tampio, the hope isn’t necessarily that parents will pull their kids from school, but that they will start to explore alternatives and begin questioning a system that may be better suited to policymakers than it is to children.

“I would love it if parents came out of this wanting to make the system more humane, ask questions and educate themselves on these issues,” he says.