Monday, September 27, 2010

Alfred Yankovic, Editor

CNN posted a pretty typical article about homeschooling last week: Less Families Homeschooling Primarily for Religious Reasons

However, maybe CNN should make sure they edit properly, especially when writing on the topic of education. Or maybe just make watching Weird Al's grammar videos on YouTube part of their employee training?

Thursday, September 02, 2010

Prove It

We have homeschooled our children since birth (theirs, not ours).

We would practice letters and numbers. Do arts and crafts. Learn songs. Explore our house, our yard, our neighborhood, and wherever our car or a Metro ticket could take us.

When our oldest child reached school-reporting age, we lived in the second-most difficult state to homeschool in. ("Difficulty" being determined by level of government involvement and required reporting.) It was promoted to the rank of most difficult during our tenure there. One of the reporting requirements (in addition to the notarized affidavit, maintaining attendance records, covering mandatory subjects, and taking and reporting standardized tests) was to keep a portfolio. The law covering the maintenance and evaluation of the portfolio is as follows:

(1) A portfolio of records and materials. The portfolio shall consist of a log, made contemporaneously with the instruction, which designates by title the reading materials used, samples of any writings, worksheets, workbooks or creative materials used or developed by the student and in grades three, five and eight results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests in reading/language arts and mathematics or the results of Statewide tests administered in these grade levels. The department shall establish a list, with a minimum of five tests, of nationally normed standardized tests from which the supervisor of the home education program shall select a test to be administered if the supervisor does not choose the Statewide tests. At the discretion of the supervisor, the portfolio may include the results of nationally normed standardized achievement tests for other subject areas or grade levels. The supervisor shall ensure that the nationally normed standardized tests or the Statewide tests shall not be administered by the child's parent or guardian.
(i) A teacher or administrator who evaluates a portfolio at the elementary level (grades kindergarten through six) shall have at least two years of experience in grading any of the following subjects: English, to include spelling, reading and writing; arithmetic; science; geography; history of the United States and Pennsylvania; and civics.
(ii) A teacher or administrator who evaluates a portfolio at the secondary level (grades seven through twelve) shall have at least two years of experience in grading any of the following subjects: English, to include language, literature, speech, reading and composition; science, to include biology, chemistry and physics; geography; social studies, to include economics, civics, world history, history of the United States and Pennsylvania; foreign language; and mathematics, to include general mathematics, algebra, trigonometry, calculus and geometry.
(iii) As used in this clause, the term "grading" shall mean evaluation of classwork, homework, quizzes, classwork-based tests and prepared tests related to classwork subject matter.
(2) An annual written evaluation of the student's educational progress as determined by a licensed clinical or school psychologist or a teacher certified by the Commonwealth or by a nonpublic school teacher or administrator. Any such nonpublic teacher or administrator shall have at least two years of teaching experience in a Pennsylvania public or nonpublic school within the last ten years. Such nonpublic teacher or administrator shall have the required experience at the elementary level to evaluate elementary students or at the secondary level to evaluate secondary students. The certified teacher shall have experience at the elementary level to evaluate elementary students or at the secondary level to evaluate secondary students. The evaluation shall also be based on an interview of the child and a review of the portfolio required in clause (1) and shall certify whether or not an appropriate education is occurring. At the request of the supervisor, persons with other qualifications may conduct the evaluation with the prior consent of the district of residence superintendent. In no event shall the evaluator be the supervisor or their spouse.
(f) The school district of residence shall, at the request of the supervisor, lend to the home education program copies of the school district's planned courses, textbooks and other curriculum materials appropriate to the student's age and grade level.
(g) When documentation is required by this section to be submitted to the district of residence superintendent or the hearing examiner, the superintendent or the hearing examiner shall return, upon completion of his review, all such documentation to the supervisor of the home education program. The superintendent or hearing examiner may photocopy all or portions of the documentation for his files.
(h) Such documentation required by subsection (e)(1) and (2) shall be provided to the public school district of residence superintendent at the conclusion of each public school year. In addition, if the superintendent has a reasonable belief that, at any time during the school year, appropriate education may not be occurring in the home education program, he may, by certified mail, return receipt requested, require documentation pertaining to the portfolio of records and materials required by subsection (e)(1) to be submitted to the district within fifteen (15) days; and documentation pertaining to subsection (e)(2) to be submitted to the district within thirty (30) days. If the tests as required in subsection (e) (1) have not been administered at the time of the receipt of the certified letter by the supervisor, the supervisor shall submit the other required documentation and shall submit the test results with the documentation at the conclusion of the school year.
(i) If the superintendent of the public school district determines, based on the documentation provided, at the end of or during the school year, that appropriate education is not taking place for the child in the home education program, the superintendent shall send a letter by certified mail, return receipt requested, to the supervisor of the home education program stating that in his opinion appropriate education is not taking place for the child in the home education program and shall return all documentation, specifying what aspect or aspects of the documentation are inadequate.

I saved everything. Everything.

Every scrap of paper our school generated the kids put into their subject folders. If there was an activity, book, or lesson for which a scrap of paper was not produced, I created something - a coloring page, a reading list, a photo journal. Something that could go into the portfolio.

Now, I didn't overwhelm the evaluator or the school district with all of this paper. I'd get a hernia trying to lug it all around. The law simply stipulates a reading log and samples, so we would include the book list for each subject (and when you use living books rather than text books, this is a very long list) plus three samples for each subject (one each from the beginning, middle, and end of the year). Sometimes the kids had a couple items they were particularly proud of, so we included these items as well. We also included certificates showing that we covered fire safety (found at the back of every coloring book handed out by the fire department). We knew one mom who took three pictures of each of her kids for fire safety: stopping, dropping, and rolling. Any papers that didn't make it into the final portfolio (after it was approved... I was scared to death of having to provide more proof of education) went into the trash. What a waste. Although it was nice to have a scrapbook of each school year, I hate to think of all of the trees that were sacrificed to the government's Altar of Proof.

After all, that was the point of all those pieces of paper, wasn't it? To prove that my kids learned something? To prove that we weren't slacking off? To prove that I wasn't using my children as child labor while I sat around eating bon-bons?

But is that really what all that paper proved? It proved that we went through books. That I can alphabetize book lists. Make check marks on a calendar. It appears to be better proof of my lesson planning or my ability to pull together government-approvable forms and exemplars than of what my children learned. (As a bad standardized test taker myself, I am not going to go into the value, or lack thereof, of standardized testing as a measure of learning,)

There is one thing all this portfolio-compiling did achieve... I am now terrified of doing any activity which might be of even the slightest educational value without having documentation that we did it. This is good on one hand since I am generally very bad at keeping updated photo albums or scrapbooks, so the kids love having work samples, pictures, and souvenirs from all of their activities. However, I have two boys whose fine motor skills have taken awhile to develop. We do a lot of their work orally, on the white board, or via other creative means - Quarto takes spelling quizzes using Scrabble tiles. I am not about to take pictures of every word spelled in Scrabble tiles! Fortunately, we live in much less intrusive state, now, but I still can't get over the fact that we are about a month into school and I have very little physical proof of my children's educations... or that we sat down and did something. Those 3-ring binders look sadly empty to me.

My children are intelligent. They are the proof that they have absorbed knowledge. Some of it came from books. Some of it came from working on maps, coloring pages, and worksheets. Some of it came from movies and television shows. Some of it came from digging in dirt, playing sports, talking with friends, baking brownies, buying gifts, or dinner table talk. I know this. But until this year, I had a hard time letting go of having reams of paper to "prove" I was educating my children.

Now we are on the verge of high school. Another piece of paper, the high school diploma, is now haunting my dreams. We have a plan for high school. It will probably change, but not too much. Because I have reached the place of having to "prove" something again. I have to teach to the test and get my kids ready to take the SAT and ACT. I have to have a curriculum which will pass NCAA muster so Secundo can fence in college. These are serious considerations.

I don't like that my children's futures (hopefully another 60 years or so) are determined by grades and scores earned when they are teenagers. But that is the system in which they will need to function. So, we will learn the 5 paragraph essay and analogies and how to properly fill-in a bubble sheet so that my children will be able to go to the police academy and fence at a Division I school. But between these lessons on how to survive the system, we will read, and talk, and create. We will still take pictures and put together small portfolios, scrapbooks of their "school age" years. But I want my children to learn, above all, that an education is not something that can be tested for or evaluated or put into a portfolio. An education is lived.