Friday, August 30, 2013


So yesterday I came across this article, which reads like something I might post here, and I promptly posted it to my facebook page where it proceeded to generate more heated discussion than probably anything I've ever posted before. Understand that I choose my facebook friends very carefully - only people I am actually friends with - so typically my liberal-firecracker rants are met with resounding cheers. This was different. People were skeptical. They were defensive, and even offended. They felt attacked because, unbeknownst to me, some of them actually send their children to private schools.

They said things like, "I know you're not really this judgmental." Well, guess what, yes I am. I am judging you for believing that your child deserves better than most of the rest of the children in the country just because you can afford it. I am judging you for your willful failure to understand that your choice in this has an impact beyond your immediate family, and that you are responsible for that impact whether you like it or not. And I am judging you because you are not a self-interested jerk and you are plenty smart and the only reason you don't see this as a problem is that you won't look it in the face. I get it. You're scared for your kid. Know what? Me too. But it's not about our kids. It's about all kids.

Public school is like public health - your choices ripple out beyond you. When you don't get your kid vaccinated, you put everyone else's kids at risk, and that is selfish and unfair. When you don't send your kid to public school, you erode that system and weaken it for everyone else's kids, and that is also selfish and unfair. Do I know that the public school system is broken? Hell yes, I know. I went through it. I'm putting my kids through it. Sometimes it's not pretty - read almost any post on this site and you can see that. I fight the big battles (testing, arts education) and, if I have any energy left, I fight the medium ones too (recess, homework). I'm too exhausted to fight the small ones (behavior charts, school lunches), and you know what? It would be great to have some backup.

So yeah. I'm judging. I'm judging because you're wrong and it really, really matters. Engagement, not disengagement, is the answer.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013


Finally - the last day of school. Burn the planners, throw out the disgusting lunch boxes, turn off the alarms. It's been weeks since I asked my kids if they have homework because, as Jen Hatmaker so eloquently put it, I no longer care. Papers come into the house and go directly into the bin. Oops, was that a math facts practice sheet? Whatever.

But. Yesterday they both came home waving their end-of-year awards, which could not be ignored. My kids do really well on standardized tests - one of life's little jokes, I guess - and the school gave out awards to students who scored above certain cutoffs on the Measures of Academic Progress tests. The MAP, as it's known, was recently made infamous by a group of Seattle public school teachers who refused to administer it. Booyah, Seattle. My kids take the MAP three times a year and, apparently, blow it out of the water. "It's kind of fun, Mom," is pretty much a direct quote from Lucy. Oh, the irony.

Anyway. So they take these tests, which they do not give two shits about, and they do really well, which I do not give two shits about, and the school... rewards them for that? For what? For being smart? I mean, it's not like they work to get those scores. At all. They haven't even been doing their homework, remember? What is this teaching them, exactly? 

But - okay. A reward for doing well without trying. Fine. There are bigger battles. Oh! Look! Here's one now! What about all the kids who don't get those scores? Is the school implying that they somehow failed to work hard enough? Because that is some bullshit right there. They're children! I can tell you with certainty that they are doing the best they can, and that the last thing they need is to be told, even implicitly, that it's not good enough. And yet here is how this reward system works: all the kids in the school go to an assembly. Those with high scores get a certificate, or two, or three. And then the kids who got the certificates get ice cream and the other kids don't. WTF?

There are so many problems with this that it's hard to decide which to pick out first. In addition to the implication that the kids who didn't score high enough did something wrong, we have the complete abandonment of the concept of community. Want your friends to celebrate your achievements with you? TOO BAD! They're not smart enough. Want to celebrate your friends' achievements with them? TOO BAD! You should be smarter. In fact, what we'd really like is for you to resent your friends while you feel bad about yourself. And I won't even go into the consequences for student (and teacher) anxiety about the test itself. Kids sometimes throw up or wet their pants before these tests. I mean, I ask you. Why are their parents not rioting in the streets?

And while this is an extreme example, it's indicative of the way rewards for academic achievement are skewed across the board. When you excel academically, the reward is supposed to be... that you excelled academically! You know, you learned stuff! But no - we offer certificates, and ice cream, and cheap plastic toys as rewards. And in so doing, we teach both the kids who get the rewards and the kids who don't that learning is not sufficiently rewarding in itself, which is the real tragedy. But I've already ranted about that in other posts, so I'll stop.

Parents were invited to this award ceremony. I didn't go. Ben asked me why and, being me, I told him. He thought about it. "Yeah," he said, "I think probably the kids who didn't do good on the tests need the ice cream even more." There it is.

Thursday, January 31, 2013

Boy Scouts

To the Boy Scouts of America:

I am married to an Eagle Scout and am the mother of an 8-year-old Cub Scout. My husband has been active in scouting for as long as he has been old enough, including regional and national leadership roles, a stint working at Philmont, and receipt of what seems to me essentially every award you offer. He is now an Assistant Scout Master with the troop that is affiliated with our son's pack. 

Two years ago, when my son started Cubs, I was hesitant to allow it. I find your anti-gay policy morally abhorrent, and I did not want my son exposed to such bigotry. My husband, who also hates the policy, convinced me that the Scouts were more than that, and that indeed the policy was outdated and no longer an issue. He had had such a positive experience with Scouts that he wanted it for our son as well. So I agreed.

Well, I'm sure you can see where this is going. Imagine our horror when, less than a year later, you reaffirmed your stance in a burst of incomprehensible posturing about morality. What? How could it be that this organization, with legitimate claims to moral authority in so many areas, could make so grave and consequential an error of judgement? We couldn't believe it. What was wrong with you? Didn't you know that you were out of touch on this? No, apparently you did not know. Either that or you were being controlled by other interests, which is an almost equally horrifying prospect.

I think I can safely say that this issue has caused more friction in my marriage over the last 12 months than all other issues combined in the 12 years before that. My husband is saddened and disappointed in you, the way one would be in a beloved relative who has committed a crime. I, however, having no previous relationship with you, merely find it inexcusable. For me, it's a deal breaker.

I hesitate to say that I am pleased with your decision to reconsider your position, because in an ideal world the Scouts would take a leadership role in condemning discrimination in any form. You would refuse to allow any group who discriminates on any basis to be affiliated with you. However, let us not allow the perfect to be the enemy of the good. To the extent that this move would mean that gay boys are not routed out, and that gay parents are not refused the right to volunteer with their children's troops, I am all for it. Do it. But don't stop there. Please.

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

Girl Scouts

Yeah, I know, it's been a long time. So long that I've forgotten what my default font is, so I apologize if this doesn't match my previous posts. 

Anyway, yesterday I'm minding my own business surfing the web when I get an email from Lucy's Girl Scout leader, who is actually a lovely person and, it must be said, is doing a job I would never in a million years want to do. So automatically she gets an extra 100 yards of slack, at least. This email informs me that I will need to stay at the Girl Scout meeting that night, because the Cookie Mom is going to explain about selling cookies to all the parents. This is a little bit of a pain in the ass, because I had planned to have John drop Lucy off at GS on his way to another meeting, which means he won't be able to stay, which means I'll have to take her after all. Still, as pains in the ass go, this is not even the biggest one that day, so no big deal. Far more concerning is the implication that the cookie selling will be explained to the parents. 

So we show up at the meeting (five minutes late, sorry, sorry) and Lucy hustles off with the other girls to work on constructing Christmas tree ornaments out of toothpicks, or some other equally valuable skill. I, meanwhile, am waved over to the Parent Table (or, more accurately, the Mom Table, with one dogged Dad sitting off to the side looking too exhausted to be offended by the genderedness of it all). There the Cookie Mom is explaining all the Important Cookie Information, like how to fill out the order form and not to knock on strangers' doors and how to take donations for our troop's charity, which by the way we need to choose. And all this time I am thinking one thing, which is that I am not a Girl Scout. 

Finally we get to the part where she tells us that we have to set the individual selling goals for the girls and the total selling goal for the whole troop, and I just can't take it anymore. "Um," I say, "shouldn't we be discussing this with the girls?" I say this in what I hope is a casual and offhand way but probably comes off as judgmental and bossy, because hey, it's me. They all look stunned. Discuss it with the girls? Why? Oh, I don't know. Because it's their troop and they're the ones selling the cookies to earn money for their troop and I thought the whole point of Girl Scouts was to teach girls independence and responsibility and of course to make Christmas tree ornaments out of toothpicks but really isn't the independence and responsibility just a teeny bit more important? I can't help but imagine Juliette Gordon Low sobbing in despair as she watches the parents set goals while their daughters attend to the important work of gluing bits of sponge onto poker chips (don't ask).

The Cookie Mom, to her credit, says that yes, that's a good idea. We should run all this by the girls. We should come up with the goals first, though, because they're not really able to set their own goals. Plus, another mom points out, we're the ones selling the cookies. 

Wait, what?

Now, I understand that taking the cookie order form to the office is a time-honored tradition, having ordered many cookies that way myself before I had a Girl Scout of my own. And I had already made a mental note to take advantage of another mom's suggestion to post on facebook. But, fundamentally, isn't this supposed to be a girl-driven project? Aren't they supposed to be the ones invested in it, planning it and making it happen? And if they can't set their own goals, well, isn't that part of what they're supposed to learn from an activity like this?

Because, let me tell you, that would be a fantastic thing for them to learn, and I'm not just saying that as someone who would like to think that her daughter might someday be able to schedule her own doctor's appointments and do her own grocery shopping. No, I'm saying it as someone who deals on an almost daily basis with nearly-grown-up kids who can't do those things. Kids who have no concept of how to set goals, let alone achieve them. Kids who have never really worked at anything, who often seem to not even understand what that might mean. Kids who, in spite of never working hard, have never failed, either, and are so risk-averse that I feel like telling Occupy Wall Street to just wait a few years because there's no pipeline in place to replace those Wall Street people anyway. Too risky. 

I won't lie. I'm disappointed in the Girl Scouts. From a noble beginning rooted in empowering girls, they have degenerated into a cookie-selling machine in which the girls don't even get to sell the cookies. But really, they're just following the crowd. I can't remember the last time I was at an activity for children that didn't involve parents hanging over the backs of chairs "helping". Parents often seem physically unable to drop their children off somewhere and, you know, leave. But I'll tell you what, we'd better start insisting that they do, or we are really screwed. Wall Street isn't the only thing that's going down if we don't start raising our kids with an eye toward their someday being adults.

Come on, Girl Scouts. Let's get ahead of the curve on this one. 

Thursday, August 26, 2010


The kids are at a new school this year. To make a long (very long) story somewhat less long, there was a county-wide redistrict, and it turns out that we were one of the families who had to switch. So now instead of going down the mountain to a small, overcrowded rural school, we go up the mountain to a small, under-enrolled rural school. Frankly, although many of my neighbors will tell you otherwise, it's not a very big change.

Except for breakfast.

The new school has a higher percentage of students in the free lunch program than the old school did (and yes, this is the root of the reason my neighbors are so upset). This puts the school over some arbitrary threshold set by the federal government and means, among other things, that the school also has to provide free breakfast. To every child in the school. That's right, every child, even the ones who ate breakfast at home. Oh, sure, a parent may forbid her child from eating the breakfast. A parent may even notify the classroom teacher of this prohibition and the classroom teacher will have to enforce it. (Sounds like a good way to get off on the right foot with a teacher, doesn't it?) But the default is to offer all the kids breakfast when they walk into the room in the morning.

On the surface, this may seem like a fine idea. So the kids eat an extra bowl of oatmeal when they get to school in the morning. Big deal. In practice, however, there is no oatmeal on the menu. Pop Tarts, yes. Coco Puffs. Pastries. But no oatmeal.

So here are my options:
1. Look the other way while my children tank up on empty carbohydrates every morning,
2. Forbid them from having it and become both Mean Mommy and Problem Parent, or
3. Call the county's Director of Food Services and try to get the menu changed.

Three guesses which one I picked.

The Director of Food Services, like so many of the school system employees who field my complaints, agreed with me in theory. "But," he said, "I'm sure you've seen Food Revolution."

"Sure," I said, because I wasn't about to trash my credibility by admitting that I don't have a television and instantly being pegged as Crazy Hippie Lady who Probably Feeds Her Children Tofu for Breakfast. Plus, everyone says this to me, so even though I haven't seen it I actually knew what he was talking about.

"Well, that's what happens when we offer them healthier options," he said, meaning that the kids refuse to eat those foods.
When the school offers, for example, yogurt and fresh fruit, the kids simply don't eat. Since they haven't eaten at home, this means that they don't get any breakfast at all. Furthermore, if they do eat at home they get things that are even worse than those that the school offers. At least the Pop Tarts the school serves are whole grain.

"ARGH!" I thought, but did not say. "Well," I did say, "everything we know about children's eating habits tells us that you have to keep offering them healthy foods over and over, and eventually they'll try them."

Unsurprisingly, he was familiar with this research. I told you, they all agree with me in theory. "But when they don't eat it, we have to throw it out," he said, "and we don't get reimbursed by the government for meals we don't serve."

"AH HA!" I thought, but did not say. "Well," I did say, "um." Because, to tell the truth, I couldn't really think of anything to say to that. Basically, he was telling me that the school system can't afford to provide healthy meals for the students. The free meals program is rigged, in fact, to make this impossible. Children are used to eating sugary, processed foods at home, and therefore that is what they expect at school. When they don't get it, they refuse to eat. When they don't eat, the system doesn't get the money it needs to provide food the next day. Thus, the schools are forced to offer choices that the children are familiar with so that they will eat them and the program will survive. For the school system to break this cycle would require a massive input of resources that it simply does not have.

Compounding this problem is the fact that the nutritional guidelines for school lunches (and breakfasts) are woefully out of date. The United States Departments of Agriculture and Health and Human Services are required by federal law to jointly issue updated dietary guidelines at least every five years. The most recent document is from 2005, and a new one is due out this year. But the nutritional requirements set out in the National School Lunch Program (which, curiously, is also administered by the USDA) are based on the guidelines from 1995. Why? Good question. To give you an idea of just how long ago 1995 was, those guidelines do not even mention whole grains or trans fats.

I told my kids that they have to eat their healthy breakfast at home, and then if they're still hungry they can have some of the school breakfast too. So far, at least according to their reports, they haven't been eating much at school. If that changes, maybe I'll reevaluate. But there's a bigger problem here than just my kids finally finding out what a Pop Tart is. These kids who refuse to eat fruit and yogurt are going to be running things when we're old, and it would be good if they didn't all have type 2 diabetes and chronic heart disease by then. The whole School Lunch Program needs a serious overhaul, starting with the way it's funded and going right down to the Pop Tarts. Get busy, Congress.