How My Son’s Charter School Experience Made Me Rethink My Work-Harder Ethic

At its convention, the Democratic Party revised its platform on K-12 education, reaffirming parent choice in educational options supported by public funds. But in making these choices, I’ve learned as a parent that what we think is “missing” from a current educational environment is not always what’s important for children to thrive. Rather, the best environments are those in which students are supported on their own paths to achieving their highest potentials.

My son seems to have been born with a focus and self-motivation of which mothers dream. I’ve never had to push him to do his schoolwork (cleaning his room is another matter entirely). In fact, I often find myself asking him to stop working. I consider school projects to be a nightmare, because instead of procrastinating, he works on them from the time they are assigned, refusing to call them done until the day they are due, because he likes to. He often becomes interested in a topic on his own, such as architecture in Dubai, and spends months reading about it. He recites his new-found knowledge at the dinner table and often documents it in a powerpoint presentation. No joke, I have them. Perhaps this penchant for research shouldn’t come as a surprise; both his father and I are professors. But despite the picture that I’ve painted, he is really a pretty normal kid, who spends too much time on Instagram with his friends, swims competitively and loves to try out new creative outlets with me (glassblowing is our latest obsession).

So, when he came to us in the fourth grade asking to go to a local charter school that began in the fifth grade, we didn’t immediately respond “no”. His father and I are strongly committed to public education and see charter schools as siphoning away the diversity we so strongly value at an increasing rate (by 2014, the percentage of public school students in charter schools had risen to 18% in our state). Instead, we asked him to tell us why he wanted to switch. True to form, he made a weighted list of pros and cons in excel, including things like “the chance to try something new” and “go to a better school” as pros and “leaving friends” as a con. But, he cited one fact as paramount: fifth grade was the final year of his elementary school, and if he went to the charter school and didn’t like it, he could simply move on to the public middle school as he would have anyway. If he was going to try it, this was the year to do it, the dogma being that it would be impossible to catch up if one missed the first year.

It was hard to argue with his logic, and we wanted him to have a say in his educational choices. But, I was also secretly proud. We share a growth mindset, that working harder has the tangible benefit of advancing knowledge. He was pushing himself to what I thought was the next level. I had desperately wanted to do the same when I was transitioning to high school, but my family couldn’t afford a private school. His self-motivation resonated strongly with me, so off he went.

Pretty quickly, it became clear that the charter school was a lot more work. He spent hours on homework each day, and often used the weekend to try to get ahead. Some of the work was interesting — he particularly enjoyed classics — but much of it was work just for the sake of work, such as word searches. But there’s a difference between quality and quantity of work in supporting student learning that seems to have been lost on his teachers, who typically assigned nearly 3.5 hours of homework each night — far higher than the national average. We had conversations about the importance of just doing your best in the face of this avalanche. Nevertheless, he held tight to the bar that was set, no doubt a reflection of his mother’s view that hard work is rewarding and not something from which to shy away. But, even I began to have a crisis of conscience: clearly not all work was good work.

Perhaps I had no business second-guessing this approach — there’s clear evidence that charter school attendance is associated with higher scores on standardized tests. My son excelled academically, earning top honors in each grading period and multiple “citizenship” awards. But it became clear that my child, who had always loved school, suddenly didn’t any more. Rather than advancing his learning, I saw his confidence shaken by the unrelenting pace. I later learned this outcome is common in charter school students, who reduce their perceptions of their own conscientiousness, self-control and grit over time.

I had always ascribed to the philosophy that harder is better, and school should be about academic rigor, period. But when he reported that he needed to “try harder” after earning a 98 overall average one grading period, even that deep-seated core belief fell away for me. I realized that it wasn’t the workload that was negatively impacting my son but rather the philosophy of valuing achievement over accomplishment. School assemblies honored students who earned top grades as those who were willing to work hard enough to get there, with no mention of the fact that someone’s best might be a “B”. And, this sink-or-swim philosophy was front and center in the classroom. When he missed school for a long-planned trip, he wasn’t given assignments in advance when he asked for them but was docked for turning them in late when he returned. For the first time, I understood that schools have an important role to play in the development of social skills and character that should not be overlooked in favor of academic rigor.

It turns out this “epiphany” was really lurking in my subconscious all along. I earned my PhD at Yale, but I’m also a first-generation college graduate from a decidedly unrigorous high school. Few of my classmates went on to college, and my guidance counselor didn’t know what an AP exam was when I asked about taking one. So, I know that it’s possible to succeed without the obsession of pushing our children harder and harder. What facilitated my own success rather than academic rigor was support for my self-motivation. When I struggled and reached out for help, I wasn’t met with a daily visit to an administrator’s office to check my homework log (the response put in place when I raised concerns about the lack of support for my son). Instead, people took the time to help me find a way to break through whatever barrier was holding me back (my guidance counselor arranged for me to take an AP exam in her office). I’m living proof that high standards and support are not mutually exclusive concepts.

When the time to register for the next school year arrived in April, my son announced that he wanted to leave the charter school and attend the public middle school. Despite spending a year without reading books for pleasure or taking on any self-motivated projects, he spent the summer reading and talking about presidential politics, knitting, spending time with friends, reading the Hunger Games trilogy, teaching himself algebra, swimming, and, of course, watching the Olympics. While he didn’t make a weighted list of pros and cons to work through his decision, his summertime choices clearly reflect his priorities. Through this experience, we both learned that a one-size-fits-all environment does little to leverage the diverse strengths that children have into learning gains. I’m thrilled that he has the time to think about the things that interest him and to share his window into the world with us again. I’m not so secretly proud.

Professor and Department Head in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona and Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project

Professor and Department Head in Molecular and Cellular Biology at the University of Arizona and Public Voices Fellow with The OpEd Project