Maybe School, but Learning is Not All About the “Benjamins”

You have heard that song before, It’s all About the Benjamins, from Puff Daddy (P. Diddy aka Diddy aka….) No Way Out 1996 album, right? Ok, forget all about the lyrics and let’s focus on the title, “It’s All About the Benjamins”.

Often when we talk about going to school and attaining an education, they are correlated with having “The Benjamins”. Not just the $100, but enough to get you a quality and rewarding education and post-graduation experience. Granted there is public education in this country, where we do not have to pay to go to school, thanks to the taxes dollars paid by our parents, relatives, local community, state, and federal government. Even then, parents have to make a financial investment into their children, providing school meals, school uniform (if required) or regular clothes, scholastic material, transportation to school or school bus, and fees for participation in school activities. Let’s not forget though that, most public schools require proof of address of abode in the school district where one is applying for her/his children!  Private education has similar costs, in addition to tuition fees and other optional costs for educational trips organized by the school administration. For both private and public schooling, many parents incur costs related to after-school programs or extra-curricular activities like sports, art, music and drama, or give-back-to community. In essence, there is no “absolute free education”.

For plenty of potential learners, financial obligations constrain access and participation in formal schooling. Quite often from Education Research on “Improving Teaching and Learning” and “Curriculum Design” reveals that money makes a big impact on whether, how and what students learn. The “when” are students going to learn is  also a vital consideration and determinants of learning. While some parents have the luxury to make choices about “when” they are comfortable starting off their children in school or defer school for alternative “sources of gratification”, like a paying job, travel opportunities and personal growth and social commitments, it is not true for every learner or parent of a learner.

Some parents defer enrolling their children in pre-school, if it is not publicly-funded, until they are of age to start the publicly-funded kindergarten. Parents, as well as adult learners defer school to when they have the financial resources and time, then enroll or resume later at a later age, work-study students, mid-career students or lifelong learners. In countries like Uganda, most low-income parents send their children to publicly-funded schools, which provide “Universal Primary Education” and “Universal Secondary Education”, even when the education is substandard. Others enroll their children much older than the normal school-starting age, when financial resources become available or when it is economically viable to let them go for a few hours of the day, when they can exempt them from providing family labor.

Still, it is possible that “Learning is not all about the Benjamins”.  Schooling, we could agree requires more financial commitment than learning. Learning, defined herein as the active comprehension of education material and study opportunities in a study environment. The environment can be in the form of homeschooling, in a formal school classroom setting, informal arrangements, online or on study tour. The power of money could become secondary to the attainment of learning. Just as not all school-going children from high-income households learn or excel in their education, not all children from low-income households learn nothing or fail.

Here are a couple of illustrations that, sometimes learning is possible ‘without the money’, and that learning equalizes students across many socio-economic divides, including social status, school district, international origin, racial composition and family background. A friend from Inglewood, California, raised by a single mother in a low-income and socially broken-down neighborhood made it into a Harvard PhD in Sociology. We have heard of Khadijah from LA homeless shelters and Liz Murray from the Bronx streets, both of whom made it to Harvard, by ‘churning their miseries into reading books and revising for school testings from public libraries within their geographical locations. In former western colonies of Africa (and in the Caribbean), schools still largely operate on a western education curriculum but in under-resourced school environment. Yet, school children excel in learning and go on to compete with students at western universities. These illustrations speak volumes about the determination to learn and excel, beyond one’s economic status or conditions. The challenge is to broaden the scope of strategies for improving learning [and teaching], not giving up on those without high financial status or access to learning resources but incorporating them and meeting them “halfway”.

Making an investment in our learners should not necessarily require enrolling them into expensive schools, buying all the books, electronics, spending every weekend, school holiday and summer vacation on education trips, an after-school full schedule of extracurricular activities- music recitals, dance, fencing, harp practice. Though, all of these resources and opportunities are highly recommended and appreciated for enriching the learning experience. Learning may require spending more time with your school-going or school-age children, listening to their excitements, reading with them, encouraging and participating in their fantasies and exposing them to the world through family, friends, neighborhood activities. Or taking them to the public library to read and participate in children’s activities and signing them up for community children learning activities.

Parental involvement in their children’s learning is vita to augmenting their school experience, providing emotional support, connecting and following their learning progression. Learning starts before the child is born, through reading to the developing fetus inside the womb. By the time s/he is born, books, words and sounds are already a constant in her/his environment, and a ‘default’ enforcement of their curiosity to learn on their own and with their parents. While we all agree that “time is money”, “money makes the world go round”, let us not lose sight of the power in decentralizing “The Benjamins” as the driving force in the making of learning.

Amidst the Economic Hardship, Parents are Still Raising their Children on their Terms

Even amidst the economic hardship that has defined America’s workforce for nearly a decade, parents are still raising their children on their own terms. Many couples and single parents are finding ways of staying on top of their children’s learning, health, nutrition, wellness, sports and social engagement, while at the same time negotiate their economic survival above water.

It is also true, once again, that educated parents are more likely to take the drastic decisions that put their children at the center of their lives. Yet, single or married, parents are also trading in financial comfortable and higher paying jobs and taking on low paying less stressful jobs that allow them more time to lounge around, and avail them with more conveniency  and time with their children. It is not uncommon now for parents with graduate and post-graduate degrees to opt for elementary teaching jobs, work-from-home, start-up own business or volunteer with a local charity, church or coop, in the name of managing their time on their terms. Couples are either working together or ‘trading spaces’, dividing the time as “stay-at-home’ parent or the ‘main-parent-of-contact-at-home’ at a particularly time. Granted it is typically mothers taking on “CEO-of-Home Affair”, but fathers working from home or with more flexible professions, as academic professors, for instance, are  increasingly taking on more time at home with their children. Single parents (often mothers), without the support network of an extra parent are also finding ways of risking it for the sake of their children.

Among these parents, plenty are now homeschooling their children, for various reasons ranging from – concern about the quality of public education available to them, the constraint against their beliefs (often religious) and values absent in the public school system, the love to engage their children in ‘alternative education and learning’, and their sedentary work lives that do not allow them to settle in one geographical space all year-around. Once again, the economic choices such parents have embraced are also a huge determinant of how they are raising their children. I know a couple who quit their permanent habitat and employment, rented out their house, and took on a travel lifestyle with their two 4 year and 5 year old girl and boy respectively. Preferring a minimalist lifestyle without much material possession, and opting for chance to expose their children to the world, both parents took on a career in photography for a living,. They live in their car, on the road, camp out in open spaces, and occasionally spend a night or two at any of their friends for a chance to do laundry and enjoy a warm meal. I have married friends, where the mother opted to teach in Virtual School so she could stay at home with their growing children, while the father went out to work. Another mother-friend works from home, as director of programs at an organization with North American offices. Husband goes out to work in the office, a couple of days a week, then comes home early to spend some time with their daughter. Another professor friend, with a career in international politics, spends a larger part of the year traveling abroad for conferences, research and teaching. Her husband, who runs a home business has been more available to take care of the kids since their childhood and run the household.

I know you may be saying that I am talking about well-to-do parents or those who have made choices of convenience. Not the “real-world” struggling parents, whose life choices may not  put their children center-stage. The “real world” couples and single parents, who may not have the luxury to decide that being around their children transcends all other parental responsibilities. In most cases, these parents trust a “third party” with a larger part of their children’s upbringing, either a grandparent, a daycare/nightcare center, school or friend, while they are out to work. Yes, their children do matter very much to them, but they have to earn a living to afford to ’satisfy them’ and ’shower them with love’.

Yet even couples whose careers are “child-centric” can still attend to clients outside the home or out-of-town, take vacation alone or with their partner, go out to dinner and meet up with friends. They just have to call on the grandparents, some not living too far from them, or living with them. If not, CARE.com is an e-click away. I am also aware of single mothers, not receiving lavish child support from the absentee father, who have decided to run their careers and lifestyles around their children. It is a huge sacrifice, especially without the support, even if occasional, of a second partner or a family network. Like a friend, a single mother of two girls, with a full-time night-duty job but still on top of her children’s education. She enrolled them in the state online/cyber program, and hired a coach to oversee their study when she wants time off to run errands and take care of family business. She does not like to enroll them in public school, which she feel does not provide a respectful place for their religious beliefs nor a good learning environment, yet she cannot afford a private education. A single mother friend living in The City, quit her job at a huge private philanthropy with international travel opportunities to dedicate more time to her six-year old son and budding home business. Another mother chooses opportunities that fit within her single parenting lifestyle and resources availed to her, to allow her drop her son off at the bus everyday, pick him up from the school bus after school, and spend as much time venturing outside over the weekends. He professional career choices include taking up research fellowships abroad, home-based consultancies, work-from-home paid employment and building her social entrepreneurship. She also wants to ensure proper health and wellness, social skills, manner and a well-rounded development for her son.

Yes, there is a cost to pay, but life is a “cost-benefit analysis”! We all live by “opportunity cost”, choosing and picking from the ‘bountiful’ of menu availed but not always accessible to us. After all, teaching and learning continues across geographical spaces. One can attained a US education, while living on a military base in Germany or providing humanitarian assistance in a refugee camp in Nakivale. The opportunity to engage in one’s child[ren]’s learning is a highly courted luxury not affordable to many. Those opportunities are especially so lost on many parents without high education or financial independence. They work two to four jobs a day, just to make the next paycheck (or not), with no time left to sit down and immerse themselves in their children’s learning and development. Without much flexible to make it to their children’s next game or music concert, play, or the doctor’s appointment. They do not have plenty of time to read to their kids before they go to bed, sit down and do homework with them or play outside with them. Yet in the end, their lives might end as miserably as the Portuguese woman, who had four jobs, took a nap in the car, where she lost her life —and there ended her American dream!