Too many parents are patronized or met with obfuscation when they complain about problems with their schools. If they persist in their complaints, they are eventually accused of being “against the schools.” Before I tell you of my public school experience, let me make clear something I shouldn’t have to say: I am not against public schools. I am against incompetent schools, public or private.

When I enrolled my first-born child in public school in 1987, I knew the schools had drastically changed since my five siblings and I had attended back in the 1950s and 60s. The facilities were newer, had computers, air conditioning and carpeting. There were separate music, science, gym, cafeteria and art rooms along with specialized teachers and noon aides for those rooms. Instead of 40 students crammed into a small classroom, my child’s class averaged 23 students in large rooms with round tables. Special learning stations were placed around the room so children could work at their own pace.

Seeing all these things, I couldn’t believe my child’s good fortune at being able to attend such a wonderful public school. I’d been told, “Feel free to ask questions.” So, I did.

“Why don’t the children use lined paper to print the alphabet?” I asked.

The teacher’s explanation had something to do with “small motor skills” (motor skills of small children? Motor skills for handling small objects? The skills of small motors?) and “developmental learning.” The jargon threw me off balance and made me ashamed to admit my ignorance. Like so many other parents, I just smiled and nodded my head.

That was the beginning of my asking questions of the system. Over the next few years I was introduced to many concepts, such as “whole language,” “invented spelling” (invented spelling?), “Reading Recovery,” “cooperative learning,” and “self-esteem education.”

Parents who are really listening, when exposed to such terms, begin to hear the first faint alarm bells—that queasy feeling in the gut that says something could be very wrong here. But they usually can’t put their finger on what it is, and certainly have no idea what to do about it.

That feeling gets worse when they begin hearing about things that sound fine, but are difficult to define, like “animal rights,” “multiculturalism,” “values clarification,” and report cards without grades. After a while, even innocuous-sounding terms like “hands-on learning,” “constructivism,” and “child-centered learning” begin to sound sinister.

Rightly or not, I think I might even have tolerated these emphases in the curriculum and pedagogy if their use or inculcation had been secondary to the learning of basic academic skills. But such was not the case. In fact, I couldn’t detect many basic academic skills being directly taught or learned at all. Too many kids couldn’t read the actual words on the pages of their books. Spelling was atrocious on papers proudly displayed in the school halls. Schoolwork came home uncorrected, messy, and plastered with “good work” stickers.

When I questioned my firstborn’s lack of reading, spelling, and printing ability, I was told my child just wasn’t ready to read, and that all those skills would eventually appear.

I was worried, so I bought workbooks for home use. I hired tutors immersed in the school’s pedagogy. A thorough pediatric exam including eyes, ears and brain showed no physical problems. When I confessed to other parents my worry about my child’s apparent (to me, but not to the teachers) failure to learn, I found that I wasn’t the only one with this problem. Friends admitted to me that their children didn’t seem to be learning much either.

Still, our thinking was intimidated by the sheer authority of the public school establishment. My child wasn’t learning, but what did I know? The teachers and schools were the experts. I was just a mother, after all. Never mind that I had lived in four countries, had a B.A. in English, and was a former insurance investigator for fraud, product liability and medical malpractice. To them, I was just a mom.

And then one day, something happened. It was a small thing—a mom sort of thing, actually—one of those little epiphanies that make things suddenly, perfectly clear.

The school used tempera paint for art projects, which stains clothes permanently. My child was coming home with ruined clothes. When I complained, the teacher advised me to talk to the principal. I approached him with trepidation—who was I to bother the principal of the school with something as trivial as ruined clothes?

But I asked him: “Why doesn’t the school use washable paint?” His unbelievable reply: “There is no such thing as washable paint.”

I was dumbfounded. Of course there’s paint that is washable! I buy it all the time for my children. When I told him he was in error, he said, “Well, you’re the only one to complain.” Later, I called friends and discovered that plenty of mothers had complained to this man and had gotten nowhere. He was lying to me.

Catching my child’s school principal in this seemingly trivial lie had a profound effect on my thinking, and on my assessment of the authority of the public schools. I realized they were run by people, people who were eminently fallible, and that I had every right to question what seemed off-base to me.

It took a few years of asking questions and conducting my own independent research, but over time I discovered the value of asking questions that elicit important information about your child’s education.

I invite you moms and dads out there to use these ideas the next time you talk with your child’s public or private school teacher or principal:

• What kind of reading program is used?

The “whole language” method of teaching reading and spelling—teaching children to recognize whole words and their placement in relation to other words—has never, ever out-performed the traditional method, which now goes by the name of “phonics” and teaches the building blocks of words, grammar and sentences. “Whole language” has, however, been repeatedly blamed for poor reading and comprehension among students.

• Do the teachers correct spelling mistakes on student papers?

Invented spelling (phonetic spelling out of words the way children think they would be spelled) should only be permitted until the second semester of first grade. After that, all mistakes should be corrected by the teacher so they don’t become ingrained.

• Is memory work required in the curriculum?

Rote memorization doesn’t impair creativity or understanding.

• Does the school stress child-centered learning or direct instruction?

Direct instruction works better and faster than letting children figure out things for themselves.

•When and how are letter grades assigned?

“Need to improve” doesn’t give the same information, nor does it convey the proper sense of urgency, as an “F” on a report card. Letter grades should be issued by the first grade.

• How is the classroom seating arranged and assigned?

When students sit at round tables instead of individual desks, they cheat. At any one time, as the teacher walks about the room, her back is turned toward a fourth of her students. That’s when all sorts of mischief takes place.

What is most important is to work with your child and his or her school. Parents should be vigilant, check all of their children’s schoolwork, compare what their children are learning with what they learned at that age, and talk to other parents.

Just one result of my labors: I taught my youngest child to read before Kindergarten. And guess what? It wasn’t difficult at all.

Patricia Alspach is a writer who lives with her husband and two children in Farmington Hills, Michigan.