We Don't Need No Education
January 4, 2015 7:03 AM   Subscribe

"At least not of the traditional, compulsory, watch-the-clock-until-the-bell-rings kind. As a growing movement of unschoolers believe, a steady diet of standardized testing and indoor inactivity is choking the creativity right out of our kids. The alternative: set 'em free."
posted by COD (85 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
"We have noticed, however, that the more responsibility we give our sons, the more they assume. The more we trust them, the more trustworthy they become."

Yup.
posted by crazylegs at 7:23 AM on January 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


Except that he's educating his kids to be Jeffersonian farmers. That seems a bit out of sync with the knowledge economy. It's hard to sit in front of the glow of a computer all day if you haven't had decades of training in sitting still.
posted by MythMaker at 7:28 AM on January 4, 2015 [26 favorites]


The part about "they learned to read when they were about eight" kind of hurts me and I just couldn't keep going after that. Ugh now I'm sitting here imagining how these poor kids who aren't going to learn how to navigate bureaucracies and other complex social systems will end up. A lot of what you learn in school isn't in the curriculum, you know?

I'm all for less standardized testing, more activity, more hands-on learning, but I do feel like this sort of system requires a lot of hands-on guidance to make sure the children are being exposed to lots and lots of different kinds of things. Or at least... SOME guidance.
posted by Andrhia at 7:28 AM on January 4, 2015 [28 favorites]


Some of us don't have farms to turn our kids loose on. For those who do, this seems okay, but I don't get how this works for a city dweller.
posted by Devils Rancher at 7:37 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


This trend entices and frightens me.
posted by anotherpanacea at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


It also begs the question of whether we could take the same advice in terms of how we design our work forces and daily lives. Are we really served by a system that takes all our labor, disregards the actual experiences the laborors are going through, and filters the cream of the crop to a bunch of people are detached from the production? Like yeah school is lame and prepares us for a world that is lame and anti-human, but maybe both of those things suck and could be improved instead of weirdly defending a system that damages the human spirit as if there are literally no possible other ways of living.

I get that factories and bureaucracy made things easier for some people, and not saying we need to go backwards, but that maybe we could now afford to branch out from overly mechanized state of living and at least create some other options-- that allow family farms and people who want to live and indigenous lifestyle with nature to actually be allowed to exist without being milked til they get kicked off their land if they refuse to try to misuse and abuse the land and resources and overwork themselves.
posted by xarnop at 7:41 AM on January 4, 2015 [36 favorites]


Honestly, I don't know that the problem is sending kids to school. I believe the problem is what we encourage and allow the other 18 hours of the day.

I went to school, I learned a lot there, some of it useful, some of it worthless to me now.... But I also spent many, many hours doing exactly what these kids do, wandering the woods and fields, catching snakes, building forts, hunting, fishing, skating, swimming, damning rivers, sitting in trees reading, riding bikes, building "stuff and things", school and the world are not mutually exclusive.

Most of the kids I work with, regardless of the affluence of the family, spend 90% of their free time with their hands on an electronic device of some sort, they can tell me all the nuances of Minecraft but they can't identify any of the wildlife that lives in their yard, nor have they read a book that wasn't assigned at school.

I don't think we need to take kids out of school (do we need to improve the way we do education, certainly, but that's not the issue), we need to unplug them and send them out of the house when they aren't in school....
posted by HuronBob at 7:42 AM on January 4, 2015 [57 favorites]


//For those who do, this seems okay, but I don't get how this works for a city dweller.//

I think it would be a hell of a lot easier in the city. You'd have museums, parks, big libraries, festivals, fairs, theaters, etc. I can't imagine that you'd ever run out of new things to explore somewhere like NYC, Boston, or Chicago. Granted, you would need one stay-at-home parent, but that is sort of given for homeschooling / unschooling.
posted by COD at 7:43 AM on January 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


The part about "they learned to read when they were about eight" kind of hurts me and I just couldn't keep going after that.

There's actually a lot of research to suggest that most children - and boys specifically, since their brains mature more slowly than girls - don't actually develop the brain structures necessary to read well until age 8. Forcing them to try to read before their brains are ready only tends to makes them hate reading, and by extension learning, and develop a lifelong self-image as a stupid person. I've read many accounts of unschoolers who don't learn to read as late as 12, but as soon as they develop an interest, rocket up to their grade level and beyond within a couple of months. Same with math. It's about intrinsic motivation.

Ugh now I'm sitting here imagining how these poor kids who aren't going to learn how to navigate bureaucracies and other complex social systems will end up. A lot of what you learn in school isn't in the curriculum, you know?

I've done a lot of research on unschooling, free schooling, and Sudbury schooling. The kids who graduate from these kinds of educational environments tend to do about as well, economically, as you'd expect from someone in their class. The lower-class kids who went to Britain's free schools ended up in respectable blue-collar careers. The upper-, upper-middle, and middle-class kids whose parents could afford to send them to the private Sudbury Valley School ended up like you'd expect a bunch of kids from a really good suburban public school to end up. They went to college, often elite colleges. They ended up in white-collar careers.

Granted, there are a lot more small business owners and artists in this crowd than, say, Wall Street bankers. Grown-up unschoolers tend to like to do their own thing. But they're not dying in the gutter. Owning a business requires a lot of dealing with bueaurocracy and jumping through hoops. They learn it because they have to in order to achieve their goals, not because they've been trained to do it for their entire lives.

I'm all for less standardized testing, more activity, more hands-on learning, but I do feel like this sort of system requires a lot of hands-on guidance to make sure the children are being exposed to lots and lots of different kinds of things. Or at least... SOME guidance.

I agree that the children should be exposed to lots and lots of different things. There's no indication in the article that the author lacks internet access, or never takes his kids to museums or anything like that. Usually unschooling requires a difficult technique of watching what the child is interested in, figuring out how to nurture those interests, and introducing them to more information about it in a way that doesn't feel like you're forcing anything on them. I do, personally, prefer free schools over unschooling, because the resources of a family - even a rich family - are nothing compared to the resources of an entire school. And you have a lot of other kids to talk to and bounce ideas off of every day.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 7:51 AM on January 4, 2015 [26 favorites]


But I also spent many, many hours doing exactly what these kids do, wandering the woods and fields...

The average amount of homework for American high school students now is 3.5 hours a day, on top of 6 hours of school (plus travel time, homeroom, etc.) It's not much less than that for earlier grades.

Surely there's a happy medium somewhere between unschooling and regimented, 40-kids-per-teacher homework factories.
posted by Foosnark at 7:54 AM on January 4, 2015 [20 favorites]


Public schools are like democracy itself. They suck and reform takes forever and there's no guarantee that they will get better anytime soon but the alternatives boil down to tyranny or chaos, not necessarily in that order. Complain all you want, but keep participating in the drive to fix the system or else admit that you are giving ground to those who seek to destroy the rickety structure that at least attempts equality.

In conclusion do whatever you want but pay your taxes or else your precious little Ben Franklins will be wage slaves to the Choate-kings like the rest of us.
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:55 AM on January 4, 2015 [10 favorites]


One of my childhood friends was unschooled. He is a very succesfull businessman today, and all is good. But recently I was at a talk he gave, and i noticed two significant things: he spent a lot of time defending his methods - which he absolutely didn't need to, it even seemed a little off in the context. And he did not mention with one word that he was autodidact - a thing I'd have thought he would be proud of.
Also I know he has been quite severe private struggles - related to his lack of experience with stuff most of us learn in recess rather than class.

One of my kids does not really fit into contemporary schools - with all those tests and the emphasis on basic skills rather than knowledge. I'd love to unschool her if I had the ressources. But listening to my friend gave me pause. Maybe the social aspects of school are very important, even so important that they overrule the obvious failures of school today. My daughter certainly prefers to stay in school, in spite of her difficulties..
posted by mumimor at 7:57 AM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Ugh now I'm sitting here imagining how these poor kids who aren't going to learn how to navigate bureaucracies and other complex social systems will end up. A lot of what you learn in school isn't in the curriculum, you know?

posted by Andrhia at 10:28 AM on January 4
There is a whole lot about the idea of unschooling that I can appreciate, but this is a major issue. Like too many other parenting choices, it's absolutely not an option for a lot of families who lack the benefit of a whole lot of privilege. Sometimes, what's best for your kids isn't what's best for your kids.
posted by pajamazon at 7:58 AM on January 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


The average amount of homework for American high school students now is 3.5 hours a day, on top of 6 hours of school (plus travel time, homeroom, etc.) It's not much less than that for earlier grades.

My cousin remarked over Christmas that she's horrified by the amount of homework her 5th-grade daughter has: "It's like college work, but for 10-year-olds." That's on top of the mandatory band or orchestra that every 4th and 5th grader has to participate in, and the mandatory community service that she has to perform outside of school. Even if you personally don't overschedule your kids, if your kid is in a decent school system, they're monopolizing more and more of your child's time with more and more extracurricular requirements.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 7:58 AM on January 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


The part about "they learned to read when they were about eight" kind of hurts me and I just couldn't keep going after that

Why? That's a fairly typical age to learn to read. I went to school all day long and in grade one we learned the sounds of letters and started putting them together into short words. That's age 7. 8 is hardly wildly different. WebMD lists this as around the age kids learn to read, also.

There are a whole lot of people impressed with themselves or their kids because they could "already read at 2" or 3 or whatever, but it's not obvious that there's any advantage to this. Are people who learned to read at 2 better readers, all else (i.e. learning disabilities) equal, when they're 30 than people who learned to read at 8? Do they read more? Do they know more? What exactly is the advantage to learning to read earlier?

For pretty much all other developmental milestones (speaking, walking, sitting up etc.), we seem to think that there's variation in kids timing and that's ok (assuming there's no evidence of medical issues) and that it's ok that some kids are earlier than others. I have a cousin who couldn't crawl til she was a year and half old and was more than a year old before she got her first tooth. Nothing wrong with her, she was just at the extreme end of late developing on these things. She's in her twenties now and can both walk and chew just as well people who were born with teeth and walked at 8 months. This emphasis on early reading is just as silly as freaking out that you're baby can't walk at 1 when some babies can.

I'm not sure it's a great idea for the whole world to turn to unschooling, but kids learning to read at 8 is not some horrific evidence of disaster.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:03 AM on January 4, 2015 [18 favorites]


The average amount of homework for American high school students now is 3.5 hours a day, on top of 6 hours of school (plus travel time, homeroom, etc.) It's not much less than that for earlier grades.

I hate to think how I'd manage if I were a kid today. I'm not sure that I did 3.5 hours of homework a month when I was in school in the seventies.
posted by octothorpe at 8:04 AM on January 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


Huh? We started learning to read in Kindergarten (age 5) and were reading short books and writing on that big paper with all the lines for upper and lower case letters in first grade. Not bragging, just backing up the idea that 8 seems like a really late age for learning to read.
posted by jonathanhughes at 8:06 AM on January 4, 2015 [25 favorites]


think it would be a hell of a lot easier in the city. You'd have museums, parks, big libraries, festivals, fairs, theaters, etc. I can't imagine that you'd ever run out of new things to explore somewhere like NYC, Boston, or Chicago.

True, to an extent. I did all these things after regular school or on weekends, as a free-range kid in San Francisco. I had quality public transit in a relatively compact environment to my advantage there though, and had considerably less luck with such endeavors in Houston.

You still need the exact right combination of factors for this to work for even a minority of children - I can't imagine how it would benefit most kids in suburban Dallas or Maryland, where the freeways and strip malls spread out mile upon mile between monoculture subdivisions with no amenities save streetlights & mailboxes.
posted by Devils Rancher at 8:10 AM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Unschooling comes up on MeFi rather a lot, as do related concepts like Sudbury Valley School. But in every case, the story really seems to be about people who have accrued tremendous advantages from existing institutions finding out that they can more effectively pass down those advantages *outside* formal institutions.

Having benefitted from generations of compulsory education, such people find that they and their children now live within a culture and a social stratum where education and opportunity have become the norm. Because the institutions have done their job successfully in such families and communities, the people in them can only see the parts of the institutions that don't work or that offer up obstacles to the use of their entrenched, community-structuring advantages.

Unschooling relies on these entrenched norms and networks of opportunity; it does not generate opportunity and attainment so much as it transmits an existing body of knowledge and methods and habits within close-knit kinship lines or bounded communities. It works when the default is that you have time for your kids, you have the money to get them the books they want or take them on the trips they seek, and you have the sense that by and large your kids are secure and accepted in most or all the places they are likely to find themselves.

In that situation, most institutions appear superfluous. Indeed, we see a number of movements among educated, professionalized enclaves to de-institutionalize, to opt out, because the job of institutions has been done so well for so long that institutional support is no longer directly, immediately beneficial. Now, supporting an institution like the school system means working and paying either for "just the bad parts" or, worse, for people who aren't their neighbors and aren't their kids.

But there are a whole lot of people who are not there yet, partly because the institutions were built to service particular groups and discourage or oppress others, and partly because opting out also removes financial and public resources, entry points into powerful networks, and, yes, informal or community effort and interest from institutional systems.

Schools, among them a great many public schools, are crappy, but they're crappy because of rigidly bounded local control and funding, an emphasis on providing discipline over providing educational opportunities in schools that don't serve affluent communities, and, increasingly, a tendency to equate wholesale deinstitutionalization marketization, and disinvestment with "reform."

The irony is that unschoolers *are* a reformed version of the institution they think they're opting out of, a version that serves a lot fewer people and selects those whom it will serve along lines of class, ethnicity, and kinship rather than imagining its services as robust public goods.

But the alternative means asking people to care about a stranger's kids as much as they care about their own or at least their neighbors' kids. And that's an unpopular appeal in the best of times, let alone in a country as divided as the U.S.
posted by kewb at 8:14 AM on January 4, 2015 [128 favorites]


tl; dr: What pajamazon said.
posted by kewb at 8:16 AM on January 4, 2015


Huh? We started learning to read in Kindergarten (age 5) and were reading short books and writing on that big paper with all the lines for upper and lower case letters in first grade.

I just learned letters and counting in Kindergarten (well and shapes and colours etc.). Mostly we played. My kindergarten class had an awesome indoor slide and little rocking boat thing and an indoor sandbox and water play area and lost of puzzles and crayons and paint. And in grade 1 we learned to start sounding things out and yes, read short books and wrote on the paper with three lines per row. I went to school back before the days of standardized testing, blessedly. My first standardized test was the GRE, here I did excellently on the verbal component despite my supposed late start in reading.

My point is not just that I don't think it's that late, it's that even if it were late, so what? What's the advantage to early, exactly?
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:17 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


I'd love to unschool her if I had the ressources. But listening to my friend gave me pause.

mumimor, I share your reservations. I know several guys who unschooled themselves for various reasons. To generalize, they weren't interested in high school, and in one case so aggressive they couldn't be around their peers. Turns out aggression is a handy tool in the business world. But they're all exceptional people who have done well in spite of being highschool "dropouts". I think the risk of being a successful autodidact is that you either are or will become a loner, as that's the only way you can trust to get things done.
posted by sneebler at 8:18 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I found it very difficult to find good data about unschooling while my son was doing it. Mostly blogs, books by advocates like Gatto, or articles about individual success stories that we are meant to generalize ("I know this one kid who....") Lots of promoting, with very few negative examples. I don't remember finding a single study. And the Outside article linked above doesn't seem to reference any unschooling studies although it links other (real) studies like diabetes and cognitive function.

That's too much like a faith-based educational theory for me.
posted by acheekymonkey at 8:19 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


"What's the advantage to early, exactly?"

I recall reading that kids are primed to absorb language-related skills the best before age 6.
posted by mysterious_stranger at 8:20 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


I recall reading that kids are primed to absorb language-related skills the best before age 6.

Which they're doing if they're exposed to lots of language and conversation and nursery rhymes and books and songs and stories. I just searched for studies of adult outcomes based on aged learned to read and found only this: "Early reading was associated with early academic success, but less lifelong educational attainment and worse midlife adjustment."

I'm no educational researcher, but I've never heard of any research showing that learning to read earlier leads to greater success in adulthood, which ultimately is what we care about, right? I mean getting straight As in grade 3 doesn't actually matter in itself, no matter what those "permanent record" peddlers try to tell you.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:28 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


As long as a person is still paying taxes,and remains involved in trying to make public education better, taking their kids out of public school would mean their tax dollars could be spent on others kids. So I'm not sure that opting out- so long as you remain an active participant in the welfare of others-- innately means you have to abandon all other kids to a crappy school system. I know people who opt out of public school but are passionate advocates of education reform and increasing the funds and resources to improve it.

I think there are certain survival skills and duties of life that kids will need in order to survive- or even to defend their interests of being able to resist the dictated unhealthy and anti-nature lifestyle that structured society often forces on entire communities.

Sometimes that's not fun, and it's not how an individual might prefer to conduct themselves, but it may mean having the skills that they CAN battle a corporation trying to take over their land, because they learned about what's driving that system and how to defend their interests from it. You need to know how to network, how to inspire others, and a lot of knowledge and wisdom to protect your own and the complex ecosystems and living beings around you's interests.

Unschooling where the parents take the lead from the kids all of the time- does not seem advisory when you're in a climate that is so anti-human welfare and difficult to exist without proper training and skills-- a lot of kids of perfectly happy to get guided and directed activities and learning opportunities and I think that can be done without oppressive tyranny.

However I also think a lot of us have learned helplessness about accepting the shitty structural designs of our ways of life that aren't serving us-- our own beliefs are leading us to support a system that isn't healthy for us because we can't even imagine it could be different. We ourselves impose and enforce an unhealthy environment on ourselves because "that's the way it is, and that's how it must be"

Like we can't imagine that if we did away with a lot of the structure, lived with nature and grew our own food, stopped obsessing over deadlines that really aren't important for survival purposes, we might actually just... *gasp*, live longer, healthier, happier lives...
posted by xarnop at 8:28 AM on January 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


Again, I'm not advocating unschooling, just suggesting that people should chill on getting kids to learn to read as early as possible, just because of some magical belief that earlier is better.
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 8:29 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


In other words, the moment we quit trying to teach our son anything was the moment he started really learning.

I am so, so glad for the Hewitts that this is the case, and that they have boys who respond so hungrily to freedom and responsibility. Not every kid does, and it sounds like the Hewitts know their boys well enough to give them possibilities for a learning style that suits those particular boys.

Because I'm doing something similar to what these folks are doing, I have a lot of conflicting feelings about the case study presented here. My two kids, a son and a daughter, are being homeschooled. Not because I hate public education -- I don't! My mother taught in public schools, and I loved my own excellent and long-ago public education, thanks to the local tax base -- but because our local elementary school is failing, and because I watch the neighbor kids in their testing unhappiness, and because I know that my particular kids don't have temperaments that mix well with current educational practices. It just wouldn't work. Not least because the teachers at the school are good, church-going folk and we are, um, not. This school loves its Daddy-Daughter dances and "gender equality" is not up for discussion.

I could list for you the wonderful non-traditional virtues of farm-based homeschooling, but let one story stand in for the rest: I dropped off my son, then 10, at a one-off origami class. The instructor came after me, explaining that kids (there were four of them) were unable to do the projects without parental assistance, and that I needed to be RIGHT THERE because she couldn't be responsible for my child's behavior. Paper projects were, evidently, unsafe. Two hours later, that same kid was responsible for keeping a 300-pound sow entertained and fed in an open pasture as his father and I artificially inseminated a second sow. We do not mollycoddle our kids, and have high expectations for good, mannerly, and responsible behavior. They feed animals, help with harvesting and processing garden produce, run little pumpkin stands in the fall, help catch pigs when they get loose, go hunting with Daddy, shoot BB guns, carry and stack firewood, and do this day after day. They are known, here in my little county, as the most polite children ever.

But this? "We have noticed, however, that the more responsibility we give our sons, the more they assume. The more we trust them, the more trustworthy they become." This? This is so much nonsense. My kids are wonderful, and, when left to their own devices, will sit on the damn computer all day. Oh, God, the hours I have spent arguing over why we put laundry away, and what happens to eggs when they are left outside to freeze, and yes, why writing by hand is actually important, never mind how much time you spend on that damn keyboard! Ben Hewitt's children may be the perfect embodiment of kids who will naturally grow toward the good and orderly, but I myself am finding that most of my time is spent encouraging (OK, often in a RAISED VOICE) daily habits, responsibility, a work ethic, and the idea of natural consequences because my kids often seem not to get it. That my own kids are going to voluntarily scrape chicken poop out of nest box liners or weed a row of vegetables in July? It is to laugh. There is so much work in giving my kids this amazing, precious form of learning. I'm not asking for sympathy -- I could change the way I do things -- but please recognize that this Outside piece is not necessarily descriptive of all homeschooling/unschooling. I also wonder how this account would have differed if it had included his partner's description of how their experiment is going. Do I plan to put my kids in high school? Yes, I think so. Do I often fantasize about trained educators taking over the job of herding my kids into doing something? YES. YES I DO. And then I think about having to become an all-in PTA mommy, and I think of the numerous stupid and baseless school policies, and of the endless friggin' paperwork and testing and...I sack up and insist on reading time, stat. (Best note I have written to an activity leader: "Please excuse my son from choir, as he is need to help load and unload pigs for butchering tonight.")

I am lucky to have the opportunity to do this, and I am grateful for the privilege that permits it. I am trying hard to talk at length with my kids about why we do community service, how not to discriminate, to support equal marriage, fair gender distribution in Lego sets, the problems with factory food, the importance of voting, birth control, and all sorts of things that just don't get talked about here in our local school. I lecture on the regular, largely thanks to the viewpoints and approaches I see here to experiences that may not be my own. It's work. It's not ideal. I know I'm lucky; my kids seem to be pretty good people.

Finally, I want to address a glaring omission from the article, and that's the importance of having some sort of supportive local network. It's hard to do this alone, and online communities can't help with everything, especially with finding kids to play and learn with. Our local homeschool co-ops are religious. The one I belong to, and was a founding member of (and bless the organizer; her commitment to the group has sustained it), is emphatically not. This has helped me find differently-minded folk who are also homeschooling, and to learn from them; it has given my kids opportunities and friendships; it has helped all of us in different ways. The little village has been a little unschool, and I am fortunate to have found some support, especially when it's a difficult day, and I worry that my kids are not taking fencing lessons and prep courses, because OH MY GOD, THE FUTURE.

I think their days, now, are full and often happy. Before tweenhood, they will have bottle-fed newborn feral kittens, foraged in the garden for snacks, eaten animals they have helped raise, been responsible for household tasks, read as they like, discussed politics and gender and the ideas behind books like "The Phantom Tollbooth" and "Lauren Ipsum," helped set up for community events, argued over how best to proceed in Minecraft. No wonder they look happier than the kids on the bus.
posted by MonkeyToes at 8:41 AM on January 4, 2015 [49 favorites]


I'm also realizing a simpler way to state my above point, I think kewb has a great point about the need for structural support and privileged to make the opportunity for some families to do that kind of learning, but to me instead of thinking "so therefore we should all just accept the school system as is" (which I know from kewbs other awesome comments about improving education is not their point but is how I read it for some reason) to me I think it means we should think outside the box and consider creating structural supports for families and communities to live like this, and opening our minds about how we use the structured and state funded learning opportunities (including supporting families with state funded stay at home options). But it does actually take and existing structured system to create these opportunities and some degree of balance seems in order. And starting with putting more pressure on government entities to support indigenous communities and small family farms and farming communities through structurally protecting their existence seem like sides of the same coin of making this more possible for all and allowing kids raised like this who thrive on it to continue living that way.

That's just where my mind is going with the reality that this is an option often only available to people with already existing privileged and who have benefited from well rounded structured learning.
posted by xarnop at 8:56 AM on January 4, 2015


Complain all you want, but keep participating in the drive to fix the system or else admit that you are giving ground to those who seek to destroy the rickety structure that at least attempts equality.


This is the viewpoint I run into most often among my friends and colleagues -- many of whom are teachers pursuing masters degrees or doctorates.

Here's the thing -- compulsory education was started as a means to get the children of immigrants off the streets and into a program of "civilizing" them. There was a moment in history, a very brief moment, when the U.S. economy was expanding, during which having an education would also get you a job, and there was a civil rights movement that happened in civic spaces (not in academia, not in public schools) that pushed for equal rights and access to that "will-lead-to-job" education. That moment in US history is gone - for lots of reasons, but let's start with the lack of okay-paying jobs and full time hours. And one can argue that the forces of inequality were pushing back hard early on, during, and after the Civil Rights movement, up to and including today. Zero tolerance policies, extending the school day, white flight and underfunding of schools in poor urban and rural districts, the list goes on and on.

If one had set out to eliminate inequality in the US, one would not create this structure for achieving it. Its underfunded and, as the article says, it engages in a program of publicly and, with the weight of officialdom, labeling and judging children. There's nothing in that that is designed to decrease inequaliy, or to support human development - in fact, judging and labeling children publicly and officially increases inequality. Yet educators can't understand how a learning environment is achieved if there isn't any grading, and if children can't be obligated to sit still, and turn their minds to the tasks the grownups have assigned to them, for hours each day.

Most teachers I know have hearts of gold, and got into teaching because they "love children" and yet they are required to engage in official activities that really go against growth and development.

Having said that, what happens to children for whom school is a source of caring and support and interest - maybe their only source? We can't all homeschool/unschool -- some families are terrible, abusive, neglectful, some parents are developmentally delayed themselves, not very smart or working three shifts to put food in the table- I recognize that unschooling/homeschooling is not THE answer - it's really contingent on a certain level of privilege - whether it's economic or cultural capital.

I'm all for fixing the system -- but my educator friends don't want to hear my solutions. Unschooing is actually presenting an alternative model that public school systems can learn from. If we can't find a way for children to have a say in their own governance and if we can't debate the merits of grades and homework - if the only solution schools can think of is to EXTEND the school day/boredom/oppression - (classic mistake when something isn't working -"we just need more of it!") - well, we can do better. Educators can do better.

Unschooling or homeschooling your kids can be an effort to get public schools to start changing.
posted by vitabellosi at 8:59 AM on January 4, 2015 [13 favorites]


My BFF's younger brother has unschooled their 4 kids--the oldest is now 18. She's kind of the unschooling success story, having pursued and enjoyed success in a number of activities (talented multi-instrumentalist musician, acting, 4-H, martial arts, etc.). She decided on her own that it would be easier to achieve her future goals by going attending regular high school, so she has been attending a local private HS successfully since her freshman year.

The second child, however, is a little more troublesome, since for a long time the thing he was mainly interested in learning and exploring was video games. In his early teens he was barely a step above functionally illiterate/innumerate and lacking in social boundaries (in this particular family, freedom from academic strictures has gone hand-in-hand with a big dose of freedom from disciplinary strictures as well). Maybe I'm being too pessimistic, but there are a lot of pre-teens/teens out there who, given a choice, would chose to spend most of their time in their rooms playing video games, and keeping kids out of the formal or even informal school system doesn't magically eliminate those types of kids.

And, this particular family has spent their kids lives' living a meager, working-class existence in part because of these choices and other related ones. I guess I'd wrap up my thoughts by saying that I think increasing freedom along one axis in most cases is going to create invisible challenges along other ones.
posted by drlith at 9:02 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


There is no "one size fits all" solution to this. I would have done terribly in an "unschooled" environment and did very well in a structured classroom. Perhaps the needs of the individual child should be taken into consideration, rather than relying in ideology?
posted by SPrintF at 9:04 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


> I don't think we need to take kids out of school (do we need to improve the way we do education, certainly, but that's not the issue), we need to unplug them and send them out of the house when they aren't in school....

As a Generation X'er I hate that this shift happened on my watch. Everyone my age with kids complains about how much time they spend online and/or staring at various screens, but we were the ones who came of age as it hit the ground running and really made it happen. It seemed exciting at first, but the more entrenched it gets the more it seems like something we're all trapped within to varying degrees. Sorry, kids. You'll never really know the freedom of true privacy and independence.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:10 AM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Usually unschooling requires a difficult technique of watching what the child is interested in, figuring out how to nurture those interests, and introducing them to more information about it in a way that doesn't feel like you're forcing anything on them.

This is kind of what gives me pause and is something that just kind of fascinates and weirds me out a little. Parents love their child, because it's their child. But that sometimes creates a bias. Like a helicopter parent who goes to see a teacher when their kid gets like an B+ instead of an A. Or even deeper than that, where a tiger parent has a kid take piano lessons because the parent feels that this is good for the child.

And typical parents already have a lot of sway over the growth of their kids. Just in creating the home environment, the geographic place were a kid floats around in, and just through raising and interacting with the kid. But, in this situation, a parent is also putting on the "the primary educator" hat. How does the parent remove some of their parental love and personal feelings for a child in order to know when to give them a bad grade, or know that maybe what a parent feels is good for the child isn't actually good for the child?

Because the author of the piece dropped out of high school, because he said was numb and rebellious. And he also writes about how he was very impressed by seeing Donald raising two kids at home too. Obviously his own experienced left a strong mark, because he writes about it and it probably influenced him to move to Vermont and have his children unschooled.

We only get his words and what he sees. And okay, the kids seem happy, but have they ever lived in any other lifestyle before?
posted by FJT at 9:10 AM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


I would also have done terribly if unschooled. I might have done okay homeschooled (though I enjoyed school pretty much all the way through) -- but my parents would have been horrible teachers for me. This not only needs children with specific styles of learning and parents who are at home most of the time but also parents who are capable of being full time teachers as well.
posted by jeather at 9:11 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


The part about "they learned to read when they were about eight" kind of hurts me and I just couldn't keep going after that.

I have three kids who are 13, 10, and 7. The older two are homeschooled and the youngest goes to public school. It's been really interesting watching their different styles of academic development. My oldest didn't learn to read until he was maybe 9? But he went from "mostly not reading" to "voracious reader of long novels" essentially overnight, which is a pattern you hear about anecdotally from a lot of unschoolers and late-start homeschoolers.

My 10-year-old was one of those kids who basically just needed a quick introduction to the idea that letters could represent the sounds of speech, and he became a fluent can-read-anything reader at, like 6 or 7.

My 7-year-old is like the modal child they based the school curriculum on. He's in first grade now, and as long as he's been in school, the curriculum has been hitting him exactly where he's at. He's neither bored by being taught what he already knows nor frustrated by trying to learn what he's not ready for. He's doing a great job reading; his school uses leveled readers, and the typical levels for first grade are, like, 7 through 14. Halfway through the year, he's on level 10 readers.

It's just been really been fascinating to watch the different ways they grow, is all I'm saying. Because kids are awesome.
posted by not that girl at 9:14 AM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I love violently swinging pendulums with children clinging to them for dear life.
posted by srboisvert at 9:20 AM on January 4, 2015 [14 favorites]


Unschooling or homeschooling your kids can be an effort to get public schools to start changing.

Unfortunately, these will be used as a couple of the many reasons why it's ok to eliminate public schools altogether.
posted by Thorzdad at 9:41 AM on January 4, 2015 [7 favorites]


The article and concept are both interesting, though I question the tendency of cutting edge concepts like this to completely discard any previous ideas (i.e. traditional schooling) and start from scratch. It seems likely to do the opposite of what they want to do.

It seems to me that the method described would cause its own problems, but just in a different way--as was mentioned above, kids may not be able to navigate bureaucracy effectively, sit still at a desk job, or other such things. Unschooling just doesn't strike me as the panacea that it makes itself out to be. Honestly, I just strongly think we need teachers who give a shit.

Hell, I gained more transferable knowledge in my Senior year art class and Junior year AP biology class than I'd gained in the rest of my high school career, and I ended up working in banking, for crying out loud--but that's because the teachers seemed to actually care about their subject, and talked to us like we were adults, and assigned projects/homework that worked well for all learning types, not just garbage that vaguely resembled what would be involved in final projects or state exams. I certainly could have used a teacher like that for Sophomore year math, which I failed (I ended up taking accounting for a math credit, which worked out tons better--why couldn't I have chosen that myself?).

But shit, that's just my came-from-a-working-class-family white girl experience in suburban public schools. How about my Latino husband who, at the time he came to the area as a child, barely spoke English? Forget about homeschooling; his mom still barely understands English and the only book she ever read was the Bible. They were dirt poor and could barely pay for food, let alone a tutor. Forget about unschooling; go outside downtown and you may get yourself killed. So, he went to an urban public school. He had a teacher who gave two shits, and who worked with my husband daily and stayed after school consistently to improve his English and help with his homework. Now, you'd never know that English is his second language (except when he switches the verb and the noun sometimes, ha!).

I don't know. We keep trying to revolutionize or re-work this junk, and all we end up with is junk with similar problems. I don't know how we'd get more teachers to give a shit (pay them more is a start, but that doesn't always equal enthusiasm), but something needs to happen. These poor kids end up in the Real World with barely anything to work with.
posted by Verdandi at 9:42 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


I really liked MonkeyToes comment up-thread and the person who referred to unschooling as "faith-based." I used to be part of a lot of online unschooling communities, and there were definitely these cognitive biases at work. My partner and I still laugh about this one conversation on a mailing list we were on, about how people's children always woke up happy because they were able to set their own sleep schedules and sleep as long as they needed. So could our kid, and we knew he was awake in the morning because we'd hear this long, pained moan from his bedroom. Eventually he'd shuffle out and be grumpy and out of sorts for half an hour or so. Some people just wake up slowly. Now he's a teenager, and he still wakes up like that, and as he zombies past us in the morning (or afternoon, as the case may be), my partner and I like to look at each other and say quietly, "My unschooled child always wakes up happy."

My older two kids also struggle with self-motivation and independence. They want and need to be supported to do even the things they want to do. My 13-year-old is working on learning Arduino, and he's really into it. He could get it out and work on it any time, but he finds that hard to do, so he asked me to schedule "project time" with him. Even though project time for me mostly means just being nearby in case he needs me. He's pretty self-aware about this, and many adults also struggle to make themselves do the things they really want to do. But he's not a kid I can just turn loose the way many unschoolers do, because temperamentally that's not who he is. But there are unschooling adherents who believe that kids like mine don't exist, and if he needs guidance from me or from other adults it's because we're doing unschooling wrong. This kind of thing is ultimately why we aren't unschoolers, even though I loved the idea of it so much: because like any ideology, it sometimes encourages you to ignore the actual needs of the actual kid in front of you in order to adhere to an idealized model.

It's true that homeschooling and unschooling take privilege. But I'm always frustrated by that argument/accusation. People want me not to homeschool my kids because it's an expression of privilege, but here are some other things that nobody has ever challenged me about:

1. Living in the most affluent school district in our area (even if we live in the cheapest neighborhood in that district). I've heard people in our area talk about the mixed feelings they had about whether to move out of Local Dying Industrial City into a suburb or one of the small towns in the area, but, unlike with homeschooling, nobody has ever said to me, "I don't know how you can justify living in Suburb instead of sending your kid to Failing City Public Schools." At the district level, people seem to accept the idea that folks do the best they can for their kids, and that this is a dilemma every family with a certain level of resources is going to deal with, that the educational system is broken in this way and we have to make the best choices we can within it. But to step even partly outside the system for the good of your kid is seen as unacceptable.

2. I was going to itemize, but then I realized that the second item is "anything that's not school." Nobody has ever challenged me for taking my kids to Chicago, Boston, Philadelphia, to visit museums like we just don't have here. Nobody has ever suggested that I shouldn't buy my anatomy-fascinated kid dissection specimens. Nobody has ever said to me, "Wow, that is a seriously nice microscope you have there. How can you justify owning a microscope that nice when so many kids don't have access to decent science supplies either at school or at home?"or "You know, most kids grow up in homes with fewer than 100 books in them. But I can see that you've invested a lot of money in books and bookshelves for your kids. Doesn't that make you feel guilty?"

And, one of the biggest for me, nobody has ever suggested to me that we should not support our youngest son in competitive gymnastics, where he is very talented, even though I actually have friends whose kids are not in competitive gymnastics because they can't afford it. Gymnastics costs us $370/month. It will be more next year when he moves up a level and moves from two required practices a week to three. If he sticks with it and progresses, in a few years his coaching fees alone will be over $500/month. His uniform was another $300 on top of that. Gymnastics is expensive enough that it has concretely affected our family's budget: our weekly food budget is lower, for instance, since he joined the team.

Not one person has ever suggested that we're wrong to give our kid an opportunity to develop his talent and passion that costs so much money that many families can't give similarly-talented children the same opportunity. But keeping the older two out of school is also a way we allow them to develop their passions and talents in environments that are appropriate for them, and lots of people, both strangers on the internet and friends and acquaintances, think we're wrong for doing it.

We have one kid in school, so we're obviously not anti-school. School is the right thing for Kid #3. Kid #2 seriously considered going to school this year, because he wanted more opportunities to be around kids his own age. Ultimately, he decided to keep homeschooling and try to get out into the community more. But we made sure he knew whatever choice he made was OK with us. Kid #1 is now in an alternative-to-high-school program two days a week.

We feed our kids, we clothe our kids, we buy them good quality bicycles that fit them. We've paid for music classes, swimming lessons, dance lessons, workshops on electronics and robotics. We pay the gymnastics coach, and when one of our kids needed therapy, we paid for that. We make use of the excellent health insurance my partner's job provides even though we think the health insurance system in the US is stupid and broken, and even though we actually have friends who don't have health insurance at all. And two of our kids homeschool. I don't see it as all that different. I think I understand why people feel like opting out of school is a betrayal in ways that all those other things aren't. I just think they're wrong.
posted by not that girl at 9:55 AM on January 4, 2015 [22 favorites]


I was homeschooled and have done okay since- but the main reason I regret it is all the social intangibles you learn from being crammed together with lots of other people for huge blocks of time. I self-assess as being pretty deficient in those "soft power" skills, and while working on it, it's not an easy climb for a natural introvert raised with some pretty anti-authoritarian values.

The consequence is I tend to wander around in our culture feeling like a half programmed machine: I'm educated enough to function, but a lot of stuff we do as a culture just doesn't connect, driving me to want to continue not participating in larger society.

I think it's different for homeschooled kids who at least get some indoctrination in an alternative social structure (thinking Christian homeschoolers here), but that wasn't how it worked in my family. They asked us to pass yearly competence tests, which I did. That was it.

So although I dislike a lot of what school does to kids, it is in my mind necessary to acclimate people to the weird byways and side roads of people relating to other people, by forcing people to have to deal with other people, and in that function school attendance is important to continue. The dehumanization that happens to.some along the way though, is really concerning.
posted by Queen of Robots at 10:05 AM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


But in every case, the story really seems to be about people who have accrued tremendous advantages from existing institutions finding out that they can more effectively pass down those advantages *outside* formal institutions.

Yes, very much yes.

Unschooling seems remarkably unworkable in any sort of large-scale way, partially because successive generations are going to be moving farther and farther away from that institutional knowledge and access.

And what happens if parents are neglectful or abusive? What happens if the kids have major learning disabilities or mental-health problems or developmental delays? What happens in families where having one parent stay at home does not economically work? What happens in families where parents do want to stay at home but lack the intelligence, creativity, and desire to spend a great deal of their time managing their child's learning?

I think there's a very good reason to create a system in which people who want to teach and are good at teaching are the ones primarily doing the teaching, and in which families are not the only adults responsible for their child's development, and in which some idea of equal opportunity exists. The system we currently have is awful, I realize, but I don't think that deinstitutionalization or privatization or deregulation is the right answer to that, in any large-scale way.
posted by jaguar at 10:06 AM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


I attended, at various points in my childhood, a public school, a private school, and a Sudbury model school. Public school taught me to hate myself. Private school taught me to hate myself, and also some math and French. The Sudbury school didn't teach me anything and left me woefully unprepared for certain aspects of college, but at least it didn't make me miserable.

Everything that got me into college and allowed me to succeed there I learned outside of school, most of it through books and the internet.

I don't think it can work that way for all kids. Having supportive and well-educated parents was an essential part of the formula for me. From a young age, I was learning science from my father and rhetoric from my mother, not through formal study but through everyday conversation. Many kids don't have parents that can or will provide that.
posted by dephlogisticated at 10:25 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Sigh. This many comments and nobody has said: "Experience your desks, people." ?
posted by sexyrobot at 10:34 AM on January 4, 2015


The system we currently have is awful, I realize,

This is ridiculous. The system we have allows children of uneducated parents to become educated. Foster kids, kids with illiterate parents, kids with sick or busy or stupid or lazy parents or ideologues for a mommy and daddy can all go to public school and learn an astonishing breath of subjects from adults with college degrees in education.

Saying otherwise is woefully ignorant of the incredible impact of public schooling on children world wide.
posted by fshgrl at 10:37 AM on January 4, 2015 [27 favorites]


The thing about socialization in school is that it's artificial: kids are rigidly age-segregated in a way wholly unlike the rest of life. And because this age-segregation is occurring at developmentally temperamental and tenuous times, the socialization offered by learning to navigate the often-vicious world of, e.g., only 14-15 year-olds does not translate well to adult life. I see it frequently in my undergraduate students, those who come to college having been socially successful by playing the game well in high school find out that most college students (on my campus, that means ages 18-28 most commonly) don't have patience for that bullshit; conversely, many students for whom high school was socially a struggle (or nightmare) because they were really into the wrong kind of thing (band, orchestra, math, biology) suddenly find themselves socially popular because of the thing that formerly brought them so much grief.

K-12 schools are horrible laboratories for socialization, and many adult assholes I know are assholes simply because they never outgrew high school socialization.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:41 AM on January 4, 2015 [17 favorites]


A little note my brother wrote that touches on how his (our) unschooled childhood on a remote island provided a unique appreciation for bureaucracy was somewhat recently FPP'd here. Navigating bureaucracy is not an issue for the unschoolers that I've met, past a little bit of culture shock.

It is true that being an atypical kid with intrinsic motivation can be very lonely once you hit the masses of schooled kids. That may not be an indictment of unschooling per se though. Society is a kind of fucked up place, and fitting in is very different than doing well or being moral.

If I have one criticism of unschooling, it's that parents often think they know what's best for their kids. Religious parents exist, abusive parents exist, ideologically driven parents exist. I'd rather all kids were in excellent schools.
posted by tychotesla at 10:44 AM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Unschooling seems remarkably unworkable in any sort of large-scale way, partially because successive generations are going to be moving farther and farther away from that institutional knowledge and access.

The bigger problem with extending unschooling or homeschooling is just how stunningly labor-intensive it is. For lots of middle-class families, the opportunity cost of homeschooling or unschooling might be $50-100K/year.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Not one person has ever suggested that we're wrong to give our kid an opportunity to develop his talent and passion that costs so much money that many families can't give similarly-talented children the same opportunity. But keeping the older two out of school is also a way we allow them to develop their passions and talents in environments that are appropriate for them, and lots of people, both strangers on the internet and friends and acquaintances, think we're wrong for doing it.

People don't hold up buying your kid a microscope as an "alternative" to public schools. Which the fpp used. So long as unschooling as seen as that, you will have to deal with accusations of privilege. As long as you start your articles with "We Don't Need no Education", people will yell back "THE HELL WE DON'T!" You invoke nosism at your own peril. I think WE need public education, and I don't have any kids.
posted by zabuni at 10:47 AM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


kids may not be able to navigate bureaucracy effectively, sit still at a desk job, or other such things

"Anecdote" is not the singular of "data", but going to public school endowed me with a deeply-felt, occasionally irrational, hatred of and disdain for bureaucracy and arbitrary authority that is not at all adaptive.

The problem, though, is not with the ideal of providing all the kids, regardless of their personal circumstances, with the opportunity to learn to function and reason. The problem is partly with some extra, anti-human goals that have been grafted on to the whole process -- Gatto's Seven Lessons, more or less -- and partly with the execution.


I think there's a very good reason to create a system in which people who want to teach and are good at teaching are the ones primarily doing the teaching, and in which families are not the only adults responsible for their child's development, and in which some idea of equal opportunity exists. The system we currently have is awful, I realize, but I don't think that deinstitutionalization or privatization or deregulation is the right answer to that, in any large-scale way.


QFT. In fact, it seems like there doesn't, in principle, have to be conflict between this ideal and some of the methodological ideals of unschooling. The parts of school that I really liked were lightly-structured environments in which there were (1) very few students; (2) a few teachers who seemed quite invested in what they were doing; (3) lots of books and stuff; (4) a great deal of freedom, constrained largely by teachers' suggestions. As far as I can tell, most of the people I went to school with did not have access to such environments in school, and the gatekeeping involved the biases of individual teachers and dubious psychometrics. In fact, most people would probably benefit from such an approach to education (i.e. one on the unschooling spectrum, as it were), and there doesn't seem to be any theoretical incompatibility between such an approach and the ideals of public education. This is a conflict that could in principle be reconciled by throwing (politically unfeasibly) large amounts of money at it. The fact that public school has many stultifying and anti-human elements is largely explained by the fact that the resources allocated to it are woefully inadequate, and by the fact that lots of folks regard its purpose as something other than education.

I teach a bit at a university; I've occasionally had students tell me that they've developed a strong interest in the (scientific) subject that I teach and discovered capabilities and proclivities that they didn't know they had. Great news! So, they say, they're now rethinking their plans to become teachers, because they should actually "aim higher". The ideological environment that leads them to this conclusion explains a large part of the problem with public schools.

Suspicion of, and disdain for, certain types of expertise seems pretty deeply ingrained in the US ideological genome, though; the very first USese people were apparently sympathetic to the stereotypes embodied by, like, Ichabod Crane*. To the extent that unschooling is motivated by this sort of ideology, I'm very suspicious of it, but I can easily imagine unschooling with pretty much the opposite justification, namely that it is school itself, as currently implemented, that's anti-educational. It would be good to see the latter motivation directed at the evolution of mass public education into a tool for the development of everybody's autonomy and creativity. All it will take is a whole lot of money and a concerted effort to marginalize and silence the millions of people who would oppose such measures (for reasons of e.g. small-mindedness, tradition, or wallet). In other words, if I had kids, I'd be in a real bind about what to do with them educationwise.

*I think this is Richard Hofstadter's observation/example, but I don't quite remember.
posted by busted_crayons at 10:48 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


But there are unschooling adherents who believe that kids like mine don't exist, and if he needs guidance from me or from other adults it's because we're doing unschooling wrong. This kind of thing is ultimately why we aren't unschoolers, even though I loved the idea of it so much: because like any ideology, it sometimes encourages you to ignore the actual needs of the actual kid in front of you in order to adhere to an idealized model.

There are some really radical unschoolers out there. But I've also heard people argue that if an unschooled kid decides to go to public school, she still counts as an unschooler because she chose it herself. And that goes for any additional structure that generally wouldn't be considered unschooling. Learning what you need to learn - including how much structure and accountability you need - and asking for that is part of unschooling.

So although I dislike a lot of what school does to kids, it is in my mind necessary to acclimate people to the weird byways and side roads of people relating to other people, by forcing people to have to deal with other people, and in that function school attendance is important to continue.

I don't know. I went through 11 years of very good public schooling and 2 years of alternative schooling (not as loosey-goosey as unschooling, just vaguely Montessori/Waldorf-flavored) and I have terrible social skills. I was pretty outgoing and well-adjusted as a child, but constant bullying starting in middle school made me paranoid and untrusting. I notice whenever a homeschooler or unschooler has trouble socially, people blame homeschooling, but whenever a public school student has trouble socially, people blame the kid.

If I had my way, we would have a well-funded network of public schools run in the free school style, staffed by well-paid learning facilitators. This would fix the problem with personal expenses, parental biases, and socialization, but also give the kids the freedom and supportive environment they need. That's unlikely to happen, I realize.
posted by Anyamatopoeia at 10:50 AM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


The Dean of Purdue College of Technology said something to the effect of, "The best kept secret of higher education today: the average college student changes their major 5 times because they don't really know what they want to do." Link. Note that several free education sites use a competency based evaluation system of badges, achievements and mastery. This unschooling is the grandfather of MOOC. It's a technique for extracting the din and intelligence quotient reward and class system out of your education background. Supplementing an education with the do-able mastery in [insert your interest]. Say we don't need no education to create money!
posted by ArticTusk at 10:51 AM on January 4, 2015


I guess I'm saying that, while it's important to recognize what schools are not teaching, or are not teaching well, when considering this set of issues, it's also really important to consider what our current model of schooling teaches really well that's also not very desirable. There are many hidden lessons embedded within our system and structure of schooling that kids learn really well, and that are quite undesirable when examined, like age-segregation.

Many parents opting for some version of not-in-school are, in my experience, acting to avoid those things rather than proactively to find something that's missing. I agree that WE NEED PUBLIC, SECULAR SCHOOLING, UNIVERSALLY AND EQUITABLY AVAILABLE, but am very unsure how helpful our current manifestation of that is. I find myself a radical reformist rather than an abolitionist regarding schools, I suppose, but those parents pointing out the many and major failings of our current system are not wrong, and are not actually--again, in my experience--enemies of public schooling. They may, however, be enemies of our current ways of schooling, and have good reasons for thinking so.
posted by LooseFilter at 10:55 AM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


There's a difference between "Given all our particulars, unschooling or homeschooling is the best option for our family" and "Every family should unschool their kids." I totally respect the rights of families to decide for themselves what works (assuming no abuse or neglect), but declaring it the best solution for everyone (as the author of linked piece seems to do) is short-sighted.
posted by jaguar at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


So although I dislike a lot of what school does to kids, it is in my mind necessary to acclimate people to the weird byways and side roads of people relating to other people, by forcing people to have to deal with other people, and in that function school attendance is important to continue.

I don't know if school serves that function at all. It just creates its own artificial social environment, with its own rules; rather than "forcing people to deal with other people" it forces people to deal with other people in an unnatural context that is never going to be encountered again, unless maybe one ends up incarcerated or in some environment run by people who took the social structure of school a bit too much to heart.

At school, I learned numerous maladaptive social "skills" and a defensive and wary attitude toward my fellow humans; I have been out of school for 11 years and am still trying to extricate myself from those attitudes and their consequences. The socialization argument for the present implementation of schooling is not, in my estimation, strong.
posted by busted_crayons at 11:04 AM on January 4, 2015 [12 favorites]


We're encountering a completely different educational philosophy here in Nova Scotia. Our public school system is very much against homework, at least at the elementary school level. My eldest is in grade 6, and he rarely brings home any. A tough night for him is "half an hour" of math work, which he does in about five minutes, or reading (which he does anyway). Our youngest is in primary, and since September he has brought home two books to read ("This is a cow. This is a dog. This is a cat.") and two sheets to colour.

Here it seems to be a competition between extracurricular activities like hockey practice and homework, and this being Canada, hockey wins out. Almost four hours of homework a night is ridiculous, too.

It feels like we're conducting a giant social experiment on our children, throwing them into a whole bunch of different educational systems and seeing what comes out.
posted by GhostintheMachine at 11:14 AM on January 4, 2015


It would be much better if it actually were an experiment -- that is, something designed in advance for controlled observation of differential outcomes. Instead, it's a mish-mash of uncontrolled treatment conditions based on whatever happens to be most politically fit in the relevant jurisdictions.
posted by aaronetc at 11:46 AM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is always a common thread running through homeschool discussions that "the kids that thrive under it are exceptional or somehow different, and it would never work for their kids." I can almost guarantee you that the author doesn't think his kids are exceptional. They've been afforded a unique opportunity to have way more agency over their day to day activities than most kids their age, and they are thriving for it. Many kids (I won't go as far to say most), would thrive similarly if given way more agency over their lives at young age. I saw it my kids, and I've seen it in dozens and dozens of homeschooling families that I know. Although their is a small percentage of kids that homeschool because they are exceptional (musical virtuosos, Olympic level athletes, etc.); I only know one in that group. The rest are normal every day kids that because they were afforded choices and time to follow through on the choices, ended up thriving in a way they probably wouldn't have in the school system. I've also seen it not work and the kids return to the school system, which is fine too. There is way more than one way to get educated, and the more options the better. Homeschooling is never going to be more than a fringe activity, so the question that's interesting to me is how do we get the kids in the public school system to experience some of the same benefits? How do we give them way more control over their lives at age 8, instead of waiting for age 18?
posted by COD at 12:00 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Instead, it's a mish-mash of uncontrolled treatment conditions based on whatever happens to be most politically fit in the relevant jurisdictions.

And there is unlikely to be a serious, evidence-based evaluation of which strategies are the most successful. The mish-mash does make it harder to compare -- but we do know some things tend to not work well, like overburdening and underpaying teachers. We will never address that, though, until we get our heads out of our asses.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 12:04 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


How do we give them way more control over their lives at age 8, instead of waiting for age 18?

Whichever perspective you look at it, it's probably gonna come down to money. Obviously, more money creates a better school with better staff that know these techniques. More money creates more additional programs and activities that give children more choice and thus more control on what they want to do. If parents made more money they could spend more time with kids and be able to see what they like and provide the necessary resources for them to pursue it.
posted by FJT at 12:08 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


I have two friends who didn't learn to read til 8 or 9. I learned to read at 3. I have often wondered if that difference is why they have such unique and creative ways of looking at the world. (Both of them are successful, by the way).

The system we currently have is awful, I realize,

This is ridiculous. The system we have allows children of uneducated parents to become educated.


No, the system we have IS awful. Just because it could conceivably be worse does not change that. If I had a kid there is no way I would subject them to the authoritarian brainwashing that goes on these days. (No lockers. Suspensions for drawing or writing things that might be alarming. 24/7 bullying without repercussions. "Zero tolerance." The list goes on and on.) And don't get me started on the drugs and gangs. I have never seen so many drugs as I did when I was in high school, and that has not improved.

I agree that under the set-them-free idea kids will be less trained to sit still for hours. I'm not convinced that's a skill you can't learn later (I did). I'm not convinced it's a skill worth cultivating anyway, and I'm even less convinced that the kids who thrive under the Set Them Free model generally manage to even stay in school long enough to graduate.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:52 PM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


Having said all that, I really really think people need to learn math as early as is age appropriate. I have never met a kid who went to alternative schools and who wasn't some sort of prodigy who could handle grade-level-or-above math. That would be my main concern with the Set Them Free model.
posted by small_ruminant at 1:56 PM on January 4, 2015


Teachers shadowing students: Students sit all day, and sitting is exhausting.
posted by saucysault at 4:20 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


Years ago, I taught interest classes for home schooled kids, and was totally taken aback to learn that it was acceptable for parents to unschool their children.

Many of the kids were wildly creative, but too many couldn't spell, read, or do basic math, even in their mid teens.

Doing what's right for your children is good parenting. Not preparing them for life outside of their own home is irresponsible.
posted by bartlett at 4:57 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Children should write original software by age 7, maybe a smooth transition from coloring books. And bureaucracies should be replaced with transparent wiki-like databases.
posted by jeffburdges at 4:59 PM on January 4, 2015 [1 favorite]


What kids need instead, Gray contends, is exploration and play without supervision. It is this that allows them to develop self-determination and confidence.
This is absolutely true, I believe. But the solution to that isn't necessarily home schooling or un-schooling, it's well, play without supervision. There are a whole range of reasons why lots of kids don't have this, from safety issues in areas where kids simply can't be allowed to be unsupervised due to the risk of real harm, to environmental conditions where there is simply nothing to explore because the family lives in a concrete jungle or suburban wasteland with little or no transport infrastructure to allow them to get to something worth exploring, to socio-economic conditions that mean parents are either both the only breadwinner and parent or both parents need to work long hours just to make ends meet. Despite the glib statements made in the article, for many (perhaps most) kids, 'play without supervision' involves a great deal of work for parents that may simply not have the capacity to make this happen.

There are very few kids that live in an environment where truly unsupervised play and exploration is possible anyway. Were a parent to let their kids could roam freely after school and on weekends, they invite intervention of all sorts and are likely to be branded as neglectful parents. It's easy for someone with a large rural property to say 'just let them explore', but most people don't have that privilege.

Despite its weaknesses and failures (of which there are many), public schooling systems do provide a significant and tangible benefit to the vast majority of children. Public schooling is generally free (more or less), allowing children from all economic and social strata to at least have the opportunity to gain a basic education. It allows children from all sorts of not-ideal homes to see that there is more to life than how heir parents live. It allows children to interact with peers from all sorts of backgrounds rather than only those within their parents' social circle. Suggesting that all kids could benefit from being un-schooled not only ignores the very reason that parents make this decision (my child/ren don't do well in such a structured environment), because many children do much better in a structured environment, but ignores the absolute privilege that is inherent in being able to do this, because at least one parent needs to be at home and reasonably free. For very many households, this simply isn't possible. Maybe if a guaranteed living wage existed, we would see many more children in alternative educational environments. I don't think we would, but it would be nice if families had an actual choice in the matter.
posted by dg at 5:16 PM on January 4, 2015 [4 favorites]


Forgive me, I don't have a keyboard, so I will be brief:

1) Funding follows students. It is not a particularly sized tax pot divided among X students, where fewer students means more dollars per student. Local schools lose that funding when children don't enroll. Thinking that keeping your kids home provides more funding for public school kids is a fundamental misunderstanding of public education finance. Keeping them home reduces funding, and it hurts schools when middle-class kids are removed from schools.

" I know people who opt out of public school but are passionate advocates of education reform and increasing the funds and resources to improve it. "


No. They are not advocates. The single most important thing engaged families can do for public schools is ENROLL THEIR CHILDREN IN THEM. If you claim to be an advocate for free universal public education but don't send your kids to public school, you're full of hot air and hurting your local schools while claiming you support them.

Regarding people not challenging you about moving to a ritzy suburb ... " urban anchor" parents talk about that ALL THE TIME and who they know who's fled to the suburbs and how that's a total abrogation of moral responsibility. They don't say it to your face because they don't want to say "white flight" and start a fight. But they definitely talk about it behind your back. (Personally I say to people's faces that I'm disappointed and that they're contributing to a tragedy of the commons but everyone knows this is my thing.)

I have informed the school my older son won't be doing homework, though. You can get away with opting out of homework completely through elementary school in most places. In junior high they'll have to do at least some. We just said what we though was developmentally appropriate for our child was to spend two hours in the mud after school every day and to do leisure reading in the evening, and we would therefore prefer to opt out of routine homework. Got a bit of guff from the math teacher but total support from the other teachers, and from the principal.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:23 PM on January 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


If you claim yo be an advocate for free universal public education but don't send your kids to public school, you're full of hot air and hurting your local schools while claiming you support them.


Are you asking people to put their kids in schools where they will be subject to actual physical harm and terrible education out of principle? Or are you asking people to just live places where the schools aren't full of guns and rapes, the way they are where I live?

Every single person I have known who gets all self righteous about public schooling has had the luxury of living where the schools aren't dangerous. Yes, they sacrificed to be there, but they were able to. (Oh, and as soon as it turns out their kid has some "special circumstance," which seems to be nearly inevitable, out the kid comes and goes into charter school. )
posted by small_ruminant at 5:28 PM on January 4, 2015 [6 favorites]


I lived in a "failed" large urban district that is majority-minority and 80+% impoverished. We have chosen to stay in the city and send our children to the local public school because we believe in universal public education for all children. We also believe that moving to a wealthy enclave or opting out of public schools teaches your children an important lesson, and probably not one you're hoping to impart.

When I got pissed about the quality of my public school district, and got pregnant, I ran for school board, to improve schooling for ALL kids in my community, rather than moving or going private to improve it just for mine. I serve five years on the school board. I have invested thousands of hours into my district. I have also invested my children into it. Because, yes, it is OUT OF PRINCIPLE, the principle that ALL children deserve a safe and good and free education. I truly don't want my children to learn from me that its okay to buy your way out of the problems of society. That's not who we are as a family, and I would be ashamed for my children to learn that from me.

I'll ride this high horse all I want because we have walked the walk pretty hardcore on this issue. :)

We continue in very active advocacy at the local and state levels, and most mefites have seen me write about this topic ad nauseum. But most importantly, we send our kids to public school.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:45 PM on January 4, 2015 [22 favorites]


PS, large urban districts are not that dangerous statistically; rather, humans are extra bad at evaluating risk as it relates to their children.

Also, middle class kids do FINE in failing public schools and go to the same colleges at about the same rate as their counterparts in ritzy suburban districts; the concentration of poverty hurts poor kids, not middle-class ones. College-ready skills are transmitted by parents in middle-class families. Children in poverty rely much more on teachers and middle-class peers for that. Don't deprive them of peers with those skills.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:53 PM on January 4, 2015 [9 favorites]


Unfortunately, these will be used as a couple of the many reasons why it's ok to eliminate public schools altogether.

Maybe, but from what I've seen, Quantoids and Privateers actually seem to be arguing that they can do a better job at what public schools are currently doing -- "we can grade, label and judge your children better! We can do a better job of keeping elite suburban schools elite, we just need to set up a system to scientifically prove that urban schools are failing and should be shut down! We can set up charter schools that make little black children stand in line and be DISCIPLINED, and, really, make school into a Boot Camp for young black boys who will be trained to obey!"

And what happens when they shut down "failing" public schools? They don't let the kids run wild all day (again - the point of compulsory education is to monitor and constrain THOSE kids) -- they turn those schools over to charter schools, to private companies, they replace most or all of school staff (ie. bust the union, lower salaries, can hire and fire at will). And those charter schools have leeway that isn't given to non-charter public schools. Leeway to pay huge executive salaries, leeway to be opaque, leeway to make decisions without public input.

So far, the dismantlers of public education don't want to get rid of compulsory education -- no no! They just want to turn it into a for-profit enterprise. They're fine with tax payer money going into an education system -- they just want to make sure the money ends up in private executive salaries (and not in teachers' salaries.)

No - they want compulsory public education -- the compulsory part is key.

So I'm suggesting that schools operate in ways that emphasize self-governance, ways that feel rewarding instead of feeling punishing to children and families. (If you grew up in a great school -- yay for you! Your experiences are not shared with all kids. Many many kids experience racism, inequality, and general shittiness at the hands of the authorities who are in charge of them -- it's not just a matter of their attitudes and the failures of their parents to get with the program.) Why can't aspects of the school day be optional? What if school was funded to be open on certain days of the week and offered to educate children and parents? What if it was all enrichment on an as-needed basis? What if there wasn't grading, but it was all "you did it! You mastered the material!" or "I think there's more you could do here, if you want!" Those are just some of many many possibilities.

I'll tell you why we will never eliminate grading -- because then A students (actually, their parents) will not be able to demonstrate their superiority, and teachers cannot be monitored by their superiors. (At least not efficiently, cheaply, and quickly.) Grading only serves the elite -- it is a method by which well-off parents can demonstrate (scientifically!) that their children are superior to those OTHER children. We know that children's grades are most closely associated with parent income and education level -- why are we still grading? Teachers already know how well a child is learning, and can articulate that to the family without creating a "short-hand" of good and bad grades. Once in a great while, you can set up a structure whereby a few children are motivated to improve their performance through grading -- but I'd argue that's rare (and artificial -- implying that one could invent some other artificial structure to motivate a child to improve -- or you could just let the child not improve in some areas of learning.) And there are far more children who are de-motivated by getting a bad grade. (For Christ's sake -- we call them "BAD grades"!)

We can do better. We can do better. Create some alternatives that eliminate some of the shortcomings of the present system and parents will defend educators -- instead, we're boiling each other slowly, conditioning us to the point where we'll let profiteers, without any kind of public transparency and accountability, enslave our children. (Or, more accurately, enslave other people's children -- poor children -- which is actually kind of more despicable.)
posted by vitabellosi at 6:30 PM on January 4, 2015 [8 favorites]


Money, and time and resources. Money, and time and resources are what's needed to tailor the way we educate our children to maximize their happiness and potential. Three things we are frankly not willing to spend on them, collectively.

I can picture in my mind the ideal approach to education, that combines the unstructured homeschool approach with the socializing, structured, classroom approach, that is regimented enough but also flexible enough, and it requires a crap-ton of resources, and probably a stay-at-home parent, and community-oriented model of education, where a student can be in a mathematics classroom in the morning, a taekwondo studio in the afternoon, and spend the next morning reading their favorite book during some private time in their room, and then go to a workshop to build balsa-wood models of sailboats with their friends.

And it seems to me that the possibility of an educational system that adapts to the needs of the student to maximize their happiness and potential is a utopian pipedream, because we barely keep the factory-model system we have, the ersatz-Prussian industrial/public model, from being defunded by tax-grinches or dismantled by religious fundamentalists.

We keep coming across all these problems that we address in isolation, seeking technocratic tweaks to patch the holes and streamline the process, when all those problems are really interrelated: the unschooling that benefits the kids in the article is a result of deep class-inequity. This problem, the education problem, is part and parcel of the wage problem, which is part and parcel of the fossil fuel/climate instability problem, which is part and parcel of the problems of the globalized economy, and on and on and so forth. And nobody is offering real solution. Just privileged kids growing up on a farm while everything else crumbles.
posted by Ray Walston, Luck Dragon at 6:39 PM on January 4, 2015 [2 favorites]


Doug Stowe is a wood shop teacher at an alternative primary school in Arkansaw. He has a blog called Wisdom of the Hands, where he talks about a form of handcraft education modelled after a Scandinavian system that was to the U.S. about 120 years ago, called sloyjd. There was a time when the development of craftsmanship was regarded as a form of moral education.
posted by bonobothegreat at 8:09 PM on January 4, 2015 [3 favorites]


There is great discord in this nation with ridiculous partisan and religious attempts to bend Fair And Appropriate Education to one mindset or another. For instance, in Utah students have to have parental approval to see Barack Obama speaking at school. In Texas and the deep south public ed is deeply moulded by ideological, religious, political and cultural biases. This isn't secular free public education, it is indoctrination. As a military brat I went to five elementary schools, one junior high, and three high schools. I got a great education, though I was always an outsider. Many new American students and children of economic migrants, move like I did. I spoke English at home, and at times German because of tours of duty, to keep my parents linguistic skills up. I didn't have to struggle with language, only local customs and belief systems. This is a different world, my kids attended public schools, but had a wild back yard, we gardened, and hiked. I met with the school to tell them we didn't sign up for Christian music lessons, at my daughter's request. The teacher called in an administrator for the discussion, that went on for an hour. The music teacher did not know the meaning of secular. I asked the admin guy why he came in and why the discussion was so long. He told me I was the only parent to broach this issue, that could discuss it rationally, without fury. The discrimination against a-religious kids is strong.

The time in my childhood I value the most was the time spent in the wilds, or on my grandparents farm. School was very alienating, even though I did well. The individual is what has always made this nation great, that can not just be the domain of the well heeled. These parents have offered their children freedom to individuate from this chaotic, technology afflicted bad dream we call our future. They have delivered a rich and individual family experience, and a relationship with the earth. I "gathered" all this autumn, elderberries, apples it was splendid to find my gatherer roots again. These kids are lucky. Reading is great, but accepting a paper and electronic surrogate life is not necessarily for everyone. I love, love, love the Earth, I learned that alone in the wild as a child.

My one grandchild is doing well in school, but the reward seems to be war games, and random car chase scenarios. It is all violent surrogate activity. He has a real life, parents who love him, but as a grandparent I am only an observer of his twenty first century training. *Sigh*

I feel these students are lucky, and I am an educator.
posted by Oyéah at 9:58 PM on January 4, 2015 [5 favorites]


Now I'm back at work to begin a new semester, I'm responding to this.

For the last week or so I've been thinking about the nature education and how it relates to labor. As someone mentioned in a previous thread, the compulsory education model that we have was designed to train factory workers. Prior to that, many children did learn critical thinking—by interfacing with their future professions such as farming, ranching, tailoring, and smithing by assisting their families. It takes a great deal of critical thinking skills and autonomy to work on a farm, even for the very young and limited as you are constantly reacting to situations that are not replications of previous ones. I can imagine the same for those preindustrial children that worked in tailor shops or what have you. The major reason why we have compulsory education is to prep people for the workforce and have a place to keep children for long swaths of the day without having them compete in the workforce. My answer to that is 1) the workforce is terrible, and often times set children to reinforce the corrupt power structures of the present, and 2) I think we can figure out a better reason to have school than to keep kids busy.

I say this as a former public schools educator (I'm now in the post-secondary world) who taught English in both high and middle school in majority-minority districts that have severe flaws. I don't want to abolish school. I don't want to unregulate education. However, there must be a better way than keeping students with learning disabilities cooped up in toxic environments that they're unsuited to, trying to prevent the next fight. I often lamented that I felt more like a warden than a teacher, and the current system sets me up to be one for my "worst" students. One of the problems is that I was okay at traditional school. I'm good at sitting still and engaging in abstract disciplines and conversations. Not everyone is, though, and we are always prizing the ability to sit still over the energy of doing, the abstract over the concrete, as if each are better. In reality, they're just better for a specific role we prepare children for that often deforms their lives, and now without the benefit of actually leading to an economically-viable future.

Kindergarten was fun. I got to go on trips all the time, all the activities were centered on doing things even as simple as talking on the phone, play was prioritized, and it only lasted half the day. Why do we stop doing this approach to education as kids "grow up"? Why do we conflate growing up with taking the worst parts of modern society and just getting used to them?

If I was king of the world, throughout primary and secondary education, kids would only spend half of any day in a traditional classroom environment. The other half of their classes would be spent in education that is not strictly academic, yet focused on the direct engagement. Let them have a wildlife class where they spend time in the woods, performing direct observations and tasks out there. Let them have a class on animal husbandry/farming where they are performing increasingly autonomous tasks in a physical/outdoors environment. Let them have hobby classes on things as varied as tailoring and cooking where they spend the majority of their time doing, honing, and creating, rather than being run through constant abstract disciplines. The closest we have to this type of systematized "engagement education" are the art and music classes, which are often minimized and underfunded, and treated as rewards for doing well in the more academic pursuits. If we believe that learning how to sculpt and learning an instrument improves the human condition and makes a more autonomous, thoughtful person even if they never work in that discipline, there seems to be a great many other classes that they could be having for their (and society's) betterment.

I'm not saying we should just unleash kids at a farm. Education is active activity that knows that it does not begin or end with direct instruction. However, if we can test and grade students in art class and band, we can grade students in ranching/farming/forestry/building/tailoring/etc. Structured learning does not mean direct classroom learning.

I'm also not saying that we should remove the reading, 'riting, 'rithmatic of school, but it should never be the main focus and everything else is bells and whistles.

I don't want to create alternatives to public schools, either; I want to create alternative public schools. Since the poorest students are enrolled there and not in homeschool/private school, I want solutions that transform public school beyond paying teachers more and increase funding. As a former teacher, more money would have been really nice, but the bigger problem is the current structure is not sustainable for either the teacher or the student. It's only sustainable for the system itself, but we all know that there are reasons not to lend support for the system as is. I don't think unschooling is the answer by itself, but I think there are challenges to the orthodoxy of the education/labor/societal conditioning system that deserve serious consideration and thought.
posted by Lord Chancellor at 5:51 AM on January 5, 2015 [10 favorites]


> As long as a person is still paying taxes,and remains involved in trying to make public education better, taking their kids out of public school would mean their tax dollars could be spent on others kids

Schools get their funding on a per-student basis. My understanding is that if the schools have fewer students, they get less money. Since much of that money goes towards shared expenses, the school ends up poorer.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:14 AM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


> There is great discord in this nation with ridiculous partisan and religious attempts to bend Fair And Appropriate Education to one mindset or another

That's Free Appropriate Public Education, not Fair, and it's about students with disabilities.
posted by The corpse in the library at 10:18 AM on January 5, 2015 [2 favorites]


//Schools get their funding on a per-student basis.//

I think that is true in all cases for Federal funds, but not necessarily so for state funds. In my state the state funds are allocated based on a age census, so it doesn't matter if a 9 year old is in public, private, or no school. He is counted for funding purposes. I don't think Federal funds even add up to 10% in most school district budgets, so the potential damage to school funding is negligible.
posted by COD at 10:31 AM on January 5, 2015


Federal funds account for at least 1/3 of the budget in impoverished districts. State funding is also typically follows students, especially in poor districts where the state provides "top up" funding because local contribution is so low. In most states, virtually all state funds are allocated based on actual attendance, which is why schools push attendance so hard and publicize their attendance rates ... They lose significant funds from the state and feds if attendance drops from 92% to 88%. State funds are contingent on an actual physical child being physically present in the building. In impoverished schools, state per-student funds make up another 1/3 of the budget, with local taxes comprising another 1/3.

In wealthy districts, local funds are typically 80% of the budget, but can be 95% or more.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 2:00 PM on January 5, 2015 [4 favorites]


vitabellosi: "Why can't aspects of the school day be optional? What if school was funded to be open on certain days of the week and offered to educate children and parents? What if it was all enrichment on an as-needed basis? What if there wasn't grading, but it was all "you did it! You mastered the material!" or "I think there's more you could do here, if you want!"

A lot of these are things that are already happening -- parent education is typically called "community schools"; making the school day partly optional is often called "twilight" school; enrichment is totally targeted in most districts now, given to students who need it even if they're delayed in other areas; grading is deprecated in favor of skill-based report cards at least in K-2. (It is legit harder to get rid of grades at higher levels, but a big part of that is because colleges want them.) I am like the biggest complainer about "institutional change is too hard because there are forces arrayed against it!" and I have the most anti-charter voting record of any elected official in my whole county, but a lot of the reforms you suggest are already in place in most large districts. Play-based curricula are often standard through first grade. My district does project-based learning in science through 8th grade. ALL junior high students must take a series of career ed classes where they work with their hands in a variety of settings (cooking, home repair, infant care, veterinary work, etc.). We have a revitalized Voc Tech program that is absolutely KILLING IT -- it is one of my pet projects. Freshmen come in mumbling and staring at their shoes, and by the time they're juniors they're repairing cars or doing hair and talking eloquently and fluently to your face while providing hardcore customer service. For students who MUST earn money for their families -- many of whom would be chronically truant otherwise -- we have half-day mentorship programs where they go to school half the day, and then go to work the other half at companies in the area who have agreed to take on mentoring roles with these kids. They earn above minimum wage and their mentoring organizations work hard to integrate math and English into their work and give them progressive responsibilities. Lots of them graduate with a college-ready diploma and slide right into managing the deli at a local (unionized) supermarket, which is a good wage for a high school diploma. Another program provides full-day daycare for teen moms while they get college-ready high school credits and also provides full-day breastfeeding support with an on-site pediatric nurse. They can get all of baby's care at school, from well-baby visits to immunizations to sick-child care. Again, we live in a very high-poverty district; this isn't a ritzy suburban area. Two big issues with education reform are that a) everyone is an expert because they went to school and, therefore, know what sucks; and b) people don't know what schools are doing NOW. (In fact, urban districts are often on the cutting edge of education reform because they have in-house curriculum departments; the big issue is money to execute and sustain.)

We definitely, definitely underfund art and music, though. And while Montessori public schools are getting more common, I really want to see "forest schools" in more places. I admit I'm biased towards them because my older child would TOTES THRIVE in a forest school environment, but I was biased in that direction before I had kids. :)

People don't know enough about what their local public schools are doing that's state-of-the-art, and they don't know enough about how to take advantage of those programs.

Find out what your district is doing, and publicize and support these programs! They're hard to sell
and require a lot of education of voters! Help us out!

COD: "so the potential damage to school funding is negligible."

I did math this out in a prior MetaFilter discussion, and I think my conclusion for my (very typical impoverished) district was that around 1/6 of funds (mostly local) were awarded based on population; around 5/6 of funds were based on student census in the actual schools, including the vast majority of federal and state funding.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 7:56 PM on January 5, 2015 [3 favorites]


> Find out what your district is doing, and publicize and support these programs!

And volunteer at them! You don't have to have kids in a school to be a volunteer there.
posted by The corpse in the library at 9:24 PM on January 5, 2015 [1 favorite]


I am pleased by the direction this discussion has gone. I am curious, though, about this budget issue: obviously students can seriously harm a budget if the school is built and teachers are hired for them to attend and then they don't.

But at the margin, is the per-pupil funding really covering every student? Especially these unschooled upper-middle class students? Here's what I mean: in DC, where I live, schools are funded based on their attendance October 5th of each year. The funding formula (pdf) is a little complicated, but not really that complicated. And at the end of the day, an ordinary 1st grader brings in a little under $10k.

I get that if there's one extra kid some year, they'll just roll her in to a class and use the money for something they need. Maybe for two kids, too. But at some point, for the third or the fourth or the fifth kid, they have to start a new class, right?

So here's my question: is $10k really covering the cost of educating that kid? Or do the extra kids put pressure on the system? I can never figure this out: I was raised to love integration and hate gentrification. But they seem like the same things: sure, if all the middle-class and rich folks who've participated in white flight so far move back into DC (as they're doing) they'll bring tuition dollars with them. But will the poor kids who stayed be better off? Will they do better because they share those classrooms, or will they do the same (or worse) while the school's test scores go up? And will they be able to stay in those classrooms if property values and rents skyrocket, or will they end up pushed out into the formerly-affluent suburbs?

I get the principles, I think. I get confused by the empirical questions, especially because there are some (at least seemingly) contradictory studies out there (some looking at school as a whole, some at classrooms) and there's always risk that our intuitions and common sense will be tricked into conflating the institution's performance and the performance of the actual students we were worried about, a kind of Simpson's Paradox issue.

And of course, it's personal: I have a toddler and we'll have to make these decisions soon.
posted by anotherpanacea at 4:31 AM on January 6, 2015


> if all the middle-class and rich folks who've participated in white flight so far move back into DC (as they're doing) they'll bring tuition dollars with them

"Nonpoor" people bring resources beyond tuition dollars. They're more likely to volunteer, to participate in fundraising activities, go to school and classroom events, and go to PTA meetings.
posted by The corpse in the library at 8:21 AM on January 6, 2015 [1 favorite]


Well sure, but they bring interventionist PTA politics too. I organize volunteers and they're frequently more pain than they're worth.

How much of a difference does that parental involvement end up making for poor kids compared to the income level of the students or the per-pupil funding levels themselves?
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:12 PM on January 6, 2015


I wonder if it's possible to answer that, given the great variety of funding models. I volunteer at a Title 1 school and I know that I actually help some poor kids -- I could give you their names -- because I provide one-on-one tutoring and free up the teacher.

I'm not involved with the PTA and have no idea what an interventionist policy would be; in my district, the PTA does things like organize after-school art classes, arranges Teacher Appreciation Week, and gives popcorn to kids wearing school T-shirts on Popcorn Mondays.

I found a document from a few years ago where my school district, which never has enough money because the voters of Washington State don't believe in paying for silly things like education, says this:

Why does the district continue to accept boundary exceptions if that affects class size and overload?
Shoreline’s enrollment has been declining over the last several years. Boundary exceptions allow some buildings to fill classes and avoid combination grade level classes as enrollment has declined. When out-of-district students are accepted, their state funding follows them to Shoreline and that funding is included in the state and federal funding eligibility that is used to calculate the district’s levy collection lid.


That makes me think that it's to a school district's advantage to have kids enrolled, even at a time when classes are overcrowded.
posted by The corpse in the library at 2:19 PM on January 6, 2015


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