Elon Musk’s Innovative Education Blueprint

“I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture,” said Elon Musk while describing Ad Astra, the school he opened on the California campus of his SpaceX company’s headquarters. In 2014, Musk pulled his five boys out of an elite private school in Los Angeles and decided to open his own school for his children and the children of some of his SpaceX employees. He recruited one of his sons’ former schoolteachers to help run the school, which currently serves about 50 students.

Disruptive Alternatives to Traditional Schooling

In a 2015 interview about the school, the billionaire inventor said: “The regular schools weren’t doing the things that I thought should be done. So I thought, well, let’s see what we can do.” Ad Astra, which means “to the stars,” disrupts the very idea of school. It has no grade levels, an emergent curriculum, and no mandatory classes. As Fortune reports, “There are no grades given to students at the school and if the children don’t like a particular class they’re taking, they can simply opt out.”

At Ad Astra, young people work collaboratively on projects ranging from robotics and coding to chemistry and math. Creative problem solving is a guiding principle. According to the Washington Post: “There are no sports, music or languages taught. Musk believes computer-assisted language translation is not far from being widely available.”

A Growing Trend

Recognizing a mismatch between coercive schooling and the rise of a creative economy where human ingenuity will be our key professional advantage when competing with robots, innovative companies are increasingly launching their own unconventional schools. WeWork, the co-working office space company now valued at $45 billion, launched its alternative school, WeGrow, in 2017 in its New York City headquarters. It now has 46 students in grades pre-K through fourth grade. Like Musk’s Ad Astra, WeGrow sprouted because WeWork’s founding partner and chief brand officer, Rebekah Neumann, wanted a different educational experience for her five young children. In an interview with Fast Company, Neumann said: “These children come into the world, they are very evolved, they are very special. They’re spiritual. They’re all natural entrepreneurs, natural humanitarians, and then it seems like we squash it all out of them in the education system.” Neumann continued:

The whole format was created during the Industrial Revolution, so that people would grow up and learn how to take orders on an assembly line…A lot of parents say, “Schools are not doing it right. But we’re going to kind of go with that anyway because there’s no better option.” I just wasn’t willing to accept that, especially during such formative years.

WeGrow and Ad Astra share a similar educational philosophy focused on cultivating children’s passions, immersing them in authentic projects, and encouraging an entrepreneurial spirit. WeGrow hopes to expand its schooling network alongside its WeWork shared-office network, offering WeWork members and employees a flexible, on-site, alternative education option for their children. Neumann describes her vision for WeGrow: “We have WeWorks located all around the world, thank God. A lot of members don’t see their kids for many, many hours a day. So I’m passionate about actually opening these schools inside WeWork buildings, so that parents can bring their kids to school, see them possibly at lunch, maybe bring them home.” Neumann also sees the value of the WeGrow school network in an increasingly global economy:

The idea that once your kids enter kindergarten you cannot move around the world anymore is completely archaic…We have many global entrepreneurs, citizens of the world, who want to live global lifestyles or need to for work.

Entrepreneurs are notoriously ahead of the curve. It’s no surprise that successful, forward-thinking company founders are rejecting an outdated conventional schooling model and building something new and better—for their children, for their employees’ children, and, as is the case with WeWork, for their customers’ children, as well. With entrepreneurial parents at the helm, the future of education looks bright.

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Can For-Profit Schools Revolutionize Education? One Entrepreneur Is Betting Yes.

As much as we (rightfully) decry the persistence of factory-style mass schooling, we should remember that this remnant of the Industrial Age was, at its time, quite innovative.

Schooling for the Industrial Age

To our 21st-century eyes, the continued emphasis on standardization, order, and regimentation in government schooling seems, at best, out of place in a rapidly changing economy. But to 19th-century education reformers, these were novel ideas that transformed civilization from agriculture to industry. It’s no wonder that earlier schools would reflect these cutting-edge practices. Brown University historian Carl Kaestle writes in his book, Pillars of the Republic:

Schools thus became in some respects like factories, but not necessarily because they were mimicking factories, or preparing children to work in factories. Rather, both the workforce and the schools, as well as other nineteenth-century institutions, were partaking of the same ethos of efficiency, manipulation, and mastery.

Schools didn’t try to emulate factories as much as they tried to implement the then quite modern and revolutionary techniques that made factories and similar institutions so successful. In other words, 19th-century factory-style schooling was considered to be state-of-the-art. David Tyack, an educational historian at Stanford University, explains how 19th-century educators drew inspiration from the economic and industrial progress of the era. He writes in his book, The One Best System:

They were impressed with the order and efficiency of the new technology and forms of organization they saw about them. The division of labor in the factory, the punctuality of the railroad, the chain of command and coordination in modern businesses—these aroused a sense of wonder and excitement in men and women seeking to systematize the schools.

All this is to say that maybe we should cut these 19th-century educators some slack. While it’s clear to us today that factory-style schooling is mismatched to our contemporary economic needs, it mirrored the innovations of the Industrial Age.

The Innovation Era

Today, as we leave the Industrial Age for the Innovation Era, educators and social reformers should once again look to the new ideas, pioneering practices, and other drivers of our modern economic success to transform education and schooling.

Some educators are already doing this. Drawing from his decades of work as an education reformer and entrepreneur, Michael Strong has created a network of US high schools designed to reflect the needs and possibilities of the innovation economy. The Academy of Thought and Industry now has campuses in Austin and San Francisco and a new one opening soon in New York City, with ambitious plans for expansion. These high schools blend the learner-centered philosophy of Montessori education, where Strong spent much of his career, with a bold focus on entrepreneurship, peer collaboration, intellectual rigor, and the skills necessary for success in the 21st-century economy.

“We encourage all of our students to think entrepreneurially whether or not they will be creating a business,” says Strong, author of Be the Solution: How Entrepreneurs and Conscious Capitalists Can Solve All the World’s Problems.

A big motivator for Strong in creating these innovative high schools is what he sees as the need to get more adolescents out of conventional schools. “I feel a sense of urgency to create alternatives,” says Strong. “The current system is so top-down and trains teachers to be top-down. This is actively causing damage to teens, with rising rates of suicide.”

For-Profit Education for the Future

The Academy of Thought and Industry schools, which serve students ages 12 and over, are for-profit and backed by venture capital funds from Higher Ground Education, a disruptive startup that has launched a network of Montessori schools across the country.

Strong thinks the for-profit model for schooling alternatives is important for catalyzing large-scale educational change. “The only reason to go non-profit is if you have donors,” he explains. “Any time something is profitable, that is what makes it able to go to scale. The reason we have low-cost groceries now (compared to 100 years ago) is because it’s profitable to bring food to millions and millions of people.”

Strong believes the philosophical lynchpin of his schools—intellectual agency and entrepreneurial autonomy—is reflective of our contemporary economy and culture. Cultivating creativity, fostering an entrepreneurial mindset, and inspiring learners to take control of their own lives and livelihoods are essential qualities for success in the innovation era. If the industrial economy of the 19th century valued order and standardization, the 21st-century economy values originality and imagination.

As Strong scales his schools to more cities nationwide, he finds that his main challenge lies with the lingering belief system characteristic of factory-style schooling. Recruiting and training teachers to let go of their long-held notions of what education looks like and embrace a different way of interacting with young people has been perhaps the biggest challenge.

“Teachers are trained to be condescending to kids, and if we want to respect student agency, we can’t be condescending. This deschooling process takes a lot of time,” says Strong. “Respecting the kids is the biggest thing for us, and it’s the biggest problem with hiring traditional teachers.”

Factory-style schooling may have been avant-garde a century-and-a-half ago, but it fails to reflect the needs, innovations, and best practices of the modern economy. Investing in learner-centered schooling alternatives that emphasize human creativity and personal agency will ensure both economic prosperity and individual flourishing in this new era of progress and invention.

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Why Teen Suicide Is Lower in States That Have More School Choice

Freedom is the precursor to happiness. When we’re free, we feel in control of our lives and able to direct our own path. If we’re unhappy, we can make changes and make different choices. If we are not free, we cannot make these choices. We cannot be our own agents, and so we suffer.

This suffering due to lack of freedom is becoming increasingly apparent throughout our mandatory system of mass schooling. Young people are required to attend their assigned district school under a legal threat of force. If they are fortunate enough to have access to a local charter school or have a parent or guardian who can remove them from school for homeschooling or a private school, they can escape the confines of their government-mandated schoolroom. But the vast majority of children in the US (approximately 85 percent) are locked (literally, these days) in a conventional public school classroom.

It’s no wonder that as mass schooling consumes more of American childhood than ever before, beginning earlier and extending longer than at any other time in our history, young people are growing increasingly depressed.

Add to that a much more standardized and test-driven school curriculum over the last two decades, and you have a generation of young people pushed to the brink of their own emotional adaptability. They are hurting.

The statistics speak for themselves: According to data from the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC), the suicide rate of boys ages 15-19 increased 31 percent between 2007 and 2015, and the suicide rate of girls in that age range doubled during that same time period. What’s more alarming is that a recent study published in the journal Pediatrics shows that suicidal thoughts and actions among children and adolescents decline during the summer months and spike during the school year—a pattern different from adults who experience higher suicide rates in summertime.

The finding that children are happier during the summertime when they have more freedom and more depressed during the school year when they don’t should be a wake-up call to parents, educators, and policymakers. Freedom is the precursor to happiness. Adding weight to this correlation is new research showing that when children are granted the freedom to leave compulsory mass schooling through school choice mechanisms, their mental health dramatically improves.

Researchers Corey DeAngelis and Angela Dills found that states with generous charter school and voucher policies saw declines in adolescent suicide rates and that children who attend private schools have better long-term mental health outcomes. Their research is the first to link school choice mechanisms with improved childhood mental health.

The findings should come as no surprise. When we have the freedom to leave an unhealthy or unsafe environment, our mental health should improve. When parents are empowered to employ their protective instincts to remove their child from a harmful place, their child should be happier. Freedom is the precursor to happiness.

If we care about children’s emotional well-being and hope to stall the rising teen suicide rate, then we should embrace strategies that grant children more freedom and parents more choice. If we want happier young people, freedom is the best policy.

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D.C. Bureaucrats Are Trying to Make Parents Get a License to Let Children Play Together

Let’s say you and some of your friends decide to gather your young children together a couple of days a week for a few hours of free play. Maybe you switch off who leads the gaggle of kids each week, allowing for some shared free time and flexibility. Sounds like a great arrangement for all, right? Your kids get to play freely with their friends, and you get some occasional free babysitting.

According to government officials in Washington, DC, arrangements like this are violations of the law. They are cracking down on what they call an illegal “child development facility” operating without a license.

The Regulation of the Playdate

Back in the 1970s, a group of parents got together to create an informal playgroup for toddlers in DC in a spare room of a local church. Over the last 40 years, groups of parents and their two-year-olds have enjoyed these three-hour playgroups, which children can attend up to three days a week. The playgroup is staffed by parents of the kids who attend, and they take turns watching the children. There is no paid staff.

According to a recent Washington Post article written by Karin Lips of the Network of Enlightened Women, “Some DC government officials now are trying to regulate the program, which they contend is an illegal child-care facility.” The Office of the State Superintendent of Education investigated the playgroup cooperative in early September and issued a statement saying the group is violating child care facility laws and must get a license to operate.

The parents are rightfully outraged, arguing that this is an informal, parent-led playgroup that should not be regulated as a child care facility. Government officials argue that the playgroup doesn’t qualify for an exemption as an “informal” group because the parents, over the years, have established some simple “rules” for participation, including stating that parents can’t bring contagious children to the playgroup and asking for emergency contact information.

As a homeschooling mom, I host groups of children at my house all the time, sometimes with their parents and sometimes without, and my friends reciprocate. I have the same “rules” as this DC playgroup: Don’t bring sick kids to my house, tell me if they have any food allergies or medical issues, give me your phone number in case of emergency, oh, and take off your shoes.

Gross Overreach by the State

Could the government crack down on these types of playgroups, arguing they are not “informal” because of basic expectations for health and safety? Or are parents so incapable of voluntarily determining health and safety expectations that the government must do it for them?

The state does not need to insert itself into all aspects of private life. Parents are competent enough to create voluntary associations with other parents that benefit their children and themselves. As Lips writes in her article:

Ironically, if the Office of the State Superintendent of Education has its way and is allowed to regulate this playgroup out of existence, it would be creating a disincentive for parents to self-regulate, as a playgroup with no safety rules would presumably be on stronger legal standing.

If the parents in the DC playgroup were wary of its operations or procedures, they wouldn’t join the cooperative. Parents are highly capable of making judgments regarding their children’s well-being without government meddling.

The DC Council is currently deliberating on what to do with this long-time parent cooperative and similar playgroups. The fact that the Council is involved at all should concern everyone. This is a private, parent-organized group that has operated just fine for over four decades without the Council’s help. The government should leave parents alone and focus on more pressing responsibilities.

Lips warns,

This regulatory encroachment could be the District’s first step toward broader government overreach in this area and the crowding-out of voluntary associations. From nanny-shares to babysitting co-ops to regularly scheduled times to play at public parks, the Office of the State Superintendent of Education investigators could find new opportunities to crack down on the voluntary ways that D.C. families approach playtime and child care for their children.

In DC and elsewhere, government officials should stay clear of telling parents what to do or how to organize. We don’t need a license to let our children play.

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Unschooling: Reclaiming the Term

John Holt, the well-known author and homeschooling pioneer, coined the term “unschooling” in November 1977 in the second issue of his fledgling newsletter for homeschoolers, Growing Without Schooling (GWS).

In this issue, Holt writes:

GWS will say ‘unschooling’ when we mean taking children out of school, and ‘deschooling’ when we mean changing the laws to make schools non-compulsory and to take away from them their power to grade, rank, and label people i.e. to make lasting, official, public judgments about them.”

It’s fascinating to consider how these terms have evolved since Holt’s definitions emerged. While initially meant to describe removing children from school, unschooling today is often more narrowly defined as a specific homeschooling approach that is self-directed rather than curriculum-driven. The term deschooling has also evolved from Holt’s initial definition advocating for eliminating compulsory schooling laws that was largely influenced by his interactions with Ivan Illich, the author of the 1970 book, Deschooling Society.

Today, “deschooling” is often thought of as the period of time it takes a child who has been schooled to overcome a schooled mindset and reignite her natural learning instincts. As most of us adults were also schooled, the modern use of the “deschooling” term applies to us as well, as we try to shed the idea that one needs to be schooled in order to learn.

Language changes, and it is no wonder that as the homeschooling population has soared over the last four decades its terms would also be stretched and shaped. This is a sign of success. Holt never imagined that more than two percent of the U.S. school-age population would be homeschooled; today, the percent is nearly double that.

I appreciate what the term “unschooling” now means for many families, particularly for the homeschooling families who navigate the many educational philosophies and approaches available to them in search of the best fit. I also think it is worthwhile to reclaim the term’s origins and dig deeper into Holt’s initial message–not because we should change how we currently use the language of unschooling, but so that we can expand it.

In the first pages of Holt’s inaugural issue of GWS, he writes about his disinterest in alternative schools except to the degree that they allow more families to take or keep their children out of conventional schools. Holt writes:

GWS will not be much concerned with schools, even alternative or free schools, except as they may enable people to keep their children out of school by 1) calling their own home a school, or 2) enrolling their children, as some have already, in schools near or far which then approve a home study program.”

In other words, Holt wasn’t supporting alternative schools but alternatives to school that would enable more parents to remove children from conventional schooling for unschooling–often using homeschooling as a legal designation where necessary. At the time, before homeschooling was fully legally recognized in all U.S. states by 1993, these alternatives may have been the only option for some families. I would argue that today, for many families, these alternatives to school are also the only option they have for abandoning forced schooling for unschooling. While there are plenty of single parents and two working parents who make family-centered unschooling work beautifully, for many parents this is not possible.

There are also many families who are deeply committed to unschooling but find as their children grow that their kids crave new and different opportunities, often surrounded by a gaggle of other kids. Some of these children end up going to school after years of homeschooling. With more alternatives to school, Holt’s vision of enabling “people to keep their children out of school” would be more widely successful.

By reclaiming Holt’s initial definition of the word “unschooling” to mean “taking children out of school,” and appreciating his tolerance for alternatives to school that make unschooling more possible for more families, we can help to make unschooling a more expansive, comprehensive term. We can affirm the homeschooling families who allow their children to learn at home and throughout their community in a self-directed way, while also embracing alternatives to school that empower parents to take charge of their child’s education and remove them from forced schooling.

And while homeschooling is now legal in the U.S., (but sadly not elsewhere) thanks to the efforts of Holt and others, compulsory schooling laws continue to define education as schooling and trap young people in coercive schooling environments for most of their childhood. I wrote recently about the Four Things That Would Happen If We Eliminate Compulsory Schooling Laws, including a disentangling of education from schooling.

So while the modern use of the term “deschooling” is helpful and important in allowing children (and ourselves!) ample time and space for detaching from a schooled mindset of learning, we would be wise to also expand its definition to include Holt’s vision for challenging compulsory schooling laws as a whole. In fact, in his 1981 book, Teach Your Own, Holt writes:

“At first I did not question the compulsory nature of schooling. But by 1968 or so I had come to feel strongly that the kinds of changes I wanted to see in schools, above all in the ways teachers related to students, could not happen as long as schools were compulsory.”

However we use the terms “unschooling” and “deschooling” the goal is clear: Help more parents to remove their children from coercive schools and create a world in which education is separate and distinct from schooling.

Originally published at Whole Family Learning.

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Compulsory Schooling Laws: What if We Didn’t Have Them?

We should always be leery of laws passed “for our own good,” as if the state knows better. The history of compulsory schooling statutes is rife with paternalism, triggered by anti-immigrant sentiments in the mid-nineteenth century and fueled by a desire to shape people into a standard mold.

History books detailing the “common school movement” and the push for universal, compulsory schooling perpetuate the myths that Americans were illiterate prior to mass schooling, that there were limited education options available, and that mandating school attendance under a legal threat of force was the surest way toward equality.

In truth, literacy rates were quite high, particularly in Massachusetts, where the first compulsory schooling statute was passed in 1852. Historians Boles and Gintis report that approximately three-quarters of the total U.S. population, including slaves, was literate¹. There was a panoply of education options prior to mass compulsory schooling, including an array of public and private schooling options, charity schools for the poor, robust apprenticeship models, and homeschooling—this latter approach being the preferred method of Massachusetts education reformer Horace Mann, who homeschooled his own three children while mandating common school attendance for others.

The primary catalyst for compulsory schooling was a wave of massive immigration in the early to mid-1800s that made lawmakers fearful. Many of these immigrants were Irish Catholics escaping the deadly potato famine, and they threatened the predominantly Anglo-Saxon Protestant social order of the time. In 1851, the editor of The Massachusetts Teacher, William Swan, wrote:

“In too many instances the parents are unfit guardians of their own children. If left to their direction the young will be brought up in idle, dissolute, vagrant habits, which will make them worse members of society than their parents are; instead of filling our public schools, they will find their way into our prisons, houses of correction and almshouses. Nothing can operate effectually here but stringent legislation, thoroughly carried out by an efficient police; the children must be gathered up and forced into school, and those who resist or impede this plan, whether parents or priests, must be held accountable and punished.”

This is the true history of compulsory schooling that rarely emerges behind the veil of social magnanimity.

So what would happen if these inherently flawed compulsory schooling laws were eliminated?

A Power Shift

First, power would tilt away from the state and toward the family. Without legal force compelling school attendance, parents would have the freedom and flexibility to assume full responsibility for their child’s education. They would not need government permission to homeschool, as is currently required in the majority of U.S. states. Private schools would not need to submit their attendance records to the state to show compliance. Public schools could still be available to those who wanted them, as they were prior to the 1852 law; but government schooling would no longer be the default education option.

More Choices

Because the state would no longer need to bless the creation of various private schools and ratify their curriculum and attendance protocols, an assortment of education options would emerge. Entrepreneurial educators would seize the opportunity to create new and varied products and services, and parents would be the ones responsible for determining quality and effectiveness—not the state. With less government red tape, current trends in education would gain more momentum. Virtual schooling, part-time school options, hybrid homeschooling models, and an array of private schools with diverse education approaches would emerge. As more education choices sprouted, competition would lower prices, making access to these new choices more widespread.

More Pathways to Adulthood

Without the state mandating school attendance for most of childhood, in some states up to age 18, there would be new pathways to adulthood that wouldn’t rely so heavily on state-issued high school diplomas. Innovative apprenticeship models would be created, community colleges would cater more toward independent teenage learners, and career preparation programs would expand. As the social reformer Paul Goodman wrote in his book New Reformation: “Our aim should be to multiply the paths of growing up, instead of narrowing the one existing school path.”

A Broader Definition of Education

In his biography of Horace Mann, historian Jonathan Messerli explains how compulsory schooling contracted a once expansive definition of education into the singular definition of schooling. Indeed, today education is almost universally associated with schooling. Messerli writes: “That in enlarging the European concept of schooling, [Mann] might narrow the real parameters of education by enclosing it within the four walls of the public school classroom.”² Eliminating compulsory schooling laws would break the century-and-a-half stranglehold of schooling on education. It would help to disentangle education from schooling and reveal many other ways to be educated, such as through non-coercive, self-directed education, or “unschooling.”

Even the most adamant education reformers often stop short of advocating for abolishing compulsory schooling statutes, arguing that it wouldn’t make much difference. But stripping the state of its power to define, control, and monitor something as beautifully broad as education would have a large and lasting impact on re-empowering families, encouraging educational entrepreneurs, and creating more choice and opportunity for all learners.


¹ Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis, “The origins of mass public education,” History of Education: Major Themes, Volume II: Education in its Social Context, ed. Roy Lowe (London: Routledge Falmer, 2000), 78.

² Jonathan Messerli, Horace Mann: A Biography (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1972), 429.

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