Chicago Teachers’ Strike Shows Why We Don’t Need Public Schools

As the Chicago teachers’ strike continues with no end in sight, 300,000 students spend another day outside of the public school classroom. Chicago’s mayor, Lori Lightfoot, says this is damaging to children.

“We need to get our kids back in school,” the mayor said Thursday, CNN reports. “Every day we are out, that hurts our children.”

But Are the Children Really Hurting?

As the Chicago strike shows, when government schooling is not the centerpiece of a child’s life, community organizations step up to provide support and care. Museums, churches, libraries, and a multitude of civic non-profits are opening their doors to children displaced by the teachers’ strike, and public parks and playgrounds abound.

Some of the organizations that are offering a safe place for children to gather include the YMCA and its 11 locations across Chicago. As CNN reports: “Depending on the location, these programs may include classes, swimming, math lessons, arts and crafts, and sports.”

The Boys & Girls Club of Chicago, as well as a similar but separate organization, the Neighborhood Boys & Girls Club, are open all day for children affected by the strike. Many arts organizations throughout Chicago are offering special programming for students in a range of topics, from theatre to dance to visual art.

The city’s aquarium is offering immersive exploration opportunities for the children, along with an after-school care option. Other science organizations are doing the same. Sports camps are sprouting through local athletic and recreational organizations, and area gyms are opening up and offering adult supervision.

Churches and religious organizations, including the Jewish Council for Youth Services and The Salvation Army, are providing care, activities, and in some cases meals. For the estimated 75 percent of Chicago children who usually receive their meals through the school cafeteria as part of the federal school lunch program, they can still go to their local school building, staffed by non-unionized administrators, and receive their eligible breakfast, lunch, and dinner meals.

Finally, there are the Chicago libraries, which are scattered across the city and open to everyone. Libraries are models of true public education, inviting all members of a community, regardless of age or background, to learn without the coercion characteristic of compulsory mass schooling.

Library patrons can take advantage of optional classes and lessons, ask for help when needed, or pursue their own curiosities using the library’s abundant physical and digital resources. Libraries are incubators of community-based, self-directed public education. As Ta-Nehisi Coates writes in Between the World and Me, which claimed the 2015 National Book Award: “I was made for the library, not the classroom. The classroom was a jail of other people’s interests. The library was open, unending, free” (p. 48).

What a Vibrant Civil Society Could Look Like

For many children in Chicago public schools, the classroom is quite jail-like, with metal detectors and armed security officers on campus, and school performance measures that should make us cringe. According to Chalkbeat, “nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance on its new accountability system,” as evaluated by the 2018 Illinois Report Card.

Teachers’ strikes often show, however inadvertently, why we don’t need public schools to provide education to the public. Without government involvement and compulsion, civil society steps up and quickly mobilizes to care for children and families.

We see just a small glimpse of this in the brief time that the Chicago students have been displaced due to the teachers’ strike, but imagine how much more would emerge if the shadow of compulsory public schooling didn’t loom so large. Neighborhood organizations and businesses, churches and non-profits, non-coercive public spaces like parks and libraries, and families, would be empowered to support and educate the children around them.

Indeed, this is how education worked prior to the mid-nineteenth century passage of compulsory schooling laws that narrowed a broad definition of education into the singular concept of forced schooling.

Children don’t need government schools to educate them. Instead, they need a vibrant civil society that buttresses families and inspires communities to come together and educate their own children in a variety of ways using a variety of resources. The teachers’ strike impact only gives a glimmer of what a vibrant civil society could look like if it were consistently charged with caring for and educating children.

Far from hurting children, the Chicago teachers’ strike shows us the way to truly help them.

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Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.

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When the Quest for Education Equity Stifles Innovation

In March, efforts to open an innovative public high school in a diverse, urban district just outside of Boston received a devastating blow. Powderhouse Studios was in the works for seven years, with grand hopes of changing public education from a top-down system defined by coercion to a learner-driven model focused on student autonomy and self-determination. The vision for this school was so compelling that it won a $10 million XQ Super School innovation grant and was positioned to lead efforts to inject freedom into a conventional schooling system characterized by force.

The school was set to open this fall in Somerville, Massachusetts, clearing high hurdles along the way, including gaining the crucial support of the teachers’ union. Everything looked ready to go. Then, in a startling turn of events, the local school committee voted unanimously in March not to approve the school’s launch.

Boston’s local NPR station ran a story about the Powderhouse debacle. While the school committee members said they appreciated the high school’s novel approach, which would focus primarily on project-based learning tied to student interests, they decided they couldn’t approve a school that would only serve 160 high school-age students when there are 5,000 students in the district who wouldn’t be able to take advantage of the program. According to the NPR reporter:

The biggest concerns for committee members center around equity and resources.

It wouldn’t be fair, school committee members concluded, to allow some young people to attend Powderhouse if not everyone could attend. As the school committee chairperson told NPR:

I can’t look at Powderhouse in isolation… I have a responsibility to the 5,000 students currently in our system. If we approve the school, some of them will go there, but what does it mean for everybody?

In the all-out quest for educational equity, innovation is systematically stifled. If not everyone can have something, then no one can.

An All or Nothing Approach

Just imagine if Motorola had the same perspective regarding its invention of the first cell phone. Imagine if company leaders (or politicians!) said: “We can’t manufacture these mobile phones because not everyone will have access to them and therefore no one should.” Fortunately, manufacturers didn’t pay attention to equity, and as a result, over five billion people around the world now have a cell phone. Five. billion. people.

At first, cell phones were incredibly expensive and only a few people could own them, but thanks to the power of innovation and the timeless laws of supply and demand, the costs of cell phones dropped dramatically—even as their features became more state-of-the-art. This is how innovation works in the marketplace—when it is not halted by government central planners who think they know what is best and most “equitable.”

I wrote about Powderhouse in Unschooled, before the March vote, and even then I was pessimistically hopeful. The school sounded like an ideal incubator of educational innovation, where teenagers would be responsible for designing, managing, and executing in-depth, multiyear projects leading to mastery in various subjects in a more authentic, hands-on way. There would be no assigned classes, no grades, no age-segregation, and no testing. Teachers would act as mentors and guides. The space would look more like a research lab than a school, and project mastery would ultimately be mapped back to district-wide core competency expectations.

Self-Directed Education

Dreamed up by Alec Resnick, an MIT graduate inspired by social reformers like John Holt (a teacher who coined the term “unschooling” in 1977) and Ivan Illich, who wrote Deschooling Society in 1970, Powderhouse had a bold vision to move self-directed education into the public sector. Resnick was also very concerned about equity and access, ensuring that students would be selected into the school by lottery and that the population would be reflective of the demographic diversity of the larger district. The new school could be a beacon for change. But then the March vote came.

This outcome shouldn’t surprise us. The historical track record for innovative public schools like this one is dismal. They will sometimes succeed in launching with much fanfare and excitement and then eventually get reabsorbed into the larger district, ultimately becoming virtually indistinguishable from other conventional schools. True educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system.Since its 19th-century inception, the compulsory mass schooling system has shown itself to be remarkably resistant to change. The future of Powderhouse is unclear, but the past is often prologue.

The Powderhouse story is just the latest example of why I believe that true educational innovation must occur outside of the public schooling system. Like they did with cell phones, entrepreneurs will be the ones to create meaningful and lasting change with the potential to reach more people—with lower costs and better results. Entrepreneurs can catalyze far greater educational equity than well-intentioned central planners ever could. That is, if they are not halted by elected officials and government bureaucrats who think they are the guardians of us all.

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Do the Math

Nobody asked but …

Have you come to the conclusion that we, the people, are innumerate?  If not, how do you account for the fantasy of voting or the illusion of government education?  One of the major goals of government schooling is the cultivation and advancement of innumeracy.  Another major goal, of course, is illiteracy.  Look for distorting of the knowable (history), masking of the process (cloaking of the present, reason), and obsessing over predicting the unpredictable (prognostication).

There are two types of students — those who are convinced that math is not in their skill set, and those who are identified as math gurus but bundled up and exiled to sterile lands of abstraction.  The ones who buy the myth of incompetence are then glorified in reverse as being regular folks.  The few who are tricked into believing their own competence are shamed into obscurity by anti-intellectualism.

State monopolized schooling, strengthened by so-called standards, is controlling not only actual government schools but private, parochial, unschooling, and home-schooling.  The status quo thrives on the myth that the “king is good” to cover the reality that “it is good to be a king.”

I have before ranted about the confusion between product and process.  In the case of math schooling, the process has become so convoluted that the product is corrupted.  We are producing math innumerates and math nerds because those two products perpetuate the wayward process — and neither can excel at day-to-day, genuine numerical cleverness.  The poor math perceiver thinks that quantities are either mysterious or complex.  You see this in numerous walks of knowledge.  Accountants, for instance, mask the commonsense of their trade with linguistic yadda, so everyone else will see them as experts of their trade.  Consequently, commoners do not understand the technical difference between a deficit and a debt.

— Kilgore Forelle

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Letter from a Pakistani Homeschooler

I recently received this email from Pakistani homeschooler Fasih Zulfiqar.  I advised him to seek out econ professors at the nearest universities, but he’d likely appreciate further advice.  Reprinted with his permission.


Hello Prof Bryan, Fasih here. Perhaps Prof Cowen informed you about me, but in case he did not, let me introduce myself.

I’m a student from Pakistan who has self-studied through secondary education. I decided to quit schooling when I was in grade 6, much to the consternation of my relatives. They dinned into me that schooling is the only avenue for success, and that I would certainly fail if I go solo.

There were days when I would come back to home from school – completely exhausted – and ask myself if I truly learned anything. Sure I had friends and all, but school was not serving the purpose it was meant to. Moreover, it wasn’t cheap. My father could hardly afford sending me and my sister to school, let alone pay the prohibitive rent. More and more often, I found myself considering whether it was all even worth it. So in the summer of 2012, I decided it was enough and quit school.

My argument for taking this radical decision was the fact that our schooling system does not teach children anything of actual import. Education, here, is a misnomer. What the schools teach here is rote memorization. Basically, the students are encouraged to memorize the notes of former students (or those written by the teachers themselves), and paste those memorized points verbatim on tests. For instance, a student may know that a rise in interest rate leads to an appreciation of the currency, but (s)he would be absolutely clueless as to how this happens.

What could possibly be the value of such education, if it can even be called that. The schools here are merely concerned with grades and credentials. This perspective is so pervasive that it has also infected our youth and even their parents. And why wouldn’t it, considering that employees are evaluated here solely on their credentials.

It turns out, rote memorization does ensure that you end up acing your exams; thus, this practice has become so entrenched that people don’t even question it anymore. They do not believe there is anything wrong with it. I remember my teacher was once making us memorize the date Bangladesh seceded from Pakistan, and I asked here if she could explain what gave rise to Bangladesh’s independence. The “why” behind it. Initially, she ignored me. I asked again; she replied it is relevant. I persisted. She blew her gasket and expelled me.

We Pakistanis, along with much of South Asia, hold an extremely myopic view of education. It is all about attaining this or that degree. This is not what education is meant to be. We are wasting our youth, which, I firmly believe, has great potential. This needs to change – urgently. I aspire to make that change, but I do not know how. Someday, perhaps, I will, but, as of now, I’m lost myself.

Homeschooling has been an extremely successful endeavor for me. I have achieved an A* in Economics and an A* in Mathematics as well; I recently got an A in Further Mathematics. These are A-level exams (UK system), more or less equivalent to AP in the US. I also ended up being awarded the highest marks in Economics in Pakistan by the British Council, much to the astonishment of my family.

Having achieved all this, I intend to enroll in a decent University in the US. I had love to major in Economics or a combination of Mathematics and Econ. I absolutely do not wish to pursue my undergraduate studies in Pakistan for the very same reasons I quit schooling. The issue is, I will need a substantial amount of aid. My father makes an income of about only $15k; this certainly qualifies me for aid, but I know that funds are scarce, making my chances of getting aid slim to none.

I recently learned that universities may look down on homeschooled applicants. This makes no sense to me. Considering how much discipline and persistence is required to teach your own self, universities should instead value homeschooling more – much more. Perhaps I’m biased, or perhaps this is not even the case, which is why I’m writing to you.

The crux of the problem is the requirement of letters of recommendation. All the need-blind universities in the US require at least 2. Since I have self-taught myself, I have none. Only my parents know the persistence with which I have worked throughout the last 6 years. Obviously they can not write a letter of recommendation for me: that would be rather biased. What do you think I should do?

I met Prof Cowen yesterday while he was in Karachi. Upon listening to my questions, he mentioned that I should talk to you. He told me you have homeschooled your own children, which came as a shock to me because we Pakistanis consider US schools the epitome of education. Having listened to many podcasts you have been on, and having read many of your posts on Econlib, I do realize that education in the US is not perfect either. Nonetheless, it is far better than in Pakistan. And if I intend to improve my own nation someday, I believe I will ultimately need a decent education.

To recap, I have two questions. First, is there a bias against homeschooled students, and if so, then how much? Second, what should I do about the letters of recommendation?

Thank you for taking the time to read through all this Sir. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Co-Working Meets Co-Learning

At first glance, Workspace looks like any other co-working environment. Nestled in a business park in Bethel, Connecticut, the entrance to the red, barn-like building opens into a bright lobby with offices, cubicle spaces, lounges, studios, and a kitchen. It’s not long before visitors realize that Workspace is used here as a verb, not a noun, and that this space is much more than a shared office. Workspacing is something families do, tailoring work and education in their own ways, while in community with others. Combining co-working and co-learning, with a prevailing spirit of entrepreneurship, Workspace Education is on the cutting-edge of innovative K-12 learning models.

For its founder, Cath Fraise, Workspace fills a void. When she launched the center in 2016, Fraise envisioned a dynamic space that would allow parents to work, children to learn, businesses to sprout, and community to flourish—all in a collaborative, multi-generational setting. “I started by wanting to make a school, but I wanted everyone to be able to afford it,” she says.

I also wanted to incubate social entrepreneurs and have a space where everyone is working and creating small businesses.

Trained as a Montessori educator who taught in public schools in Australia, Fraise spent the past decade doing project-based homeschooling with her two children, who are now 20 and 16. She wanted to create a space that would support learners with a wide assortment of educational resources, while also supporting their parents who are pursuing their own career goals and entrepreneurial endeavors.

A Concierge Model

Workspace acts on a concierge model of learning and working. In addition to a one-time $1,500 upfront fee for 10 hours of parent training and onboarding, parents pay $3,500 per year per child (with sibling discounts). This combined fee gives them access to six days a week of shared office space, WiFi, and business support, while working with Workspace staff and education specialists to tailor a learning plan for their child, who joins them at Workspace each day.

The affordable cost gives parents and their children unlimited support and access to all Workspace amenities and offerings, including the art studios, music room, research labs, gym, wood shop, and maker-space; “Families say that Workspace is just as good for the parents as the children,” says Fraise.but some of Workspace’s 80 families take advantage of additional services, such as private tutoring and weekly classes offered by outside educators.

For instance, some families use a popular Workspace math tutor, a former Morgan Stanley employee, who charges $50 per child for seven weeks of weekly, one-hour math instruction. Another popular lab class, taught by a Yale-trained Ph.D. scientist, costs families $1,200 per year for two hours of lab work and instruction each week. There is also an onsite Acton Academy ($6,800/year for full-time enrollment) if parents want a drop-off education option. According to Fraise, most parents don’t pay for additional drop-off programming and rely instead on the robust resources and supportive environment that Workspace offers each of its members. “Families say that Workspace is just as good for the parents as the children,” says Fraise. “We’re an interdependent community uniting to create the best education for the children in the building.”

Working and Learning Together

The supportive learning and working community is what attracted Melanie Ryan to Workspace. Her 11-year-old son, Justin, spent his early elementary years in a private Montessori school and then went to public school, where he struggled. “The teacher was amazing,” says Ryan, “but he does have some special needs such as attention deficits, as well as being a very physically active, athletic boy, so sitting for seven hours a day and not having a lot of options wasn’t a good fit for him.”

His mother says that Justin, who had previously been a happy, agreeable kid, experienced serious school-related trauma and self-loathing, saying things like, “I’m stupid.” Ryan, a psychotherapist who has been in private practice for over 15 years, knew she had to do something to address her child’s emotional distress. She pulled Justin out of public school in December 2018 and registered him as a homeschooler in their home state of New York. It was a big leap. “My husband and I own the largest holistic health center in the Hudson Valley where I see clients during the week and run classes on the weekends,” says Ryan, who was unsure how she was going to manage working full-time while overseeing her son’s education. “I had a lot on my plate,” she adds.

Then Ryan heard about Workspace from a friend and decided to make the 45-minute drive to Connecticut for a visit. “I knew right away this was it,” she says. “As soon as we arrived, Justin was greeted by a boy that he would shadow for the day, and then he was just off for hours. I couldn’t get him to leave!” Now, Ryan spends three days a week at Workspace, doing therapy calls via Skype with clients around the world, managing her team of practitioners and handling marketing and promotion of her business, while Justin takes classes in math, reading and creative writing, studio art and cartooning, woodworking, science, law and government. While Ryan sees clients offsite one day a week, her husband goes to Workspace, where he leads a football club for Justin and his peers in between his own meetings and client work. On Thursdays, Justin joins his mother and father at their clinic.

Workspace helps to cultivate personal and professional opportunities for parents while supporting their children. Ryan has begun to see some clients during the week in the private offices at Workspace, as well as offer classes to members and the larger community. She is also taking a digital photography class through Workspace, helping her to reconnect with a long-ignored passion. “It’s really a village,” she says of Workspace.

As a working parent and entrepreneur, I can really rely on my fellow parents that I am co-creating with here. If I need time to leave Workspace for a meeting, I can easily ask another parent to keep an eye on Justin and I do the same for them.

This is one feature that has encouraged single parents to join Workspace.

Incubating Young Entrepreneurs

Parents aren’t the only ones pursuing entrepreneurship at Workspace. Brady Knuff and Forrest Anderson both left their respective high schools after their junior year to dedicate their time to building a business. Now enrolled virtually in the North Atlantic Regional High School, a Maine-based private program for nontraditional students, the duo will earn an accredited high school diploma while spending what would be their senior year immersed in their entrepreneurial efforts.

“My experience with Workspace is a little bit different than others’ because I’m not taking classes here,” says Knuff. “I’m using it as an incubator for my business.” These young entrepreneurs use the technology and business support resources at Workspace, such as video editing equipment and access to ongoing mentorship, to expand their nascent real estate marketing company, Blukite.

Asked why he decided to leave his high school for Workspace, Knuff explains:

This year I wanted to work on the business more seriously. Really it was just a matter of time. I would have to be at school until at least 3 p.m., then sports, then homework. I never had the time or the resources to devote to it.

Anderson adds:

At first I was skeptical because I didn’t know if I wanted to leave my high school, but I’ve always wanted to be an entrepreneur and I felt like this is the time.

Both boys are uncertain if they will attend college someday, but they admit it’s a possibility. “I’m going to work on this for a couple of years and see where I am financially to decide if I want to go to college,” says Anderson.

Under Fraise’s leadership, Workspace continues to add families and expand its square footage, but she is not content for it to be a stand-alone success story. “I see this as the future of education,” says Fraise, who views Workspace as the flagship model for co-working and co-learning spaces.

I want these to spontaneously erupt everywhere, and I want to give away what I’ve learned to help others to do it.

To that end, Fraise offers training programs and support to entrepreneurial educators who are interested in launching their own Workspace-like organizations.

She is also hopeful about bringing the Workspace model into low-income communities, expanding opportunity and encouraging entrepreneurship. “I have faith in families,” she says.

The key is professional development for the parents, helping them find income streams and role modeling for their children, as well as increasing opportunity through our network.

Follow me on Twitter or LinkedIn. Check out my website or some of my other work here.

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