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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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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The Difference Between Public Libraries and Public Schools

Plans for the Boston Public Library, the nation’s second-oldest public library, were approved in 1852, the same year Massachusetts passed the country’s first compulsory schooling law. Both public libraries and public schools are funded through taxation and both are “free” to access, but the similarities end there. The main difference between public libraries and public schools is the level of coercion and state power that public schooling wields.

Voluntary vs. Compulsory

Libraries are open and available for anyone to access. You can quickly sign up for a library card if you want borrowing privileges, but you don’t have to. You can come and go freely, spend time in whatever library sections most interest you, ignore ones that don’t, and leave when you want. You can ask for help and support from a librarian if you choose. You can participate in a class that the library offers or access one of the library’s many online resources, but those are all optional. You may not always like a library’s programming, but you don’t have to participate in anything you don’t want to. If you don’t like your neighborhood library, you can freely visit one in another neighborhood or another town. You mix daily with a wide assortment of people of all ages and backgrounds at your library, reflecting the diversity of your community. Aside from the public levy, everything is voluntary.

Moreover, you don’t ever have to step foot in a library and still have access to books and resources through bookstores and online retailers. Your library has no control over what your local bookstore sells, and the library system can’t dictate rules to Amazon.

Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening.

Public schools, which are more aptly called government schools because of the force associated with them, are nothing like public libraries. Parents are required to register their children for school under a legal threat of force, and the ages at which a child must attend school are lengthening. Parents can choose to homeschool or enroll their child in a private school, but in most states, homeschooling and private schools are regulated by the state under compulsory schooling statutes. Education is controlled by the state, even for non-public entities that receive no public money.

This is akin to your public library monitoring the books that Barnes & Noble sells, but it goes well beyond that. In each state, young people are required to meet certain attendance thresholds in terms of hours of classroom learning. It would be like the library system mandating that you visit your library—assigned to you based on your zip code— a certain number of days and hours each year, or, alternatively, visit Barnes & Noble for those same number of days and hours with a report to the state to prove it. While you’re at your library or bookstore, you are also required to learn about specific subjects whether you want to or not. And there may be a test.

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Freedom over Force

If the public library system had the same power as the public schooling system, there would be far fewer private booksellers. When you are required by law to receive library services for a certain number of hours per year, you will likely go with the “free” option rather than paying to receive your mandatory library services at Barnes & Noble, which would charge a fee. Indeed, this happened with mandatory schooling.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools.In his book Schooled to Order, historian David Nasaw explains that as government schooling became compulsory in Massachusetts, the number of private schools in the state dropped from 1,308 in 1840 to only 350 by 1880.[1]  Similar trends occurred in other states as they enacted compulsory schooling laws, with private school enrollment subsequently plummeting. It’s hard to compete with “free” and compulsory.

Most of us would never tolerate a level of coercion and state power associated with public libraries that we routinely accept with public schools and education more broadly. As back-to-school time nears, it’s worth celebrating the many ways that public libraries facilitate non-coercive, self-directed learning for all members of the community and questioning why we would ever want our children to learn in spaces where force, not freedom, prevails.

[1] Nasaw, David. Schooled to Order: A Social History of Schooling in the United States. New York: Oxford University Press, 1979, p. 83.

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Questioning the Back-To-School Default

Back-to-school time is upon us. My Instagram feed is starting to fill with first-day photos as a new school year begins this week in some parts of the country. For those of us who homeschool, we often get asked, “So, why did you decide to homeschool?” We respond with various personal and educational reasons, including the top motivator for homeschoolers on national surveys: “concern about the school environment.” What always strikes me, though, is that parents who send their kids to school never get asked this question. When was the last time someone asked a parent, “So, why did you decide to send your child to school?”

Societal Expectations and Defaults

Schooling is the default. It’s the societally expected thing to do. It’s also mandated of parents under a legal threat of force, so they may not think much of it. The trouble is that schooling is beginning to take on a much larger role in a child’s life, disconnecting children from family at much earlier ages and for longer portions of a child’s day and year. Even compulsory schooling laws are expanding in many states, to begin at age five and extend to age 18.

I wrote an op-ed about this trend in Tuesday’s Wall Street Journal, arguing that there are benefits to delaying early schooling for most children and potential harms with sending children to school early, such as increased ADHD diagnosis rates. It can be worthwhile to question the default.

In his book Originals: How Non-Conformists Move the World, Wharton Business School professor Adam Grant writes that a hallmark of originals and change-makers is their tendency to question, and often reject, societal defaults. Grant writes:

Justifying the default system serves a soothing function. It’s an emotional painkiller: If the world is supposed to be this way, we don’t need to be dissatisfied with it. But acquiescence also robs us of the moral outrage to stand against injustice and the creative will to consider alternative ways that the world could work. The hallmark of originality is rejecting the default and exploring whether a better option exists. (p. 7)

Better options than compulsory mass schooling do exist, and many more would be created if more parents challenged the default. We should be outraged that schooling has seized so much of childhood and adolescence, particularly when the results of all this schooling are lackluster at best and concerning at worst. We should be outraged that government schools increasingly look like prisons and that students are being schooled for jobs that no longer exist. We should question whether a system in which only one-quarter of high school seniors are proficient in math, and only a bit over one-third of them are proficient readers, should be given greater influence and authority over young people’s lives. We should really wonder if it makes sense to place our children in this swelling system, whether they are toddlers or teens. Surely, we should “consider alternative ways that the world could work.”

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Alternative Options

What are these alternative ways? Jessica Koehler has a great article this month at Psychology Today where she lists some of these alternatives and also explains her own journey of shifting from schooling to homeschooling for her children. In addition to homeschooling/unschooling, parents can delay preschool and kindergarten, explore various co-ops and learning centers, take advantage of one of the many micro-schools that are sprouting nationwide, and explore alternative programs for teens, like community college enrollment, travel, or apprenticeships. Or they can build their own alternative to school with other like-minded parents. Other options are virtual learning programs, including public ones, and nearby public charter schools or private schools that can sometimes offer flexible learning and attendance options.

Questioning the schooling default, and acting upon that doubt, can be difficult. It is much easier to put a child on a school bus and be just like everyone else. It is easier to go along. But it may not be better—for you, your child, or the world you could help to create. As Adam Grant says, it’s the non-conformists who move the world. These originals are the ones who question the status quo, refuse to tolerate discontent, and imagine new possibilities. Grant writes:

Ultimately, the people who choose to champion originality are the ones who propel us forward….They feel the same fear, the same doubt, as the rest of us. What sets them apart is that they take action anyway. (p. 28)

We all care deeply about educating children to be literate, competent, inventive, compassionate, and thoughtful. It’s time we question if compulsory mass schooling really has the ability to facilitate these outcomes, for our children and others, or whether alternatives to school might do the job better. It’s time to challenge defaults.

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Homeschooling, Ideology, and The “Culture War”

Homeschooling, as characterized by someone who prefers “public” [sic] schools: “it’s all about ideology first; creating soldiers for the culture war“.

Sure. In some tragic cases, that is what is going on.

And how exactly is that different from government schools? What does he think government schools are doing?

Yes, some people use home education to teach their kids harmful lies while insulating them from competing ideas (truth, reality, and ethics). That’s bad. They should not do this to vulnerable children.

Yet, government schools do the exact same thing— even teaching some of the same harmful lies the worst of the homeschoolers are teaching.

If you are teaching your kids to pledge allegiance to a flag, to honor political “authority“, that government is good or necessary, you are teaching a toxic ideology to kids too young to know any better– whether they are being taught at home or in a theft-funded kinderprison.

If you expect these kids to go out and become “good citizens” while promoting your favorite flavor of statism, you’ve done nothing but indoctrinate these trusting children into your death cult religion. The religion of Statism. You are training them to be soldiers in the culture war, fighting for the side of statism.

It’s kind of pathetic to criticize someone for doing the same thing your preferred cult is doing– even if the details differ a little.

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