Yale Study: Vast Majority of High Schoolers Unhappy at School

Most high school students are not happy at school. A new study by Yale researchers finds that nearly three-quarters of high schoolers report negative feelings toward school. The study surveyed more than 20,000 high school students in all 50 US states and found widespread dissatisfaction at school across all demographic groups, with girls reporting slightly more negative emotions than boys. According to Yale co-author Zorana Ivcevic,

It was higher than we expected. We know from talking to students that they are feeling tired, stressed, and bored, but were surprised by how overwhelming it was.

The Yale findings, which were published in the most recent edition of the academic journal Learning and Instruction, echo previous conclusions about young people’s attitudes toward school. According to a 2016 Gallup student poll of nearly one million children from approximately three thousand different schools, enthusiasm for school dropped dramatically between fifth grade and twelfth grade.

In another large-scale 2003 study, psychologists tracked several hundred elementary and secondary school students over the course of a week. The students wore watches that signaled them several times a day to record, at that moment, what the students were doing and how they were feeling. The results revealed that children were unhappiest while they were at school, and happiest when out of school.

Is There a Better Way?

Perhaps these results are not surprising. School isn’t supposed to be fun, right? Kids have to deal with the drudgery of school, buckle down, and do the work because that’s life. Or so the thinking goes. What a horrible message to send to children, and to internalize ourselves: Life is drudgery, work is drudgery, and the sooner people learn this in school, the better off they will be.

It doesn’t have to be this way. For young people who are educated outside of forced schooling environments, learning can be engaging, rewarding, and yes, fun. Free to pursue passions, explore talents, and set individual goals, young people who learn without schooling or who are educated in other non-coercive learning environments, retain and expand their curiosity and autonomy.

It’s the lack of freedom and personal agency that leads to negative emotions toward school or life. When individuals are empowered to take charge of their living and learning, negativity diminishes.

Parents should take seriously these negative emotions in their adolescents, particularly as youth anxiety, depression, and suicide continue to soar. Researchers at Vanderbilt University found a correlation between adolescent suicidal thoughts and actions and school attendance, reporting that these tendencies decline during the summer months and spike at back-to-school time. This is an opposite pattern to that of adults, who experience the highest rates of suicide during the summertime.

In sharing the results of their latest survey on high schoolers’ negative feelings toward school, the Yale researchers suggest that later school start times might help by allowing young people more time for sleep; but this merely puts a Band-Aid on a much deeper wound. Teenagers don’t like school because their freedom is tightly controlled, they are micro-managed by adults, and they have no or little input in what, how, where, or with whom they learn. On the brink of adulthood, teenagers are increasingly treated like toddlers.

Not only is it dangerous to dismiss adolescents’ antipathy toward school as normal and expected, it avoids an honest look at the impact of coercion on human flourishing. When people are free, they thrive; with force, they flounder.

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Preemptive Wealth Management

It’s kind of funny that most curricula are focused on kids and young adults learning things before they need to know them.

They learn about and memorize facts and ideas that are completely unnecessary to solving actual problems they face. The idea is so that they’ll be prepared and know things in case they ever become important or useful to know in the future. It’s odd for several reasons, not least of which is that this kind of learning has almost no retention, but especially because most of the students won’t end up ever facing most of the problems even if they did retain the knowledge. (I have used Pythagorean theorem once in my entire life, and even then I didn’t remember its name or the specific formula, but had a vague idea that there was a way to find out one length of a triangle if I had the other two. Google did the rest.)

It should be taken as a given then that I am not pushing for “just in case” learning, or any kind of compulsory education period.

But if one were to agree with the standard approach of learning a bunch of things that might possibly be useful to some sliver of the class at some point in the future, you would think there might be a good bit of material on wealth management. After all, there are 12 million millionaires in the US – more than 3% of the population – which is probably higher than the percent of students who will ever need to know how to label a mitochondria. If you believe in preparatory learning, preparing to manage wealth would seem at least as logical as preparing to be a medical doctor. (There are roughly 900,000 doctors in the US, or less than 0.3% of the population).

We tend to think about wealth as only a benefit, not a problem to be dealt with. “Oh yeah, sure would be nice if my biggest challenge was learning how to manage a million bucks!” Maybe. But probably not as nice as we imagine.

What’s the opportunity cost of paying off a mortgage vs putting the money to work in the market? How liquid do you need to be? Where to keep cash since banks are only insured or $250,000 in deposits? How to deal with requests and demands from friends and family? How much to hedge against exogenous economic shocks? How to do so? How to not get taken advantage of by financial planners, lawyers, accountants, and managers of family offices and trusts? What’s the best way to handle inheritances so you give your kids a leg up but don’t cripple them and rob their ability to gain strength by solving their own problems?

Most people have trouble with financial management at the paycheck to paycheck level. More money doesn’t magically solve that. The problems just get bigger and the stakes higher.

While the idea of compulsory public schools teaching wealth management is not desirable, there might be something to the idea of individuals who desire to achieve wealth learning how to manage it a few steps ahead of time. If nothing else, the mindset alone is a form of subconscious confidence building. Investing in wealth management is a kind of bet on yourself that you will put it to use.

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Elon Musk Wants Talent, Not Diplomas

Elon Musk says skills matter more than diplomas. The founder and CEO of corporate innovation giants Tesla and SpaceX tweeted on February 2 that he is hiring for his artificial intelligence group at Tesla and wants to recruit the most talented people he can find. Talent, to Musk, means “deep understanding” of artificial intelligence and the ability to >pass a “hardcore coding test,” but it doesn’t necessarily include degrees and diplomas.

“A PhD is definitely not required,” Musk wrote. “I don’t care if you even graduated high school.”

Musk went on to say on Sunday that “educational background is irrelevant”:

Musk Didn’t Like School

It’s not surprising that Musk would emphasize ability and knowledge over institutional credentials. Other Silicon Valley technology companies, like Google and Apple, no longer require employees to have a college degree. But Musk also had a personal dissatisfaction with his schooling, saying in a 2015 interview: “I hated going to school when I was a kid. It was torture.”

A billionaire inventor, Musk decided to build a better educational program for his own children and opened his experimental school, Ad Astra, on SpaceX’s Los Angeles campus. He was dissatisfied with the elite private schools they were attending and thought education, even at purportedly “good” schools, could be much improved.

In an interview about Ad Astra, Musk 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,” offers a hands-on, passion-driven learning environment that defies the coercion inherent in most conventional schooling, public or private. It has no grade levels, an emergent, technology-focused 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.”

Schooling as Signaling

Despite a culture and economy now focused around technology and innovation, most conventional schooling is widely incapable of helping young people develop the knowledge and skills they need to do essential 21st-century work. Stuck in a 19th-century curriculum and instruction model, today’s schools are anything but modern.

The trouble is that schooling is more about signaling than learning, so the catalysts to change its basic structure and approach are lacking. It might not matter in the real world that you mastered middle school French, but moving successfully along the schooling conveyor belt offers a signal to potential employers. Economist Bryan Caplan writes about this signaling effect in his book The Case Against Education. He also explains how the quest for more signals, regardless of how hollow they may be, is leading to “credential inflation,” or the pursuit of more diplomas for occupations that really don’t require them.

Writing in The Atlantic, Caplan says:

From kindergarten on, students spend thousands of hours studying subjects irrelevant to the modern labor market. Why do English classes focus on literature and poetry instead of business and technical writing? Why do advanced-math classes bother with proofs almost no student can follow? When will the typical student use history? Trigonometry? Art? Music? Physics? Latin? The class clown who snarks “What does this have to do with real life?” is onto something.

More Signal Options Beyond Schooling

Fortunately, there are now many other ways beyond conventional schooling to gain skills and knowledge and signal your value to potential employers like Musk. More than 400 “coding bootcamps” are reported to exist around the world, helping people to master in-demand programming and software development skills. The online coding school, Lambda School, which has raised nearly $50 million in venture capital funding since its launch in 2017, has a fascinating business model focused on income share agreements. It is free to attend Lambda, but the company takes a percentage of its graduates’ earnings once they land a high-tech job. If the student doesn’t land a job, she doesn’t pay. Perhaps not surprisingly, it is estimated that Lambda is receiving over 1,000 applications a week from interested students. Other alternatives to college are sprouting, and apprenticeship programs like Praxis continue to be sought-after.

Entrepreneurs like Musk recognize what it takes to succeed in the innovation era, and it has little to do with conventional schooling. Discovering passions, pursuing personal goals, and developing essential skills to build on those passions and achieve those goals has never been easier than it is today with abundant resources and tools literally at our fingertips.

Musk and Tesla may be known for their visionary work in creating autonomous vehicles, but it’s autonomous humans with the agency, creativity, and opportunity to achieve their full potential that are the real breakthroughs.

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The Honest Guide to Mindfulness

Mindfulness has (amazingly, wonderfully) become quite a buzzword in the last decade or so, and for good reason. It’s powerful, and can help us to become more present, happier, more focused, and much more.

However, if you’re new to mindfulness, it’s easy to get the wrong idea from all the marketing you’ll find online. Images of people at complete peace with the world and themselves, full of bliss, simply by sitting still and meditating for a few minutes … they are beautiful images, but they don’t tell the whole truth.

Mindfulness is powerful, and you should absolutely do it. But you should do it with your eyes wide open, knowing what’s up.

So here’s my attempt at an honest guide to mindfulness.

Mindfulness is hard. You can meditate and get antsy, want to get up, want to go do something else, plan your day, dive into your work, answer a few messages, search for some information you’re itching to know about.

Mindfulness is hard, which is a good reason to do it.

Mindfulness is messy. You’ll get started with meditation, maybe get on a streak of meditating every day, and feel really good about yourself. Then you might fall off, struggle to start again, feel bad about it. You’ll do this for years, perhaps. Or maybe you’ll meditate regularly but struggle to be mindful throughout the day, especially during certain situations like working online or while you’re eating or socializing. You’ll get better at being present, but only in spurts and starts, and the learning will be anything but smooth.

Mindfulness is messy, just like life, which is the reason to open up to the messiness instead of our usual desire for things to be orderly and neat. We can learn to accept the messiness of life if we practice with it.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable. Sitting still and facing the sensations of the present moment can feel boring. It can bring up itches that you just need to scratch right now. Urges to go to do something else, to plan and solve and remember, will come up, because they are the old mental habits. And not following those urges can be very uncomfortable.

Mindfulness is uncomfortable because it’s so rare for us not to indulge in those old mental patterns. But that’s the very reason it’s so powerful.

Mindfulness pulls the rug out from under your feet. Let’s say you’ve been practicing meditation for a few months, and you think you’re getting the hang of it. All of a sudden, everything you think you knew about meditation can be upended, as you learn something new, or as a new pattern starts to come up. Now you have to adjust to that. After a few months, you might think you know a thing or two, and then you read a book or listen to a talk from a teacher, and that gets yanked away from you too. Over and over, you get upended, and it can be very jarring each time.

Mindfulness can be jarring when you get upended. And that’s part of the magic too — feeling like we are on solid ground is an illusion, and learning to deal with the groundlessness of not knowing is an incredible practice.

Mindfulness takes a metric crap-ton of practice. You’ll suck at meditation (or any other mindfulness practice) when you first start. You can’t “do it right” or keep your attention on anything for very long. Don’t worry, you never really master it! It’s all continual practice, without ever feeling like you know exactly what you’re doing. You practice and practice, and then practice some more. You might make some progress, only to find out that you still have so much more to learn.

It takes a crapload of practice, and that’s a beautiful thing to open up to.

You’ll think you’re doing it wrong, and fail a lot. You’ll start out and continually feel like your’e doing it wrong, and that won’t feel very good. The good news is that no one knows what the hell they’re doing, and it often won’t feel very good. The better news is that it’s not supposed to feel good, and you learn to accept the idea that you’re never very sure of anything. This is what life is always like, but we just usually blame it on the external circumstances (or think there’s something wrong with us), rather than accepting this uncertainty about everything as a basic part of our lives that we can open up to and even love.

It’ll show you all your “faults.” You’ll learn through mindfulness practice that you’re not as disciplined as you’d like to be. You’re not as tough, competent, skilled, exceptional. This will become clear as you practice.

You’ll come face-to-face with all of your demons. And then you’ll make friends with them.

You’ll start to think other people should be more mindful … and you’ll be wrong. As you start to get “better” at mindfulness, and more and more aware of your habits and patterns and thoughts … as you drop into the present more often … it will become clearer when other people aren’t being mindful. And you might think they should be practicing too, that they should put their phones down and be more present. You’ll think you know how others should be mindful, because you’ve learned a thing or two.

And then you’ll realize that judging others and thinking you know how others should behave is just your mind’s old pattern of judging and trying to get control. You’ll learn to let that go too, sometimes … and when you do, that’s when you’ll become more open to connecting with others vulnerably.

It requires more than mindfulness. As you practice, you’ll find that mindfulness by itself isn’t the answer to everything. It doesn’t magically solve any problems. It’s a powerful practice, and can bring wonderful awareness to your life. But sometimes that awareness is of all the terrible things you’re feeling, all the harsh thoughts you have about yourself, all the harsh thoughts you have about other people or the world around you. Awareness doesn’t always feel good! And it doesn’t solve everything.

Mindfulness is only part of the work. The work also requires compassion — for yourself and others. It requires vulnerability and the ability to open your heart. It requires honesty and the willingness to face things. It requires being willing to love things as they are, without needing to control things. It requires letting go of what you think things should be like, letting go of what you think you should have or shouldn’t have. The work requires you to be willing to be curious, to be open, to remain in not knowing.

It is beautiful work, and requires courage. I am learning along with you, and am glad to be on this journey with a fellow explorer.

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Families Today Have More Schooling Options Than Ever, But Nowhere Near Enough

I am a glass-half-full kind of person, so while we could focus on the criticisms and some of the setbacks related to expanding educational freedom to more families, there is much more to celebrate than to lament. As National School Choice Week kicks off, it’s a great time to spotlight the growing variety and abundance of education options available to parents and young people.

In its October 2019 national survey, EdChoice revealed a startling statistic: More than 80 percent of US school-age children attend a public district school, but fewer than one-third of their parents prefer that they go there. This represents a massive choice gap in American education, with many parents still unable to opt-out of a mandatory school assignment in favor of more preferable options. Still, there are signs of hope.

Vouchers, Education Savings Accounts, and Tax-Credit Scholarships

Education choice mechanisms, including vouchers, education savings accounts (ESAs), and tax-credit scholarships, continue to gain popularity in many states. Parents are being re-empowered to determine how, where, and with whom their children are educated.Vouchers enable parents to use a portion of their child’s tax dollars allocated for public schools toward tuition for private schools. I recently wrote about the powerful story of Virginia Walden Ford, the Washington, DC, mom who would not accept that her son had to be stuck in a failing district school and pioneered the Washington, DC, voucher program that gives low-income families the ability to exit their assigned school for private options.

ESAs are similar to vouchers in that they enable families to access some of the funds allocated to public schools, but they have the added advantage of separating education from schooling. Rather than only targeting tuition at a private school the way vouchers do, ESAs expand the definition of education beyond schooling, allowing parents to access funds for a wide variety of options, including tutoring, books and resources, classes, and tuition. Tax-credit scholarships, available now in 18 states, enable taxpayers to receive tax credits when they donate to approved non-profit scholarship organizations that then distribute scholarship funds to income-eligible families to use for tuition and other educational services.

The expansion of education choice mechanisms to more families may rely, in part, on how the US Supreme Court rules on the case of Espinoza v. Montana Department of Revenue. Last week, the Court heard arguments in this case, which exposes the 19th-century anti-Catholic Blaine Amendments that continue to exist in 37 states. This particular case focuses on a tax-credit scholarship established in Montana that allowed taxpayers to receive a tax credit when donating to a scholarship fund that would distribute those funds to children for private school tuition. Some parents, including the plaintiff, chose to use the scholarship money to send their children to religious schools, which the Montana Supreme Court said violated the Blaine amendment’s ban on funds to religious schools.

Writing recently about the case in The Atlantic, Nick Sibilla concludes:

In deciding Espinoza, the Court has the opportunity to do more than just settle the fate of one controversial tax credit; it could also junk Montana’s Blaine Amendment, finding it in violation of the Constitution’s religious-freedom and equal-protection clauses. In doing so, it would set a strong precedent against any law born of bigotry, even if other justifications seem neutral.

Homeschooling

In my Cato policy brief last fall, I found that some of the states with the most robust education choice mechanisms also had a large and growing population of homeschoolers. It makes sense: In an environment where parental choice in education is valued and expected and where a default school assignment is actively questioned, parents feel empowered to make more choices regarding their child’s education, and many of them choose homeschooling.

Nationally, homeschooling numbers hover near two million learners who are increasingly diverse along all metrics, including demographics, socioeconomic status, geography, ideology, and educational philosophy and approach. The majority of today’s homeschooling families choose this option because they are concerned about other school environments.

Hybrid homeschooling options, which include both private and public part-time programs, enable more families to choose homeschooling by providing some out-of-home, center-based learning and instruction that complements the central role of the family in a child’s education.

Charter Schools and Virtual Schooling

Despite periodic disappointments for charter school expansion, their popularity continues to climb. Charter schools are public schools that are often administered by private, usually non-profit organizations. They trade heightened accountability for more autonomy. The US Department of Education reports that the number of charter school students swelled from less than a half-million students in 2000 to three million students in 2016, or six percent of the overall K-12 school-age population.

According to a new poll ahead of the upcoming presidential primaries, voters are less likely to support Democratic presidential candidates who want to end federal charter school funding.The future of parental choice and educational freedom is bright. Virtual schooling, which is online learning that is often public and tuition-free for K-12 students, is also growing, as is blended learning, which combines online and in-person instruction.

While the education choice gap remains wide, and many families are unable to exercise school choice, education options continue to expand and diversify. Parents are being re-empowered to determine how, where, and with whom their children are educated. Policy and legislative efforts continue to extend access to education choice mechanisms, while entrepreneurs build new models and new marketplaces to catalyze choice and innovation. The future of parental choice and educational freedom is bright.

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“Miss Virginia” Shows the Dilemma Many Lower-Income Families Face on Schooling

Every once in awhile, a film comes along that you can’t stop thinking about long after the credits roll. Miss Virginia is such a movie. With superb acting and heart-wrenching emotion, it features the true story of Virginia Walden Ford, a Washington, DC, mom who simply wanted better education options for her child and who would not tolerate mediocrity and the status quo.

Any parent can relate to Walden Ford’s story, so get ready to feel her anger and sorrow followed by joy and triumph. It is a powerful new film that everyone should watch.

The DC Voucher Program

Walden Ford was instrumental in helping to launch the Washington, DC, voucher program, giving low-income children access to funding to exit unsafe and low-quality public schools in favor of private options. The film is rooted in her experience of craving choice and encountering bureaucratic obstacles.

When she removes her teenage son from a failing public school and enrolls him in a nearby private school, Walden Ford feels hope and optimism despite needing to clean toilets and scrub floors to try to pay the tuition. Her hard work isn’t enough to pay the bill, though, and she is forced to leave the private school and re-enroll her son in the district school, where his potential is squandered.

When Walden Ford learns that the DC schools spend twice the amount of money per pupil than the cost of her son’s private school, she refuses to believe the prevailing rhetoric that public schools are chronically underfunded, and she seeks to establish a local school voucher program that gives disadvantaged families the opportunity to opt-out of mandatory school assignments in favor of private options.

Indeed, these are the options that more well-off families, including the legislator who opposes Walden Ford’s initiative, exercise all the time. Education choice programs extend these options to all families regardless of zip code and socioeconomic status.

Cost-Effective Programs

The DC voucher program came under attack in recent years as previous assessments showed that achievement scores for voucher students were lower on average than district school students. But the most recent evaluation of the program, released last spring, showed no difference in achievement scores between voucher and public school students in DC while costing taxpayers about one-third the money.

Moreover, Corey DeAngelis, Director of School Choice at the Reason Foundation, has discovered that participants in the DC voucher program reported much safer learning environments. He writes:

Students that won the voucher lottery and attended a private school were over 35 percent more likely to report that their schools were very safe. And parents of voucher-using students were about 36 percent more likely to report that their children were in very safe schools.

Students in the DC voucher program also had higher overall satisfaction levels with their schools and significantly lower absenteeism.

Choosing safe and satisfying schools for their children is a key priority for many parents. Affluent families exercise this choice all the time, selecting private schools that focus on their children’s well-being or moving to communities with safer, better schools. Lower-income parents, like Walden Ford, want the same opportunity to choose safer, better schools. The DC voucher program and others like it across the country offer more parents greater choice and peace of mind.

Miss Virginia is a must-watch film. Click here for more information and viewing options. Be forewarned that I needed some tissues while watching, but it was well worth a few tears, and a few dollars, to learn more about this incredible woman, her remarkable story, and the promise of education choice for all families.

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