“We” Should Not Regulate Homeschooling

The desire to control other people’s ideas and behaviors, particularly when they challenge widely-held beliefs and customs, is one of human nature’s most nefarious tendencies. Socrates was sentenced to death for stepping out of line; Galileo almost was. But such extreme examples are outnumbered by the many more common, pernicious acts of trying to control people by limiting their individual freedom and autonomy. Sometimes these acts target individuals who dare to be different, but often they target entire groups who simply live differently. On both the political right and left, efforts to control others emerge in different flavors of limiting freedom—often with “safety” as the rationale. Whether it’s calls for Muslim registries or homeschool registries, fear of freedom is the common denominator.

A recent example of this was an NPR story that aired last week with the headline, “How Should We Regulate Homeschooling?” Short answer: “We” shouldn’t.

Learning Outside of Schools Is Safe

The episode recycled common claims in favor of increased government control of homeschooling, citing rare instances in which a child could be abused or neglected through homeschooling because of a lack of government oversight. Of course, this concern ignores the rampant abuse children experience by school teachers and staff people in government schools across the country.The idea that officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided.

Just last month, for example, two public school teachers in California pleaded guilty to sexually assaulting a student, a public school teacher in New Mexico was convicted of sexually assaulting a second grader after already being convicted of sexually assaulting two fourth graders, two public school employees in Virginia were charged with abusing six, nonverbal special needs students, and the San Diego Unified School District in California is being sued because one of its teachers pleaded guilty to repeated sexual abuse and intimidation of a student.

Child abuse is horrific, regardless of where it takes place; but the idea that government officials, who can’t prevent widespread abuse from occurring in public schools, should regulate homeschooling is misguided. Many parents choose to homeschool because they believe that learning outside of schooling provides a safer, more nurturing, and more academically rigorous educational environment for their children. The top motivator of homeschooling families, according to the most recent data from the US Department of Education, is “concern about the environment of other schools.” Being regulated by the flawed government institution you are fleeing is statism at its worst.

Homeschooling Is Growing

Brian Ray, Ph.D., director of the National Home Education Research Institute, offered strong counterpoints in the otherwise lopsided NPR interview, reminding listeners that homeschooling is a form of private education that should be exempt from government control and offering favorable data on the wellbeing, achievement, and outcomes of homeschooled students.

Homeschooling continues to be a popular option for an increasingly diverse group of families. As its numbers swell to nearly two million US children, the homeschooling population is growing demographically, geographically, socioeconomically, and ideologically heterogeneous. Homeschooling families often reject the standardized, one-size-fits-all curriculum frameworks and pedagogy of public schools and instead customize an educational approach that works best for their child and family.

With its expansion from the margins to the mainstream over the past several decades, and the abundance of homeschooling resources and tools now available, modern homeschooling encompasses an array of different educational philosophies and practices, from school-at-home methods to unschooling to hybrid homeschooling. This diversity of philosophy and practice is a feature to be celebrated, not a failing to be regulated.

The collective “we” should not exert control over individual freedom or try to dominate difference. “We” should just leave everyone alone.

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In Praise of Spontaneous Order

My girls and I recently spent several days in New York City, where I filmed this clip about unschooling and self-directed education. We decided to make it a field trip, enjoying a Broadway show, Central Park, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Although I have been a city dweller in Boston for over 20 years, it pales in comparison to New York City’s size and scale. Walking through Times Square, the phrase that kept popping into my head was: spontaneous order.

Here were thousands of people in a few square blocks, all peacefully pursuing their own interests in an environment of voluntary association and exchange. Some people might have been in search of Italian food, others Mexican. Some visitors may have been shopping for shoes, or pocketbooks, or travel memorabilia, while others were interested in the street performers and musicians. Some arrived by taxi, others by subway, and still others by foot or bicycle. Some were there to sell, while others were there to buy.

There were countless reasons all of those people were in Times Square, but they came as a result of their own distinct interests, taking advantage of a panoply of dining, shopping, and artistic vendors, without any central planner coordinating their activities. It is an extraordinary example of the power of the marketplace to spontaneously facilitate peaceful, voluntary exchange for highly diverse individuals with many different interests and needs. As State University of New York economist Sanford Ikeda writes, “great cities are Hayekian spontaneous orders par excellence.”

Spontaneous Order

In his book, The Fatal Conceit, the Nobel Prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek explained the beauty of spontaneous order in greater detail, arguing that while it’s not perfect, the order that arises through decentralized, individual interest is superior to any external attempt to mastermind human action. Hayek wrote:

Such an order, although far from perfect and often inefficient, can extend farther than any order men could create by deliberately putting countless elements into selected “appropriate” places. Most defects and inefficiencies of such spontaneous orders result from attempting to interfere with or to prevent their mechanisms from operating, or to improve the details of their results. Such attempts to intervene in spontaneous order rarely result in anything closely corresponding to men’s wishes, since these orders are determined by more particular facts than any such intervening agency can know.

A few days in Times Square gave me an even greater appreciation for the spontaneous order of the marketplace and its ability to satisfy an array of preferences, peacefully and voluntarily, without central planning or control. It’s an extraordinary display of emergent, harmonious human action.

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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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Upheaval, Back to School, 1984

Nobody asked but …

A confluence of at least 3 elements brings this blog post to you — it is a mosaic of Jared Diamond, a new school year, and George Orwell.

I got the idea of the mosaic from Jared Diamond, in the intro of his book, Upheaval.  He gives the example of the marks made on the psyches of Bostonians who were victims, or associated with victims, of the 1942 Cocoanut Grove night club fire which consumed 492 lives and crippled 100s of surviving, direct victims.  Diamond was a pre-schooler in Boston then.  I can empathize and I can attest.  Although I was still 5 months from being born, and far away in Chattanooga, my mother hailed from Boston, and my maternal grandparents still lived in Beantown.  I heard about the grisly catastrophe every summer for the next 16 years.  It was a colossal event.  Jared Diamond summed it up by writing that all touched by the occurrence were immediately a mosaic of what they had been before the fire, what they were by the fire’s consequences, and what they would become.

It dawned on me that everyone is at any moment a mosaic of her past, present, and future — a separate, unique, different, and distinguished mosaic.  And the mosaic is a part of all mosaics that are connected by relationships.

In nearly all of my relationships, this is back to school time.  The relationships that are most pressing this year are those having to do with self-ownership and effects on those for whom I care most.  The most critical self-ownership question is, do I understand the consequences of the mosaic mentioned above.  Know thyself is an ancient, wise admonishment.  But to do this, one must understand constant change, affecting not only your own mosaic but those of all relationships.  In the past, I have shared in the all-too-human shortsightedness that wishes to control all events in hopes of maintaining a status quo.  Let go.  Life will go on, until it doesn’t.  In a perfect world, each of us would author our own education — then it makes no difference whether we choose a given vehicle, home school, unschooling, Thoreau-like experiential exposure, public school, or private school.  Grant Allen opined often that one should not let one’s schooling interfere with one’s education.  Mark Twain seconded the notion.  Your responsibility to educate yourself happens 24/7/365, whereas the ritual of back to school is a seasonal thing.  Responsibility and education are biological mandates.  The school year is a statist fiction.

The third element referred to above is that I have just finished reading George Orwell’s 1984.  I saw the chilling movie in 1957, when 1984 was at the end of a telescope reversed.  I thought that the scenario would come true until about calendar year 1985.  Reading the book in 2019, 1984 is way back in the rearview mirror.  And now I know that the predictions have come true in a far more profound way.  They were true in these ways in 1949, the year Orwell’s vision was published.

At any rate, Orwell is an author with stunning power over words and narrative.  He is a philosopher of the first water.  He is an irresistible intellect.  Needless to say, it is time to continue your education.  Get a copy and read it ASAP.

— Kilgore Forelle

 

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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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