I’ve thought about doing this episode for a while but I sat on it for a few weeks because it’s still in motion. But now Betsy DeVos is confirmed as Secretary of Education I wanted to offer some thoughts on her work on educational issues, charter schools, as well as on the topic of schools more broadly.
Spoiler alert: I graduated from my Master’s program! And I wrote my thesis on what motivates children to learn in the absence of a formal curriculum, so we also talk a bit about whether schools as we know them, and specifically curriculum-based learning, is the best way to serve our children’s learning.
Achieve (2015, May 14). New report highlights large gaps between state test results and 2013 NAEP results. Retrieved from: http://achieve.org/new-report-highlights-large-gaps-between-state-test-results-and-2013-naep-results
Angrist, J.D., Cohides, S.R., Dynarski, S.M., Pathak, P.A., & Walters, C.D. (2013). Charter schools and the road to college readiness: The effects on college preparation, attendance, and choice. Full report available at: http://www.tbf.org/~/media/TBFOrg/Files/Reports/Charters%20and%20College%20Readiness%202013.pdf
Bitfulco, R., & Ladd, H.F. (2006). The impacts of charter schools on student achievement: Evidence from North Carolina. Education Finance and Policy 1(1), 50-90. Full article available at: http://www.mitpressjournals.org/doi/pdf/10.1162/edfp.2006.1.1.50
Bruni, F. (2015, May 30). The education assassins. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2015/05/31/opinion/sunday/frank-bruni-department-of-education-assassins.html?_r=1
Camera, L. (2016, May 17). More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, discrimination still exists. Retrieved from: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2016-05-17/after-brown-v-board-of-education-school-segregation-still-exists
Camera, L. (2017, February 17). DeVos: I’d be fine ditching the education department. Retrieved from: https://www.usnews.com/news/articles/2017-02-17/betsy-devos-id-be-fine-if-we-could-ditch-the-education-department
Center for Research on Education Outcomes (2015). Urban charter school study report on 41 regions. Full report available at: https://urbancharters.stanford.edu/download/Urban%20Charter%20School%20Study%20Report%20on%2041%20Regions.pdf
Doyle, W. (2016, February 18). How Finland broke every rule – and created a top school system. Heching Report. Retrieved from: http://hechingerreport.org/how-finland-broke-every-rule-and-created-a-top-school-system/
Gill, B.P. (2016). The effect of charter schools on students in traditional public schools: A review of the evidence. Education Next. Retrieved from: http://educationnext.org/the-effect-of-charter-schools-on-students-in-traditional-public-schools-a-review-of-the-evidence/
Gleason, P., Clark, M., Tuttle, C.C., Dwoyer, E., & Silverberg, M. (2010). The evaluation of charter school impacts. Full report available at: https://ies.ed.gov/ncee/pubs/20104029/pdf/20104029.pdf
Goldman, J.A. (1981). Social participation of preschool children in same- versus mixed-age groups. Child Development 32, 644-650.
Gray, P. (2013). Free to learn: Why unleashing the instinct to play will make our children happier, more self-reliant, and better students for life. New York: Basic.
Greenberg, D. (1995). Free at last: The Sudbury Valley school. Sudbury, MA: Sudbury Valley School Press. The passage I cited in the episode is freely available here: http://sudburyschool.com/content/free-last
Mack, J. (2012). Weighing the pros and cons of charter schools (Julie Mack blog). Mlive. Retrieved from: http://www.mlive.com/news/kalamazoo/index.ssf/2012/01/comparing_charters_and_regular.html
National Association of Colleges and Employers (2015). Job outlook 2016: Attributes employers want to see on new college graduates’ resumes. Retrieved from: http://www.naceweb.org/s11182015/employers-look-for-in-new-hires.aspx
Preble, L. (n.d.). Classroom overcrowding: It’s not just a numbers game. Teachhub. Retrieved from: http://www.teachhub.com/classroom-overcrowding
Prothero, A. (2016, December 8). Trump’s education secretary nominee’s school choice record in Michigan. Retrieved from: http://blogs.edweek.org/edweek/charterschoice/2016/12/trump_education_secretary_betsy_devos_school_choice_record_michigan.html?r=1922064904
Selbe, N. (2016, April 29). The states ranked by test scores. Startclass. Retrieved from: http://public-schools.startclass.com/stories/13054/states-ranked-test-scores#12-Michigan
Suggate, S.P. 2012. “Watering the garden before the rainstorm: The case of early reading.” Edited by Sebastian Suggate and Elaine Reese. Contemporary debates in child development and education. Abingdon, UK: Routledge, Taylor & Francis. pp. 181-190.
The Education Trust – Midwest. Accountability for all: 2016; The broken promise of Michigan’s charter sector. Retrieved from: http://midwest.edtrust.org/wp-content/uploads/sites/2/2013/10/The-Education-Trust-Midwest_Accountability-for-All-2016_February-11-2016.pdf
Wermund, B. (2016, December 2). Trump’s education pick says reform can ‘advance God’s Kingdom’. Politico. Retrieved from: http://www.politico.com/story/2016/12/betsy-devos-education-trump-religion-232150
Zernike, K. (2016, June 18). A sea of charter schools in Detroit leaves students adrift. The New York Times. Retrieved from: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/06/29/us/for-detroits-children-more-school-choice-but-not-better-schools.html
I had the idea to do this episode a few weeks back, but I sort of sat on it for a bit – in part because it’s such a complex issue. Not that I’m any stranger to researching and writing and talking about complex issues, but because this one is still in motion and no-one really knows yet how it will turn out. So today we’re going to talk a bit about the education system in the U.S. and how it got to be where it is at the moment, and what Betsy DeVos might do with it. The point I want to make with this episode is ‘what if the focus on which kind of school is the right kind’ is the wrong question to ask?
And, not entirely coincidentally, I also wanted to let you know that I’m launching a course to help parents who are thinking about homeschooling their children to decide whether homeschooling could actually be the right thing for their families. It’ll cover all the aspects of making that decision, from understanding whether homeschooling is legal in your area to how you’ll still be able to afford your mortgage; from whether you need to understand everything your child needs to know before you even begin to whether homeschooled children can get into college. Right now I’m looking for a few people who are interested in this to help me pilot test the course – so you would take the course and let me know what you think of it, through email feedback or a phone conversation with me. In exchange for your opinions I’m offering a steep discount – the cost for the pilot will be $99, which will be a 50% discount on the full price of the course once it’s finished. If you’d like more details, with no obligation to sign up, do send me an email at email@example.com.
I should probably also mention that I graduated from my master’s program; for those of you who haven’t been following along since the beginning I launched this podcast as a way to share some of the information I was learning as I worked toward a Master’s in Psychology focused on Child Development. So I’m all done with school – again, for now, at least – although I should note that I reserve the right to go back and get a third master’s in Education in the not too distant future if I decide it’s warranted. But anyway, here’s my celebration for the one just finished: yay!. That’s more celebrating than I’ve done for any of my previous degrees, so I hope you enjoyed being part of it.
Moving swiftly on – I wrote my thesis on the topic of “what motivates unschooled children to learn?”. Unschooling is a specific kind of homeschooling where the parent doesn’t directly teach the child anything (unless the child specifically requests it): instead the child is permitted to engage in self-directed learning, which means the child decides what he or she wants to learn and the parent supports the child in that effort. Now before you say “that sounds like a crazy idea!,” let me tell you about some of the research on schools that I delved into as a foundation for my work, which I felt was needed before I started trying to understand an alternate model.
I’d always assumed that the purpose of school is to help students develop to their full potential – and maybe to help even out some of the disparities in circumstances that separate people at birth. I was actually really surprised to find that that wasn’t at all the case. We live in a capitalist economy. And schools produce the workers for that capitalist economy. It’s the schools’ job to turn out workers capable of participating in this capitalist economy, so they can produce goods for people to buy, so the employers can keep making profit. To do this, the school system uses grades and test results to determine individuals’ position in the system that they will find themselves in once they graduate. An Austrian philosopher called Ivan Illich pointed out that “the pupil is thereby “schooled” to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is “schooled” to accept service in place of value.”
There is a close correspondence between the hierarchical nature of a workplace and the hierarchical nature of a school; a student has about as much power in a school as a worker does in the workplace. The extrinsic motivators of grades and approval from teachers (as well as the threat of failure) closely mirror the external motivators in the workplace – positive performance reviews and increased wages (as well as the prospect of unemployment). The highly rule-governed world of high school mirrors the type of supervision a blue collar worker can expect to receive; the freedom from continual supervision in elite colleges mirrors the work environment of white collar workers, while moderate amount of freedom granted to students in state colleges and community colleges reflects the amount of supervision people in low-level technical or supervisory roles can expect in the working world.
It’s a bit depressing, isn’t it? As a product of the school system myself, who didn’t learn to think critically at all until about age eighteen – and that was something I stumbled on when I realized that my psychology teacher was telling us about one theory one day and another the next day, presenting each as fact, and I said “wait, didn’t the guy from yesterday say the opposite?” I did well in what would generally be called “elite” schools, so I have the luxury of doing the majority of my work while sitting on my couch at home because I have “earned” this right. Yet I am, to some extent, trapped in this role by a hefty mortgage in a high-cost-of-living area and the trappings of middle class life.
I want to be clear that I don’t think anyone is conspiring against us. I think that the majority of teachers go into teaching because they want to help children. And the majority of people working in companies that contribute to things like the Common Core standards (because a lot of companies do have a lot of stake in developing the Common Core standards) don’t have nefarious interests; they’re just doing what they’re supposed to do, which is to make money for their company, and the individuals involved probably think they are doing something to help children as well. But these individuals are working within that system that is all about creating workers for the economy, and is not at all about helping individuals to achieve their own personal goals.
And the school system is really great at one thing: preparing children for the kinds of jobs that existed in the U.S. between about 1880 and 1960, in the height of the manufacturing era when factories needed people to sit in a row and churn out widgets that looked exactly like the widgets their neighbor was making. But in a world where employers look for leadership, the ability to work in a team, communication skills, problem-solving skills, and a strong work ethic, the memorization of facts starts to look markedly less important. Even now, the system is not designed to help children achieve their learning goals. I read a great article in The Atlantic describing how the school system doesn’t want to change, because it serves the needs of its adult stakeholders quite well – both politically and financially. Politicians find schools useful for providing placement opportunities for important constituents, the means to get favored community and business programs adopted and funded, and patronage hires for individuals who have performed some kind of favor for the politician. Politicians get support from teacher’s unions, who are among the top spenders in politics, and who can get a person elected or stop a person they see as being unfavorable to the union from being elected. The unions want more money and power which means getting more members, and to get more members they need happy members, and to get happy members they need to help members get what they want, which includes job security, pay related to seniority rather than performance, less work, and early retirement with pension and healthcare. So as Joel Klein writes in The Atlantic: “whether you work hard or don’t, get good results with kids or don’t, teach in a shortage area like math or special education or don’t, or in a hard-to-staff school in a poor community or not, you get paid the same, unless you’ve been around for another year, in which case you get more. Not bad for the adults.” Klein thinks that three things are necessary to make schools successful: rebuild the entire K-12 system on a platform of accountability, attract more top-flight recruits into teaching, and use technology very differently to improve instruction. I have no objections at all to attracting and hiring better teachers, and I think there is the potential to use technology to improve instruction although Klein admits that he is now paid by the News Corporation to work on exactly this, so it would be more surprising if this topic *didn’t* make his top three. My main objection to his proposal is to rebuild the K-12 system on a platform of accountability, by which he means getting children to take standardized tests and tying teacher pay to children’s performance on those tests. In my pre-Master’s days before I started researching this topic I would see news articles on the Obama administration’s Race to the Top and think that tying teacher pay to student performance sounded like a good idea – why *wouldn’t* you pay teachers better when their students get better test scores? Then when I started to learn more about this I realized *how* some teachers were achieving better test scores – they were sacrificing real, deep learning on subjects the students were interested in in favor of simple fact memorization to improve student test scores.
Finland has taken the opposite approach, professionalizing teaching requiring a master’s degree for entry into the system, paying new recruits more (unlike the system in the U.S. which pays new teachers horrifically badly and back-loads the compensation into the early retirement and pension with health benefits for those teachers who hang on for 25 years even though they’re burned out and just going through the motions), and giving teachers a great deal of freedom to determine what they teach and how they teach it. Finland’s children are only tested once, at the end of high school, but when they are tested they far out-score American children. For several years Finland was at the very top of international league tables of student performance, although those numbers have dropped a bit in recent years as they go through a period of budgetary pressure.
Finally, the more I learned about standardized testing, the more I realized that standardized testing isn’t a very good way to assess what children know. Firstly, it’s possible that the tests used to assess children’s performance may be biased against poor, non-white children because they tend to require a set of skills and knowledge that is more likely to be possessed by children of higher socio-economic backgrounds. Secondly, the socio-economic gap is widened because children from rich families get test preparation outside of school, which children from poor families cannot afford. Thirdly, standardized tests tend to measure, as much as anything else, a child’s ability to take a standardized test – which is usually a different skillset from that needed to engage in deep learning and critical inquiry. In fact, researchers at the RAND Corporation looked at standardized tests from seventeen states – and picked the states whose tests are regarded as the most demanding. 0% of students were assessed on deeper learning in mathematics, 1-6% were assessed on deeper learning in reading, and 2-3% were assessed on deeper learning in writing through these tests (Yuan & Le 2012). Fourthly, many educators are leaving the field because they are frustrated by the difficulty of trying to produce high quality teaching in a political environment that prizes test results above all else. Fifthly, it is especially the teachers of struggling children who are affected, as these children are branded “failures,” along with their teachers, when required test outcomes are not met (Kohn 2004). So who are the main beneficiaries of increased reliance on testing? Well, the companies that produce the tests for one. Standard & Poors, the financial rating service, has been contracted by Michigan and Pennsylvania (to the tune of $10 million each), to publish the performance of every school district in a state, based largely on test score results – and on the assumption that test score results are an appropriate metric of school performance. But Standard & Poors has a vested interest in this conclusion: it is owned by McGraw Hill, which is one of the largest creators of standardized tests. Luckily, McGraw Hill also offers products that teachers can use to raise student test scores (for an additional fee). The magazine Business Week published a cover story in 2001 to make the case that test-based accountability is the way of the future. By coincidence, McGraw Hill owns Business Week. A woman named Charlotte Frank joined state of New York’s top education policymaking panel in 2000 – a side job, we assume, to her role as vice president at McGraw Hill.
So now we have a new Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, who wants to shake up the system for the benefit of children. Although DeVos has said that she doesn’t see much of a role for the Department of Education (which Republicans have introduced a bill to abolish at the end of 2018 anyway), since all of the antidiscrimination issues where she thought the federal government could have a role to play have been sorted out by now. (Although apparently DeVos hasn’t read the news reports saying that discrimination is on the rise.) DeVos certainly isn’t the first to think that the Department of Education is superfluous – I was surprised to learn that it’s only been around since 1979, and both President Ronald Reagan, as well as the majority of the 2016 Republican Presidential candidates, have called for it to be abolished. All this would leave the role of education to the states, which sounds great – they are, after all, closer to the people consuming that education – until you realize that even with federal oversight, states tend to report an exceptionally rosy picture of school achievement, while reporting a rather less rosy picture to national administrators, which can produce reports to let parents know about this gap. And that students with special needs, whether those be educational needs or simply being from a low-income or minority family, don’t get an equivalent share of resources without some very tasty carrots and some very big sticks being wielded from above. So if we’re stuck with schools, my personal opinion is that we should also be stuck with the Department of Education.
Betsy DeVos has been an avid proponent of charter schools, and using public money to fund charter schools, in Michigan for some years. No mind that Michigan’s state constitution expressly forbids the state from using public money to private or religious institutions; In 2000 DeVos and her husband tried to get the state’s constitution changed so a voucher program for students in school districts with low graduation rates would be legal; they spent nearly $13 million on it, twice what the teachers’ unions spent to defeat it 69 to 31%.
In 2001 a meeting called “The Gathering,” which is an annual conference of some of the country’s wealthiest Christians, DeVos and her husband talked about their work in education reform as a biblical battleground where she wants to “advance God’s Kingdom.” DeVos and her husband clearly recognize that while they could use their personal billions of dollars – he’s an heir to the Amway fortune – to fund schools, they can have a far greater impact by fighting to change the whole system to “impact the view of the community around us with the ideas we believe are more powerful ideas of a better way to live one’s life and a more meaningful and a more rewarding to live out one’s life as a Christian,” as Dick DeVos has said. In addition to funding school choice programs, this is why the DeVoses have also sought to link candidates they wanted to defeat to other issues they feel strongly about, such as immigration and same-sex marriage.
By 2006 the DeVoses were running a couple of different nonprofits; one called the Great Lakes Education Project which promoted their education policy goals in Michigan, and the other called All Children Matter which supported pro-voucher candidates in at least 10 states. In the 2010 election Republicans gained control of the governorship and the legislature, and in 2011 the state passed legislation that lifted a cap on the number of charter schools in the state.
For-profit companies no operate about 80% of charter schools in Michigan, a far higher percentage than in any other state, and school test results are pretty dismal. Michigan ranks a #39 out of 50 states in testing performance, with 29 to 24% of students proficient in math or reading at grade 4 or grade 8. The state has nearly 220,000 fewer students than it did in 2003, but removing the limits on opening new charter schools has caused for-profit companies to open nearly 100 new charter schools. Some people who backed charter schools advocated for policies that would only allow successful charters to open new schools but ultimately nobody could agree on what ‘success’ looked like so they decided not to bother with that criteria. A New York Times article noted that 24 charter schools have opened in Detroit since the cap on the number of schools was lifted in 2011, and eighteen charters whose existing schools were at or below the district’s already dismal performance expanded or opened new schools. A review of Michigan’s 2015 application for federal funding to open more charter schools by a panel of independent experts cited an “unreasonably high” representation of Michigan charter schools among the worst five percent of public schools, and that this number had doubled between 2010 and 2014.
The amount of money that goes to each school is determined on what are called “count days” in October and February, and schools buy radio ads and billboards, and sponsor pizza parties and carnivals, all to get children in the door on the right days. All this while the schools advertise their enrollment periods in newspapers that most local families don’t read to make sure the “wrong” kind of families don’t apply, making the application deadlines much earlier than most families think about the new school year, and requiring lengthy applications replete with test score results and disciplinary history or special education needs. And they require this of parents who are themselves graduates of an education system that has been failing for generations, many of whom cannot read or write at a functional level. The oversupply of schools combined with the recruiting of students leads to students shifting from school to school to escape one problem after another, while never getting the education they need.
And what impact does this have on public schools? Well, where there are too many schools and not enough students, the funding just gets spread more thinly than it was before – public schools lost 46% of their inflation-adjusted revenue over the course of a decade – so the performance of public schools declines the most where charter schools are most prevalent. Now if we want to understand how Michigan’s case might be applicable to the rest of the country, then we do have to understand how the constraints specific to Michigan have impacted the way the opening of charters affects public schools. As we said earlier, Michigan’s student enrollment has been declining, so when more schools open this very negatively impacts schools’ ability to maintain basic services. I could imagine that it is possible, though, for charters to come into a state with overcrowded schools and act as sort of a pressure-relief valve. In the mid-2000s, all but 15 states had laws to regulate the maximum number of children in a classroom but in many cases these rules were relaxed as we went into the last recession and school districts needed to cut costs. We should also acknowledge that Michigan’s public schools have been failing to educate children for decades, so it can be hard to tease out how much of the poor performance of public schools is specifically due to the rise of the charters. It is worrying, though, that the charters seem to be giving parents more choice regarding the number of available schools, but these charters aren’t really achieving any better educational outcomes.
But, really, my aim here is not to debate the merits of charter schools vs. public education. Because if you define success as the ability to get large numbers of students to do well in a standardized test, then there are a lot of public schools that do that well – at least, the ones in school districts that have a lot of rich parents and students who have a goal to get to college, and who recognize that if you go to school and you want to go to college then you’d better do well on those tests. And, on the flipside, there are also plenty of schools where children don’t do well; particularly where there aren’t a lot of rich parents and the system does better at telling children they’re stupid than helping them to see and achieve they’re own potential.
And if we look at charter schools, it’s perfectly possible to find research that both supports and denies their effectiveness – there are some samples in the references for this episode if you’re interested. There’s also a relatively new paper that does a metaanalysis of other research, which basically means that the authors looked at a bunch of other studies that came to varying conclusions to try to see what were the overall effects, and this found that six studies found evidence of positive effects on public schools as a result of opening charter schools, four found no effects, and one found negative effects, so the overall result seems to be at least in neutral territory, although not in Michigan as we’ve seen. A journalist in Michigan neatly summarized the benefits of charter schools – they provide options for families so you’re not stuck with just one school, they foster competition which can make public schools much more focused on customer service, they foster innovation because charter schools aren’t constrained by bureaucracy and union rules, and they can carve out a niche to provide certain services – ike a Montessori curriculum, for example, and attract families who are interested in that. Some of the cons associated with charter schools include fiscal inefficiency (as one school official said, if you want to improve the road system, does it make more sense to invest in the roads that already exist or build a parallel set of roads?”), they create an unfair playing field because while charter schools are technically open to all they find ways to attract the kinds of students they want and no the kinds of students they don’t which also creates a less diverse educational environemnt; they’re usually run by for-profit companies, which have an incentive to generate profit, not to improve student outcomes, so they spend less money on instruction than public schools, they’re less transparent than public schools also because they are run by private companies, and also because they’re run by companies the local parents end up having very little say in who runs the schools and how they’re run. So, a well-run charter school can help children in the charter school to get good grades, and may also make local public schools shift their focus and may help students in public schools achieve better educational outcomes as well.
But all of this is a very long way of getting to the point of what if we’re asking the wrong question in the first place? What if we shouldn’t be asking ourselves what kind of school is the right kind, and instead ask ourselves what kind of environment is best for helping children achieve their learning goals?
Because it turns out that the majority of schools are not so great at helping children to achieve their learning goals. And by the majority of schools, I mean schools that use a curriculum to define academic goals and learning progress. Because schools were designed – in the U.S. at least – first to indoctrinate people on the Protestant work ethic, and subsequently to prepare students for the working world, what the student wants to learn is sort of irrelevant, because the people and companies who set the curriculum to be followed have already decided what must be learned.
So when I started research for my thesis, on what motivates children to learn when there’s nobody standing over them telling them what to learn and how to learn it, what I found was that a child must have two things: they must be both developmentally ready, and motivated. And that’s where pre-established curricula get into trouble. They often force a child to learn things before that child is developmentally ready for no real reason than it’s convenient for the teacher and the school. Common Core standards require that children be reading in Kindergarten, simply because it is convenient for schools and teachers to provide most information to children in a written format and if a child can’t read, he or she is quickly going to get left behind. But many children aren’t developmentally ready until age six, seven, eight, or maybe even later. But once those children do learn to read they catch up with the Kindergarten readers so fast that by age 11, there’s essentially no difference between them at all. I don’t know about you, but I found that pretty surprising.
And even once a child is developmentally ready, you then need the motivation part. There are so many stories of children who learned to read in the absence of formal instruction because they got tired of waiting for a parent to have the time to read them the next chapter in a story. They’d sort of been reading for a while and just decided they wanted to do it for themselves. Or there was a child who “couldn’t read” and who wanted to make brownies but neither parent had time, so the child disappeared into the kitchen and reemerged after half an hour to request that a parent find a “9 ex 11” pan and turn on the oven. Children can and will learn to read if we give them the time and space they need.
So when we talk about schools not being able to help achieve their learning goals, we mean pretty much all schools, with the very few exceptions of those schools that don’t use curricula. There are a few schools based on the Sudbury Valley model in the U.S. and Summerhill in England, where children are allowed to follow their interests rather than following a set curriculum. What a Sudbury School does, essentially, is to allow children the freedom to learn whatever they want to learn. It’s a “school” as you and I might think of it in name only. One child didn’t do much but go fishing the whole time he was there – toward the end of his “high school” years his father started to worry that his son hadn’t really learned anything at all. But then the son decided to learn computers and applied himself to that with as much gusto as he’d previously learned about fishing, and then went on to a very successful career in computer sciences. If the children want to play video games all day they can, and several graduates recall the intensity of their long-term games playing with plasticine.
Nobody at Sudbury Valley School has to take lessons if they don’t want to. If a student wants to learn something s/he finds someone else who knows more about it than they do (either a “teacher” or a peer) and convince that person to teach them about it. One of the school’s founders, Daniel Greenberg, wrote about his experience of teaching math:
Sitting before me were a dozen boys and girls, aged nine to twelve. A week earlier, they had asked me to teach them arithmetic. They wanted to learn to add, subtract, multiply, divide, and all the rest.
“You don’t really want to do this,” I said, when they first approached me.
“We do, we are sure we do,” was their answer.
I had to yield then, skeptically. I knew that arithmetic took six years to teach in regular schools, and I was sure their interest would flag after a few months. But I had no choice. They had pressed hard, and I was cornered.
I was in for a surprise.
I found a [text]book in our library, perfectly suited to the job a hand. It was a math primer written in 1898. Small and thick, it was brimming with thousands of exercises, meant to train young minds to perform the basic tasks accurately and swiftly.
Class began – on time. That was part of the deal. “You say you are serious?” I had asked, challenging them; “then I expect to see you in the room on time – 11:00am sharp, every Tuesday and Thursday. If you are five minutes late, no class. If you blow two classes – no more teaching.” “It’s a deal,” they had said, with a glint of pleasure in their eyes.
Basic addition took two classes. They learned to add everything – long thin columns, short fat columns, long fat columns. They did dozens of exercises. Subtraction took another two classes. It might have taken one, but “borrowing” needed some extra explanation.
On to multiplication, and the tables. Everyone had to memorize the tables. Each person was quizzed again and again in class. Then the rules. Then the practice.
They were high, all of them. Sailing along, mastering all the techniques and algorithms, they could feel the material entering their bones. Hundreds and hundreds of exercise, class quizzes, oral tests, pounded the material into their heads.
Division – long division. Fractions. Decimals. Percentages. Square roots.
They came at 11:00 sharp, stayed half an hour, and left with homework. They came back next time with all the homework done. All of them.
In twenty weeks, after twenty contact hours, they had covered it all. Six years’ worth. Every one of them knew the material cold.
A week after it as all over, I talked to Alan White, who had been an elementary math specialist for years in the public schools and knew all the latest and best pedagogical methods.
I told him the story of my class.
He was not surprised.
“Why not?” I asked, amazed at his response. I was still reeling from the pace and thoroughness with which my “dirty dozen” had learned.
“Because everyone knows,” he answered, “that the subject matter itself isn’t that hard. What’s hard, virtually impossible, is beating it into the heads of youngsters who hate every step. The only way we have a ghost of a chance is to hammer away at the stuff bit by bit every day for years. Even then it does not work. Most of the sixth graders are mathematical illiterates. Give me a kid who wants to learn the stuff – well, twenty hours or so makes sense.”
I guess it does. It’s never taken much more than that ever since.
(If you want to share that passage with someone you can have them listen to this episode, or you can direct them to the references at yourparentingmojo.com/education – you can find both the information on the book it came from as well as a link to the website where you can read it in full.
Age mixing is common in Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, where students are free to associate – and learn from – whomever they please. Peter Gray, a psychologist who has studied this school and whom we’ll get to hear from in a podcast episode pretty soon, notes that this structure (or lack of it) promotes creativity in the older students, who often join the younger ones in creative activities that most teenagers have long-since abandoned. When students of different ages play together they frequently come up with ways to ‘even out’ the skill discrepancy – the more skilled player tries out novel and risky openings in chess, or plays one-on-many basketball. When we free ourselves from the notion that “proper learning” can only occur when a child is sitting in a classroom following a curriculum and instead learn to recognize it in the many forms in which it occurs in real life, we see that mixed-age play and learning helps both the older and younger student to achieve more mature play and learning than they could in same-age peer groups.
The problem is that there are nowhere near enough of these types of schools to accommodate all of our children – there are around 40 in the U.S., and a smattering in a variety of other countries in Europe, Israel, and Japan.
So where does this leave us parents who live far away from a Sudbury Valley-type of school? Well, it leaves us with homeschooling. So now you understand why I created the course to help parents decide whether homeschooling might be right for their family.
So, honestly, while I think Betsy DeVos is woefully underqualified for the job of Secretary of Education, the biggest fear I have is not that more charter schools start appearing, it’s that she provides funding to homeschoolers that they somehow must accept. Because when the federal government provides funding, it is virtually always accompanied by regulation. In some ways we might see that as a good thing, in the way that federally funded schools are required to produce an individualized education plan, or IEP, for children with special needs. If school districts were no longer required by the government to produce IEPs then most of them would probably stop doing it – even now, many school districts refuse to provide special services to children who need them because it’s cheaper to fight those parents who bring lawsuits than it is to provide services to all of the children who need them. It’s the federal government that attempts to keep all this in check by providing some level of accountability. But my concern would be that because I question the entire premise of a school and of curriculum-based learning as the best way to educate a person, that this funding could be accompanied by regulations that state what I must teach my daughter and how I must teach it.
If you’d like to see the 22 references for today’s episode they’re at yourparentingmojo.com/devos, and if you’d like to learn more about the course for parents thinking about homeschooling – or if you’d just like to offer an opinion about all this that’s different from mine, please do feel free to drop me a line at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks so much for listening.
Also published on Medium.