School reform will not happen in our time

It’s unbelievable to me how slow and stupid school reform is. Our public schools are too large and diverse to solve any problems in a centralized way. We already know that money will not solve problems (we spend more per pupil than tons of countries that have higher test scores). And we already know that success in our current curriculum has no correlation to success in work – for example, Princeton economist Alan Krueger found that having the gumption to apply to Harvard or Princeton is a sign of future success—whether or not you get in doesn’t matter.

We do massive programs, like charter schools, only to find out that they perform worse than public school in most cases. The reason for this, of course, is that kids do not need to be in school to learn. Kids can be on their own, at home, playing and they will learn just fine, and homeschoolers outperform non-homeschoolers on national tests. 

School reform has to think in the box of the current system because no one is proposing to send all the kids home. The result is that we get preposterous studies like this one, about how interior design affects kid’s grades. First of all, this is a great example of how school reform thinks in the box. Why not study if interior design makes happier kids? Why not study if self-esteem goes up with yellow walls? Why are we continuing to study what extraneous factors contribute to test scores when we know test scores are indicators of nothing?

Also, let’s just say, for a moment, that we love the idea of teaching to the test, and test scores are everything, and helping poor kids in bad schools have high test scores will save their lives. Are we going to devote money to redesigning public schools? Really? Is this really the best use of our money? I don’t think anyone would say yes. So why even bother studying this stuff?

We need more studies that are out of the box. The box is bad. It is outdated. No one likes the box. But the funding isn’t there for getting outside the box because the consequences change everything. Most importantly: free babysitting is gone.

So let’s just look at the school reform agenda for what it is: what’s the best way to preserve the national babysitting program since we are way too scared of the social unrest we’d cause if we told everyone their kids are free to go home and learn how they learn best.

23 replies
  1. Rubiamami
    Rubiamami says:

    I am sitting at my desk working wondering what my kids are doing home with the babysitter, oh right, having fun and naturally learning how to interact with people. But I DO have to work to pay a few bills, even though the thought of letting them learn without force is much more intriguing to me.

    Since we agree there will be no radical change in our lifetime how will it all play out? Do I really have to send them to school? I can’t certainly let them stay home by themselves nonetheless at 5 and 6 when society says they should be in school… Co-op learning? Unrealistically dream of finding a job I can do from home that provides health insurance?
    The odds are against me… I didn’t apply to Harvard, just dreamt about it!

    So my comment Penelope is really a suggestion or more support in that I’m jealous of your lifestyle and therefore envision being the annoying parent in school questioning why my children got in trouble for not walking in the straight line to the lunch room…because we all know the over-involved parenting plan works out so well for kids!

    What to do????

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This is a really good question – what to do. I want to help answer this question: what should parents do who want to take their kids out of school but are at work all day.

      At first I thought I was going to convince parents to live on less money. I don’t think I’m going to make a lot of progress in that regard, because I’m starting to think that the parents who have a lot of money (enough to dump one full-time job) are already done with schools. It’s the middle class that is really feeling stuck.

      Okay. So, I don’t have an answer. Except, that, to start out, I had no idea how I was going to make money and stay home with the kids. My life has been running companies to make money and those jobs are 100-hour weeks. So I had to come up with something new. Maybe I should write more about that. My coming up with something new process.

      I guess I’m just saying that I want to help. I want to help parents feel more career security so they can take their kids out of school. It seems like I am set up in my life to give this advice. I just don’t have anything great to say right now.

      This is why I’m a blogger. I just wrote 300 words to say I have nothing to say!


  2. Jason Pedley
    Jason Pedley says:

    My wife teaches PreK children. Her philosophy is “Children learn best through play.” Sadly, it’s probably the last time many of them will learn a thing before they become “taught.”

  3. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    Montessori is the best model available. It allows for differentiated instruction, self-directed learning, and concentration on something of interest for 3 hours at a time without interruption. Perhaps the boys should start it at age 7 or so when they start to have the ability to stay still.

    I feel like Montessori would be a great fit for my 8 yo boy – but only just now. He was too much of a wild man through age 6. And the lower elementary program goes only through age 9. So, adjustments needed for some, but still, it’s the best model out there.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      This comment comes up so often on the blog. Maybe there should be a spectrum diagram or something – and drop Montessori in there somewhere.

      But I really think Montessori is the poor man’s private school. Because the really expensive schools go way beyond what the Montessori method provides for. Montessori is necessarily limited by what the school can afford to put in the classroom for the kids to choose from. A very well funded private school can afford to cater more to each child’s interests.

      And certainly, one family, focusing on just a few kids, can devote the most resources to each kid. It’s a continuum.


      • Melissa
        Melissa says:

        I agree completely with you about this, however, there is no such school in my town, nor can I afford 40k per year, nor can I move to Texas for Acton Academy. In my town, there are the drill and kill public and private options, and there’s Waldorf or Montessori. Montessori is the only option that allows for self-initiated and differentiated learning. If I need a babysitter, I will consider it. At 9k it is affordable.

        I like Sudbury too – but none close by. I call it a school for unschoolers. Totally unstructured.

    • Lisa Nielsen
      Lisa Nielsen says:

      Montessori schools are private schools for those with the ability to pay. Such a school could not be public because the Montessori approach doesn’t align with government mandates. Yes, there are some pub schools that have the Montessori “approach” but they sacrifice what makes Montessori valuable.

  4. Kirsten
    Kirsten says:

    I’m beginning to wonder if any serious school reform will happen ever. I was on the board of a charter school that started with all the best intentions. As a board, we had nothing to complain about — top statewide rankings, high test scores, well-behaved students, and mostly very talented and motivated teachers. So why challenge the status quo.

    But as a parent, I have come to doubt what is required to achieve those much-evied results, and I’m not sure there is a way out. A school’s governing body is always going to look at test averages. Those always measure scholastic ability, which doesn’t account for much. The thinking in education is always, annoyingly, “if you can’t test for it, it doesn’t count.” How do you test for creativity or gumption?

    In the meantime, after I pulled my son to homeschool, most comments from other parents centered on the babysitting component of school — never skepticism about whether I could do as well by him at home. In fact, I think the reason this school has such long waiting lists is that parents see it as the safest option available, not necessarily the best education.

    • Melissa
      Melissa says:

      My 13 yo has gone to a small private K-8 and I have felt he was well served by it. He was with a cohesive class all the way through and I felt he benefited socially from this. The electives and physical exercise would have been difficult for me to replicate at home. He was not extremely “challenged” but the instruction/learning was very engaging and creative. Lots of opportunity for public speaking and performance. There are over 100 options for middle school electives, which are based on interests and skills of the teachers as well as band, PE, foreign language. He was never bored and not once expressed a desire to not go to school! That alone seems amazing.

      That said, I just pulled my 8 yo out of the same school as it was a nightmare for him, and the elementary wing changed radically after my oldest went through. Now drill and kill, teach to the test, worksheet hell. I feel I can provide a MUCH better and more appropriate education for him at home.

  5. Julie
    Julie says:

    Saving schools : from Horace Mann to virtual learning / Paul E. Peterson.

    This is a good history of school reform movements. To summarize, school reform efforts not only fail to solve problems but create whole new and unanticipated problems.

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Hm. Of course every type of reform paves the way for a new type of problem. Women voting, for example. Or civil rights. All change begets the need for more change.

      Becky asks (the first comment here) what the world would be like when there is true school reform. It’s an interesting question because surely it’ll create a new set of problems. Like, maybe half the workforce will be gone from the office, taking care of kids. And finally people will have to create family-friendly jobs.


      • channa
        channa says:

        I think to call it “reform” you’d need to separate the two arguments about why homeschooling is the ideal:

        1) Parents can do a better job.
        2) School sucks.

        #2 is true but #1 is a problem. A lot of parents can do a better job but a lot of them can’t, either because they have to be at work instead or because they don’t have the faintest grasp on what their kids will need to know as adults.

        The ideal isn’t to send all the kids home to get their dream education from their parents. That would be grossly unequal and destabilizing and cost too much economic productivity for the country. With our birth rates dropping we will soon find that we need to provide more support to parents, not less, to convince them to have kids so we can support our elders. Yes this includes babysitting. Not to mention babysitting keeps us safe – half the reason we started having universal public was to get unsupervised kids off the street. We still need this – most home robberies are by teens in after-school hours and summertime.

        My ideal – and what I would prefer for my kids even over homeschooling which is the current plan – would be neighborhood schoolhouses, like one every city block or two, with just 30-40 kids per school, K-12 kids integrated. Resident teachers would work with children and parents to set goals and make independent learning plans and be available for questions. Most classes would happen independently online or in small mixed-age study groups – just like homeschooling. Older kids would tutor younger kids and do apprenticeships and start neighborhood businesses. Subject specialist teachers would walk from school to school to give extra classes. Children with parents at home could set their own hours for attendance. Districts would organize sports, music and other team activities. Neighborhood kids would all know each other well and parents could drop in as needed. Stronger communities, self-directed education, evolutionarily-appropriate child socialization in mixed age groups. If only they’d gotten to work sooner the government could have claimed eminent domain on foreclosed houses and used stimulus money to hire a workforce to retrofit them and solved two national crises at once.

        • Laura Drexler
          Laura Drexler says:

          Channa – this is an idea I’m going to really look at (“neighborhood schoolhouses, like one every city block or two, with just 30-40 kids per school, K-12 kids integrated. Resident teachers would work with children and parents to set goals and make independent learning plans and be available for questions.”)

          I have a 4-year-old that I am homeschooling using the Charlotte Mason method of nature walks, oral reports (narration), and developing the child’s natural curiosity. When I look around my neighborhood, there are perhaps ten primary school children as well as:
          a firefighter / EMT
          a carpenter / woodworker
          several people who speak Spanish
          several people who speak Tagalog
          a WWII vet
          a plumber
          a woman who is 100 years old and still tells stories
          a 70-year-old man who rides his bike everywhere

          A handful of my neighbors know I used to race mountain bikes, and a few know I speak Spanish, but no one knows have taught Russian or algebra or make really good pecan pie (except the neighbor who laid the front porch tile for me).

          I wonder how many talents there are within my neighborhood that none of us know about because I haven’t really taken the time to get to know my neighbors?

          While the thought of starting my own school is too large for me to bite off and chew, I CAN wrap my brain around starting an afternoon activity day at my house for the kids, where I teach them something I know. If this is successful, I can begin recruiting my neighbors to show (how to make a clock) or teach (how to transplant a flower).

          At the very least, I see this: through increased interaction, my neighbors start getting to know each other, the children get to know the adults and hopefully spend more time interacting with adults, their respect for them and for their neighborhood increases, and our sense of community is enhanced. As the children become teenagers, they retain their sense of community.
          Thinking even larger, I see a neighborhood school developing, as parents see the benefit of this localized teaching.

          I live in Southern California, where people of very diverse cultural, political, religious, and ethnic backgrounds are packed in tightly in little communities. What a blessing it would be to bind together as a community around our kids.

          By the grace of God, I won’t wait to clean my house before I embark on this journey. Penelope, thanks for the blog, and Channa, thanks for the spark. Off I go!

      • Becky Castle Miller
        Becky Castle Miller says:

        The other big question in my mind is, when will the homeschooling movement in America start giving us a global education advantage? American students rank so much lower than many other developed countries in test scores, but as more and more American students are homeschooled, and students in other countries are not, when and how will that education gap show up in the work world? And then how long will it take the other countries to get on board with homeschooling to catch up?

      • Julie
        Julie says:

        The point is, for me, that reform movements will continue and create new problems as they fail to solve the old ones. And, unlike women voting or civil rights, the problems created will usually be bigger than the ones solved, assuming that school reformers manage to create any solutions that actually work as intended.

  6. Melissa
    Melissa says:

    How about the Finnish model?

    Finnish Lessons: What Can the World Learn from Educational Change in Finland?

  7. mdhansen
    mdhansen says:

    It comes down to parental involvement. Kids whose parents care about their school progress tend to do better than those who do not. Home schooled kids’ parents care enough to home school their kids or recruit the appropriate instruction in their place. I know from here we can talk til we drop about learning styles and all that other stuff, but in the long run I doubt it matters all that much. The fact is that our entire society is pretty much built on the school away from home principle, whether you attend a public or private school. Because most of us don’t work in professions that either allow or endorse working from home, we have no other option than to send our kids to organized school environments.

    Smart kids are adaptable to many learning environments. I put my own kid through 13 years of public school in Atlanta, GA, and her education was on par with the private schools that surround us. Her social education far exceeded that of a private school because our public schools are highly diverse. At one point we discussed home schooling her but decided against it. It would have been too hard to make a living.

    I too doubt that school systems change very much in our lifetime and probably even our kids’. They have no reason to do so. Many school systems today are modeled after corporations which mean they subscribe to and promote the same kinds of silly bureaucracy that large corporations do because people on school boards and PTAs work for these outfits and don’t know any better than to bring that stupid crap into a school system. This insane clinging to “data driven” results monitoring and test scores that can be “quantified” and other kinds of “statistics” are all the proof you need of too much corporate involvement, and downright damaging to school systems and their students, when teachers and administrators fail to understand the numbers they are crunching (read about cheating on CRCT tests in Atlanta Public Schools).

    As long as our adult working society is as dependent upon a corporate structure to make a significant living as we are, school systems won’t change. Neither will much of anything else.

  8. Danielle
    Danielle says:

    Thank you for reading my mind and elegantly expressing the thoughts that swim through my head on a daily basis. After 20 years as a public school teacher, I’m leaving. I have no idea what I will do next, but it’s not this. Because it’s wrong. So, so wrong.

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