The problem with education is there’s too much money for so-called reformers

The online schools that are popping up all over the country are there because of a loophole in education funding that allows companies to siphon money from school districts to create sub-par online learning systems.

This is a common problem in education because there is so much money to be had — education budgets are huge — and there is no sense of what works and what doesn’t. So the people who are most clever about getting money are the ones who get the majority of the education budgets.

Self-directed learning does not cost much money at all. It costs time. But that would put a lot of education companies out of business  In fact, the business of education looks to me to be preying on how no one will admit that our education system is not working.

Here are some particularly egregious examples.

1. The master’s degree in education
Why does anybody need a master’s degree in education?

There is no evidence that anybody who’s received a master’s degree has had any solution to any public school problem ever, because we haven’t found anything that works in the last 30 years of people getting master’s degrees.

The master’s degree costs a lot of money, and they lead to jobs that don’t pay enough money to support anybody in the large cities where teachers can make the biggest differences as administrators.

And, we don’t need teachers getting master’s degrees because the Khan Academy is one of the most effective teaching tools in the world, and it’s all taught by someone who has no degree in teaching.

So as far as I can tell, the master’s degree in education is for people who give money to education programs so that the education programs can lobby for more people to have master’s of education so that the education program can make more money.  It’s circular to me.

2. Cursive writing
It’s clear that we don’t need handwriting, let alone cursive writing.  Cursive writing is going to go the way of calligraphy.

Unfortunately, there are a lot of companies that produce lots of teaching material for cursive writing, and they’re not going down without a fight.

Most recently, they’ve advanced the idea that you need to teach cursive writing in school because then kids will do better filling out Scantron tests.LH  This is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard.

We already know that the Scantron tests are despicable ways to measure a student’s development, and now, in addition to teaching to the test, cursive writing companies are advocating that we waste kids’ time teaching them how to cursive write so that they can fill in the blanks.  I can’t believe anybody is still buying these course materials.

3. School loans
We all know that the college loan situation is a complete disaster.  College is overpriced for what you get for your money , and kids are graduating with way too much debt for them to function as a normal adult in society.

It turns out that the biggest investors in Sallie Mae are university pension programs, which means that the universities are getting paid twice through Sallie Mae; once when they get the student via a loan, and once as investors in the institution that collects on the loan.  So at this point, it looks like Sallie Mae is more about sustaining a financially unviable university structure instead of funding the education of students.

One of the biggest barriers to having a real discussion about the benefits of school versus homeschooling is that so much industry is tied to the idea that kids need to be in school.

It reminds me a lot of trying to get Congress to vote against guns.  So much of their campaign money and conservative clout  comes from the gun lobby that it’s nearly impossible for most of them to vote against it.

The same is true for government officials involved in schools.  We’re asking them to assess the efficacy of school itself, which would put them out of a job if they were selflessly honest.  Layer upon layer of conflicted interests are what prop up today’s school system, and nobody is protecting the kids.

4. Reading programs.
Maybe the barrier to changing education is the money people throw at it. You know how my youngest son learned to read? By reading. I didn’t teach him. No one taught him. He needed to read to play video games, so he figured it out. And Lucy Calkins, an educator who has spent her life figuring out how to teach kids to read and write, has shown that educated parents do not need to teach their kids to read. They will learn on their own.

That would put a lot of reading materials companies out of business. Or maybe we should funnel our tax dollars to Minecraft so that all kids would have a real reason to read. Because kids don’t want to learn to read so they can read books that don’t interest them.

Which brings me to that photo on top. It was a night I couldn’t get my kids to stop reading and go to bed. People magazine. They are fascinated. Why do so many people get surgery? Why is Michelle Obama angry? Is it true that the dog saved the boy’s life?

There discussion about education is not real. Because the people who lead the discussion are in education reform and they want to continue receiving money for creating programs that do not encourage self-directed learning.

As a homeschool parent it takes concerted effort for me to block out the cacophony of voices telling me which education reform program will work for me. I need to remind myself it’s all rooted in self-interest. Educators do not benefit from education reform. Education companies will go out of business if parents really start moving toward education reform.

Self-directed education is not fancy or glitzy or data-driven. It’s a discarded People magazine fifteen minutes past bedtime.


27 replies
  1. Daphne Gray-Grant
    Daphne Gray-Grant says:

    I agree with most of your comments except for the ones about reading. I think SOME people/companies are able to help kids read better. It’s not entirely about the kid’s motivation.

    My son (now 19 and homeschooled his entire life) is dyslexic. He’s always been extraordinarily bright and his life was miserable when he was 6 to 10 years old. He couldn’t read and he really wanted to (so he could play video games.)

    I couldn’t help him. We tried many types of tutoring with him and after YEARS of effort finally found one that worked. It was very intensive (4 hours per day, 5 days per week, one on one) but I’m convinced this “intensity” is what made it work for him. I’m just grateful we could scrape up the money to pay for this program.

    It took him several years (we could afford the full month tutoring only intermittently) but the first book he read was an adult history book on the War of 1812.

    Now, he is at university, studying to become an opera singer. I’m convinced this would not be the case if we hadn’t found a way to teach him to read.

  2. donnajean
    donnajean says:

    Thank you for your blog. I am a 1st time commenter. I know this is a homeschooling blog, but we could expand this opinion to include the foster care system as well as education. Both beaurocracies that supposedly exist to serve the children do not actually put the kids’ interests first. They act to protect themselves, their positions of power, and the money they control. Sometimes we want to scream, but with our foster kids we just try to keep doing the best we can.

  3. Eileen
    Eileen says:

    It’s true that most people don’t “need” handwriting and the scantron argument is stupid. However, I believe that cursive should be available as a tool. Something I’ve seen as an occupational therapist- Some students, especially ones with learning disabilities, actually have an easier time taking notes using cursive than with print or typing. The less they have to worry unnecessarily about making the next letter, the more they are able to keep their train of thought. I don’t think cursive should be thrown out completely just because it’s old school. But like you said, leave kids alone and let them do what works for them.

    • Lauren
      Lauren says:

      I concur on this. My son has vision and fine motor issues and writing is a huge thorn in our side. We’re working on getting him set up with a keyboard at school; however, I’m also teaching him cursive because I’ve read that it’s often easier for children with his issues. It also helps keep developing those fine motor skills, more so than keyboarding. (We’re only one day into cursive right now, though, so I can’t tell you how it’s going!)

  4. Karen
    Karen says:

    This is pretty off-topic but your gun control analogy is not very good. In the recent recall election in Colorado, the anti-gun control lobby was successful despite being outspent by at least 8 to 1 by the gun control advocates. Politicians are terrified of the gun rights crowd because of voter intensity; meaning that voters who are concerned about 2nd amendment rights will base their vote exclusively on that issue. Voters who are in favor of gun restrictions don’t tend to feel strongly enough to do that. Unless and until that changes, money will not be the main issue there.

    • ardatyakshi
      ardatyakshi says:

      Yep. Gun control’s failure to make it through Congress had less to do with any big lobbying complex than the fact that those voters that are passionate about gun control are passionately against it.

      Just because you fall on one side of an issue (college loans or gun control) doesn’t mean the opposing side is necessarily fueled by a deep-pocketed, sinister organization (which describes Bloomberg’s MAIG at least as well as it does the NRA).

      Penelope’s points about the inertia of an educational-industrial complex resisting educational policy changes are well-taken, however.

  5. Jeni
    Jeni says:

    When I was a kid I used to read the sex advice column in the back of the local arts paper. This was around the mid-90s and what was so great about that, was through that column, I first read about the internet and e-mail and websites. I’d never even heard of any of that (I went to a public school with no computer lab although I was in the ‘advanced’ classes).

  6. mh
    mh says:

    Blog Title Post: “The problem with education is there’s too much money for so-called reformers”

    My question: THE problem?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah. Good point. You’d be surprised about how much time I spend thinking about titles. Actually, maybe you’d be horrified that I spend so much time. Anyway, it probably should have been Problem with school reform: blah blah blah. It should have been a colon.


  7. Jenn
    Jenn says:

    Case in point regarding reading programs, I had to look up cacophony. I have a dictionary that I keep on my desk. My dad taught me that, don’t know it? Look it up! Also, my mother came to this country when she was 20 yo, didn’t know much English. Within two years, she could speak and write it with ease. Television was her biggest teacher.

    I like cursive handwriting, its much easier to write notes but I understand your argument against it if only b/c we now live in a world where we work from our phones and tablets most of the time. Even typing is getting somewhat outdated. Google searches only require a few words, not even a complete sentence, username and passwords, texting? when I text, I have a microphone on my phone where I speak into it and it changes it to a text format, no typing needed.

    The internet and the easy access to it will be a BIG challenge to Big Education in the decades to come….

  8. Leslie
    Leslie says:

    I like this. I always hate hearing people say “I don’t read”. It’s not possible to not read. How do you drive? How do you order at a restaurant? How do you know if the pants you’re taking into the dressing room will fit?

    The problem is that our English teachers made us sit in class and read Romeo and Juliet in ye olde English one line at a time and always gave the long parts to troubled readers. This never helped anyone learn to read, it just made us not want to read anything ever again. I have never enjoyed any book that I have been required to read for an English class ever, and I am an avid reader.

    I also agree with you about cursive. It seemed like the teachers were changing how we had to write each time we went up a grade. In 4th grade you learned cursive in pencil. In 5th grade you wrote in cursive with pen. In 6th grade you wrote in pen in regular hand. In 7th grade you wrote in cursive pencil. In 8th grade you wrote in cursive pen and our language arts teacher actually corrected the way we wrote our letters.

    I don’t understand. People are going to form letters the way they want to. I have a friend who has scripty calligraphy handwriting, and mine looks like a 4th grader’s handwriting unless I write in cursive. My cursive looks exactly like the text book I learned it from because parents and teachers thought it was important enough that I fit 20 cursive letter a’s on a line that I had to redo an assignment one night like 8 times and by the time I got the 20 a’s down I was crying.

    • Daphne Gray-Grant
      Daphne Gray-Grant says:

      There are MANY people who can’t read. I don’t know how they pass the driving test but whenever someone in a restaurant orders the same thing someone else has already ordered, my first suspicion is they can’t read.

      I’m sympathetic that you didn’t enjoy Romeo & Juliet but that’s a whole different problem. At age 9, my son couldn’t read the word CAT. Seriously. He was VERY smart, had a huge vocabulary and still couldn’t read the word CAT. He could sound out all the letters (correctly) but his visual memory would not allow him to remember the sequence correctly. So, he would say, “kuh” “ahh” “tuh”…. CAR… or CORD or some other nonsense word.

      It’s a disability. Many people have it (the CONSERVATIVE estimate is 5 – 10% of the population.) I’m convinced my son would have been severely damaged if we’d let him anywhere near school.

      After years of tutoring he began to read well, at an adult level. He’s now in his second year of university, doing very well.

      Oh, and he loves reading. He’s also the only one of my three kids who really enjoys Shakespeare. Go figure!

  9. Suzie
    Suzie says:

    “kids will do better filling out Scantron tests.LH”

    — Presume LH means ‘link here’. Where is it?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      You’re right. It’s my note to myself. I forgot that I was waiting for that one link. My friend LIsa Nielsen – New York City public school administrator – told me about it. But I couldn’t remember the link. I emailed her and forgot I was waiting for a response. Maybe she’ll respond here….


  10. mh
    mh says:

    Hey, Penelope,

    I’m a big gun afficionado. I live in a red state on purpose, because it’s much much easier to support and practice my hobby and teach it to my kids.

    I would say the anti-gun lobby is the more entrenched of the two positions — it’s obviously self-serving for government to keep pretending/insisting that the citizenry should be unarmed.

    But the real issue in our family is the fun of marksmanship and competition.

  11. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    You know what I would add to the list? School sports programs. Do you know how much money goes into those programs? How are they even educational? Want to get kids out of traditional school and into homeschool? Eliminate all extra curriculars and sports programs and privatize them.

    Take the NFL, they recruit college football players. Colleges recruit High school football players from around the country to come play for them in exchange for a free education. If you get rid of the sports programs in schools that would take out a lot of money and control as well. But if there wasn’t high school football then how do college recruit? Take away football, basketball or all the sports, why would most boys even want to be in a traditional school? If there were private teams instead then the boys would probably do better to just homeschool and spend their time training for their sports just like Olympic athletes do. The schools realize this and that’s part of why sports are such a big deal in schools…

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Such a good point about sports – that there would be nothing to motivate boys in school without sports. I feel like there is a lot to be unearthed about how sports relate to homeschooling. I am just starting to think about it. Thanks for helping, mh.


  12. Mel
    Mel says:

    The handwriting article you linked to says, “Research conducted using magnetic resonance imaging has shown that handwriting can bolster a child’s ability to form and express ideas, and it might even aid the development of fine motor skills. When children write, enormous areas of the brain that handle our thoughts, language and working (“temporary”) memory light up on brain imagery screens like streetlights at dusk. Another study found that children in early grades tended to write faster, use more words and communicate a broader range of ideas when writing by hand as opposed to using a keyboard. There’s just something about sequentially building words and sentences out of individual letter shapes that sets the brain on fire.”

    Those seem like good reasons to write by hand.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      indeed, and it also goes with my personal experience. If I am working on complex topics handwriting is the way to go – thinking seems to be easier than if I use a keyboard and it is not a question of typing proficiency. Handwriting is also more direct – just add a little doodle, or draw an arrow for connecting two thoughts, no need to active more fine motor skills to use mouse go to menu push button select arrow you want etc etc.

  13. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    The education industry is the second biggest racket in the country (right after the defense industry). The reason we’re in a perpetual panic about school reform is that people make stupid choices when they’re panicked, and there’s a lot of money to be made. It’s Shock Doctrine.

    There are many crappy things about school. I hated school and my son hated school, and he’s lucky to have me to pull him out.

    But every time someone claims they’re going to fix one of those crappy things with some grand new plan, keep your eye on the money. Someone’s getting paid for that. Grand new charter school is going to produce improvement in standardized tests? Sure, any school can play statistical games and create the illusion of progress by expelling 2/3 of their students before graduation. But why? Follow the money – it might be in the state-subsidized real estate racket they’re running at the same time.

    There’s a new fad every few years. Bigger schools, smaller schools, more drill, no drill, spiral drill, emotional intelligence, constructivism, you name it. The thing they have in common is that someone’s making money off it each time, and they’re in bed with the people making the taxpayer pay for it. The end result is that schools today are just as screwed up as they were fifty years ago, at substantially greater expense, and with landfills full of yesterday’s fads.

    I read an article that would probably appeal to PT in Wired the other day, about the Jose Urbina Lopez Primary School in Matamoros, Mexico.

    The teacher, Juarez Correa, seems like a fabulous guy. Letting the kids figure out things for themselves and see how far they could go, he helped his desperately poor students become the best in the whole country in a classroom with next to no resources. Bully for him. Kids don’t need incredible resources to excel; mostly, they need permission.

    But you take these basic ideas and put them through the American educational industry meatgrinder, and what you end up with is TERC Investigations textbooks, programmed to the day, duly mapped to the Common Core, and delivered for fifty minutes between two bells by teachers who may be almost innumerate themselves.

    It’s a faithful punt, sent aloft with a prayer that it not sink the all-important test scores. Then all the middle-class kids spend their afternoons and their parents’ money over at Kumon remediating the disaster, and voila the achievement gap rears its ugly head again.

    Teachers like Juarez Correa will never change anything in Mexico, let alone America, because nobody can make money off of chalkboards and pencils and good teachers. Anytime they try, you end up with abominations of statistical manipulation and confidence rackets. Letting corporations that sell educational products determine our national education policy is working just as well as letting the defense industry tell us which wars we should have.

    Self-directed education rocks. But I defy anyone to monetize it without perverting it.

  14. Andrew M.
    Andrew M. says:

    Great discussion…especially the points about sports essentially coopting boys (and parents) to support schools…for reasons that have zero to do with formal education.

    A couple of additional points:
    ** The Masters in Education business is even worse when you see what’s in those programs AND that the whole system is tied to teachers obtaining higher salaries. Many, many teachers (not all) are only doing the degree (paid for by their school) to make more money. So it’s basically a Ponzi scheme with generations of kids the losers…Of course not all people or degrees…the special education masters in particular have value. Here’s an idea for a meta-blog post: publish the the titles of 10 PhD dissertations in Education…
    ** The ‘Reform’ movement is, similarly, a few layers deeper…depressing layers. I’ve attended a few of Jeb Bush’s events…big names, intelligent people. When I found myself sitting at a table of congressmen (forget which state) and they gleefully predicted the end of unions when republicans took both houses…then I realized that a lot of these idiotic experiments aren’t about attempting to improve education. They’re about busting unions.

    All of that said…KIPP and Mastery, to name two, have great things going on…and in communities where kids have little option aside from a public school that is remarkably similar to a prison. Good training, maybe.

    At its heart these are questions of market forces…student loans, for instance. Who goes into debt to get a marketing degree from some no-name university? And graduates with a 3.1 GPA after partying hard? It’s lunacy…but a fool and their money…

    How could the entire industry be upended by market forces? Are there examples from other industries, with deep regulation and illogical drivers (sports, the need for babysitting), that can serve as a model for how much of this could change?

    Final note: one of my favorite shows is ‘Dragon Riders of Berk’…based on ‘How to Train Your Dragon.’ I’m working on a blog post, partly inspired by this blog, arguing that it’s a subversive critique of school. I watch the show with my kids and it’s about a bunch of kids who run their own school and look out for themselves. All day. No formal school.

    Maybe there is hope.

  15. Jana
    Jana says:

    Montessori teaches cursive first, for what I find are compelling reasons. After a year in public K, I pulled my daughter out and started teaching her cursive due to a problem with letter reversals and frustrations she had with spacing and sounds. She finds letter formation much easier, because cursive requires fewer fine motor skills than did the manuscript writing.

  16. Christopher Chantrill
    Christopher Chantrill says:

    You remind me of the old PBS series Elizabeth R. Some Elizabethan courtiers were standing around conspiring, and a bishop in the corner breathed a horrified whisper: “But this is heresy!”

    You do realize that someone from the education blob will be coming around tomorrow to show you the instruments of torture.

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