Smart, rich kids are particularly harmed by being in school

For a while I thought it was okay for my son to be in school because he was two grades ahead when he entered first grade and really, he just wanted to be in school because he loves other kids. I ignored so much so I wouldn’t have to face the terrifying thought of homeschooling. But I see now that when a kid is smart and rich –that’s the time it’s most important to take them out of school. Here’s why:

1. Being ahead of the class in early grades is harmful long term.
Do you already know your kid is ahead by kindergarten or first grade? Probably. For one thing, if you earn six figures then you are in the highest 20% of income in the US and your kids test higher than the other 80%.  Also, if you child is born early in the cutoff period for the school year then he or she is probably ahead of their peers.

Psychologist Angela Duckworth says that kids who are ahead of their peers in the early grades fail to learn grit—the knowledge that perseverance, dedication, and motivation can help you—where an absolute advantage may not immediately come to the rescue.

2. Redshirting hurts kids academically.
Today 17% of parents redshirt their kids (usually boys) so that they are stronger in sports. (This data came from economist Steven Levitt—about how professional hockey players tended to have been the oldest in their grade. The conclusion was that big kids get better at sports.) But now it appears that redshirting is not benefitting kids academically.

The conclusion for some parents will be that they have to choose between athletic and academic success. It’s a false choice, though. Realistically, kids who are amazing at their sport will put their training first and forgo the  absurd homework load that prevents doing anything meaningful outside of school. Which is to say, those great athletes will homeschool—which is already happening. So you shouldn’t redshirt for athletics, you should homeschool for athletics.

Which leaves the issue of kids who have no choice but to be the oldest in their grades. It hurts them. We know this from studies of the mixed-grade classroom: younger kids benefit academically. (As long as there are not too many younger kids, it doesn’t hurt the older kids.) So being the youngest in a grade pushes you to do better. And you learn to function that way, which is how you learn to teach yourself—one of the most important skills you need to be a successful adult.

3. School equates smart kids with special ed kids.
Special ed is for kids who are not fitting in it, which means really smart kids get put in special ed all the time.

The student teacher ratio means that teachers need to teach to the mean. Anyone extremely above or below needs to be dealt with separately. The courts have ruled that an appropriate education means that the child improves throughout the school year. It’s a very low bar to set for a kid who is above average already, but because above average kids are given the same metrics as below average kids.

4. School is for poor kids.
Rich kids will succeed regardless of their education. This is not because they are smarter as much as that the benefits that come with being rich come with the benefits of high test scores.

They test higher than poor kids, regardless of the school they are in. Rich kids learn to read without being taught, but poor kids don’t. And marriages between rich people are more stable, which means rich kids get more advantages while a higher percentage of poor kids end up living in single-parent households (the majority of which are in poverty).

When politicians are being honest, they look at school as a welfare service for underprivileged children. That’s fine. I’m all for providing those kids with extra services via school. But then we need to be honest with the parents who are not poor:  school is not good for their kids.

36 replies
  1. Hannah
    Hannah says:

    Smart rich kids have the highest opportunity cost associated with going to school. In fact, if you break it down even further, smart, rich people always have the highest opportunity cost of doing anything (ie, Bill Gates pursues volunteerism at the expense of building a business. Is it worth it?)

    Thanks for clarifying this tradeoff. I honestly never thought about school in terms of the tradeoff to the children attending only to the adults sending the kids.

    This tradeoff does help me understand one trend that I’ve been seeing. Many of my friends are public school teachers (in pretty rough areas) who have no intention of sending their kids (or future kids) to public schools or school at all.

    I understand that they can feel good about providing the best possible alternative to poor kids, while understanding that their own kids don’t face the same opportunity costs as the kids they teach.

    Of course, they are way to nice to say that exactly. They say things like schools have so much red tape, or too much time is spent on enforcing good behavior, etc.

    So the goal of providing social services to children should not be to “level the playing field” it should be to “raise opportunity costs” for poor kids.

    Not that good of a slogan; I guess I won’t be running for a political position anytime soon.

    • Betsy
      Betsy says:

      I am former public school who has zero intention of sending her kids to public school and whatever homeschooling I end up doing, it won’t look much like the public school model.

      I’ve worked in the sausage factory and seen how it gets made. I am not eating the sausage or feeding it to my kids.

  2. Ron Burchett
    Ron Burchett says:

    I agree with what you say and I agree that home schooling is better in principle. But taking my child our of one bad system and putting them in a home setting in and of itself is not seen as productive. I have doubts about being able to provide a uniform education and not leave big “gaps” in his instruction.

    • mh
      mh says:

      “Big Gaps”

      My 11-year-old homeschooled son is in his third year of Latin, and is also an expert on WWII campaigns and armaments. He has a soldering hobby and builds little robots that are noise activated.

      I am just certain that a standardized test would indicate “Big Gaps” in his education.

      He studies what he loves. I just drive him to the library or help him get in touch with veterans or other hobbyists.

      His “educational gaps” are going to be what drives his success in life.

  3. Commenter
    Commenter says:

    Perhaps you should stop thinking of yourself as the protagonist of your child’s education.

      • Commenter
        Commenter says:

        Because if the child is the protagonist of his own education, rather than the object of it, then he can perceive and fill his own “gaps” when he thinks it’s time.

    • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
      YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

      Where is the fun in that? Besides, this is a blog, there are plenty of boring homeschool blogs out there where there is no protagonist, I don’t read those ones.

    • Gretchen
      Gretchen says:

      Wow…I kind of like this thinking. I mean, I’m doing what I can in my life to make money to create a life for the child. I tell her to let her mind wander if school is boring…or to use the time to meditate or think of ideas for this and that…and more. I try to give her tips to cope in the less than freewheeling environment. I mean, I have to do all those things working in a middling office job. The things we have to do to get on in life. Not everyone is so risk-embracing that they’ll quit a good, well-paying job in a crazy economy to give their kid some idealistic education. We all just have to get along sometimes…

  4. Bailey
    Bailey says:

    I just wanted to point out, and this is only from personal experience and not backed by research, that being the youngest in your grade is not so hot either.

    My parents skipped me ahead a year because they wanted to challenge me academically. Unfortunately I was rarely challenged with the material, even in GATE classes.

    However, I WAS challenged in a different way. Being the youngest and having missed out on kindergarten put me at a severe disadvantage social-wise. I was always a year behind my peers in terms of social abilities AND it seemed as if friendships had already been made and there was no room for me anywhere.

    So even if the young students are getting the best education in the classroom, they are still not getting the best education they could be getting if the material was tailored specifically for them (homeschool!).

  5. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    Get a 404 error when I go to read this link: redshirting is not benefitting kids academically.

  6. YesMyKidsAreSocialized
    YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

    I love the last link, Jacob Barnett is such a sweet kid and really I just love his whole story and his mom taking him out of school and how beautifully it all turned around for him… “They said he would never learn, now he’ll teach them a thing or two…” Now imagine his mom never took him out…

  7. Lizajane22
    Lizajane22 says:

    Hi Penelope. This article is incredibly thought provoking. I think you have really nailed it once again. Fantastic.

  8. Jennifer Hanes
    Jennifer Hanes says:

    Hi Penelope,
    I am not able to reconcile the information here to NOT redshirt, with what I understand is the opposite advice you gave in “How to Hack Public School”. Can you shed light on what I am misinterpreting? Thank you! Jennifer

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      Yeah, you’re right. They contradict. So the bottom line is that all advice about how to make school better for your kid is bad. Just take your kid out of school.

      Just kidding. Sort of. But also I think MC has it right – I don’t mind contradicting myself. This blog is about me discovering the truth about school – with the help of you guys. We are doing it together. The truth is like an onion and I never know what I’ll unreel next. It’s not always consistent.

      I am trying to figure out how to make it consistent. But right now, to be honest, I’m constantly shocked by the truths I uncover about school. I think the fact that people middle-class parents keep sending their kids there is horrifying.


      • Jennifer Hanes
        Jennifer Hanes says:

        Thanks, Penelope. I am a fan. I know that information changes over time and hopefully we all grow. I like the umbrella advice of homeschooling :) Just thought I might have misread the information. And, hey – it just means that I have thoroughly read and remember your posts! Keep up the originality.

  9. Gretchen
    Gretchen says:

    I get what you’re trying to say and it makes sense, however, what if someone is not “rich” but just doing well and doing well because they work? I think about homeschooling, but as my husband says (because it would necessitate me not working, or working from home for a much lower salary) that would be like the child going to a school with a yearly tuition of 80K (not to mention the lack of my building retirement funds or being able to contribute to her college). So, what if people just draw the line at “good enough”? Sure, the child would probably be better educated with me, but we’d be broker, and she’s educated just fine as it is in our particular school. What does one do with that?

    • karelys
      karelys says:


      I’ve noticed that trying to switch one puzzle piece for another doesn’t work. It makes things harder. Nothing makes sense. Or it makes more sense to leave things as they are.

      Like when people try to get healthier and they just remove one thing that is causing problems. Maybe there’ll be improvement but the change in status quo is too much work and the rewards are not that great.

      What I’ve noticed is that homeschooling is the result of a completely different mindset or change of paradigm.

      Part of it happens because going against the grain of society WILL rattle your family. Your whole life. If you want one thing, like homeschooling, to work then you’ll have to change so many other things. Like maybe one parent not working. But for that the marriage will have to change. Trust will have to deepen (I know because it was hard for me to trust my husband enough so I’d stop working and depend on him. He left his job and I feel so honored that he trusts me so much to know I won’t leave him high and dry, dishonor him, always be equal to one another).

      Have you ever solved a rubik’s cube? I’ve never been able to. I suck it at and give up quickly. Sometimes everything is lined up but there’s one piece that doesn’t fit and then you have to move everything you’ve accomplish to be able to get all straight and exactly as you want it.

      I think life is like that. Whether it is homeschooling, freelance work, work from home, get married, not get married, not have kids or send your kids to college. Whatever.

      If you’re going for one thing expect that everything else is going to be out of place and you’ll need a different way to view and handle life to be able to do something so radically different.

      • Gretchen
        Gretchen says:

        Or…one could decide…like I’m essentially doing at the time…that all aspects are “good enough” and not rock the boat. I guess that ‘s what I’m saying. I don’t see “harm” as much as I see something maybe less than ideal, and for most people it’s a huge leap to make the trade. Think of if everyone did this. I mean don’t you people worry about your retirement? I know many rationalize away the need to pay for their kid’s/kids’ college, but do you really want to have no money when you’re old? What if your kid then resents you for not giving them a “normal” life and won’t even take care of you. So many things to consider. I like have a cushion of money.

        • karelys
          karelys says:

          I am not concerned about retirement. I am more concerned about building an ability to create money, self sustaining streams of income that will continue to create money when I am older.
          Thankfully I don’t have to depend on physical strength for my work like my father did when he worked in the field.

          And from the looks of it, things are moving in a direction where jobs are in need of mental abilities rather than physical strength.

          I don’t worry too much that my kid won’t have a normal life and will resent me. I didn’t have a normal life in a sense. The values and mentality instilled in me drove a huge wedge between me and my peers. I could never fit in. It was hard. But I was also able to see past the fog and make decisions to avoid “pot holes” in life and to make moves that positioned me for something better.

          Truth is, what’s normal is not important to me. And I am a the good enough stage like you said. I am only going to trade for something better when I have a better hand and when it’s really worth it.

          Like I will only put my kid part time in daycare again if it’s going to a short term deal for a job that is really going to put us in a much better position to tackle life. Other than that, we’ll live in a comfortable but small budget and be together.

          A lot of my life was against the grain. It wasn’t easy. But it was worth it.

          My father in law died of cancer with a kickass retirement plan. It showed me that I can’t sacrifice an abundant life now in hopes that my future will be more cushy. I may never get there.

          So I try to find a good balance between having the most fun now and making sure I am not digging holes for my future. Having fun will take away from having more in the future but I can make sure that at least I have some.

          And I don’t worry about paying for college. I’d rather teach my kid how to come up with the money himself if he wants to make the investment. Someone I know was a 15 year old that created and sold a company. He had a great time at college because he didn’t have to worry about funding. It was definitely not a ramen fueled college experience like most of us. I want to offer that option to my son.

          • YesMyKidsAreSocialized
            YesMyKidsAreSocialized says:

            aw karelys, I’m so sorry about your father in law. I have had the same situation with the women in my family, it’s caused me not only to change my views on life but also the way that I eat, changing to a plant-based diet was just as radical as unschooling was (in my mind), but has become necessary for our family to give my kids a better chance at protecting themselves, since it’s genetic.

            The only thing guaranteed in this life, is death, what you choose to do with your life while you are here is up to you. Retirement may not be around for you to enjoy for many unseen reasons beyond health… there are also ways, Gretchen, to work around the retirement nest egg you desire, your husband can contribute more, you can work part-time again from home so it’s not an 80k hit, but maybe 40k? You can return to full time work once she is in college and max out. I know several engineering professionals who left to raise their kids and re-entered the workforce after they were gone. But I also know you have mentioned that your husband is not so much in favor of homeschooling.

          • Gretchen
            Gretchen says:

            I’m also sorry about your father in law…
            But I guess I just view life differently…
            If I went back to work, or tried to, when my kid graduated college I’d be 57! What would I be? A greeter at Walmart? Who the hell would hire an old person who’d been out of the real workforce for 20 years? I am just being the voice of those who are more risk-averse and accept the “good enough” aspects of life. I mean, what if the husband, who we’re saying I should be relying on is the one to get cancer, meanwhile I’ve been at home homeschooling and I’m a 57 year old with no career history, no husband, etc. And how to pay for college on one person’s salary. The homeschool lifestyle is just not super realistic for upper middle class people who are risk-averse (and I’m being diplomatic in my expression of view on risk…)

    • Karen
      Karen says:

      I think that the term “rich” encompasses so much more than just money. I consider my family to be upper middle class even though the idea would be laughable if the only metric you looked at is our income. We made a choice to accept lower paying jobs so we could stay in our small hometown and raise our children near extended family rather than having big careers in the city. We then made a choice to cut our income nearly in half so I could stay home and homeschool. What we do have are extremely high IQ’s and first rate educations. My kids rarely get to go to museums and the symphony but are immersed in art and classical music through books, the Internet and something as simple as the radio. They are conversant in current affairs because their parents like to discuss geopolitics at the dinner table. My 12 year old son read Dante’s Divine Comedy this year because he found a copy on our bookshelf and thought it looked interesting. Our family has outrageously fantastic social connections due to the fact that my FIL was a famous athlete.

      Money’s not everything, not by a long shot.

      • karelys
        karelys says:

        Money is not everything but it’s a very true statement when directed at the average. Most of the time people are rich because they are very smart and care for education.

        Even with small budget you can still consider yourself part of the middle class because you know how to live (thanks to your smarts and education) better.

        Money is not everything but most of the time it’s a symptom of smarts and education.

      • Penelope Trunk
        Penelope Trunk says:

        You’re totally right that being rich is not about money. It’s mental, really. But to make an argument like I do in this post, I have to start somewhere — pointing out that individual groups of kids are being harmed by school. I feel that I have to show people one demographic at a time how bad school is for their kid. I would not have believed it for my own kids unless I could see how school was hurting my kids in particular. For most of us, it’s a big hurdle to decide to take kids out of school.

        That said, the real argument is in the comment string here – it’s about loss of opportunity. And typically rich kids have a lot of opportunity, but other parents can provide opportunity as well.


  10. karelys
    karelys says:

    Okay a lot of people will be infuriated and a lot of people will think this post just makes sense and have no idea why others are falling over themselves and melting in rage.

    For one, talking about rich kids and poor kids is absolutely not politically correct.

    Two, there will be readers who are not familiar with the blog and will talk about how “not all kids…”

    Three, everything is better for rich kids.

    If you are going to place your child in an environment where they don’t fit in, make sure they know what is happening and what’s the purpose of the sacrifice. My personal story is one where I was a year older than my peers when I started 7th grade. It hurt my ego that everyone assumed it was because I was dumb and lazy so I had to repeat a year.
    I actually took a gap year and earned a license in cosmetology choosing a school that could license me in both Mexico and the State of Arizona. At 13 I was ready to earn money and support my family if need be. I was able to talk and do business with adults. I lied about my age all the time because then no one would trust me. So I just pretended and learned to fit in wherever I went. It was exhausting. And lonely.

    But I knew there was a purpose. I knew what other actions I had to take to make the best of my situation.

    So don’t leave your kid in the dark. They actually understand SO MUCH if you respect them enough to let them in and talk to them. If you want to put them in a situation where there is a big gap between their current abilities and the abilities needed, tell them. If they are on board they’ll work so hard to close the gap and growth will happen.

    If you don’t tell them why you’re doing what you’re doing they’ll be miserable, lonely, and lost.

    • Bailey
      Bailey says:

      I think you make an excellent point – children are capable of understanding much more than adults give them credit for.

      However I do want to say something in response to ‘everything is better for rich kids.’:

      You have to remember that for many ‘rich kids’ the kids are not rich. The PARENTS are rich. Often the kids are pushed into activities and situations that they have no interest in, but their parents are either projecting their own interests onto their kids or trying to pawn the kids off on somebody else.

      I am not, nor ever have been, rich but I have seen plenty of kids who are ‘rich’ but are not as well-off as middle-class kids with interested parents.

    • Linda
      Linda says:

      I SO LOVE THIS! Penelope please blog about this! Why shouldn’t a 13 year old be learning a real skill that can earn them money? They are ready! With homeschooling there is time for everything. There is all the time in the world!

      I want to hire my 14 year old to do the bookkeeping for my business. Or he can pursue his own interest. But here’s hoping he’ll opt for something different from public school. The idea that a young person may not have a paycheck and a real marketable skill until they are 22, and then only if they are lucky, is rather frightening to me. I keep telling him, learn some special skill, so you’re not tied to minimum wage.

    • Kim
      Kim says:

      The problem is kids know the reason why they are in school and they resent it. Most kids know they are there just to waste time while their parents are off to work. This causes the loneliness and discontent. They know they aren’t learning the way they want and can successfully so they just shut off or rebel.

      • Linda
        Linda says:

        True enough….I considered it prison from 4th grade up….and found ways to pass the time with letter writing and even knitting and rug hooking. Teachers never bothered me about it because I got my work done and didn’t cause any trouble. What more can a teacher ask for!

  11. joe
    joe says:

    You spend a lot of time thinking about what rich kids and rich families do! Get some help for yourself before trying to advise others.

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