Is the American School System Damaging Our Kids?

Education has become an American institution—of the worst kind.

kids sitting by the lockers
Richard Foulser/Trunk Archive
Parents send their children to school with the best of intentions, believing that formal education is what kids need to become productive, happy adults. Many parents do have qualms about how well schools are performing, but the conventional wisdom is that these issues can be resolved with more money, better teachers, more challenging curricula, or more rigorous tests. But what if the real problem is school itself?

The unfortunate fact is that one of our most cherished institutions is, by its very nature, failing our children and our society.

Children are required to be in school, where their freedom is greatly restricted, far more than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we’ve been compelling them to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there’s strong evidence that this is causing psychological damage to many of them. And as scientists have investigated how children naturally learn, they’ve realized that kids do so most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

Compulsory education has been a fixture of our culture now for several generations. President Obama and Secretary of Education Arne Duncan are so enamored of it that they want even longer school days and years. Most people assume that the basic design of today’s schools emerged from scientific evidence about how children learn. But nothing could be further from the truth.

Schools as we know them today are a product of history, not of research. The blueprint for them was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe Scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them.

When schools were taken over by the state, made compulsory, and directed toward secular ends, the basic structure and methods of teaching remained unchanged. Subsequent attempts at reform have failed because they haven’t altered the basic blueprint. The top-down, teach-and-test method, in which learning is motivated by a system of rewards and punishments rather than by curiosity or by any real desire to know, is well designed for indoctrination and obedience training but not much else. It’s no wonder that many of the world’s greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison) or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein).

Most students—whether A students, C students, or failing ones—have lost their zest for learning by the time they’ve reached middle school or high school. In a telling research study, professors Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi and Jeremy Hunter fitted more than 800 sixth through 12th graders, from 33 different schools across the country, with special wristwatches that emitted a signal at random times of day. Each time they received a signal, the students filled out a questionnaire indicating where they were, what they were doing, and how happy or unhappy they felt at the moment. The lowest levels of happiness, by far, were reported when the children were in school, where they were often bored, anxious, or both. Other researchers have shown that, with each successive grade, students develop increasingly negative attitudes toward the subjects taught, especially math and science.

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As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that kids are unhappy in school. Some people even believe that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness as preparation for real life. But there are plenty of opportunities to learn to tolerate unpleasantness without adding unpleasant schooling to the mix. Research has shown that people of all ages learn best when they are self-motivated, pursuing answers to questions that reflect their personal interests and achieving goals that they’ve set for themselves. Under such conditions, learning is usually joyful.

The evidence for all of this is obvious to anyone who’s watched a child grow from infancy to school age. Through their own efforts, children figure out how to walk, run, jump, and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm, and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social, and emotional development. They do all of this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything.

This amazing drive and capacity to learn does not turn itself off when children reach five or six. But we turn it off with our coercive system of schooling. The biggest, most enduring lesson of our system is that learning is work, to be avoided when possible.

The focus of my own research—I’m a psychology professor at Boston College—has been on learning in children who are of “school age” but who aren’t sent to school, or not to school as conventionally understood. I’ve examined how children learn in cultures that don’t have schools, especially hunter-gatherer societies, the kind in which our species evolved. I’ve also studied learning in our culture by students who are trusted to take charge of their education. In these settings, children’s natural curiosity and zest for learning persist all the way through adolescence into adulthood.

Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where many children were illiterate and most did not go to school. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of kids would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so by interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave these young people access to the whole world’s knowledge—in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

Mitra’s experiments illustrate how three core aspects of human nature—curiosity, playfulness, and sociability—can combine beautifully to serve the purpose of education. Curiosity drew the kids to the computer and motivated them to explore it; playfulness motivated them to practice many computer skills; and sociability allowed each child’s learning to spread like wildfire to dozens of other children.

Next: What self-directed learning looks like »

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109 thoughts on “Is the American School System Damaging Our Kids?

  1. A little late to this fray, but here are my two cents:

    First, to quote Hillary Clinton, “It takes a village to
    raise a child.” Note that she did not say “It is the village’s job to raise
    your child” as so many modern parents have twisted her words into saying. (If
    you want to hate on Hillary, please don’t deny that the “village” could be just
    as easily interpreted as the World-Wide-Web, Sunday School, or Uncle Milt
    taking the kids for an airplane ride.) The village does not exist to do parents’
    jobs for them. It exists as a resource so that parents can do an even better
    job than they could had they only the average household teaching resources
    available to them. My wife, who does not have a teaching degree and no
    experience with math and English beyond high school, tutors children and
    college students in math and reading. Her biggest obstacle is parents who don’t
    parent but expect her to magically fix their kids’ learning problems.

    Second: in reference to the science involved in space travel
    and our current technological advancements, I would like to point out that
    ninety percent of the science behind the cell phone or computer on which you are
    viewing this was discovered before modern “science” began to revere evidence
    and statistical data with borderline religious fervor (the other ten percent
    was developed abroad). Since then we have seen study after study contradicting
    each other over every issue from dietary supplements to sub-atomic physics…but
    no real breakthroughs (of course, if anybody who reveres “Evidence” reads this,
    they will be challenged to heap their own flavor of agreeable statistics into a
    comment beneath this one). Still, with all those studies, what has changed? It’s
    like the joke I tell of Shroedinger’s wife (not his cat), who said “I have
    nothing to wear” and when he scientifically measured the contents of her
    closet, dismissed each blouse, gown, and skirt with reasons why it was not
    qualified as evidence (“can’t wear white after Labor Day,” for example).

  2. Traditional schools could take a step in the right direction if they allowed children to progress at their own pace, instead of corralling them by chronological age. Making kids feel as if they are inferior because they aren’t moving along at the same developmental pace as other kids in their class who could be nearly a year older is obviously antithetical to everything we know about how kids learn and grow.

    I’m glad I have the freedom to educate my kids at home and let them move along at a pace that inspires and energizes them.

  3. I also think most students, especially in the United States, would not really discover such complex things on their own, but somehow it still makes sense. But I just don’t think that would really… yeah, you get the point.

  4. I happened to read this article today.
    I totally agree with this. Even though I love
    my school and it has a really great way of teaching and keeping kids safe, this
    article makes almost a complete amount of sense. I love my school as much
    (okay, maybe ALOMOST) as much as I love my home, but learning still has
    challenges, and most people in my class would probably agree that they are
    being pushed to hard to do work instead of out of their own curiosity.

    I was reading this excerpt for the first time, I found it hard to believe there
    are schools out there like Sudbury
    Valley. It sounded
    strange, not being taught like I am now. As boring as it can be sometimes, I
    think we need those times when we sit at our desks for hours at a time,
    listening to the teacher sort of drone on. Even so, we still listen because we
    know it will come up later, like in ugh, HOMEWORK.

    is not something I enjoy. If I wasn’t so “oh, school is too hard and so is
    our homework but if I don’t finish it I will get yelled at and have to mark the
    homework chart and be embarrassed and sad,” I would enjoy it if it was
    limited. But the one thing I can’t STAND is e-homework.

    I understand how tech is the new thing and all but in some cases, it is pure
    DUMBNESS. It’s bad enough that most schools have new ways to teach and are more
    focused on your work, but without the teacher who actually knows what to do and
    doing it for hours, as well as it is difficult and some students at my school
    don’t have available computers, it is really stressing and hard work.

    I still like my school as it is. I would just like it better if we all knew the
    best way to go through school, but this is not possible because people have
    decisions. And without decisions, I think our preferences, opinions and
    perspective wound not be as powered with no driven source.

    -Elementary School Student

  5. It is essential for parents to create a healthy learning
    environment for their kids. it is imperative as it nourish urge of reading and
    learning in kids at early stage…i am a single parent having two kids. your article is very informative. my elder son has learn to read in early age n my younger daughter
    is in process. Homeschooling is important for enhancing positivity and
    creativity in kids. HOP is best program in this regard.

  6. I think these alternative schools work with some kids but not others. Some kids need structure, predictibility, and direction, while some need independence and autonomy. In the end private school vouchers may be best, and let the parents decide.

  7. if you research you will find that the nazi fascist party of NO(republicans) have been behind the reduction in the education of our children and if you research you will find a nazi fascist party of NO (republicans) governor in the states who continue to reduce the funds and education for our children

  8. We homeschool our children. We have the flexibility & freedom to learn when & where we like. Anyone taking the time to teach a child knows that spark of interest is key for them learning, otherwise it is a waste of everyone’s time. Homeschooling allows you to take advantage of that spark of interest & run with it. One of our children has an interest in mechanics & math, he takes apart toys & redesigns his own. He can calculate the price of sale items at the store & price of items w/tax, in his head – he’s 10. Another son writes & illustrates his own stories & makes his own board games. He’s read all the Harry Potter series & the Hobbit – he’s 8. Neither of these children would have had time to begin developing their natural interests if placed in public school. We have many friends w/children the same age in various schools, they are plagued with struggles in every subject, social issues that prohibit learning, school policies that they are unable to address, the list goes on and on. We are at a point where we have proof that the public education system has become a glorified daycare that passes the child onto the next grade without caring what or if they learn. As parents, we have to decide if a double income to have more material goods is worth our children’s chance at an education that will carry them into a successful future. In public school, education is too hit or miss for my liking, we’ve sacrificed many things to make homeschooling our children a priority. The bottom line for many folks is they just aren’t willing to trouble themselves to teach their own children, they’d much rather blame someone else for their children’s failures than do what they know in their own heart would be the right thing.

  9. In these free-style schools where there’s an “unlimited opportunity to play and explore,” do the children teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic much like those children in India?

    Don’t get me wrong, we need alternatives to the failure that is public education, but this seems just a little too transcendentalist to me and as you know, that educational approach failed in the long run. Further, childhood is not a democracy. There is behavior that not only should be discouraged, but actually punished when necessary. And other behavior that should be encouraged. Children need the freedom to be creative, but they are children, after all. They also need discipline and a guiding hand.

    1. “There is behavior that not only should be discouraged, but actually punished when necessary.”

      Seriously, a little whipping now and then will leave some welts that will be good for everyone in the long run.

      “do the children teach themselves reading, writing and arithmetic”

      Not only that, but they learn that if they pull really hard on their shoes, they can actually start to lift themselves off the ground and fly!

      [Or maybe you should try understanding before forming an opinion. They don’t *teach themselves*. They *direct* themselves. They are taught by learning materials like the internet and books, they ask questions of adults and older children, they learn science by doing experiments…]

      1. Actually, math is a human invention and children will invent it. Reading on the other hand is like a language and must be learned from modeling. Writing is a hard one – most kid I know just teach themselves how to type – their writing is hardly legible.

  10. I heard a length discussion by one economist who estimated that the public education costs students on average at least one grade level. That is to say that when children are educated in a program that allows them to reach their individual full potential, they perform at least one grade higher. I know that in the homeschooling community, those children perform at least one grade level higher than their age peers in public school

    The kicker of this economic interview came when he proposed that such retardation in the general level of education of the majority of students who graduate costs the country over one trillion dollars in GDP.

    We really, really, must explore educational alternatives to the status quo. We no longer have the prosperity to entertain people who think the only solution is to pump more money into government schools. It is way past the time when we give parents the means and the permission to have their children educated where the parents and not some government edu-crat decides.

    1. That would be awesome. If I could afford private school where we live, which I can’t, or I could afford to homeschool, which I can’t. However, I also think that some folks feel that public school somehow ‘ruins’ kids. If the kids are smart, and resilient, and are given support at home, they’ll survive just about any school.

  11. Quote: “The blueprint for them was developed during the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe Scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them.”

    Alas, I stopped reading at that point. How tiresome. The author, Peter Gray, clearly knows nothing about Reformation Era history. Some denominations (i.e. Lutheran) were co-opted by the state and did as he described. But many (Presbyterians, Baptists, later the Methodists etc.) were quite hostile toward having their child’s mind stuffed with ideas dictated by a State they regarded as hostile to their beliefs. Many rebelled against that in Europe. Some fled over the seas to get freedom of religion in America.

    It’s not like that’s a hard idea to grasp. Then is exactly like now. In both eras, the greatest champions of a free and diverse education controlled by parents have been the religious. Then as now, the loudest champions of one school for all (except perhaps their own privately schooled children) have been the advocates of a Big State. In today’s world, that’s liberals, particularly secular liberals.

    Actually, I did glance ahead. A professor at a Catholic school (Boston College) shouldn’t be blasting the Lutheran Reformation for the very ill within Catholicism that it continued–the concept of a Church-State ‘establishment of religion.’

    Groups such as Baptists (as Anabaptists) who appeared at about the same time as Lutheran reformation have a lot to teach all of us about church-state relations and the rights of parents to determine their child’s education. It’s a lesson Catholicism has yet to learn (where it is the dominant religion) and a lesson those in European countries with an established church have yet to learn, particularly Germany.

    A recent court decision in Germany about mandated public school for everyone (meaning no homeschooling), suggests that in at least Germany, the Europeans still haven’t learned.

    –Michael W. Perry, author of My Nights with Leukemia: Caring for Children with Cancer

    1. “Then as now, the loudest champions of one school for all (except perhaps
      their own privately schooled children) have been the advocates of a Big

      Do you then follow this theme and advocate the end of Statism? Because I could get behind *that*.

  12. There are no – NO – citations outside the author’s own research. The research mentioned appears to be descriptive of home schooling or an alternative school, but not comparative studies to conventional schooling with appropriate adjustments for confounders. As such, the information is pretty useless. Yes, if you go to that particular school, you have a good chance to integrate into society well as an adult. But then, the same can be said for a ton of conventional schools as well. Let’s see the results from an underfunded alternative school whose students are poor kids with uninvolved parents. The results won’t be so peachy. This isn’t to say that the author cannot be correct; simply that the evidence provided shows nothing of the sort.

    1. Or maybe he expects people to be curious enough to do their own research without having to be spoon-fed everything they know. Just a thought.

      1. First, that’s not how research works. The onus is on the person making a claim to back that up with evidence, not on the audience. Otherwise, people would just spout whatever claims they wanted and no one could fact check all of them – we all have other things to do in life as well.

        Second, your insinuation is that I’m lazy, which is insulting. I’m not going to justify my work-ethic/motivation to a complete stranger who is jumping to conclusions. So, good day.

        1. Sorry you have trouble with contradiction. I would love to read your published articles which, I’m sure, are filled with statistics. Please, post the links to them. Enjoy your evening.

          1. And that’s 2 insults. Keep going. Have a third for me?

          2. I don’t think apologizing for making a quip is in order. It is unfortunate that you took it as a personal affront. Your disproportionately defensive leap to the conclusion that I was deriding your tenacity is what prompted my more “snarky” remark. Easy does it, there, friend.

          3. Good job! Now I’m blowing things out of proportion! Insult three!

            You know it’s almost textbook: insult, then chastise for being too sensitive. “It’s not my fault you took my condescending comment as an insult; don’t be so sensitive, _friend_.”

            I’m immensely amused at how you believe you are making yourself look better. Care to keep going? Got a 4th insult for me? I dare ya!

          4. Wow.
            Edit: I see that you have difficulty with accurately interpreting text-based discourse. For instance, I did not apologize for anything. I did not insult you at any point (though I may have poked you a little in my second comment). What you seem to be having trouble with is the difference between making observations and throwing insults. If you find observations about that which you present to the world to be insulting, perhaps reconsidering your reaction to a simple jest will make things less embarrassing. Again, not an insult. Just an observation.

          5. Denial and projection. Good job. You don’t fail to disappoint. Please continue. Here, I’ll hand you a larger shovel.

  13. I don’t think it’s a problem with schools. I think the problem is parts of school Search is bad teachers, bullying, test based learning, and power point era. Kids aren’t being taught how to apply what they learn and therefore nothing interests them.

  14. A comparison to how schools function and how prisons function is another article of comparison you may need to write about as well. Bells over population lunch food clicks guards metal detectors etc

    1. My memories of 12 years in public school are largely those of having *been* in prison, so, good point.

  15. I have a lot of friends who were homeschooled and they honestly have some of the WORST reading, writing, spelling, and math skills of anyone I know. I know many different children from different families who are homeschooled, and this has been the case for many of them. I also once volunteered as a child care worker at a homeschooling convention, and these kids have the worst social skills, since they are only used to being around their parents all the time and don’t listen to anybody who isn’t their mom and dad.

    1. One person’s experience (yours) does not represent the whole. I’ve experienced the exact opposite. Overall the standardized test scores favor homeschooling. CNN just posted an article on college athletes not able to read at a 3rd grade level. The general direction of the public school has a downward trend. Given, both public & homeschooling can fail teaching the child, but as a parent I have a vested interest in having my child actually learn verses a teacher is only trying to earn a pay check. Some people homeschool for the wrong reason, just as some people are teaching in public schools for the wrong reason. Your view of homeschooling is narrow, sad and incorrect.

    2. This is what we call “anecdotal evidence”. It is unverifiable and therefore as relevant as a fairytale. I could make as many claims to contradict your “evidence” and it would be equally ineffective because without data and statistics to qualify my position, it is nothing more than an opinion.

  16. Homeschooling can have the same effect on children if modeled after the school system in approach and method. Many homeschooling companies sell “boxed curriculum” with a set of instructions on how to teach it, leaving parents frustrated when the kids don’t fall in line with it’s expectations. I’ve tried this approach with different curriculum over the years and its brought a lot of trouble for us all just because that is not how humans beings are made to learn. I’m slowly working on changing my methods and ideologies to engage their critical thinking skills and passions for learning by thinking “outside the box” rather than in it.

    Even though I dropped out in the 9th grade, and went back to college as an adult, but the years of compulsory conformity has had a lasting impression on the way I view things. I don’t believe in un-schooling or maybe I do I just don’t understand it well enough, but I am done with anything that comes in a box. It’s time that we as human beings embraced our God given ability to investigate, to think critically and ask questions for ourselves not what is printed on the text. I go to used book stores now like Goodwill and search on ebay for used and outdated textbooks to teach my children with and tailor it to their needs. Working on expanding my own thinking as well as their is the goal and should be the aim of any education. Enough said.

    1. From a teacher, regardless what teaching model or technique you may utilize, most children today are not instilled (at home) with curiosity, the value of education or understand they must conform to the dominant economic culture to be successful. I face classrooms full of students every day that reject learning of any kind and are hostile to anything requiring effort. They belong to destructive cultures which embrace stupidity and ignorance. By middle school, many have already made the choice to continue in the cycle of poverty and welfare. Many come to school only for the free breakfast and lunch, then spend their day disrupting the learning of others for their own amusement. School would be fun, with more activities and interesting presentations, if these children participated in learning without acting like wild animals.

      1. ” most children today are not instilled (at home) with curiosity, ”

        I question whether curiosity is a behavior that is typically instilled. Kids just seem to have it. OTOH our schools do a terrific job of seeing to it they are seldom allowed to express it. Try having a child doing anything outside of the box in school and see where how often you get called in and met with demands that you “correct” your child’s curiosity.

      2. Children are born curious. Nothing needs to be instilled. The problem is the curiosity gets squelched early on with placing adult expectations (sitting quiet for 5 hours per day.)

  17. I loved my kids’ public school education and for the most part they did too. They are both doing well in college and are still engaged learners – most of the time. The only person to experience boredom and anxiety would be ME if I had to home school. I would need to be put into a padded cell. I think it really depends on the school and sometimes even the teacher. Some obviously do a better job than others, but I’m not sure that I’m totally 100% of the time engaged and actively learning in my job (and I’m a professor – go figure). So…life and education is what you make of it. Nothing new about that.

    1. so you have no problem with other people, but your own children make you crazy?…Hhmmm….

    2. Public school = so parents don’t need to show self control.

    3. You are missing the point of self-directed learning: you don’t *teach* your children, you facilitate their interest in things. It doesn’t really take all that much time from a parent.

      1. Why does it have to be either/or? My kids go to public school, then I encourage their self directed learning at home. Best of both worlds: Basics from school, chemistry experiments and trips to my lab at home.

  18. My question about this school model is how and when are students checked if they are progressing correctly developmentally-what I am really asking is how do they make sure that students dont turn 12 and still not be able to read or add? My background of having been homeschooled and seeing plenty of kids who could not read because their parents did want to rush them.
    Another question to go with that, how does this model work with students with special needs? Or English Language Learners? As a public school teacher that is my reality.
    My varied experiences means I do appreciate these findings, but I would like more info about how it would really look in every day life.

    1. I have homeschooled all three of my children and have met hundreds of homeschooled kids, and never once met one who couldn’t read by age 12. Trust kids more, and you’ll be amazed at what they’ll achieve just through curiosity and self-directed learning. Most kids learn to read naturally once they’re taught the simple vowel and consonant sounds. Put the books in front of them and watch the lights turn on. And, don’t forget who the teachers are – they are the parents who LOVE their children more than themselves, and will do anything to help their children succeed in life and be happy at the same time.

      Also, everyone must read about the heinous pressure cooker “education” system in South Korea that the children must endure. I kid you not, these children are subjected to over 16 hours day of being in school or attending an after-school tutoring school. It’a horrendous how these kids have NO family life and have their childhood robbed from them. Pls. Read the book, The Smartest Kids in the World, and How They Got That Way.

      1. I wont disagree with your experience, but in my own I see some students that are as motivated as yours are but they are from families like yours that value education and learning. The other, and by other I mean at leasy 2/3 of students are not as motivated. Their parents do not want to develop a relationship with them like you do. They play, avoid books, writing, etc. And in America we have the responsibility to still educate those students. I know myself that yes school was stressful at times, but the challenge was worth it. The feeling of success or learning when success didnt happen was so necessary.

        1. I have met far more public school children that cannot read, than I have homeschooled. Furthermore, reading isn’t about an age…..why is everything about an age? Each child progresses at a different pace. Can’t we let them be who they are and not who we think they should be when the system says they must?

          1. I wont disagree that plenty of students from public schools not being to read. There are many reasons for that from special education needs, poor curriculum, poor teacher training, lack of family involvement, and lack of interest. That does not mean that every public school is an awful place to send your kids and that at least me (and many other teachers) wont work 60 hours a week to help the read, write, do math, and become good citizens. I would challenge you and everyone on this forum to actually go and visit a school, be a volunteer and see what is really happening.
            On topic of age, you would be concerned if your 4 year old couldn’t walk, so we are concerned when 7+ year old cant read.

          2. No one is saying that public school is a horrible place. No one is saying that all teachers are lazy self centered people only wanting a paycheck. But extremely dedicated teachers are not the majority. From my own personal experience, experience of friends and family as well as working with parents who’s children have been tortured, mistreated and abused by teachers and other students….I have plenty of reason to state my claim.

            Just so we are clear, if my child didn’t walk when they were 4 I wouldn’t freak out. I am a well educated man who hated reading and the more I was forced to learn to read the less I would listen. I was a late bloomer and in public school. Two degrees later and a life in public school, I wish I were homeschooled.

            Children are not little adults. But yet that is the expectation in a public school setting.

          3. Glad to hear that you are an involved parent that has superceded your own bad educational experience.
            From my own, I was homeschooled for 10 years and I would have rathered gone to school.
            Hope you have a pleasant weekend.

          4. “From my own, I was homeschooled for 10 years and I would have rathered gone to school.”

            How do you know?

            Anyways, it is important to differentiate homeschooling from unschooling. This article is really about unschooling, auto-didactism, and self-directed learning. Most homeschooling are none of those.

          5. PS. My oldest was in public school until she was 8. She is now 11. I was a room parent, a reader friend, volunteered for after school things etc. I may homeschool but I don’t live in a bubble.

          6. 7 is not the age that most children naturally learn to read by. Many spontaneously read at a younger age, but looking at kids that don’t receive any direct instruction on how to read, 10 is closer to the average age. For your walk example, it would be like sending a 9 mo old to “walking school” and worrying if they didn’t walk by 14 mo.

        2. The responsibiilty of the Ob/Gyn is to catch the baby and to help IF there some wierd problem. The responsibility of the professional teacher is to facilitate, and mostly to stay out of the way.
          If you let them, most kids will rediscover their inner drive to become adults. Most only need your permission to learn. A few need more encouragement, so read to them, bring in others who will read to them and encourage the kids who do read to to read to their friends. If you can overcome the impulse to drag these kids out with forceps andf suction, they will rediscover their inner child and devour learning
          like locusts eating everything. Just peel back the layers of abuse and find the real childrem underneath.

        3. What play do they do that has nothing to do with literacy? Some kids spend years and years role playing like with army men or stuffed animal, developing wonderful senses of story telling. I’m just trying to think of a kind of “bad” play that has nothing to do with math or literacy or anything else that we have labeled “good” in our little charts we had more fun making than students have following. Learning is intrinsically fun. This can include taught learning. If learning isn’t fun and “play” then we have taken the fun out of it – no need to add artificial fun to learning, just return what you have taken out. IME this is usually the choice of what to learn and when. Teachers have so much fun dividing learning up, they forget they are stealing that fun from the students.

    2. There is a difference between “homeschooling” – which essentially tries to recreate the public school experience at home, with lectures, and tests, and a set agenda – and unschooling. Part of the problem here is that these are getting conflated. Homeschooling – often taught by people who believe in ghosts floating around in the skies – addresses very few of the issues discussed in this article, and so not surprisingly, often just repeats the same poor results of the mainstream schooling system.

      1. There is no doubt that there are families that abuse the freedom of family education and take a “lazy” approach to education. There are also families that do try to re-create the public school setting and find it stifling. But there are many families that make a child’s natural curiosity the driving force in his/her own education. It is a matter of trusting this natural human inclination to illuminate the path. The keys, it would seem, are knowing your children, knowing where to go when you don’t have the information and how to impart that learning.

        Anecdotally, our children have conflicting learning abilities. My son could read chapter books by the time he was nearly six. My daughter, now six, is very methodical about reading and is slower at learning this skill — she can read slowly and she wants to read more effectively, so she keeps at it with all of her energy and I don’t have to fight for her attention. On the other hand, she has been able to subtract with regrouping since the end of last school year, it just makes sense to her. My son — not so much. Now 8 years old, he has finally mastered that skill. In reading chapter books, he is deeply engrossed in the Percy Jackson series. Now he wants to know everything about Greek and Roman mythology, roots of words, names of planets and about all the celestial bodies, etc… This is how curiosity is encouraged as opposed to telling him, “No, sorry kiddo, we can’t get into that right now because you have to be able to show that you can memorize your times tables.” Here is my little girl who can do math in her head and she loves to cook and wants to design clothes –> chemistry, measurements, history, cultural studies, creative endeavor, etc.

        We have a schedule, a routine. We have rules and discipline (and no, we never use physical discipline). There is a lot of opportunity for social activity with their friends in the neighborhood, community sports and recreational activities, co-op groups, and many other outlets. Living in a sizable city, we have access to museums, aquariums and, science centers as well as being constantly engaged in an extraordinary and culturally diverse community.

        Family education should not be about sheltering our children from the real world, it should be about immersing them in it and giving them the tools and confidence to be able to navigate through it. We strive to define success, not with a monetary value or with a bunch of letters after one’s name, but with the contributions we make to create a flourishing, advanced and more profoundly connected society.

        So ends my diatribe.


      2. I disagree that homeschooling tries to recreate public school. The parents I know, including myself, use an eclectic approach–independent learning, homeschool co-ops, online courses, tutors, packaged curriculum, and enrichment activities There is a lot of flexibility for scheduling, too. They can skip busy work and on over-reliance on tests. I don’t know of any parents who lecture to their homeschooled kids. Also, it is efficient because there are not 25 kids to manage. It isn’t for everyone, certainly, but my daughter has thrived for the past 8 years. She has friends, scores high on standardized tests, plays sports, and has started her own business. We get to travel on off times and she takes her studies on the road. Just as there is variation in the quality of public schools, so is there in homeschooling.

        1. Abby, points taken: in general there is a full spectrum in how people do home-schooling, and some approaches better capture the notions in this article – matching the educational structure to the way that humans learn – than others do. I think many people’s exposure to homeschoolers has been limited to some situations that aren’t very healthy (think for example of the Warren Jeffs type of “homeschooling”) and it colors their impression of the overall movement. I was trying to get them away from that, to realize that if consciously done, “home schooling” does not suffer from things like unsocialized children who have no social skills, say (a common but inaccurate trope).

    3. Read the book on the Sudbury School cited at the end of the article, or go to the Sudbury School website, where they have lots of information posted that address your questions specifically.

    4. Some kids don’t read by age 12. They don’t need to be “checked” like they are something cooking in the oven. We don’t “check” adults. Though you do have a point. I have seen about 10 children “unschooled” like this, and one had hearing problems. She learned to read earlier than some (who learned after 12) but it was because she sought out instruction or it was noticed that she was frustrated with not being able to read. It didn’t just happen naturally like learning to walk, but neither did talking for her. This isn’t an “ignore the kid and they’ll learn” approach, but an involved and attune to the needs, desires, wants, of the child and go at their pace. As an adult, I seek out help with things I want to learn that I have a hard time grasping. Children are human too. Yes, I would agree than a child might need to be in an environment where they were aware that sharing knowledge was wonderful.

  19. If I had the choice and the opportunity, I would have home schooled my children. I was very ignorant of the many advantages and ways to homeschooling. I am guilty of thinking it was odd. It was because I did not now anything about it and rushed to my own conclusions. Public schooling has desensitized my children. Their education level is sadly lacking. I

  20. I’m sorry, I lost you when you said the Protestant Reformation set up schools so that children could be taught to believe what those in authority told them about the Bible. This is the complete opposite of the rationale. Read Luther and the other reformers – their whole point was to equip the laypeople to be able to read and interpret the Bible for themselves, as a check on clergy abuses. Can’t take the rest of your article seriously if you missed the original point of public schools – who’s to say the rest of your article is factual or of value?

    1. ChurchLeader, just as the Bible can and is interpreted and taught in many different ways, so are many aspects of many different subjects. I have heard your statement before, but have also heard the statement of the author of the article. To throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak isn’t ideal. There are many scholars who believe that many parts of the Bible are not correctly translated, and have good reason. Does this mean the whole Bible is false? No. There are always more sides to a story.

      1. What on earth are you talking about with parts of the Bible not being correctly translated? We still have the Hebrew and Greek manuscripts from which the translations are done. Please cite your sources for such a claim.

        1. The only part of my statement responded to was the one that did not coincide with your ideals. Why waste my time citing my literary sources for mistranslation? It’s not as if you would take it with an open mind. It would be a waste of my time and energy trying to educate someone who “knows” what their answer already is.

  21. I can’t speak for anyone else, but I know that by the 4th grade I was well versed in faking illness to get out of going to school (a nice, “good” public school in elementary school and a not so nice inner-cityish school for high school). I was a great kid, the quiet one who was always on high honor roll and followed directions without a second thought, literally all the teacher’s I had in elementary school have listed me as one of their all-time favorites (and I’m not just saying that. My kindergarten teacher still has a magnetic star with my name on it on the blackboard. That went up in 1996 folks. The only detention I ever had was because I didn’t finish my math homework in 9th grade). Even so, I NEVER got that perfect attendance award nor did I want it.

    I wanted to learn at home from the time I was young, but NYS has rules up the wahoo about who’s considered qualified so that was never an option. I’ve been planning since I was 14 for my future family because there is no way I will subject my children to that kind of environment (I’m 23 now and have left that state for a home-school friendly one). I hated going to school, luckily I had a mother who read and I found I could learn on my own.

    I realize that not every child has a caring parent at home, but imo I think that makes an even bigger case for homeschooling. If all the parents who were willing to do this were given the opportunity (instead of being told they’ll ruin the children they’ve known since birth) then the public schools would have fewer students thereby giving staff the opportunity to work with those who need it the most and more money to spend per-student (not that its made a difference so far, but apparently throwing money at a problem will make it go away. I learned that in school).

    Instead we want to force all these children into a classroom with 20+ kids and maybe two teachers? Kid’s aren’t all the same, they have different learning styles and there is NO WAY you can expect a couple of adults to handle all of that in this kind of setting. You’ve got the three quiet kids, the four who don’t pay attention (ever), the two who can’t stop talking, the trouble makers and all the endless combinations in between.

    Does it take a genius to see the problem here?

    What this tells me is that it isn’t about allowing children to become life-long learners. It’s not. It really, really isn’t.

    I’m not going to throw the blame around because it belongs to everybody. Parents who haven’t fought harder for their rights, teachers who keep quiet about all the difficulties in the classroom, law makers who don’t listen anyway…I guess all you can do is start at home and in your community.

    Parents, as a graduate of the public school system (2009), let me BEG YOU to educate your children at home if at all possible. Give up that other car, don’t take 2 vacations, move into a smaller house in the country. PLEASE don’t let your
    children learn to hate learning. Do it for the love of the future, for the love of your children!

    Seriously though. Please.



    (This is really long isn’t it?)

    1. I love this. You are a gem, and I hope you have a long and prosperous life!

    2. Very nice. I got a chuckle, though, out of “a classroom with 20+ kids and maybe two teachers”. When I went to school it was 40 kids per class and one teacher. That’s how Baby Boomers rolled.

  22. Freedoms ? What freedoms more do they need in a structured atmosphere ?

  23. I recommend further reading by a state teacher of the year, John Taylor
    Gatto, on this subject matter. Then Google the “School Sucks Podcast”
    ran by another former teacher. Plenty of info straight from the system’s

  24. I don’t buy it. A child or teen will
    not naturally seek out and wrestle with geometric formulas or
    chemistry and algebraic equations. He or she is highly unlikely to
    want to “explore” the Declaration of Independence or try to
    understand the nuances between federal democracy and oligarchy. On
    their own I doubt that he or she will attempt to gain competency in
    spelling or parse out the rules of proper English grammar.

    I think it’s humorous, no, actually
    it’s tragic, that the same system that produced the engineers, and
    scientists who sent men to the moon or invented the super computer,
    and that produced many of the best universities in the world (the
    same ones that this author uses to demonstrate the “effectiveness”
    of this new method in that students were able to get into them), is
    the same system the author is complaining about here. It’s the same
    problem I have with what I call the “new math” I see being taught
    in public schools now (e.g. story problems taught in the early grades
    instead of working on a foundation of memorization of the facts. I
    taught in public schools for 3 years, I know what I saw–4th
    and 5th graders who still counted on their fingers because
    they’d never simply memorized basic addition, subtraction,
    multiplication, and division.). If the old math made us the most
    technoligcally advanced nation on earth, why do they think it needs
    to be changed?!

    I don’t disagree that there’s room for
    improvement within the current system, but to decry it as the source
    of all woes is foolish and hubristic. Learning is both passive and
    active. Perhaps we could have a little more active learning in our
    schools, but try telling that to the teacher of 30 inner-city kids
    who didn’t eat breakfast, feasted on Doritos, pop tarts, and coolaid
    the night before, and whose educational support system at home
    includes hours of violent video games and television, absentee
    parents, bed times past 11 p.m., and too often verbal, physical, and
    emotional abuse.

    Most kids needs passive learning—the
    transmission of content and ideas from one who has already mastered
    it presented in an understandable way to those who are unable to
    digest it on their own—and most need the structure and discipline
    of the classroom in order to learn. Education builds upon the work
    of previous generations. If we always start from scratch, or let
    kids “discover” on their own, they’ll miss much of what has gone
    before or waste precious time trying to figure it out for themselves.
    Again, I’m not saying there’s not some room for active learning, but
    it cannot be the foundation.

    Hierarchical learning works best for
    most children and is the most effective way to handle the
    transmission of the building blocks of education. Just ask the
    Chinese, whose students are now surpassing us in math and science.
    No “active” learning there. The place for more active learning
    might begin in high school and come to fruition in college and
    graduate school, but I doubt it’s a remedy for all that ails our
    public schools.

    Sorry to hijack this post. But I feel
    strongly about this kind of pollyanaish approach to “free”
    learning. I have nothing against home schooling, or even some more
    creative types of schools, but what this author proposes disturbs me.

    1. Guest, pollyanaish approach to learning? No, home education is not that at all. We educated our children at home. They didn’t chose everything they learned, but the things they did chose were the ones that prepared them most for their future life. They had so much freedom to order their days as they chose. The one daughter is now a Russian interpreter in the Navy, just returned from three years in Moscow. She has even interpreted for the Joint Chief of Staff of the Navy. When she first left for Moscow, she was the most fluent Russian interpreter in the entire Navy. She credits her success to her freedom in education at home. The second daughter spent much of her high school years painting and writing (among other things). This didn’t start in high school. She has been on her own since age 18 1/2. And very successfully too. She now does commissioned pet portraits. She, too, credits her success with the freedom she had at home to do what interested her the most. The two of them would not be where they are today if they had been squashed into the government school model.

      1. MF, this is a true example of the possibilities self directed and home based learning can accomplish. It is comical to me that people cannot see the true benefits to this type of educating lifestyle. Even when facts, studies and children (such as yours) are presented right in front of their faces. It is people like Guest that keep in motion a system that is ruining more children than it is helping. Less than 75% of our public school children are graduating. Of those who do graduate, only 46% of them have a B- average or higher. Someone explain why this is a good thing?

        1. “It is people like Guest that keep in motion a system that is ruining more children than it is helping.”

          Allow me to rephrase Guest’s idea. We sent men to the moon, invented computers, etc. on the education of that day. If we’re still using it, and now we get lousy results, WHAT HAS CHANGED? *Is* the system the same one? Arguably not.

          It was obvious that “New Math” was a disaster less than a decade after it started.

          In many cases freeing students to study what interests them will produce excellent results. These are already motivated, curious, intelligent students. But most students will choose not to do much.

          1. I can only laugh when I read a blanket statement like “but most students will choose not to do much.” How in the world do you have a clue? I have been around hundreds of homeschooled and unschooled children. You have absolutely no idea what “most” kids will or will not do. You don’t give children enough credit to make good choices. Or maybe the children you have been around have been restricted so tightly that the minute they have freedom, they don’t know how to handle it. Public school = no freedom to be a child.

          2. Most children will not learn a language unless a teacher teaches it to them… Don’t you know that? That’s why so many 5 year olds can’t speak: they haven’t been to school yet.

            Oh wait.

    2. I’m sorry, have you done research on the Asian culture of schooling? I have a professor who attended “high school” in Korea – and it is much different. Children at a young age – As in, “junior high” grades over here – are being fully prepared for the route they would like to take in life – I.E., skilled work, higher education, specific trades/skills/knowledge bases, and their learning in the later years is dictated by these choices. They are given much more freedom to pursue their interests during later years of schooling. Perhaps you should research before you begin using comparisons you are unaware of.

      1. Just curious Guest 123… Have you done research on the Asian culture of schooling? Or are you basing your info on your one professor? I would like to have access to any of your resources (if your willing to share). One thing to keep in mind, is that all children are different, learn different and have different interests – no matter the culture or upbringing. Also, there are many kids that are interested in words and numbers, my child being one of them. She taught herself the alphabet and their phonic sounds through play at 2.5 years old and taught herself her numbers shortly after. More importantly, this was by way of her own interest as I had not started her on it. When my husband discovered her learning these things, he sat down with her and tried to formally teach her….. She totally lost interest during those times and would pick it up again on her own time through games. She is a tactile learner and benefits best through active play. You should research Finland’s education system – they rank highest in the world. I think you would be intrigued.

    3. “Most kids needs passive learning…”

      Have you ever seen the inside of a well-run Montessori classroom? Children are crazy about all that stuff and then some (at their developmental level, but still). The place for active learning begins AT BIRTH and doesn’t really ever go away; it isn’t until mid- to late elementary years that kids become capable enough of abstract thought that we can even move away from concrete manipulatives!

      “Tell me and I forget, teach me and I may remember, involve me and I learn.”

      —Benjamin Franklin

      1. the thing I see wrong with Montessori is that it should be the parent that interacts with the child and not a teacher. That the joy in learning with your children, and they with you, is being replaced. Also with sibling replaced with other class mates. For an only child it is good- if only a parent could be involved with their child and being the learning aid. Schools were designed to break up families so that people would be loyal to society in place of family. Look up the history of how American schools started.

        1. Montessori is absolutely an option to consider. Any involved parent will consider all valid options and stay involved. The problem is NOT that other institutions have been formed (with good and/or bad intentions, but that parents (some to a greater degree than others) have dropped their stewardship.

        2. actually, ,the first montessori school in italy, for the children of illiterate factory workers, helped families learn how to improve their personal hygiene and family well-being. montessori and co. educated parents as well as teachers, a tradition we try to continue today (not to that extent, obvi, although in some areas this work is still vital) so the child has consistency across environments. the children, developmentally, need the society of other children at this age. the “teacher” who is actually known as a guide in Montessori communities, functions as a bridge between the immediate family’s world and the world at large. she plays a vital role, though it may often appear passive to outsiders. i am a HUGE fan of unschooling at home and did half my master’s thesis on it. :-) but i do think montessori (done properly, and there are many schools that don’t) can be incredibly wonderful for many kinds of children. in our “classrooms” (which we call Children’s Houses) the children interact with EACH OTHER. they learn patience, helpfulness, kindness, acceptance by seeing it modeled daily and having multiple opportunities to interact with each other and practice. with all that said I am a FIRM believer in the four-day school week, with a strong suggestion that the last weekday be one spent with family or as close to family as possible. we certainly do need much more family time in this country, as well as a much better balance between “work” (yes even school) and home lives, no matter what the method of education outside the home.

    4. where to start? children are not empty vessels adults need to “fill up” with knowledge. math needs to be introduced first in the concrete, then by symbol alone, then in the last instance, when those have both been mastered separately, you marry quantity (concrete) and symbol together. it’s not “new math” … montessori introduced these concepts over 100 years ago. rote memorization doesn’t mean there’s actual understanding behind it.

      1. in montessori adolescent programs they still use physical manipulatives to demonstrate algebraic equations. pretty fabulous if you ask me!

    5. You know what is interesting about your comment is that you mention only about the fact that children need to be smarter….as if the IQ is the only quantitative factor to being “smart.” There are many extremely “smart” children in China that have EXTREMELY low self esteem, interpersonal relationship skills, personal problem solving abilities and do not feel as though they are worthy unless constant success and “perfection” is achieved. Would someone like to tell me why we now place more importance on someone being able to take a test and wow others than being able to offer their spouse, future children and the society in which they live a loving, stable and self secure person. Furthermore, the Chinese are very quick to point out the educational flaws of those who do not achieve their “level of greatness” but fail to point out that their entire childhood was spent achieving success instead of actually being able to enjoy being a child. You can die wealthy, successful and educated…..but the people that have been best remembered in history had the best hearts. Educated or not.

    6. I don’t agree with the tone of this article and you bring up some valid points. I was homeschooled from 4th grade through high school and I am now teaching my six children at home.
      An abandonment-style homeschool is quite possibly the worst possible education, just as anarchy is the worst form of government. Stewardship-style home education has amazing potential, because the curious desire of the student is respected and guided by those who know and care for the child more than anyone else could. Stewardship-style education considers all the resources available and carefully builds a custom plan with and for the child.
      It’s more awake than your typical “pollyanna” style approach to life.

      1. “anarchy is the worst form of government”

        I know you are just trying to make an example, but can you please pick a different one? There are indeed many of us who think that Statism is a crime, an initiation of violence by one set of people against others, and while we don’t exactly call for “anarchy”, in general that is what you would call us. Basically I’m just saying that you probably haven’t really studied the question of anarchy vs Statism and so you probably ought not throw it around as a cheap analogy.

        1. Matter of fact – I would say that the Sudbury school mentioned in the article is pretty much an anarchic model. Anarchy is an ideal form of government if you are for freedom and pure democracy. I don’t know if humans are capable of reaching this ideal if they have been trained up to obey authority without question.

          1. Anarchy amongst gentlemen is not anarchy. Democracy amongst thieves is not democracy.

    7. I taught in public school for 12 years. I am currently homeschooling my 5 children. Many of the things you described above are reasons why I felt I had to get my children out of the system. Public school is a broken system that simply does not do what it was intended to do. The system was holding them back…weighing them down with testing skills. They were way more focused on teaching a test that teaching children. Children ARE natural learners. Their learning needs to be facilitated. If children of all ages are provided tools and opportunity they will explore and learn. You are wrong if you feel differently.

    8. ‘ If the old math made us the most technologically advanced nation on earth, why do they think it needs to be changed?! ‘

      I’ve never been a teacher, but this is the FIRST time I’ve encountered the exact same thing I’ve been thinking for YEARS! Of course, that’s true of the entire educational system. NOBODY asks WHY there’s a difference, what CAUSES the difference. Curricula from new educational theories are put into all schools with apparently very little testing. And when they don’t work, they just do exactly the same thing with even newer theories.

    9. “A child or teen will
      not naturally seek out and wrestle with geometric formulas”

      I sure did. I gobbled up math and science books as a teen. The only problem was that I would read them in class and get in trouble, even though the books I was reading were far more advanced than what we were being taught in school.

      I went on to get a PhD in Applied Math, fwiw.

    10. Kids will learn what they want. If they are not interested in those things, they won’t be seeking a career involving them… So why are those subjects all that? Does it really matter if it doesn’t matter? Except that society tells us it does.. I’m glad I was homeschooled and taught to think practically rather than get caught up in what’s popular.

    11. Although a new system is needed, I do not think that the new math core that has been set up is much better. At least in my experiences as a high school student, it’s worse.

  25. Not sure what standard school systems you are refering to when you say “None of these conditions are present in standard schools.” Do you really believe that that none of this happens in ANY standard school system in America?? b) access to caring and knowledgeable adults who are helpers, not judges; c) liberal age mixing among children and adolescents (age-mixed play is far more conducive to learning than is play among those who are all at the same level); and d) direct participation in a stable, moral, democratic community in which they acquire a sense of responsibility for others, not just for themselves. That statement is absolutely ridiculous. Maybe in some schools systems the education and teaching is that poor but it certainly is not ALL. And making that statement just shows how biasis this article is and has no true comparisons to how MANY school systems actually give children a love of life long learing in America. Lets hear some true numbers of how many unschooling kids go to college and succeed? Your examples are pretty vague and you have no numbers of how many kids getting this horrible education actually are very successful in life and HAPPY and have memories of learning through fun times and not just hanging around being bored all day.

    1. I am in a very good public school (in comparison to other public school systems) and even here some of the teachers/the way teachers have to teach by law hurt students in taking any freedom or joy in learning.

  26. My only concern with your study is that you neglect the “home” factor. Students whose families encourage and model a love of learning and discovery are usually the same students who attend these alternative types of schools. If modeling of learning and an importance of learning is not modeled in the home, will these students do just as well? This unfortunately is what most public schools are dealing with. I do, however, agree that the static form of how we instruct students needs to change.

  27. I chose home education for my own children, and they turned out well. . We did unschool except for the “three R’s”. I too am an autodidact. I loved learning things in school, but eventually I realized how much of my time had been wasted waiting for the slowest student to “get it.” Many of them forgot by test time or immediately after the test. I still remember a heap of stuff.

      1. No. Some resented me for being so smart. i was usually one of the first to get it. Eventually, some teachers learned to solve two problems at once, my boredom and others’ lack of comprehension, by having me help the slow students. I had my own method, which was to have my fellow student tell me what s/he understood, and I loved seeing the light go on in someone’s mind.

  28. I chose home school for my children, I think they are all well balanced. I too am an autodidact. I loved learning thongs in school, but in high school, I realized how much of my time had been wasted waiting for the slowest student.

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