Is the American School System Damaging Our Kids?

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

By Peter Gray from
Also in Reader's Digest Magazine January 2014

kids sitting by the lockersRichard Foulser/Trunk Archive
In our culture today, there are many routes through which children can apply their natural drives and instincts to learn everything they need to know for a successful adulthood. More than two million children in the United States now base their education at home and in the larger community rather than at school, and an ever-increasing proportion of their families have scrapped set curricular approaches in favor of self-directed learning. These parents do not give lessons or tests, but they do provide a home environment that facilitates learning, and they help connect their kids to community activities from which they learn. Some of these families began this approach long ago and have adult sons and daughters who are now thriving.

My colleague Gina Riley and I recently surveyed 232 such families. According to these families’ reports, the main benefits of this approach lie in the children’s continued curiosity, creativity, and passion for learning, and in the freedom and harmony the entire family experiences when relieved of the pressures and schedules of school and the burden of manipulating kids into doing homework that doesn’t interest them. As one parent put it, “As an educator, I see that my daughter has amazing critical thinking skills that many of my adult college students lack … My daughter lives and learns in the real world and loves it. What more could I ask for?” But not every family has the ability, means, or desire to facilitate their children’s self-directed education at home. For many, a better option is a so-called democratic school, where kids have charge of their education in a setting that optimizes their opportunities and where there are many peers with whom to socialize and learn. (Such schools should not be confused with Montessori schools or other types of “progressive” schools that permit more play and offer more choices than standard schools but nevertheless maintain a top-down, teacher-to-student system of authority and a relatively uniform curriculum that all students are expected to follow.)

Over many years, I’ve observed learning at one such place, the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts. The students, who range in age from four to about 18, are free all day to do whatever they want, as long as they don’t break any of the school rules. These regulations, which have been created democratically by the children and staff together, have nothing to do with learning; they have to do with keeping peace and order. The school currently has about 150 students and ten staff members, and it operates on a per-child budget that is less than half that of the surrounding public schools. It accepts essentially all the students who apply and whose parents agree to enroll them.

Today there are about two dozen schools in the United States that are explicitly modeled after Sudbury Valley, and still others that have most of its basic characteristics. Compared with other private institutions, these schools charge low tuitions, and some have sliding tuition scales. Students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

To people who haven’t witnessed it firsthand, it’s hard to imagine how such a school could work. Yet Sudbury Valley has been in existence for 45 years and has hundreds of graduates who are thriving in the real world.

Many years ago, my colleague David Chanoff and I conducted a follow-up study of Sudbury Valley graduates. We found that those who had pursued higher education (about 75 percent) reported no particular difficulty getting into the schools of their choice and doing well there once admitted. Some, including a few who had never previously taken a formal course, had gone on successfully to highly prestigious colleges and universities. As a group, regardless of whether or not they had pursued higher education, they were remarkably successful in finding employment. They had gone into a broad range of occupations, including business, arts, science, medicine, other service professions, and skilled trades. Most said that a major benefit of their Sudbury Valley education was that they had acquired a sense of personal responsibility and capacity for self-control that served them well in all aspects of their lives. Many also commented on the importance of the democratic values that they had acquired at the school. More recently, two larger studies of graduates have produced similar results.

Students in this setting learn to read, calculate, and use computers in the same playful ways that kids in hunter-gatherer cultures learn to hunt and gather. They also develop more specialized interests and passions, which can lead directly or indirectly to careers. For example, a highly successful machinist and inventor spent his childhood playfully building things and taking things apart to see how they worked. Another graduate, who became a professor of mathematics, had played intensively and creatively with math. And yet another, a high-fashion patternmaker, had played at making doll clothes and then clothes for herself and friends.

I’m convinced that Sudbury Valley works well because it provides the conditions that optimize children’s natural abilities to educate themselves. These include a) unlimited opportunity to play and explore, allowing them to discover and pursue their interests; 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. None of these conditions are present in standard schools.

I don’t mean to paint self-directed education as a panacea. Life is not always smooth, no matter what the conditions. But research in these settings—both mine and others’—has convinced me that the natural drives and abilities of young people to learn are fully sufficient to motivate their entire education. We don’t have to force them to learn; all we need to do is provide them with the freedom and opportunities to do so.

Of course, not everyone will learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time. That’s good. Our society thrives on diversity. We need people with different skills, interests, and personalities. Most of all, we need people who pursue life with passion and who take responsibility for themselves throughout life.

This article covers research and ideas that are developed more fully in the author’s book Free to Learn: Why Unleashing the Instinct to Play Will Make Our Children Happier, More Self-Reliant, and Better Students for Life (Basic Books, 2013).

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  • Your Comments

    • R Gilbert

      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).

    • Susan Raber

      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.

    • Elementary School Student

      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.

    • Elementary School Student

      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

    • William cooney

      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.

    • richard40

      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.

    • rose528

      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

      • andycleary

        You didn’t really read the article, did you?

    • Okkenai

      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.

    • sukietawdry

      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.

      • andycleary

        “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...]

        • LP

          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.