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
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.

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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  • Your Comments

    • theBuckWheat

      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.

    • teapartydoc

      Get your kids out of public school NOW!

      • BMS

        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.

    • InklingBooks

      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

      • andycleary

        “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*.

    • Michael Cooney

      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.

      • trujoy13

        I agree completely! Without data it is just an opinion.

      • keetakat

        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.

        • Michael Cooney

          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.

          • keetakat

            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.

            • Michael Cooney

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

            • keetakat

              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.

            • Michael Cooney

              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!

            • keetakat

              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.

            • Michael Cooney

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

            • keetakat

              Aw. Sorry, kiddo. I can’t help you.

    • ashisbaby

      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.

    • Pamela Goodman

      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

      • andycleary

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

    • Megan

      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.

      • guest

        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.

      • Brianna Aubin

        You’re the only person I’ve ever heard say that stuff.

      • keetakat

        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.

    • Rachael_Jean

      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.

      • Tired_Teacher

        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.

        • boyd2

          ” 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.

        • Raymond Michael

          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.)

    • Rachmanioff

      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.

      • Momma IsLearning

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

      • Raymond Michael

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

      • andycleary

        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.

        • BMS

          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.

    • trujoy13

      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.

      • rita

        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.

        • trujoy13

          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.

          • Raymond Michael

            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?

            • trujoy13

              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.

            • Raymond Michael

              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.

            • trujoy13

              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.

            • andycleary

              “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.

            • Raymond Michael

              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.

            • LP

              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.

          • Roselind Berry

            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.

          • LP

            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.

      • andycleary

        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.

        • keetakat

          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.


        • abbyklein

          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.

          • andycleary

            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).

      • David O’Connor

        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.

      • LP

        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.