Antonio Buehler was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about alternatives to traditional education. We hope you enjoy this presentation.
Today, the Common Application goes live, and with it the college admissions season is once again here. And today, hundreds of thousands of rising high school seniors begin transitioning from the thrill of imagining themselves in a variety of university settings as they flip through college websites and view books to the anxiety of filling out applications and wondering if they will get into a college that is prestigious enough for their parents to place a sticker of that college on the back of the family car(s). While students who were able to opt out of traditional (public and private) schools so that they could go to a progressive alternative school, be homeschooled, or unschool themselves were able to avoid much of the stress associated with the ever-present college admissions arms race that has fully permeated the high school experience, they are often less sure of the next steps forward because they do not have a clear understanding of the application process or how they measure up against other college applicants. This essay serves as a brief primer for these applicants moving forward.
Ideally you (or your children) are not applying this year, and instead are planning to apply several years down the road. Those who begin earlier rather than later have significant advantages because they can be more thoughtful about building an interesting and relevant transcript, conduct meaningful research of their target schools, prepare for standardized tests, manage potential recommenders, and endlessly edit their essays until they near perfection. Additionally, those who understand that the college admissions process is a game can turn the game on its head by leading a remarkable life over the period of several years, as opposed to trying to package themselves in the 11th hour (see “It’s a Game” below). Some of this advice will be geared toward those who start earlier, but even those who wait until the summer before applications are due before they dive in can benefit from a better understanding of the admissions process and what they can bring to it.
It’s a Game
College admissions is not a meritocracy; it is a game. Sadly, it is a game that weighs heavily on applicants and parents, and it is often seen as a decision that can make or break one’s future prospects. Even more sad is that college admissions decisions have little to do with merit, and much to do with class and privilege. It is essential for applicants to recognize that the college admissions process is not fair, and that the decisions that colleges make in favor or against an applicant have absolutely no bearing on the academic or personal worth of that applicant. Easier said than done. But when an applicant recognizes that college admissions is a game, and they know the rules of the game (and how to hack it), they are more likely to be successful at the game. And an applicant that opts out of traditional schooling has a huge leg up in the admissions game.
Building a Transcript
Hopefully, most young people who are alternatively schooled, homeschooled, or unschooled know that a high school degree is largely worthless. No reputable college or university in the United States requires a high school degree. However, all colleges will want to see a transcript, and this is one area of several where non-traditionally schooled applicants have a sizeable advantage. The time and effort that typical high school students put into their transcripts usually ends with a verification that they are hitting all graduation requirements (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits) and a quick calculation to determine which honors and AP classes they should take to boost their GPA relative to their peers. But young people who are responsible for their educational pathways have the opportunity to walk admissions committees through a unique journey that was tailored to the applicant’s needs, goals, and interests. The best way to do this is to celebrate how the applicant spent their time engaged in deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences, without trying to conform it to a standard academic transcript (e.g., 4 math credits, 4 science credits, 4 ELA credits).
Additionally, letter grades or percentages are meaningless on a non-traditional transcript unless it shows anything less than a perfect GPA, which would hurt an applicant. Those who opt out of the traditional schooling system should never introduce the rank ordering aspects of grading that pull applicants down.
Another benefit of opting out of traditional schooling is that young people get to avoid the relentless testing that is required in the classroom and for the state (e.g., Texas STAAR, New York Regents). Testing serves as a means for lazy politicians, bureaucrats, administrators, and teachers to assess and sort students, at the expense of students. Hopefully, the first time any young person takes a test is if they opt into it for their own benefit, such as taking the PSAT or an AP test. However, one of the very few downsides to a non-traditional education is that many colleges will lean more heavily on standardized test scores during the admissions process. While the SAT or ACT most often serves as a disqualifier for top private colleges and universities (and as an automatic qualifier for many lower ranked private or state schools), non-traditional applicants may have a more difficult time overcoming a poor SAT or ACT score than a traditionally schooled applicant who has a perfect GPA and ranks at the top of their class might.
The good news for non-traditional applicants is they should have ample time to prepare for the tests without being burdened by the unnecessary time requirements associated with traditional schooling (e.g., compulsory attendance, mandatory classes, homework, studying, testing). And for those who do not perform well on standardized tests even with plenty of prep, there are now over 900 colleges and universities that do not rely on or require standardized tests in the application process.
It is worth noting that the most exclusive schools also require or “recommend” applicants submit SAT subject tests with their application. Non-traditional applicants should treat SAT subject tests as required if a school “recommends” them, and as recommended if a school “considers” them. Similar to the SAT and ACT, these tests can hurt an applicant’s prospects if they are low, but are unlikely to substantially help since so many applicants score in the high 700s or 800 on these tests.
Building a College List
Traditionally schooled applicants typically have an easier time than non-traditional applicants have of zeroing in on schools to apply to because (1) they are more likely to focus on college rankings as a guide for constructing their list, and (2) based on their class rank and GPA at their particular school, combined with their standardized test scores, they can lean on their guidance counselor or Naviance to help them identify the highest ranked schools where they have a chance of admission. Unfortunately, this approach results in a high volume of applications to a wide range of schools, lower quality applications, excessively high rates of anxiety, and very often a failure to identify best fit colleges.
Non-traditional applicants can more easily overcome the aforementioned challenges because they are more likely to ‘understand thyself’ thanks to years of self-directed learning (or less coercive schooling) and reflection, and are therefore are more likely to be drawn to colleges based on what opportunities and experiences the colleges can provide the applicant in accordance with their needs, as opposed to being drawn to colleges based on their rank. This process will still lead many of these non-traditional applicants to elite, private research universities such as Harvard and Stanford, but others may find that the flagship state school or even starting out at a local community college may be more advantageous for them, while many others may be drawn to liberal arts colleges that are less selective than the elite research universities but that arguably provide the best college education of all.
From a strategic perspective, fewer schools are better than many in the college admissions game. By focusing on only the most selective schools as opposed to the best fit schools, many applicants are driven to apply to upwards of two dozen colleges that may each have single or low double digit acceptance rates. In doing so, they undermine their chances by stretching themselves thin on supplemental essays, applying to schools that their applications will not resonate with, and failing to help recommenders (especially optional recommenders) tailor their letters to a target group of schools. Applying to a bunch of schools also costs a lot of money.
Many counselors and consultants recommend applying to 6-10 schools, but we would recommend applying to no more than five schools. We have advised applicants to only apply to schools they would be thrilled to attend because of what they could make of the experience, whether it is Harvard, Stanford, State Flagship University, or Directional State U. We highly recommend against applying to safety schools as something to fall into if best fit schools do not work out. We also recommend against applying to any schools that do not require supplemental essays beyond what is required in the Common Application or Coalition Application, unless the applicant feels that the school is a great fit for their needs. Schools that do not have additional essay prompts often benefit from having large numbers of lazier applicants apply because of the marginal effort required (an application fee), making it more difficult for a non-traditional applicant to drive home their unique story to the admissions committee. [The author of this essay applied to only three universities: West Point for college, Stanford and Harvard for business school, and Harvard for education school. The author has never been rejected and attributes much of that to being able to submit a near perfect application on the factors that he was able to control or have considerable influence over (e.g., essays, recommendations).]
Four-year Colleges vs. Community Colleges
Community colleges are a fabulous higher education alternative for both traditional and non-traditional applicants who are concerned about the cost of college, distance from home, or who may not be able to gain immediate access to more selective universities. Unfortunately, many people (especially in more affluent communities [and charter school networks]) seem to look down on them as an option because they do not carry with them an air of exclusivity. However, while many applicants and parents may find themselves on the outside looking in after the college admissions season, for many top state universities, community college is an excellent end-around into school, with many offering automatic admission based on GPA. Community colleges have particular leverage among many elite public universities such as Berkeley and UCLA where upwards of 20 percent of the undergraduates come from community colleges. Although the percentage of community college transfers at the University of Texas at Austin is lower than it is at the California schools, over 40 percent of transfer students into UT-Austin come from community colleges.
When to Apply
Sooner is always better than later in the admissions game. While some recommend holding off until Regular Decision (historically January 1st or 15th) so that applicants can build up their bonafides, it is extremely rare that someone is going to be able to add anything to their application in a couple of extra months that will seriously move the admissions committee. The cost of delaying until Regular Decision is missing out on the opportunity to apply Early Decision, Early Action, or Restricted Early Action. And the chances of admission at most schools are substantially higher for those who apply early rather than later. Many counselors and consultants also advise applicants with financial need to apply Regular Decision because they believe that applying early locks them into a school with no opportunity to compare financial aid offers. This is also a misplaced argument. First, those with the most financial need are most likely to benefit from the free room, board, and tuition that is offered by the most selective colleges with the most generous financial aid (e.g., Harvard, Princeton, Stanford). Second, all schools allow their applicants an out of a binding admission if they can demonstrate that they cannot afford to attend. Third, many schools are need blind during early admissions, but become need aware later in the admissions process, meaning those with need are even more disadvantaged by waiting to apply.
It is also worth noting that many applicants can have multiple bites of the early admissions apple. Early Decision (ED) limits applicants to applying to only one school and they must enroll if accepted (or forego college altogether unless they can be released from their commitment due to financial or other exigent circumstances). Some of the more exclusive universities that have ED include Brown, Columbia, Dartmouth, and University of Pennsylvania, as well as some of the most exclusive liberal arts colleges such as Amherst and Williams. However, some schools also have an Early Decision Round 2, which allows people who fail to earn admission to their first-choice ED school to apply to another ED school. Although this is no longer an “early” admission, it is binding. More exclusive schools with an ED round 2 include NYU, Pomona, Swarthmore, Tufts, Vanderbilt, and Wellesley. Instead of Early Decision, applicants can choose to apply Early Action (EA) which does not bind them to the school should they gain admission. This allows them to apply with an increased likelihood of admission (although not as much of an advantage as ED) without taking away other potential college options. Some of the more selective schools with an EA round include CalTech, Chicago, Georgetown, and Notre Dame. Finally, a small number of schools offer Restrictive Early Action (REA) where applicants can apply early and get a non-binding response but can only apply to one school early. This means that they can apply to either a bunch of EA schools, or one REA school, but not a mixture of the two. The four most selective universities in the country happen to offer REA: Stanford, Harvard, Yale, and Princeton.
Crafting a Story
Another tremendous advantage of applying as a non-traditional applicant is that it is remarkably easy to come across as interesting, accomplished, and intellectually curious to the admissions committee. Most schooled students simply do not have time to be interesting, accomplished, or intellectually curious. They are stuck in required classes in school for 5 to 7 hours per day for 180 days per year for 13 years of their lives, in addition to the all of hours they spend on expected extracurricular activities and sports, required service hours, and the many more hours of homework and studying needed to finish at the top of their class. There is a reason why most high achievers are perpetually exhausted—there is not sufficient time to sleep. Especially for those who come from feeder high schools and the schools that wish they were feeder schools.
On the other hand, non-traditionally schooled applicants are able to lead remarkable, interesting lives. It is not a given that they will, especially for those who attend schools where they have little to no say over how they spend their time, or for homeschoolers who are forced to work though boxed or online curriculum. But when young people have the freedom and time to take learning down pathways that meet their needs, they get to engage in the type of deep, meaningful, and enduring learning experiences that turn them from just another applicant with good numbers into someone who captures the attention of the admissions committee as well as future classmates. When those experiences are coupled with a level of intellectual vitality that rarely survives the k-12 schooling process (because of the coercive nature of schooling), colleges are eager to offer admission and bring these applicants onto campus.
It is not sufficient to have a great story, however. An applicant must also be able to tell a great story, and that is where the college essays and recommendations come in. Telling that story in a way that moves an admissions committee that reads tens of thousands of applications is challenging. It is why a select number of college admissions consultants charge over $20,000 to their clients. But non-traditionally schooled applicants typically have ample essay fodder to work with, and they typically have a sense of purpose or a mission in life that allows them to string that essay fodder into a powerful and compelling personal story.
Almost as stressful as the application process is the decision process once the offers roll in (if an applicant is not bound by an Early Decision offer of admission). Non-traditional applicants have a tremendous advantage over their traditionally schooled peers in picking a college and in taking advantage of the resources available to them at the next level. This is because traditional school applicants have been fighting to get to the top of their high school class, because ranking ahead of peers is deemed necessary to success, and now they are moving on to 13th grade with a vision of climbing to the top of their college class. To too many traditionally schooled students education is about satisfying teachers and competing against peers, as opposed to learning. The non-traditionally schooled person has more likely seen education as a collection of experiences that have allowed them to understand themselves and to grow as intellectuals and humanitarians. Education to them is an opportunity, not a competition, and because of that perceived opportunity they are more likely to choose the college that is the best fit for them, as opposed to obsessing over college rankings. They are also more likely to take advantage of the many opportunities at college that they can use to continue to grow, as opposed to being worried about going down the same path as all of their pre-med and Goldman Sachs bound peers.
Good luck to all the non-traditionally schooled young people out there who are heading into the college admissions season. You have tremendous advantages in the admissions game, but more importantly, you will have tremendous opportunities to make the most of your college experience.
“Far more significant than where you go to school, however, is why and how.”
~ William Deresiewicz
1. Grading also undermines the learning process. Any school that grades their students, fails their students. There is never a reason for an alternative school to engage in this destructive practice.
2. For example, the University of Virginia is one of the most prestigious public schools, often considered a “public ivy,” and offers Virginia community college graduates who meet very reasonable standards a guaranteed admission into UVA, https://admission.virginia.edu/vccsguide
3. Conversation with UT-Austin admissions office, August 1, 2017
People often ask me what makes Abrome different than other schools. This allows me to turn virtually every conversation with someone I meet into a discussion of the merits of self-directed learning and Learner autonomy. Most people are unprepared to hear what I have to say because it is too far removed from a worldview shaped by society and 13 years in traditional schools. They instinctively reject Emancipated Learning because they were repeatedly told they needed to stay in school, buckle down, study, and go to college in order to get a good job. The notion that we live in a meritocratic society where schools are the great equalizer has become a cultural meme that has seeped its way into education, politics, philanthropy, and the home. I go into these conversations with an understanding that not everyone will agree with me; I am planting seeds for the future.
Participation trophies, not autonomy
Recently, a retired gentleman in Georgia asked me what I did for a living, and I told him that I run an “alternative school” in Austin. He probed. I explained that Abrome is a self-directed learning space that supports young people so they can take control of their educational experiences, and thereby take control of their lives. He immediately rejected the concept. First, he questioned how someone could learn chemistry if not required to, and then he moved on to asking how one could ever be an employee if they were not trained to follow orders. Finally, he came out and said it: “Doesn’t this self-directed learning create an ‘it’s all about me’ problem?”
He unoriginally posited that the problem with millennials and, by extension, current day school children, is that they all got ‘participation trophies’ growing up, and therefore thought far more highly of themselves, their capabilities, and their perceived value than they should. He continued by arguing that this exaggerated belief in their self-worth (or economic worth) resulted in young people who focused more on themselves than the organizations they worked for. He called them entitled. And allowing them to have control over their educational experiences would only amplify that entitlement.
It is not narcissism, it is necessity
It is common for older generations to dismiss younger generations by pointing out their narcissistic tendencies. Many of the generations that are so disappointed by today’s youth were often viewed as selfish loafers and slackers when they were young. While it is true that millennials and school-aged children are more narcissistic than gray-haired people, that is a function of youth, not of generational change. Across generations, younger narcissists tend to mature into older people who are less full of themselves.
While labeling younger people as narcissists is unfair, if any generation deserves to be more focused on themselves, it is the youngest generation. Economically, they are facing a far more dynamic, disruptive, and uncertain future than their predecessors. Futurist Thomas Frey predicts that 2 billion jobs will cease to exist by 2030, while Ray Kurzweil argues that computers will achieve human levels of intelligence by 2029 and technological singularity will happen by 2045. When that happens, the needs of the economy will demand competencies and skills that cannot be filled by the modern day worker. In fact, this process has already started. As of 2013, 18 of 30 major world economies are already experiencing talent shortages, and half of recent American college grads are unemployed or underemployed. It is less a question of which industries are going to be disrupted or replaced, and more of a question of when each industry will be disrupted or replaced, and who will survive.
Further, the institutions and systems that we and our forebears have created and perpetuated are actively undermining younger generations from being able to prepare themselves for this uncertain future, much less lead remarkable lives. Despite the impressive social and technological progress that has occurred over the past few generations, we are leaving the younger generations with tremendous liabilities that may come due on their watch, ecological environments on the brink of collapse, and a cost of living that is difficult to meet given personal needs and societal expectations (e.g., healthcare, housing, college tuition). However, of all the institutions and systems that disadvantage the younger generations, perhaps the one that undermines them the most is the schooling system.
Education should be all about me!
Education should be a liberating experience that allows people to lead remarkable lives so they can positively impact society and improve the human condition. However, schooling does the opposite. Schooling currently trains young people to bow to authority and to know their place in the hierarchy of society, as the gentleman from Georgia believed it should. It tells young people to wait their turn, and to jump through the hoops that have been established or protected by the incumbents in the hopes that these youngsters will eventually get their shot at lording over future generations. And while this approach was morally unjustifiable in the past, it is now also practically unviable for the future. The status quo will be displaced.
To continue to push young people into a coercive, standardized, and still industrialized schooling system is to prepare them to fail. Young people are going to have to become lifelong learners to be able to continually adapt and evolve in a world where institutions have no loyalty to their workers. Schooling undermines the love of learning. The longer that children are subjected to the practices and structures of schooling, the more likely they are to avoid voluntary learning experiences. Creativity, innovation, and entrepreneurial competency are going to be vital to success moving forward, yet schools continue to shape a risk averse mindset in students through a demand for perfection on narrow and often meaningless academic tasks, an intolerance for experimentation, and a constant push toward college degrees as validation of competence and intelligence.
For these reasons, education must be all about the young person. It is time to move beyond the argument that the purpose of education should be to benefit the nation or the economy. Education needs to stop being about the adults. It needs to focus on the children: their wellbeing and their future. To do anything less is to fail them. When today’s young people are rightfully given control of their education, their chances of leading remarkable lives increase dramatically. And that benefits society.
6. There is ample research that highlights that people lose interest in learning something after they are praised, tested, or assessed in some way, even in activities they previously enjoyed. After years of assessments across various domains, it is unsurprising that many adults still experience school-associated anxiety, and that voracious reading is an anomaly amongst those who attended traditional school.
Do you remember what you learned in school? Was it useful in your life? Did it help you understand who you are and where you fit in this world? For me the answer to all of those questions is a resounding no. Sometimes I whip out my protractor and draw a perfect angle … just kidding. Now, I’m not saying the ability to use a protractor is useless for everyone. Surveyors, drafters, engineers, architects protractor on. However, I am saying that the overwhelming majority of children’s primary and secondary experiences are focused on developing a shallow base of knowledge that society deems meaningful. A wonderfully hilarious example of this is the article “If You Only Knew The Amazing Things Your Child Does In School All Day” written by Merete Kropp. At least I thought the article was going to be hilarious until I realized it was not satire. The opening paragraph begins:
“As she prepares to enter the school building every morning, she knows exactly where to line up and what she needs to carry with her. Perhaps she even knows her precise position in line: in front of number 16 and behind number 14. She stops playing, turns off her voice and is swallowed up behind the doors before you turn away …”
Is this your definition of amazing? Amazing means exchanging your name for a number, turning off your voice and becoming a robot? Interesting. I thought amazing would be finding her voice. I thought amazing would be figuring out how she can contribute to her society.
“She makes choices on how to spend her free time both in the classroom and outside during the limited free time the class may have or earn through positive behavioral choices.”
Does this make anyone else want to vomit? In school, free time is not a right. One has to earn it by way of “positive behavioral choices,” meaning sit down, shut up and listen. In school, children are not free. Their every move is scheduled, watched, and judged. But America is the land of the free! They say, “Oh but it’s for the best. Think about their future!” My response: I am.
When did learning become rote memorization of facts? When did it become more about controlling children than learning? In school, every minute of the day is planned: what they learn, how they learn, what time they learn, when they eat, when they play, when they go to the bathroom. Students have no time to think for themselves, they are too busy memorizing mindless drills and procedures. They are too busy being obedient. Schools are producing robots that follow orders, not critical, independent thinkers with a developed sense of self. Schools are teaching young people that they are incompetent (e.g., “we know what is best, sit down sweetie”). Schools are teaching young people not to question, to act only for rewards or to avoid punishment, to be cookie cutter. Schools are teaching young people that life is a series of judgments. How boring. How will these young people be able to make decisions for themselves if they are being trained to be dependent?
At Abrome, we recognize that our young people are capable of controlling their own lives. We are here to create a psychologically safe space where they can take control of their learning, and their lives. That requires us to get out of their way.
Bullying is not the only problem with schooling, but it is one that literally brings violence into children’s lives, and in worst case scenarios it ends lives. In this essay series we laid out five actionable steps that schools need to take to end school bullying. First, schools must incorporate age-mixing as a means to reduce hierarchy and competition, and increase empathy. Age-mixing in three or four year batches is helpful but not sufficient. For maximum benefit, schools should consider age-mixing from Kindergarten through 12th grade, and perhaps even more broadly than that. Second, schools must eliminate competition, starting with grades. Grades do not aid in the learning process, but they can shut it down, and they almost always create an unhealthy rank ordering of students. This ordering ultimately leads to various forms of bullying. Third, schools must give students full agency over their learning. Allowing students to pick from some electives or to determine the sequence in which they learn something is not sufficient. The adults must be willing to step aside so that students feel as though they are in control of their lives, which lessens the likelihood that they will try to control the lives of others. Fourth, schools must respect their students. This requires that schools commit to the principles of anti-oppression, trust students to take full control over their learning, and avoid manipulating student behavior through punishments and rewards. And fifth, schools must promote empathy in their communities. They can promote empathy by embracing diversity, modeling empathetic behavior, and tearing down hierarchy within the schooling community.
In this series we have pointed out how these five steps promote superior learning and academic achievement, as well. That schools continue to reject the five steps to end bullying, when those steps would also improve the quality of education, raises some serious questions about the motives of the various stakeholders in the traditional schooling industry, both public and private. What could possibly be so important to traditional school administrators, school boards, politicians, accreditation agencies, and content providers that they would refuse to advocate for and take the steps necessary to build intellectually vibrant environments free of bullying? Part of the answer can be found in the realization that the bullying in schools does not come only from other students, it comes from the adults, as well. Such bullying can range from a vice principal berating a student for violating a rule to a teacher embarrassing a student for not knowing the answer to a question, and in some of the more backward schools in America, to corporal punishment or the threat of criminal charges against students.
So what is a parent to do when their children are trapped in schools where the adults bully the students and where peer bullying is promoted directly or indirectly through the practices and structures of schooling? Politicians, bureaucrats, and school administrators can talk about school reforms that will help reduce bullying over time, but parents do not have the luxury of waiting for years when their children are being subjected to environments of bullying in the here and now. Fortunately, parents can do for their children overnight in one simple step what tens of thousands of schools refuse to do by way of the steps we laid out. Parents can change the context.
If the waiters at your favorite restaurant made fun of the way you ate your food every time you went there for dinner, you would stop going to that restaurant. If you found out your trainer was telling everyone at the local gym what your weight is and how you are too lazy to get it down, you would stop using that trainer. If your neighbor’s dog attacked you every time you went over to their house, you would stop going to their house. We know that if something is hurting us that we should remove it from our lives. We change the context. Yet when our children are being bullied at school, the idea of removing our children from school is unfortunately considered by too many to be an unnecessary overreaction that does more harm than good. Instead, society tells us to teach children how to cope with the bullying, to work with the school staff to find ways to limit the incidence of bullying, and to lobby the school board to address the problem of school bullying.
Life is far too short and far too precious to leave children to suffer in schools, especially when we know that pulling them out of school will eliminate real harm from their lives. Change the context. Identify a local alternative school that has incorporated the five steps we have laid out. Change the context. If you don’t live near such a school, move. Change the context. If you cannot afford to attend an alternative school, downsize your life so that you can, or homeschool or unschool. Change the context. In doing so you will allow your children to recognize their personal worth, to feel in control their own lives, and to lead healthier and happier lives. As a bonus, your relationship with your children will improve considerably. They will recognize that you are on their side, proactively working to help them enjoy life. Change the context.
(6) Unfortunately, the media and education schools largely restrict their focus on bullying to that committed by students, not by educators. However, the bullying that comes from adults, the ones young people are told to trust, can be far more pernicious. This has parallels to how the media and education schools often focus on students and their families to explain away academic shortcomings, instead of turning the focus on the adults who run the system. Here is a report from Australia that provides examples of how adults often bully children in schools: https://aifs.gov.au/cfca/publications/emotional-abuse-hidden-form-maltreatment#sch.
(7) We are not suggesting that standing up to bullies or trying to influence change in systems is not a worthwhile endeavor. In fact, the course we are suggesting in this essay will force schools to address bullying.
At Abrome, we are currently trying to build an educational alternative that will eradicate the traditional model of schooling. Our blog posts generally revolve around what we do at Abrome and how various educational theories, psychological research, and economic and sociological realities relate to what we are trying to do. However, on Monday I took a break and went to see the movie Middle School: The Worst Years of My Life (PG), and I just had to write about it and encourage parents to go see the movie with their children.
The movie revolves around a young man named Rafe who has a wild imagination that flows through the drawings he keeps in a special notebook. He also has not had the best experiences at school, seemingly due to behavioral issues, and is on his third school since his younger brother died from leukemia. He understands that this is his last shot at public school, and the threat of being sent away to a military school looms on the horizon if he does not make it work at Hills Village Middle School (HVMS).
His first day of school does not get off to a great start. After staying up all night drawing cartoons in his notebook, he is stopped by Principal Dwight as he is approaching the front doors of the school. Principal Dwight informs Rafe that the clothes he is wearing violates one of many school rules. While Principal Dwight is droning on, telling Rafe to get to know all of the rules in his rule book, Rafe’s friend Leo shows up behind the principal and mocks his every gesture. Rafe is thrilled to see Leo, who also says that he was pushed out of his old school.
In class, the first thing Rafe experiences is laughter from his classmates when they find out what his last name is, and then a student tells him, “welcome to hell.” Bullying is baked into the environment at HVMS through the common structures of schooling which include age-based segregation, competitive testing and grades, and the oppression of restrictive rules and abusive adults (e.g., Principal Dwight). The social conditions within the school and society also contribute to a bullying culture. While giving a pitch for his student council campaign at a school assembly, a male student encouraged people to vote for him because, “my dad is super rich and my mom is smoking hot.”
While bullying contributes to the misery of schooling, so does standardized testing. At the aforementioned assembly, Principal Dwight attempts to rally the students to focus on the upcoming B.L.A.A.R. (Baseline Assessment of Academic Readiness) test. Unfortunately for Rafe, a fellow student grabs his notebook while he is drawing up a sketch that mocked Principal Dwight’s focus on the B.L.A.A.R., and this brings the assembly to a tense halt. In retaliation, Principal Dwight destroys Rafe’s notebook.
Distraught, Rafe holes himself up in his room at home. Fortunately, Leo comes to the emotional rescue and encourages Rafe to find revenge by engaging on a campaign to undermine Principal Dwight’s oppressive rule. Leo convinces Rafe to figuratively destroy Principal Dwight’s rule book. With eight weeks left until the B.L.A.A.R., Rafe and Leo begin to plan and execute elaborate pranks that systematically violate each of Principal Dwight’s beloved rules.
As Rafe and Leo violate prank after prank, with the outcome always seen by an amused audience of students, many older viewers will be brought back to their middle school years, wishing that they could have done something about the needless limits they had on their freedoms, while younger viewers may find themselves imagining themselves taking on the man in their schools in their own ways.
Just beyond the pranks, the B.L.A.A.R. is a constant, brewing threat. Not just for the students in terms of a stressful waste of time, but more so for Principal Dwight and Vice Principal Stricker, who are judged based on the scores of their students. Rafe recognizes how pointless the B.L.A.A.R. is, and comments at one point, “I’m learning more by breaking the rules than by preparing for some dumb test.” Principal Dwight, on the other hand, is willing to expel students in an effort to boost the test scores for the school, much like many public schools have been documented pushing out poor performing students or those with disciplinary issues.
In the course of breaking all the rules at school, Rafe falls for a social justice oriented classmate named Jeanne, while trying to navigate around a bully named Miller. And at home, Rafe and his little sister Georgia have a complicated relationship, likely complicated by the passing of their brother, while they both suffer through socially painful interactions with their mom’s obnoxious boyfriend, Carl. The acting is not as moving as the story, although I doubt many people can get through it without shedding some tears, particularly during a moving plot twist toward the end of the movie.
All in all, the movie does a fine job of highlighting some of the problems inherent in schooling. Rafe’s homeroom teacher asks at one point, “what is this obsession with testing and categorizing kids?,” which hopefully plants a seed in the mind of every student and parent who sees the movie. Unfortunately, the movie does not take this question to its logical conclusion given the reality that all traditional schools will continue to test and categorize young people for the foreseeable future. Fortunately, for those who are willing to pursue an answer, there are many alternatives to school, including progressive alternative schools, homeschooling, and unschooling.
I encourage people to go see this movie, preferably as a family, and then discuss the themes that were raised during the movie.
“A society free of compulsory or coercive schooling, where young people are celebrated for their contributions to society, and where they all have the confidence to believe that they can improve the human condition.” 
Abrome was not envisioned because we believed that schooling could be administered more effectively; Abrome was envisioned because we know our civilization can be better. We live in an unjust, hierarchical, authoritarian society where human rights are violated and human capital is destroyed on a mass scale. Despite the tremendous progress that we have made economically and technologically over the past century, we have not made similar strides when it comes to expanding the freedoms and dignity of all people. 
Of all the levers that we could pull to radically improve the human condition, none comes close to the abolition of compulsory, coercive, traditional schooling. Schooling is not the only problem in society, but it is one of the most significant ones, and it perpetuates or amplifies virtually all of the other problems in society.
Schooling injects injustice into children’s lives at an early age. It strips children of their freedom and free will, and replaces it with strict rules on conduct, manner, thinking, and beliefs. In schools, children are voiceless. Sure, they may be allowed to talk, if they raise their hands, or at recess, if recess still exists, but their words carry no weight. Adults dictate to them anything adults think is of consequence.
Schooling introduces hierarchy in ways the family or church cannot. For most children, school is the first place they learn that there is a steep hierarchy in society, and that the assumed place for children is at the bottom. With the passing of time, so long as they obediently stay in their place, they can hope to slowly move up, one step at a time, one year at a time.
Schooling stamps authoritarianism onto the soul of children. It becomes obvious on its face that the teacher has complete control over the children in the classroom. And that the principal has complete control over the children in the school. There is no consensus, or shared responsibility. What the person in charge says is true; it is law. Those who question, resist, or rebel are punished quickly.
Schools prepare young people to become compliant members of the status quo. They are not educated; they are indoctrinated. They are not celebrated; they are simply measured. They are not trusted; they are managed. They learn to keep their mouths shut when they see injustice, and they are encouraged to go along to get along. If they are particularly compliant, and they figure out how to ingratiate themselves with their masters, they can even hope to rise to the top so that they can be the ones controlling others, whether it be as a teacher, a police officer, a corporate executive, or a politician.
By encouraging compliance, and allowing young people to think that they can only make a difference by moving along the approved and preordained paths prescribed to them, schools perpetuate and amplify the injustices already present in our society. It gives power to those already in power, and makes powerless those who come to believe there are no other ways to improve their world.
Through Abrome we aspire to radically alter the way society operates. We will free young people so that they can lead remarkable lives, fully confident in themselves and their ability to change the world for the better, with a support network that will encourage them along the way, as opposed to pulling them down. And just as importantly, we will validate this as a superior alternative to the status quo. Instead of placing children into destructive schools, it will become apparent that allowing them to be free actually increases the health, happiness, and future outcomes of young people. We will prove that we do not have to sacrifice the youth of children, nor do we have to make tradeoffs between health, happiness, and achievement, for the sake of their future.
Over the coming weeks we will highlight how the Abrome model is working to invalidate the traditional model of schooling so that parents will pull their children out of these schools, and instead allow their children to attend truly alternative schools, or to homeschool or unschool. We will write about how we eliminate the harmful structures and practices of schooling, and we will also share how Abrome provides Learners with the space and tools necessary to improve the human condition.
2. Although the rate of economic growth and technological innovation over the past century is unparalleled in human history, we have only scratched the surface of human potential. If humans were respected, freed from oppression, and empowered to participate in all aspects of economy, we would be significantly more advanced, prosperous, and egalitarian. Purely on economic terms, Libertarian L. Neil Smith claims that we would be eight times more wealthy if we were free. http://lneilsmith.org/utopian.html He is not alone in postulating how much wealthier we would be if free, as many others have made similar arguments. His estimate, however, is short by orders of magnitude.