Antonio Buehler was invited to the Laura Bush Community Library to speak about alternatives to traditional education. We hope you enjoy this presentation.
If you have been reading our monthly newsletters you know that we lead a monthly book group discussion focused on education. I am a member of another book group, and this month that group reviewed The Noise of Time by Julian Barnes. It was an enjoyable read that became more interesting and much more insightful toward the end of the book. A historical fiction novel based on Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich's life, the book has received praise for begging one to consider who art belongs to. However, the book also challenges one to consider the value of an individual's life, the tradeoffs between cowardice and courage, and the external factors that shape those questions. As one reader pointed out, and I agree with, place and time were critical considerations in evaluating these themes, particularly against the backdrop of a totalitarian regime.
Shostakovich (the character in the novel as opposed to the real-life composer) was tortured by the choices he made in life. Having to constantly appeal to and bow down before power, he was prohibited from expressing himself as an artist (or as a human being), but his self-admitted cowardice and self-interested maneuvering ultimately allowed him to become a powerful member of the apparatus that almost purged him, providing him relative security but leaving him a shell of the person he could have been. Had he been true to his art, and himself, he would have been killed. That did not matter though, as he became dead in the soul long before his life expired.
Place and Time
It was hard for me to consider these issues without applying them to the situations we face in today's world. We are fortunate not to experience the type of tyranny that Shostakovich lived under, yet I would argue that many people end up in the same situation that he ended up—broken; having felt that his life was a disappointment and without meaning. Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so many fail to seize the opportunities that come with historically liberal personal freedoms as well as being a part of the largest economy in the world? Why is it that in spite of the relative freedoms that we have that so few leverage that freedom to find meaning within their lives?
The place and time we are born into are out of our control. One of my personal frustrations with the human race is that it often ascribes so much value, or so little value, based on the place from where someone comes. Two people born five miles apart on separate sides of the Rio Grande or the DMZ are sentenced to very different rights and life experiences through no fault of their own. Based on place, people are led to believe that others are enemies, or that others are coming to take something that is theirs by virtue of where they were born.
The time at which someone is born also impacts the course of one’s life. Most vividly, being black in 2018 is very different than being black would have been in 1963 or 1836. The disparities in rights and privileges conferred upon white men versus women, Jewish, Hispanic, Japanese, non-heterosexual, or members of other historically marginalized or oppressed groups have fluctuated over time, with the present day being better than times past for most non-dominant groups. Aside from basic human and civil rights, time can dictate if a generation gets sent off to war, graduates into a recession, or is able to participate in a transformative shift in the economy. 
Time and Place
While place and time are largely out of our control, I consider time and place to be more easily brought under our control, at least within the context of the place and time we are subjected to (e.g., the United States in 2018). When I speak of time and place I speak of how we choose to spend our time to include our voluntary participation in organizations. Shostakovich could have made time and place decisions that would have prevented him from being untrue to his art, and that would have defied the communist party. Although that would have led to a premature death. Bill Gates could have made time and place decisions that would have allowed him to graduate from Harvard and take a job with IBM, perhaps allowing him to someday rise to a senior executive position that would have also left him anonymous and scores of billions of dollars less wealthy. As you can see, time and place decisions cannot easily displace the place and time we are born into, but they can substantially alter the course of our lives.
Place and time includes into which family one is born. The resources of the family one is born into has a bigger impact on long-term academic and economic outcomes than the grades one gets in school. And for most people, time and place decisions are mostly out of their control until their late teens or early twenties. Time and place decisions for young people are made primarily by their parents or the state. Perhaps the most significant of the time and place decisions made for young people is where they will be educated for over 15,000 hours of their youth (not including time spent on commuting, homework, studying, and extracurricular activities). It is this decision that is often so tragic, as it can have such an outsized impact on the quality and direction of one’s life both present and future.
Time and place decisions for children become time and place restrictions. Those restrictions then define to a large degree what a young person’s relationship with their education becomes, as well as the degree to which they feel that they have control over their lives. When a young person is told that they are to attend a traditional school for seven hours a day, 180 days a year, for 13 years of their life, they are told that they are unable to pursue their own learning interests. They are told that their life is to be put on hold because someone else decided that school was a better use of their time. Which would not necessarily be a bad thing (from a utilitarian perspective) if schooling helped children more than it hurts them. Unfortunately, not only does schooling take them away from their interests, it also takes them away from their community, it undermines an inborne love of learning, it misleads them into believing that what is learned at school is more important than what is learned outside of school, it conditions them to focus more on test scores than learning, and it conditions them to appeal to authority.
Traditional schooling is not the cause of unfulfilled lives short on meaning, but it often a primary contributing factor. When one is told that their worth is tied to grades within a standardized system that everyone else is subjected to, and thereby their worth is tied to a comparison to peers along a very narrow set of measures, they are unlikely to recognize how their unique interests, skills, and life experiences can allow them to lead a remarkable life irrespective of the game everyone else is playing. When one is told that they must conform to an institution that treats them as ignorant and withholds basic rights from them, for their own good, of course, they become much less likely to challenge unjust institutions in the future. It is not hard to imagine that the person who suffers under a dictatorial boss, or a society that suffers under a tyrannical regime, is much less likely to opt out if they were forced to accept their place in school when they were young.
Choices that matter
It is unfortunate that we are born into a place and time that dictates to such a large degree the circumstances and quality of our lives. It is fortunate that for those of us in the United States that this place and time is a lot more forgiving than a lot of other places and times, although not by any means perfect. It is unfortunate that time and place decisions that hold a disproportionate influence over our adult lives are made for us when we are young. It is fortunate that for those of us who are parents that we have the opportunity to make time and place decisions about education that leave young people in control of their lives, that honor their individuality, and that preserve their inborne love of learning. In decades past, the notion of trusting young people to engage in self-directed learning through a space like Abrome, or through unschooling was illegal or seen as irresponsible. Fortunately, although it is still not the social norm, self-directed learning is understood by a growing segment of the population to be more humane and lead to better outcomes than traditional schooling.
1. Through his bestselling book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell popularized the understanding that timing is important when considering the successes of the wealthiest business people of all time. He focused on the opportunities available in the post-Civil War industrial age, and in the personal computer and internet age starting in the mid-1970s. He drove this point home by highlighting that Bill Gates, Paul Allen, Steve Ballmer, Steve Jobs, Eric Schmidt, Bill Joy, Scott McNealy, Vinod Khosla, and Andy Bechtolsheim were all born in a three year span of one another.
2. Some examples: Parental Income Has Outsized Influence on Children’s Economic Future, Poor kids who do everything right don’t do better than rich kids who do everything wrong, A college degree is worth less if you are raised poor
3. The ranking of human beings in school, at work, and by economic measures not only guides people’s conception of their self-worth, but also the worth of others. This can lead to an elevation of people who may have done nothing more than to be born into privilege, and it can lead to a lack of empathy for those who are classified as less than according to narrow measures.
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
The 2016 presidential election campaign reminded many Americans that while our society likes to boast about its commitment to equality, justice, liberty, and tolerance, that an often stronger undercurrent of bias, bigotry, oppression, and hate courses through the veins of American culture. Prior to the election of Donald Trump, and coming off two terms of America’s first black president, both the political left and right were generally dismissive of what appeared to be a rising tide of hostility toward immigrants, black and brown communities, Jews, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and women. However, since the election, the hostilities against marginalized and oppressed groups have continued to rise, while fascist and white supremacist organizing has moved out from the shadows and into the streets. Although the fabric of society may have changed very little over the past year, the aesthetics have changed significantly.
As organic and organized protests began to grow after election day, and leading up to the inauguration, it became apparent that many previously inactive people were looking for ways to become engaged. While more established political and non-profit entities were eager to pull those people into their organizations, a small group of Austin activists came together as the Oh Shit! What Now? (OSWN) Collective to find ways to introduce those people into more radical activist circles that focus on direct action tactics. OSWN has since helped organize and plan study groups, discussions, trainings, and workshops aimed at building a diverse community of resisters, and equipping folks with radical skills that they can share with others to push back against hierarchical and oppressive forces within society.
The younger generations have historically been one of, if not the primary driver of radical social change, while their caregivers or guardians, as well as those who contribute to the development of the younger generations (e.g., teachers), help shape whether the youth believe that they can drive social change. Therefore, OSWN came together with Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp to launch Raising Resisters, a discussion group that focuses on anti-oppressive parenting and education tactics.
Parenting, education, and activism have a long history of interrelatedness. Radical leftists and anarchists have often understood that oppression is more easily dismantled within the family than within societal institutions, and that young people could be spared being conditioned by mainstream schooling into accepting authoritarianism, capitalism, nationalism, and other hierarchical belief systems. For example, in the 19th Century, Henry David Thoreau, Louisa May Alcott, Leo Tolstoy, and Francisco Ferrer Guardia all led alternative schools that were the precursors of radical free schools and democratic schools wherein children had full control over their educational experiences. In the 20th Century, in conjunction with the rise of the free schools, writers such as Paul Goodman, George Dennison, and John Holt helped introduce the notions of deschooling and unschooling as a means of resistance into a wider counterculture that was already questioning American foreign policy, racial segregation, and assumptions about social norms. Holt, being the most influential of these people, even forewarned of today’s rise of fascism and the inability of system reforms to effectively stave off that rise.
OSWN, Abrome, the Crustacean Zine Library, and Austin Yawp invite parents and educators to join us at our monthly Raising Resisters discussion group meetings to continue the tradition of marrying parenting, education, and activism so that we can build community to resist, and create something better.
Upcoming dates (meetings at 6:30pm at Austin Yawp, 4548 Page St., Austin, TX 78723):
· Thursday, Jul 20th
· Thursday, Aug 24th
· Thursday, Sep 21st
· Thursday, Oct 19th
· Thursday, Nov 16th
· Thursday Dec 14th
Originally posted on the Alt Ed Austin blog.
Parents should not enroll their children in traditional schools when their children become school-aged, especially public schools, even if they are advocates of public schooling. The reason being is that they do not know what the future holds for their children, and it is easier to go from a self-directed learning environment (e.g., emancipated learning, unschooling) to a schooling environment than vice versa. For example, if one enrolls their child in school and that child later decides to homeschool, the family opens itself up to the very real risk of malicious truancy claims by school officials. Homeschoolers, however, will not be calling the police if your teenage child leaves the local homeschool co-op to enroll in a public high school. The more likely risk parents invite when they enroll their children in traditional schools is that their children’s inborn love of learning will be replaced with a passive resignation that learning is only relevant and worthwhile when it is being measured by people in positions of power.
We live in a society that emphasizes conformity over curiosity, tradition over progress, and authority over liberation. Schools are both a reflection of society and a force that perpetuates the worst of it. Our society and our schools are most forgiving to those who have the most, and most punitive against those who have the least. And while affluent and white students are usually given the benefit of the doubt in terms of grading and discipline relative to low SES students and students of color, all students are reminded every day that they are viewed as incompetent and ignorant, and needing constant direction from adults. Schools do not allow young people to believe that they are able to chart their own course in life. After all, there is a curriculum that the students must conform to. There is only one approved path that students can take, and it is the same path that their peers are expected to take.
The rigid and unforgiving practices and structures of schooling leave students incapable of experiencing true autonomy or intellectual vitality. The learning that matters most is the learning that is mandated for everyone, without concern for the unique needs, goals, interests, and contexts of individual students. The best students are those who subjugate their curiosity to meet the needs of adults who believe that a student’s value is determined by where they rank relative to same-age peers. The worst students are those who get distracted and wander down paths of personal inquiry, or those who engage in acts of resistance in the hope of holding onto a piece of themselves. And the majority of students who make up the center of the bell curve are those who do what is necessary to keep moving along through the conveyor belt of schooling from one grade to another. Most students quickly resign themselves to the reality that their education is not their own. And that leaves most of them helpless when presented with the opportunity to make meaningful decisions about their education. It is this learned helplessness that gave rise to the practice of deschooling as a transition from school to self-directed learning.
Deschooling is the “process of decompression from the effects of school.” It is an adjustment period where parents step back and allow children to be free of all formal schooling activities such as required attendance, readings, journal entries, worksheets, and tests. It allows them to begin to recuperate from a schooling environment that in many ways mimicked the structures and practices of prisons or factory farms. Deschooling also allows children to break away from the schooling mindset and mentality that learning is about performing for adults, and that meaning is dictated as opposed to discovered. It allows them to restructure their concept of learning, and reframe their understanding of their role and responsibility in their own life. Deschooling also allows for rejuvenation, as they rediscover that they can have interests that are worth pursuing for their own sake, as opposed to for the sake of appeasing adults.
For parents who believe that education is about keeping young people busy and engaged, deschooling can be difficult. It asks parents to step back and not interfere with the child for a protected period of time. In this way, parents also go through a period of deschooling.
The general rule of thumb for deschooling is that it should last one month for every year a young person was in traditional school. Abrome finds this rule of thumb problematic for three reasons. First, just one year of traditional schooling can do immense harm to a child. One month of freedom is unlikely to be sufficient to allow a first grader to embrace learning again. Second, the effects of schooling compound over time, making it much more difficult to rewire one’s mind after years in traditional school. It is this reason that teenagers who try to move from a schooling environment to a self-directed learning environment often flounder for extended periods of time. And third, every person learns and develops on their own timeline. Just as schools wrongly expect every student to learn by standardized periods of time, it is wrong to expect every formerly schooled child to be able to transition to self-directed learning along a preset period of time.
A better rule of thumb for deschooling is to step back and wait for them to celebrate their freedom, then get bored of their freedom, and then actively make use of their freedom. At Abrome, we have Learners who came to us from traditional public schools, traditional private schools, alternative private schools, and who have been homeschooled or unschooled their whole lives. Those who have been subjected to the more formal schooling of public and private schools have a much more difficult time deschooling than those who have only had progressive schooling or homeschooling experiences. For these reasons, a 13-year-old who spent eight years in traditional schools may require up to two years to navigate the deschooling process, while a 9-year-old who comes from a more progressive school may only need a couple of months, and a 5-year-old who was never subjected to schooling can transition seamlessly.
It is best for parents to not put their children in a position where they need to deschool in the first place. Extend unschooling beyond the age of five, and allow young people to retain their natural love of learning in a self-directed learning environment through adolescence and into early adulthood. Parents should seek out homeschooling and unschooling groups and cooperatives, or find self-directed learning spaces such as Abrome or democratic schools to enroll their children in. However, for families who enrolled their children in traditional schools because they thought it was the best option at the time, the most important step they can take in the present is to immediately withdraw their children from traditional school and begin the process of deschooling. The longer they leave their children in traditional school, the longer (and more difficult) it is going to take for them to move to a self-directed learning mindset.
1. Every year, there are numerous examples of school districts harassing, threatening, and calling the authorities on families who decide to pull their children out of school to homeschool them. Some parents have even been arrested and have had their children taken from them. The Home School Legal Defense Association often posts about such examples on their website.
2. As both Bryan Stevenson and Immortal Technique have pointed out, you are better off rich and guilty than poor and innocent. Being identified as an ‘other’ in terms of ability, age, ethnicity, gender, immigration status, physical appearance, race, religion, self-expression, sexual orientation, or other identifier often becomes an aggravating factor when it comes to the way society collectively treats someone.
3. The Homeschooling Option by Lisa Rivero
4. Summer breaks should not be considered deschooling periods. Many students already see the summer as a season of respite from school, and if we hope to free children from the mindset of schooling, they need to recognize that they are being released from the practices and structures of schooling during periods in which they would normally be in school.
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.
A year and a half after I graduated from Stanford, I started a search fund to look for a company to buy. Although I was industry agnostic, I kept finding myself focusing on companies that touched the academic space for children, such as curriculum providers, charter management organizations, and tutoring services. This made sense, I had already centered most of my non-work efforts around children throughout my career. I coached baseball, basketball, and football teams; I led an effort to help clothe children in Kosovo; I mentored children in multiple countries; I organized college fairs for West Point and Stanford; and I was on the board of a child bereavement non-profit. I realized that any future professional success would most likely have to be tied to my long-running desire to help children.
However, the more I dove into the companies that were operating in the space, the more I became frustrated at their inability to actually help children. Even the thought of running my own charter schools seemed destined to cause more harm to children than good. I quickly came to the conclusion that virtually the entire education industry was being operated for the benefit of adults at the expense of children. This realization led me to authors such as John Holt and John Taylor Gatto, and a broader homeschooling and unschooling movement. I was faced with a dilemma: do I keep looking for an education company to buy that would undoubtedly harm children, or do I throw myself into promoting options where I couldn’t make much money but where I could actually help children? It wasn’t much of a dilemma; in late 2010, I packed up and moved from New York to Austin to try to grow the homeschooling movement.
While working to liberate children from traditional schooling, I found that I was lacking two credentials that vocal critics of homeschooling, unschooling, and other forms of liberated learning grabbed onto: I did not have teaching experience and I did not have an education degree. So I chose to work as a teacher for Bronze Doors Academy (now Skybridge Academy) for two years, and then I went to the Harvard Graduate School of Education for a master’s in education degree (Ed.M.).
At Harvard I began to work on a new platform for education that would allow all children to lead remarkable lives. It was intended to be a community of self-directed learners that would benefit from a broader network of learners and mentors online. It avoided the worst aspects of traditional schooling (e.g., curriculum, testing, grading, homework), but it also failed to provide parents with what they saw as some of the benefits of traditional schooling (e.g., a place for their kids to go during the day, a ready network of peers to interact with, social validation from friends and family). Time and time again, parents would agree with me as to why they should opt out of traditional schooling, and how their children would be far better off outside of a traditional school environment, yet far more often than not they would still opt to keep their children in school. It was apparent that most parents, as much as they loved their children, just could not take the risk that their children might fail outside of a school environment, whereas if their kids failed in the school environment, at least they would not be entirely responsible for the failure.
While I was unable to recruit many families to join my virtual community of emancipated learners, I was able to keep the lights on by providing college admissions services. Over the past decade I have been helping people apply to college and grad school, and I have gotten nearly 50% of my clients into Harvard and/or Stanford, and 75% of my clients into schools ranked in the top ten. Because of a combination of my success rates plus the time I invest into each college admissions candidate (which takes away the time I can work on emancipated learning), I charge a significantly higher price for college admissions consulting ($25,000 during senior year) than I do on an annual consulting basis to help children lead remarkable lives ($6,500/yr). And I would be flummoxed if I was not willing to accept that most parents (although they will not admit it) would eagerly put their children through hell during their primary and secondary years if they could assure that their children would gain admission into Harvard or Stanford.
My goal is not just to get a bunch of kids into Harvard and Stanford. College admissions consulting is a great lifestyle business (it is fun, it is easy to do really well, and it is seasonal), but it does not fundamentally undermine the injustices of our society that are rooted in and reinforced by traditional schooling. In order for me to be able to emancipate children from the tyranny of the status quo, and in order for those emancipated learners to go on to take down the tyranny of the status quo and improve society for all, I recognize that I cannot at this point separate the two–parents need a sure bet that their children are going to be able to lead remarkable lives and gain admission into top colleges and universities, although the latter does not in any way validate or lead to the former. A virtual community is not sufficient at this moment in time, so keep your eyes open for exciting new developments from Abrome in the near future.
UPDATE: We have launched a school to address the dilemma of parents being much more willing to pay for college admissions than for helping young people lead remarkable lives.