Special Ed

Factory-like schooling may soon be a thing of the past.

School days, I believe, are the unhappiest in the whole span of human existence. They are full of dull, unintelligible tasks, new and unpleasant ordinances, brutal violations of common sense and common decency. --H.L. Mencken

At 16, Paul Boone writes articles reviewing new computer games for Mac Home Journal and aspires to launch a game development company of his own. Such ambitions are not that uncommon in his hometown of San Jose, California, the heart of Silicon Valley. What is unusual is how easily he has been able to incorporate his interest in computers into his education--and why.

Paul, his sister Cristie, 17, and brother Curtis, 12, have been educated at home, by parents who are convinced that children learn best when they are free to explore areas of interest in an independent, self-directed way. When the kids were younger, their mother, Jill, spent a great deal of time reading with them and actively encouraging their learning. Now, she explains, they all engage in independent learning activities. Cristie is most interested in the study of literature and takes courses at a local community college. Curtis is interested in ancient history and attends a weekly community college class in art history with his mother. Paul has developed his programming skills through books, on-line discussions, and constant experimentation. He recently got press credentials for a game developers' conference, allowing him to rub elbows with people who may someday be his colleagues. "All the companies are looking for 'self-motivated' people," he notes, and his education has developed that quality.

Jill explains that she supports her children's particular interests while creatively encouraging them to study important subjects that don't initially attract them. To get Cristie interested in studying science, for instance, Jill found literary treatments of astronomy for her to read. "I'm more of a guide or facilitator than a teacher," she says. "I help my kids research topics and find materials. I help them find opportunities and ensure that they get a well-balanced education."

Across the country, in the Washington suburb of Waldorf, Maryland, Marilyn and Chesley Rockett's two youngest sons have followed a more structured curriculum--but a similar philosophy. Marilyn argues that children can learn much more effectively when their learning experiences are not confined to textbooks, classrooms, and grade levels. "The emphasis has always been on learning rather than simply moving on," she says of the education she's given Jeremy, 17, and Jonathan, 19, at home. (Jonathan attends Hillsdale College in Michigan; his younger brother will join him there in the fall.)

When the boys began to study American history, Marilyn sought out books at the local library exploring the impact of American artists, scientists, and political leaders. She and her husband took the boys on an excursion to Valley Forge, Pennsylvania, and had them write up their experiences. While studying the Civil War, she went with them to Ford's Theater and the house of Samuel Mudd, the doctor who treated John Wilkes Booth after he shot Lincoln. This interdisciplinary approach, she says, has helped her children "see the connections" among the many forces that influenced the nation's development.

The two families certainly have their differences. While the Rocketts are evangelical Christians and consider religious instruction a vital aspect of home learning, the Boones shun organized religion and encourage their children to follow their own spiritual paths. The Rocketts have used various commercially available pre-packaged curricula, which they then tailor to their own situation. The Boones have taken a less-structured approach, largely allowing their children to focus on the subjects they find most inspiring (while gently prodding the kids to ensure a breadth of coverage).

Both families agree, however, that most private and government-run schools are incapable of supporting the individual learning needs of their children. Both contend that the "socialization" that occurs in schools is generally inimical to learning and personal growth. Both consider home schooling a way of strengthening the bonds of the family. And both the Rocketts and the Boones make a distinction between learning--which is ongoing and boundless--and institutional education, which is tied to a specific time and place. "Living is learning," wrote John Holt, the late author of the classic books How Children Fail and How Children Learn nd an early champion of the home schooling movement (which he preferred to call "unschooling"). "It is impossible to be alive and conscious...without constantly learning things." Although not all home schoolers are admirers of Holt (some of his more conservative critics consider him a "child worshiper"), most share his belief that learning is something that occurs "all the time."

It is just this sort of thinking--a concern for independent thought, a longing to strengthen the family, and a frustration with the bureaucratic limits of conventional schools- -that is leading the home school movement into the mainstream. Home schoolers are a statistically small but rapidly growing and increasingly influential force in America. Their numbers have jumped from 15,000 to 20,000 in the late 1970s to perhaps 600,000 today (some estimates put the number above 1 million). The trend is likely to continue, as new products and institutions develop that make it easier for parents to educate children at home. Particularly intriguing are the trend's potential ripple effects. While it's difficult to imagine a mass exodus from traditional schools in the near term, the home school movement may help create a future in which families have an extraordinary number of choices to educate their children. The movement has shown that children do not need formal institutions to learn and thrive. While standardized test scores of home schoolers are open to charges of statistical bias (due to the near impossibility of obtaining a random sample), Pat Lines, senior research analyst at the U.S. Department of Education, says surveys of state examinations demonstrate that such children "consistently test above national norms."

Home schoolers also provide an inspiration, and a growing market, for a variety of institutions, products, and services that offer individualized learning. Education still tends to be structured around a basic economy of scale: It's a lot cheaper to have one teacher lecture to a large class in a structured way, and at the same time and place, than to tutor students one on one. New technologies allow education to be unbundled. Lectures can be recorded and transmitted to, or videotaped for, anyone, anywhere, any time. Educational software programs allow students to work at their own pace, getting instant feedback on their work. CD-ROMs can make important books compact, inexpensive, and interactive. Internet services and educational networks allow scattered students access to specialized expertise.

Sheldon Richman, author of Separating School and State , believes that the growth in home schooling represents "demand-side entrepreneurship," which he argues would flourish if decentralized learning policies were adopted. Instead of depending on schools, Richman says, parents would be encouraged to ask themselves, "What educational opportunities can I take advantage of for the benefit of my child?" The instructional expertise, group interactions, and custodial care schools offer would continue to be valued. But families would no longer rely on such services exclusively, and children would engage in a mix of learning experiences, some at home, some not.

Such unbundling, which allows for both structured and unstructured learning, gets education away from the idea that learning is best provided in a setting that has much in common with a rigidly structured 19th-century factory. "Schooling," notes Howard Gardner of the Harvard Graduate School of Education, is a mass-oriented phenomenon based on a "uniform idea": "You teach the same thing to students in the same way and assess them all in the same way."

The home school movement suggests that educational choices need not be limited to public and private schools. Rather, parents can create far more flexible arrangements, relying on an array of learning services, resources, and technologies that enable their children to learn at home on a part-time or full-time basis. We can begin contemplating a future of learning opportunities analogous to the innovation and decentralization that is currently taking place in traditional workplaces.

"There's been a huge change in the way people think about education," says Diane Ravitch, a senior scholar at New York University and former head of research in the U.S. Department of Education. "Under the old paradigm, there was only one means--the government school system. The ends--well-educated students--varied wildly." Now, she argues the public appears increasingly willing to allow the means to vary if the ends are kept constant. She notes that more than 250 charter schools, which reduce restrictions and red tape, have been created in taxpayer-financed systems throughout the country and points optimistically to school voucher efforts in Milwaukee and other cities.

If Ravitch is right that people are beginning to stress educational ends over means, it is quite possible that the taste for experimentation and innovation in education will embrace more meaningfully the notion of individualized learning. A number of proposals have been put forward that explicitly seek to shift funding from institutions to learning opportunities for individuals. Over $300 billion--that's the amount spent on K-12 education annually--is at stake.

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