School's Out

Get ready for the new age of individualized education


Here's a riddle of the New Economy: When-ever students around the world take those tests that measure which country's children know the most, American kids invariably score near the bottom. No matter the subject, when the international rankings come out, European and Asian nations finish first while the U.S. pulls up the rear. This, we all know, isn't good. Yet by almost every measure, the American economy outperforms those very same nations of Asia and Europe. We create greater wealth, deliver more and better goods and services, and positively kick butt on innovation. This, we all know, is good.

Now the riddle: If we're so dumb, how come we're so rich? How can we fare so poorly on international measures of education yet perform so well in an economy that depends on brainpower? The answer is complex, but within it are clues about the future of education—and how "free agency" may rock the school house as profoundly as it has upended the business organization.

We are living in the founding of what I call "free agent nation." Over the past decade, in nearly every industry and region, work has been undergoing perhaps its most significant transformation since Americans left the farm for the factory a century ago. Legions of Americans, and increasingly citizens of other countries as well, are abandoning one of the Industrial Revolution's most enduring legacies—the "job"—and forging new ways to work. They're becoming self-employed knowledge workers, proprietors of home-based businesses, temps and permatemps, freelancers and e-lancers, independent contractors and independent professionals, micropreneurs and infopreneurs, part-time consultants, interim executives, on-call troubleshooters, and full-time soloists.

In the U.S. today, more than 30 million workers—nearly one-fourth of the American workforce—are free agents. And many others who hold what are still nominally "jobs" are doing so under terms closer in spirit to free agency than to traditional employment. They're telecommuting. They're hopping from company to company. They're forming ventures that are legally their employers', but whose prospects depend largely on their own individual efforts.

In boom times, many free agents—fed up with bad bosses and dysfunctional workplaces and yearning for freedom—leapt into this new world. In leaner times, other people—clobbered by layoffs, mergers, and downturns—have been pushed. But these new independent workers are transforming the nation's social and economic future. Soon they will transform the nation's education system as well.

The Homogenizing Hopper

Whenever I walk into a public school, I'm nearly toppled by a wave of nostalgia. Most schools I've visited in the 21st century look and feel exactly like the public schools I attended in the 1970s. The classrooms are the same size. The desks stand in those same rows. Bulletin boards preview the next national holiday. The hallways even smell the same. Sure, some classrooms might have a computer or two. But in most respects, the schools American children attend today seem indistinguishable from the ones their parents and grandparents attended.

At first, such déjà vu warmed my soul. But then I thought about it. How many other places look and feel exactly as they did 20, 30, or 40 years ago? Banks don't. Hospitals don't. Grocery stores don't. Maybe the sweet nostalgia I sniffed on those classroom visits was really the odor of stagnation. Since most other institutions in American society have changed dramatically in the past half-century, the stasis of schools is strange. And it's doubly peculiar because school itself is a modern invention, not something we inherited from antiquity.

Through most of history, people learned from tutors or their close relatives. In 19th-century America, says education historian David Tyack, "the school was a voluntary and incidental institution." Not until the early 20th century did public schools as we know them—places where students segregated by age learn from government-certified professionals—become widespread. And not until the 1920s did attending one become compulsory. Think about that last fact a moment. Compared with much of the world, America is a remarkably hands-off land. We don't force people to vote, or to work, or to serve in the military. But we do compel parents to relinquish their kids to this institution for a dozen years, and threaten to jail those who resist.

Compulsory mass schooling is an aberration in both history and modern society. Yet it was the ideal preparation for the Organization Man economy, a highly structured world dominated by large, bureaucratic corporations that routinized the workplace. Compulsory mass schooling equipped generations of future factory workers and middle managers with the basic skills and knowledge they needed on the job. The broader lessons it conveyed were equally crucial. Kids learned how to obey rules, follow orders, and respect authority—and the penalties that came with refusal.

This was just the sort of training the old economy demanded. Schools had bells; factories had whistles. Schools had report card grades; offices had pay grades. Pleasing your teacher prepared you for pleasing your boss. And in either place, if you achieved a minimal level of performance, you were promoted. Taylorism—the management philosophy, named for efficiency expert Frederick Winslow Taylor, that there was One Best Way of doing things that could and should be applied in all circumstances—didn't spend all its time on the job. It also went to class. In the school, as in the workplace, the reigning theory was One Best Way. Kids learned the same things at the same time in the same manner in the same place. Marshall McLuhan once described schools as "the homogenizing hopper into which we toss our integral tots for processing." And schools made factory-style processing practically a religion—through standardized testing, standardized curricula, and standardized clusters of children. (Question: When was the last time you spent all day in a room filled exclusively with people almost exactly your own age?)

So when we step into the typical school today, we're stepping into the past—a place whose architect is Frederick Winslow Taylor and whose tenant is the Organization Man. The one American institution that has least accommodated itself to the free agent economy is the one Americans claim they value most. But it's hard to imagine that this arrangement can last much longer—a One Size Fits All education system cranking out workers for a My Size Fits Me economy. Maybe the answer to the riddle I posed at the beginning is that we're succeeding in spite of our education system. But how long can that continue? And imagine how we'd prosper if we began educating our children more like we earn our livings. Nearly 20 years ago, a landmark government report, A Nation at Risk, declared that American education was "being eroded by a rising tide of mediocrity." That may no longer be true. Instead, American schools are awash in a rising tide of irrelevance.

Don't get me wrong. In innumerable ways, mass public schooling has been a stirring success. Like Taylorism, it has accomplished some remarkable things—teaching immigrants both English and the American way, expanding literacy, equipping many Americans to succeed beyond their parents' imaginings. In a very large sense, America's schools have been a breathtaking democratic achievement.

But that doesn't mean they ought to be the same as they were when we were kids. Parents and politicians have sensed the need for reform, and have pushed education to the top of the national agenda. Unfortunately, few of the conventional remedies—standardized testing, character training, recertifying teachers—will do much to cure what ails American schools, and may even make things worse. Free agency, though, will force the necessary changes. Look for free agency to accelerate and deepen three incipient movements in education—home schooling, alternatives to traditional high school, and new approaches to adult learning. These changes will prove as pathbreaking as mass public schooling was a century ago.

The Home-Schooling Revolution

"School is like starting life with a 12-year jail sentence in which bad habits are the only curriculum truly learned." Those are the words of John Taylor Gatto, who was named New York state's Teacher of the Year in 1991. Today he is one of the most forceful voices for one of the most powerful movements in American education—home schooling. In home schooling, kids opt out of traditional school to take control of their own education and to learn with the help of parents, tutors, and peers. Home schooling is free agency for the under-18 set. And it's about to break through the surface of our national life.

As recently as 1980, home schooling was illegal in most states. In the early 1980s, no more than 15,000 students learned this way. But Christian conservatives, unhappy with schools they considered God-free zones and eager to teach their kids themselves, pressed for changes. Laws fell, and home schooling surged. By 1990, there were as many as 300,000 American home-schoolers. By 1993, home schooling was legal in all 50 states. Since then, home schooling has swum into the mainstream—paddled there by secular parents dissatisfied with low-quality, and even dangerous, schools. In the first half of the 1990s, the home-schooling population more than doubled. Today some 1.7 million children are home-schoolers, their ranks growing as much as 15 percent each year. Factor in turnover, and one in 10 American kids under 18 has gotten part of his or her schooling at home.

Home schooling has become perhaps the largest and most successful education reform movement of the last two decades:

*While barely 3 percent of American schoolchildren are now home-schoolers, that represents a surprisingly large dent in the public school monopoly—especially compared with private schools. For every four kids in private school, there's one youngster learning at home. The home-schooling population is roughly equal to all the school-age children in Pennsylvania.

*According to The Wall Street Journal, "Evidence is mounting that home-schooling, once confined to the political and religious fringe, has achieved results not only on par with public education, but in some ways surpassing it." Home-schooled children consistently score higher than traditional students on standardized achievement tests, placing on average in the 80th percentile in all subjects.

*Home-schooled children also perform extremely well on nearly all measures of socialization. One of the great misconceptions about home schooling is that it turns kids into isolated loners. In fact, these children spend more time with adults, more time in their community, and more time with children of varying ages than their traditional-school counterparts. Says one researcher, "The conventionally schooled tended to be considerably more aggressive, loud, and competitive than the home educated."

"Home schooling," though, is a bit of a misnomer. Parents don't re-create the classroom in the living room any more than free agents re-create the cubicle in their basement offices. Instead, home schooling makes it easier for children to pursue their own interests in their own way—a My Size Fits Me approach to learning. In part for this reason, some adherents—particularly those who have opted out of traditional schools for reasons other than religion—prefer the term "unschooling."

The similarities to free agency—having an "unjob"—are many. Free agents are independent workers; home-schoolers are independent learners. Free agents maintain robust networks and tight connections through informal groups and professional associations; home-schoolers have assembled powerful groups—like the 3,000-family Family Unschoolers Network—to share teaching strategies and materials and to offer advice and support. Free agents often challenge the idea of separating work and family; home-schoolers take the same approach to the boundary between school and family.

Perhaps most important, home schooling is almost perfectly consonant with the four animating values of free agency: having freedom, being authentic, putting yourself on the line, and defining your own success. Take freedom. In the typical school, children often aren't permitted to move unless a bell rings or an adult grants them permission. And except for a limited menu of offerings in high school, they generally can't choose what to study or when to study it. Home-schoolers have far greater freedom. They learn more like, well, children. We don't teach little kids how to talk or walk or understand the world. We simply put them in nurturing situations and let them learn on their own. Sure, we impose certain restrictions. ("Don't walk in the middle of the street.") But we don't go crazy. ("Please practice talking for 45 minutes until a bell rings.") It's the same for home-schoolers. Kids can become agents of their own education rather than merely recipients of someone else's noble intentions.

Imagine a 5-year-old child whose current passion is building with Legos. Every day she spends up to an hour, maybe more, absorbed in complex construction projects, creating farms, zoos, airplanes, spaceships. Often her friends come over and they work together. No one assigns her this project. No one tells her when and how to do it. And no one will give her creation a grade. Is she learning? Of course. This is how many home-schoolers explore their subjects.

Now suppose some well-intentioned adults step in to teach the child a thing or two about Lego building. Let's say they assign her a daily 45-minute Lego period, give her a grade at the end of each session, maybe even offer a reward for an A+ building. And why not bring in some more 5-year-olds to teach them the same things about Legos? Why not have them all build their own 45-minute Lego buildings at the same time, then give them each a letter grade, with a prize for the best one? My guess: Pretty soon our 5-year-old Lego lover would lose her passion. Her buildings would likely become less creative, her learning curve flatter. This is how many conventional schools work—or, I guess, don't work.

The well-meaning adults have squelched the child's freedom to play and learn and discover on her own. She's no longer in control. She's no longer having fun. Countless studies, particularly those by University of Rochester psychologist Edward L. Deci, have shown that kids and adults alike—in school, at work, at home—lose the intrinsic motivation and the pure joy derived from learning and working when somebody takes away their sense of autonomy and instead imposes some external system of reward and punishment. Freedom isn't a detour from learning. It's the best pathway toward it.

Stay with our Lego lass a moment and think about authenticity—the basic desire people have to be who they are rather than conform to someone else's standard. Our young builder has lost the sense that she is acting according to her own true self. Instead, she has gotten the message. You build Legos for the same reason your traditionally employed father does his work assignments: because an authority figure tells you to.

Or take accountability. The child is no longer fully accountable for her own Lego creating. Whatever she has produced is by assignment. Her creations are no longer truly hers. And what about those Lego grades? That A+ may motivate our girl to keep building, but not on her own terms. Maybe she liked the B- building better than the A+ creation. Oh well. Now she'll probably bury that feeling and work to measure up—to someone else's standards. Should she take a chance—try building that space shuttle she's been dreaming about? Probably not. Why take that risk when, chances are, it won't make the grade? Self-defined success has no place in this regime. But for many home-schoolers, success is something they can define themselves. (This is true even though, as I mentioned, home-schoolers score off the charts on conventional measures of success—standardized tests in academic subjects.)

To be sure, some things most kids should learn are not intrinsically fun. There are times in life when we must eat our Brussels sprouts. For those subjects, the punishment-and-reward approach of traditional schooling may be in order. But too often, the sheer thrill of learning a new fact or mastering a tough equation is muted when schools take away a student's sense of control. In home schooling, kids have greater freedom to pursue their passions, less pressure to conform to the wishes of teachers and peers—and can put themselves on the line, take risks, and define success on their own terms. As more parents realize that the underlying ethic of home schooling closely resembles the animating values of free agency, home schooling will continue to soar in popularity.

Free Agent Teaching

Several other forces will combine to power home schooling into greater prominence. One is simply the movement's initial prominence. As more families choose this option, they will make it more socially acceptable—thereby encouraging other families to take this once-unconventional route. The home-schooling population has already begun to look like the rest of America. While some 90 percent of home-schoolers are white, the population is becoming more diverse, and may be growing fastest among African Americans. And the median income for a home-school family is roughly equal to the median income for the rest of the country; about 87 percent have annual household incomes under $75,000.

Recent policy changes—in state legislatures and principals' offices—will further clear the way. Not only is home schooling now legal in every state, but many public schools have begun letting home-schoolers take certain classes or play on school teams. About two-thirds of American colleges now accept transcripts prepared by parents, or portfolios assembled by students, in lieu of an accredited diploma.

Another force is free agency itself. Thanks to flexible schedules and personal control, it's easier for free agents than for traditional employees to home-school their children. Free agents will also become the professionals in this new world of learning. A carpenter might hire herself out to teach carpentry skills to home-schoolers. A writer might become a tutor or editor to several home-schoolers interested in producing their own literary journal. What's more, the huge cadre of teachers hired to teach the baby boom will soon hit retirement age. However, perhaps instead of fully retiring, many will hire themselves out as itinerant tutors to home-schoolers—and begin part-time careers as free agent educators. For many parents, of course, the responsibility and time commitment of home schooling will be daunting. But the wide availability of teachers and tutors might help some parents overcome the concern that they won't be able to handle this awesome undertaking by themselves.

The Internet makes home schooling easier, too. Indeed, home-schoolers figured out the Internet well before most Americans. For example, my first Internet connection was a DOS-based Compuserve account I acquired in 1993. Before the wide acceptance of the Internet and the advent of the World Wide Web, the most active discussion groups on Compuserve were those devoted to home schooling. Using the Web, home-schoolers can do research and find tutors anywhere in the world. There are now even online ventures—for instance, the Christa McAuliffe Academy ( in Washington state and in Florida—that sell online courses and provide e-teachers for home-schoolers. Physical infrastructure might also accelerate this trend. Almost three-fourths of America's public school buildings were built before 1969. School administrations might be more likely to encourage some amount of home schooling if that means less strain on their crowded classrooms and creaky buildings.

I don't want to overstate the case. Home schooling, like free agency, won't be for everyone. Many parents won't have the time or the desire for this approach. And home schooling won't be for all time. Many students will spend a few years in a conventional school and a few years learning at home—just as some workers will migrate between being a free agent and holding a job. But home schooling is perhaps the most robust expression of the free agent way outside the workplace, making its continued rise inevitable.

The End of High School

One other consequence of the move toward home schooling will be something many of us wished for as teenagers: the demise of high school. It wasn't until the 1920s that high school replaced work as the thing most Americans did in their teens. "American high school is obsolete," says Bard College president Leon Botstein, one of the first to call for its end. He says today's adolescents would be better off pursuing a college degree, jumping directly into the job market, engaging in public service, or taking on a vocational apprenticeship. Even the National Association of Secondary School Principals, which has blasted home schooling, concedes that "high schools continue to go about their business in ways that sometimes bear startling resemblance to the flawed practices of the past."

In the future, expect teens and their families to force an end to high school as we know it. Look for some of these changes to replace and augment traditional high schools with free-agent-style learning—and to unschool the American teenager:

* A renaissance of apprenticeships. For centuries, young people learned a craft or profession under the guidance of an experienced master. This method will revive and expand to include skills like computer programming and graphic design. Imagine a 14-year-old taking two or three academic courses each week, and spending the rest of her time apprenticing as a commercial artist. Traditional high schools tend to separate learning and doing. Free agency makes them indistinguishable.

* A flowering of teenage entrepreneurship. Young people may become free agents even before they get their driver's licenses—and teen entrepreneurs will become more common. Indeed, most teens have the two crucial traits of a successful entrepreneur: a fresh way of looking at the world and a passionate intensity for what they do. In San Diego County, 8 percent of high school students already run their own online business. That will increasingly become the norm and perhaps even become a teenage rite of passage.

* A greater diversity of academic courses. Only 16 states offer basic economics in high school. That's hardly a sound foundation for the free agent workplace. Expect a surge of new kinds of "home economics" courses that teach numeracy, accounting, and basic business.

* A boom in national service. Some teenagers will seek greater direction than others and may want to spend a few years serving in the military or participating in a domestic service program. Today, many young people don't consider these choices because of the pressure to go directly to college. Getting people out of high school earlier might get them into service sooner.

* A backlash against standards. A high school diploma was once the gold standard of American education. No more. Yet politicians seem determined to make the diploma meaningful again by erecting all sorts of hurdles kids must leap to attain one—standardized subjects each student must study, standardized tests each student must pass. In some schools, students are already staging sit-ins to protest these tests. This could be American youth's new cause célèbre. ("Hey hey, ho ho. Standardized testing's got to go.")

Most politicians think the answer to the problems of high schools is to exert more control. But the real answer is less control. In the free agent future, our teens will learn by less schooling and more doing.

The Unschooling of Adults

For much of the 20th century, the U.S. depended on what I call the Thanksgiving turkey model of education. We placed kids in the oven of formal education for 12 years, and then served them up to employers. (A select minority got a final, four-year basting at a place called college.) But this model doesn't work in a world of accelerated cycle times, shrinking company half-lives, and the rapid obsolescence of knowledge and skills. In a free agent economy, our education system must allow people to learn throughout their lives.

Home schooling and alternatives to high school will create a nation of self-educators, free agent learners, if you will. Adults who were home-schooled youths will know how to learn and expect to continue the habit throughout their lives.

For example, how did anybody learn the Web? In 1993, it barely existed. By 1995, it was the foundation of dozens of new industries and an explosion of wealth. There weren't any college classes in Web programming, HTML coding, or Web page design in those early years. Yet somehow hundreds of thousands of people managed to learn. How? They taught themselves—working with colleagues, trying new things, and making mistakes. That was the secret to the Web's success. The Web flourished almost entirely through the ethic and practice of self-teaching. This is not a radical concept. Until the first part of this century, most Americans learned on their own—by reading. Literacy and access to books were an individual's ticket to knowledge. Even today, according to my own online survey of 1,143 independent workers, "reading" was the most prevalent way free agents said they stay up-to-date in their field.

In the 21st century, access to the Internet and to a network of smart colleagues will be the ticket to adult learning. Expect more of us to punch those tickets throughout our lives. Look for these early signs:

* The devaluation of degrees. As the shelf life of a degree shortens, more students will go to college to acquire particular skills than to bring home a sheepskin. People's need for knowledge doesn't respect semesters. They'll want higher education just in time—and if that means leaving the classroom before earning a degree, so be it. Remember: Larry Ellison, Steve Jobs, and Steven Spielberg never finished college.

* Older students. Forty percent of college students are now older than 25. According to The Wall Street Journal, "By some projections, the number of students age 35 and older will exceed those 18 and 19 within a few years." Young adults who do forgo a diploma in their early 20s may find a need and desire for college courses in their 40s.

* Free agent teaching. Distance learning (private ventures like the University of Phoenix, Unext, Ninth House Network, and Hungry Minds University) will help along this self-teaching trend. Today, some 5,000 companies are in the online education business. Their $2 billion of revenues is expected to hit $11 billion by 2003. And nontraditional teaching arrangements will abound. One lament of independent scholars—genre-straddling writers like Judith Rich Harris and Anne Hollander—is that they don't have students. Here's a ready supply. More free agent teachers and more free agent students will create tremendous liquidity in the learning market—with the Internet serving as the matchmaker for this new marketplace of learning.

* Big trouble for elite colleges. All this means big trouble in Ivy City. Attending a fancy college serves three purposes in contemporary life: to prolong adolescence, to award a credential that's modestly useful early in one's working life, and to give people a network of friends. Elite colleges have moved slowly to keep up with the emerging free agent economy. In 1998, 78 percent of public four-year colleges offered distance-learning programs, compared with only 19 percent of private schools. Private college costs have soared, faster even than health care costs, for the past 20 years. But have these colleges improved at the same rate? Have they improved at all? What's more, the students who make it to elite colleges are generally those who've proved most adroit at conventional (read: outdated) schooling. That could become a liability rather than an advantage. In his bestseller, The Millionaire Mind, Thomas J. Stanley found a disproportionately large number of millionaires were free agents—but that the higher somebody's SAT scores, the less likely he or she was to be a financial risk-taker and therefore to become a free agent.

* Learning groupies. The conference industry, already hot, will continue to catch fire as more people seek gatherings of like-minded souls to make new connections and learn new things. Conferences allow attendees to become part of a sort of Socratic institution. They can choose the mentor they will pay attention to for an hour, or two hours, or a day—whatever. In addition, many independent workers have formed small groups that meet regularly and allow members to exchange business advice and offer personal support. These Free Agent Nation Clubs, as I call them, also provide an important staging ground for self-education. At F.A.N. Club meetings, members discuss books and articles and share their particular expertise with the others. This type of learning—similarly alive in book clubs and Bible study groups—represents a rich American tradition. One of the earliest self-organized clusters of free agents was Benjamin Franklin's Junto, formed in 1727, which created a subscription library for its members, which in turn became the first public library in America.

The next few decades will be a fascinating, and perhaps revolutionary, time for learning in America. The specifics will surprise us and may defy even my soundest predictions. But the bottom line of the future of education in Free Agent Nation is glaringly clear: School's out.