Is compulsory education really necessary?

Editor’s note: This post was born as a result of a #StuVoice chat that addressed the teaching characteristics most conducive to learning. In the chat I responded to a Tweet that stated, “If we're going to keep students in school, our technology needs to catch up!” I responded, “Why keep students in school if they can learn w/out it?” Elliot Hallmark had several insightful responses to that question. I asked him to expand on his thoughts and thus the following post was born. 

Guest post by Elliot Hallmark 
Staff member at Clearview Sudbury School in Austin, Texas 

There are many examples where compulsory education has been unnecessary such as un-schoolers, home schoolers, hunter gather societies, non-western modern cultures, and graduates of radical deschooled institutions. Yet the claim that school is unnecessary strikes many people as unfounded. After all, the circumstances of these various groups, privileged families and members of non-industrial societies, is not representative of everyone. 

So, the thinking persists that abolishing compulsory education would be ultimately abandoning most children, leaving them directionless and struggling fiercely to achieve even an adequate living. Underprivileged children especially would be left completely without the tools they need to succeed. Already, the correlation between family socioeconomic standing and success in school is striking. As funding to public schools decreases, the achievement of the underprivileged drops even further. To make attendance of public school voluntary would be madness! We must take steps to increase the effectiveness of schooling, which is surely the most influential tool we have to ensure the education of children. 


Imagine a study 
Though compulsory education seems to dominate the waking hours of the youth, what evidence do we have that it is such an influential tool? To my knowledge, no such study has been done, so we will have to imagine it. In our imaginary study, lets sample a wide variety of people; people of all levels of income, high school graduates and drop-outs, drug users and those determined to succeed, public, private, home and un-schoolers as well as those who have attended institutions for youth with no curriculum, or adult initiated classes/evaluations. And lets control for a wide variety of variables:
  • Family Income
  • IQ, Knowledge-level and skill set of family members and other daily adult contacts
  • Level of success achieved by members of family members and other daily adult contacts
  • Quantity of quality (non-coerced) time spent with adults
  • Access to enough healthful food
  • The elusive factor "x", or destiny
  • Frequency of extra-ordinary, non-habitual experiences (like camping and travel)
  • 16,380 hours over 13 years of compulsory education
  • Hours spent on unsolicited homework and examinations
  • Time spent segregated according to age, gender, race or social class
In this imaginary study, I believe that we would find that the last few variables affect the ultimate success (achieved level of ability and happiness) of students the least. Considering the success of unschoolers and graduates of deschooled institutions, one may wonder if the effect of over 15,000 hours of compulsory education and thousands of hours of unsolicited after school work contribute more than negligibly. That schooling is effective at all may infact be a gross misinterpretation based on a lack of data. 

To my knowledge, there have been no large, quantitative studies done which account for these other factors and that compare compulsory education with simply supporting the activities of the young. Perhaps access to knowledgeable/skillful adult contacts, material resources (food, technology, comfortable space) and extra-ordinary experiences are the more important factors determining success. These variables may also strongly correlate with family income, neighborhood, etc. 

In this case, improving the quantity and quality of compulsory education is the least effective approach to achieving a populace that considers themselves successful and at peace. 

A solution 
A more effective strategy would be to spend funds on increasing access for all children and teens to the other, more important factors. This includes funding internship programs, mentors, access to inspiring and productive technology and opportunities for consensual formal pedagogy. Schools could be replaced by institutions that offer abundant resources for play, creation, engagement and learning. These institutions could be a refuge from a dysfunctional home life, or complement a healthy one. Peter Gray discusses his time at an institution like this:
Many years ago, when I was a college student in New York City, I worked at an after-school community center in one of the poorest sections of the city. It was sponsored by the YMCA, for kids who couldn’t afford the “real Y.” It was free, and the clientele were almost entirely Puerto Rican and African American. The center was in a run-down building and there was only one full-time staff member (a sweet, gentle man from the community) and me, who was there only part-time during the after-school hours. It served roughly two hundred kids. There was a rickety old gym, games, some books, and a place where kids could do homework if they wanted to. It was all their own choice. The kids who came ranged in age from about 7 to about 18, and they often played in age-mixed groups—both indoors and on the street outside the building. Sometimes I saw older kids helping younger ones with homework, and I frequently saw older kids reading to younger ones or teaching them games. This was a stimulating environment, almost entirely run by the kids. I never saw serious bullying. Shabby as the building was, the kids took pride in their center, and they took good care of one another in and around it. Today, most people don’t believe that such a thing can exist. Our estimation of the abilities of kids—especially poor ones—has reached an all-time low.
Dollars and sense 
There is one striking benefit of institutions such as these which support the activities of the young and do not impose an agenda. They are significantly less expensive to run. Gone are the several layers of bureaucrats and their associated salaries. Gone are hours adults need to spend preparing tests and grading assignments. Gone is the need to buy 150 copies each of dozens of different textbooks that very few (if any) of the students are interested in. Instead, these funds can be spent on items considered valuable by the students themselves. 

Institutions where the student body along with staff democratically decide how to allocate their budget have found that this is indeed the case. They are able to achieve a much more rich environment on a budget often lower per student than that of a public school. These institutions are filled with all the musical instruments, computers (with quality software), books, and innumerable other resources the students could want. 

Race to Nowhere 
Another benefit is that the young would no longer be burdened with unnecessary stress. The rate of anxiety disorders and suicide would likely decrease. Parents would no longer have to struggle along with their children over school assignments. Children would have all the time they need to play. 

Statistical data does not currently exist to support either the claim that compulsory schooling is necessary for many, or that it can happily be abandoned. Still, the amount of qualitative evidence that compulsory schooling is not necessary in many situations is substantial. Studies do support the theory that non-school related circumstances, which correlate with socioeconomic standing, do however play a significant role. 

It is worth considering whether our society can start to transition to a model the respects the young and addresses their desires. Such a mode of education would be beneficial in many ways. In this respect, the growing number of unschoolers and curriculum-less institutions for the young are promising and likely to advance this discussion.
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