The Three ‘R’s

My mom originally found out about homeschooling through Christian radio in the early ’80’s.  A guest on one of the talk shows was promoting a program called Play ‘N’ Talk, which was a phonics curriculum that was very popular in the young but growing homeschooling community (and from what I can gather, is still something of a nostalgic darling).

By 1983 the whole language approach to reading had completely won the day in schools of education.  It comported with progressive/romantic ideas about the nature of the child and of education itself.  The groupthink on phonics is/was that basically, it’s a rote approach to learning that kills a child’s “natural” love of reading.

Apparently, according to cognitive scientist Mark Seidenberg, this is still the stance of schools of education, in the face of a mountain of scientific evidence to the contrary.

So, homeschooling was a way to get around the establishment dogma in favor of whole language reading instruction.  Here’s my mom’s record of my kindergarten curriculum:

1984-85 Curriculum.  Content by Keri Davis.  Photo by Erin Valdez

Because my parents are two of the most generous and kind people on the planet, I’ll take the hit and simply say on their behalf, they told you so.

The young, idealistic, counter-cultural Jesus Freaks were right about reading.  And the experts, backed by the full respectability of universities and coercive power of the government, were wrong.

How many other things are obviously best practice as far as experts are concerned, and are obviously wrong to parents?  They embody a source of wisdom that comes from a vast amount of experience.  If they are pushing back, en masse, against new math standards (and the curriculum/methods that flow down from them), that ought to be a red flag.

Incredibles 2.  Directed by Brad Bird.  Pixar, 2018.

And here’s the deal –math scores are not rising to meet the sales pitch made by Common Core advocates ten and fifteen years ago.  Parents who say that the Common Core-influened math homework they are seeing makes simple concepts too difficult while simultaneously failing to teach kids “higher math skills”… well, they might have a really good point.

Just because a practice is old-fasioned doesn’t make it wrong or right.  One of my favorite public intellectuals, Jonah Goldberg, loves to cite a principle from the eternally-quotable G.K. Chesterton, known as Chesterton’s Fence:

In the matter of reforming things, as distinct from deforming them, there is one plain and simple principle; a principle which will probably be called a paradox. There exists in such a case a certain institution or law; let us say, for the sake of simplicity, a fence or gate erected across a road. The more modern type of reformer goes gaily up to it and says, “I don’t see the use of this; let us clear it away.” To which the more intelligent type of reformer will do well to answer: “If you don’t see the use of it, I certainly won’t let you clear it away. Go away and think. Then, when you can come back and tell me that you do see the use of it, I may allow you to destroy it.”




Field (and City) Trips

Yesterday, Professor Jay Greene posted a review of the NEA-AAMD’s new study, Impact of Art Museum Programs on K-12 Students.

Prof. Greene’s research is wide-ranging, and includes an interest in the impact of field trips on student outcomes.  Art lovers, policy makers, carers-about-culture, and other fans of the humanities should immediately read his, Daniel Bowen’s, and Brian Kisida’s rigorous paper, published in Education Next, The Educational Value of Field Trips.  The benefits, such as tolerance, historical empathy, and interest in art museums, can indeed be quantified, if you design a study well enough.  And this was with a very modest intervention – a single one hour visit to a museum.

As Greene, Bowen, and Kisida document in the aforementioned study, field trips are one of those things that has felt the pinch as schools struggle to allocate enough time/resources for test preparation.

But it’s a short-term win for a long-term loss.  Learning about the world contributes in very important ways to literacy, not to mention gives students new visions of what their futures could be.

I was reflecting on how important field trips were in the world of homeschooling co-ops that we participated in growing up.  We took plenty of the obviously culturally-enriching variety – museums, historical sites, orchestras, planetariums.  But we also traveled to more blue-collar destinations – phosphate mines(!), bakeries, and fire stations.

My favorite will always be the trip we took to Ybor City, which is a Cuban neighborhood in Tampa.  I still vividly remember the aroma of fresh tabacco as I got to watch the process close up:

Tampa Rico Cigars 10-21-85
Tampa Rico Cigars, Ybor City, October 21, 1985.  Photo by Keri Davis

What did I learn from that trip?  I think it did precisely what we say we hope field trips will do – expand the horizons of the students who participate.  I had never seen anything like the vast wooden warehouses where the tabacco was stored, the long benches where the craftsmen skillfully rolled the leaves, and the delight my mom obviously took in the whole excursion.

It made me feel like the world was bigger, even though I doubt we had to drive more than an hour from the rural, swampy inland.  That sense of the wonder of the world and the people in it stuck with me, and I’m sure laid the groundwork for my desire to study abroad later on.

A field trip doesn’t have to be to a museum to have a life-long impact on a student, although I certainly think trips of that sort are vital.  A field trip just needs to be different enough from your own experience to show you how limited that experience is.  That alone can be enough to liberate the imagination and awaken you to the possibilities in life.

I highly recommend field trips to museums.  But, if you can, follow Ferris Bueller’s lead, and mix in some fun on your “day off,” too.



Game of (Thrones) Language

I’m a lapsed Duolingo devotee, which is not really a reflection on the tech but more on my own sloth.  I’d add it to my weekly habit tracker, but the only critique I have of this awesome journal is that it doesn’t give me enough lines to track all of the daily habits that I need to hold myself accountable for.  Maybe I need to come up with some shortcuts, like create a separate journal for online learning and then make that its own line…

habit tracker

Anyway, back to Duolingo: the founder and CEO of Duolingo and inventor of CAPCHA, Luis Von Ahn, recevied the 2018 Lemelson-MIT prize, which “honors outstanding mid-career inventors dedicated to improving our world through technological invention.”  Duolingo is addictive because Von Ahn incorporated insights from gaming and gambling into the platform.  It’s crowd-sourced, leveraging the knowledge of thousands by allowing fluent speakers to create the exercises.  It’s also dedicated to being a free resource – you don’t get better content if you pay more.

I’d like to see a Latin added as a course.  If you think that sounds a little crazy, consider that both High Valyrian and Klingon are both available and currently have 496K and 298K users respectively.

dwight teaches erin dothraki

Like Dothraki, Latin is not in any of the incubation phases yet. I think I’d get a kick out of helping to create the course (Latin, that is), so if that sounds cool to you, too, let me know.  In the meantime, I’ll be getting back into the habit of 10 minutes each on German, French, and modern Greek.  Maybe Klingon.  I’m old school like that.


Skin in the Game

Picking up from yesterday’s theme on parents and which ones we trust to make the “right” choices for their kids, I thought I’d share a few of bits of memorabilia.

This was my first school, located in rural Polk County, Florida:

Davis Family Manse
Davis Homeschool, 1984.  Photo by Keri Davis

At some point, I’ll come back to the story of how Mom learned about homeschooling as an option at all back in the dark ages before the internet (and before it was, you know, strictly legal), but for now, here’s a scrap of paper that my Mom saved.  She and Dad created a “pros and cons” list to weigh the choices that they had for educating me and my sisters, dated to after the law which (sort of) legalized homeschooling in Florida in 1985.  Note that private schools are not on this list, because they were far too expensive to be an option:

pros and cons_LI (4)
School Choice, 1985.  Redacted for privacy.   Photo by Keri Davis

The Homeschool Legal Defence Association, which my my parents joined in 1985, provided the following letter, from which they distilled their options above:

HSLDA Florida Home School Laws 1985
Letter courtesy of Keri Davis.  Photo by Erin Davis Valdez

I’m going to go out on a limb and say lots of folks with a college education might not have found it easy to sort all this out and then find local groups that met the legal requirements.  Did I mention that this was before the Internet?

Motivation is a funny thing — when a family understands that it is both their right and responsibility to educate their kids, they can do extraordinary things.  When we take that away, it’s only human nature to become complacent.

There is so much in that pro and con list that I want to come back to it later.  Maybe I can talk Mom into a guest post…

Making (up) the Grade

Fordham Institute’s recent study on the issue of high school grade inflation has received widespread and well-deserved attention.  The phenomenon of teachers being pressured by parents and administration to change or pad grades is nothing new, but the context in which this is increasing is the result of some larger trends.

The narrative of “college for all” has created a culture in which students who may not have pursued a college degree in the past have felt pressured to do so.  Some of this pressure may come from parents and peers; other times, the pressure comes from schools whose metrics rely too much on college attendance as a proxy for a successful outcome.

Colleges naturally want to take advantage of this market, and as Stephen Hurd has documented in “The Real Reason that Colleges Go Test Optional,” they can do so by removing the ACT/SAT requirement.  This change is attractive to students who may not have scores that would traditionally have met the cut-off.  But it also benefits the colleges in that they can appear to be increasing their exclusivity — the idea being that students who do submit their scores are likely to have higher ones, and this average then makes it look like the institution is becoming more seletive.

Despite the promise that this would open doors to more minority students, Mr. Hurd points out that this idea has not led to more diversity on campus; in fact, it seems to be going in the other direction.

The promise of the SAT was an egalitarian one.  The idea was that a lot of talented students not to the manor born were wildly underrepresented at elite universities, and that these universities were missing out on promising future alumni.  A test was supposed to even the playing field.

When universities started taking “test-optional” approach to admissions by giving more weight to high school grades and extracurriculars, an unintended consequence was likely to flip the scales in favor of the connected again.  Those who can afford schools which are responsive to parental pressure to raise grades as well as the cost of robust extracurriculars definitely benefitted under the new, holistic standards.

If the idea is that your ACT or SAT may not matter as much as your grades or extracurriculars, these schools have every incentive to ensure that their graduates are not at a disadvantage relative to other students in similar circumstances.  Hence, grade inflation.

I think the real solution is to make it less “mandatory” to go to college.  This will require us to help create a culture in which we

  • as parents and teachers, encourage students to carefully examine all the paths to success that they might pursue,
  • as friends and social media participants, praise the dignity of work,
  • as employers, open up apprenticeships, paid internships, and jobs to qualified applicants without college degrees.

These three cultural shifts are already underway.  I’m guessing we’ll see less grade inflation if parents and students aren’t so deeply worried about how their grades will affect college admissions.

Ring of Gyges, Redux

Lenore Skenazy, president of Let Grow, has some very good thoughts on a recent story in the Washington Post on a new app, “Mom I am OK.”  It uses a platform the company designed for law enforcement to track parolees, and is being marketed to parents as a way to ensure regular check-ins from their kids.

I think it’s hard to overstate how corrosive it would be to our republic if this kind of tracking were to become the norm, not to mention our characters.  Kids who grow up without having experienced privacy can hardly be expected to have internalized the values that the Fourth Amendment instantiates.

China is rolling out a social credit system of total surveillance, a model which, once fully deployed in 2020, will serve as a siren call to technocrats, busy-bodies, and tyrants around the world.  Panopticon is only possible if the citizens don’t have an expectation of privacy, and we are rapidly imposing this future on ourselves.

Let Grow is doing an amazing job of helping parents and schools create cultures where kids can thrive through increased trust and independence.  It’s because of efforts like this one that I’m ultimately very hopeful for a return to a more healthy civil society.



You Gotta Specialize

The Texas Tribune reported last week on a teacher shortage in West Texas that’s resulting in schools turning to virtual teachers.

The company providing the services is called Proximity Learning, and it’s based in Austin, Texas.  Based on a quick look at their LinkedIn hiring trends, it looks like this organization is growing fast.

Companies and non-profits that can find, screen, and provide the tech platforms for high-quality remote teachers will only continue to become larger and more sophisticated.  By offering subjects that students in some areas would not otherwise be able to access, this growth will represent a huge win for students.

But it’s also a huge win for teachers.  A quick look at Proximity Learning’s teacher job descriptions makes it clear that the game is about to change.  Up until basically yesterday, teachers had to commit to an all-or-nothing model in which it was assumed that someone who has skill in teaching a particular subject is also willing to show up at 6:45 a.m. for carpool duty, work through lunch supervising the cafeteria, and stay after school for coaching and other duties as assigned.

These custodial duties are vitally important – they may be the most important thing.  Because of the lack of specialization in the field of K12 education, we’ve seen mediocrity both in establishing strong student cultures and in academic achievement.

Instead of giving people who are strongly gifted in nurturing, relationship-building, and coaching an opportunity to shine in those domains, we’ve insisted they get degrees in education and teaching certificates.  Instead of giving people who have a passion for and talent in teaching specialized topics a chance to hone those skills and inspire more students, we’ve expected them to be Mary Poppins, too.

Some teachers can and do excel in both domains, and their skills will become even more valuable as parents who are not looking for video-based classes find schools that offer a boutique, in-person experience.  You can imagine hybrids of all of these options, even within one school building.

Teachers should be embracing these technological changes, and with them, the opportunity to live more fulfilling lives even as they become better at their craft.




The End of Nostalgia

Higher education faces what may be insurmountable challenges.  It may be that one day soon, nobody will need a college degree to get a job.

That will be a very good day.

When that happens, institutions that offer something more than 21st century skills will thrive.  Students will not see their education as a box that needs checking and will flock to the places that give them a chance to take the big questions seriously, at least for a season.

Homecoming at my alma mater this weekend gave me an opportunity to reflect on the formative nature of education.  If your view of education is purely transactional, then you’ll find it hard to quantify outcomes. I think this the fundamental flaw in Brian Caplan’s excellent new book, The Case Against Education: Why the Education System is a Waste of Time and Money. Ironically, it’s the same misunderstanding that underlies technocratic test-based accountability measures.

But formation can’t really be rushed.  It is resource-intensive.  It requires emotional labor on the part of both the learner and teacher.

Formation is teleological, and this is what makes it unsuitable for standardization in a pluralistic society.   It’s easier to sell “skills” because they don’t imply an end towards which they ought to be directed.

When the cleansing fire of online education has consumed the dross, what will remain are the institutions that can clearly define their work in terms of habit (and thereby character) formation.

The more obviously useful a skill is the more fragile it is to disruption, automation, or outsourcing.  It is also true that these skills are more easily imparted through routinized training.

But it does not follow that the inverse of this is true.  Just because something is apparently useless does not mean that it is actually useful.  Hayek’s insight about the rationality of tradition comes in handy here.  While we should not defer to it blindly, tradition can give us some important hints about which disciplines of mind and heart might lead to flourishing lives.

We don’t call autumnal organized rituals in nostalgia house-comings.  We call them homecomings for this reason: a home is not solely defined by its functional quality of providing basic shelter.  It is an end point in itself, a place for refreshment of body and soul.  I’m glad I had a chance to come home this weekend.





Homeschool Moms are Visitors from the Future

In honor of my sister’s birthday, I just want to take a moment to celebrate homeschool moms.  Her kids are now the second generation in our family to have received their education at home.  We didn’t realize it while we were busy with phonics and multiplication tables, but Mom was actually a visitor from the future.

The future is customization, personalization, and making choices in conformity with your deepest-held values.  It is quirky, artisanal, and bespoke.  In the future, people can their own vegetables at home.

Oh, wait.  That’s now.

Homeschooling has seen incredible growth over the past decade.   Test-driven education and the democritization of knowledge by technology are fairly obvious drivers of the growth, but I’d say homeschoolers actually lead the ed tech market, not the other way around.

What are the obstacles to growth for homeschooling?   The biggest one has been custody.  If both parents work and have to work, there hasn’t been a good option except for a traditional school setting.

But what if the homeschool mom of the future is actually either a mom or dad who, thanks to technology, can work from home?   It shouldn’t be surprising that homeschooling, or some hybrid version of it, has gained popularity in Silicon Valley.

Homeschooling looks very different today than it did when we were coming up.  But the desire to give your kids an education that gives them the tools to think independently, act creatively, and contribute meaningfully is the same.

So, here’s to the brave visitors from the future who walk among us.  May we be wise enough to follow their their lead.

The Paradox of Appreciation

Jay Greene’s recent post, “Want More Art Ed?  Decentralize School Control,” makes some really excellent points about the current paucity of arts education in public schools, among them:

Even if distant bureaucrats valued the arts as much as many parents and communities do, bureaucrats cannot give priority to the arts because that is not the basis by which the success or failure of their distant management is judged.

It got me thinking about a passage from C.S. Lewis’s essay, “The Parthenon and the Optative,” quoted at length in Tracy Lee Simmons’s elegant apologia for classical education, Climbing Parnassus:

Tell a boy to “mug up” a book and then set questions to find out whether he as done so.  At best, he may have learned (and, best of all, unconsciously) to enjoy a great poem.  A second best he has done and honest piece of work and exercised his memory and reason.  At worst, we have done him no harm: have not pawed and dabbled in his soul, have not taught him to be a prig or a hypocrite. But an elementary examination which attempts to assess ‘the adventure of the soul among books’ is a dangerous thing.  What obsequious boys, if encouraged, will try to manufacture, and clever ones can ape, and shy ones will conceal, what dies at the touch of venality, is called come forward and perform, to exhibit itself, at that very stage when its timid, half-conscious stirrings can least endure such self-consciousness.

The very nature of the arts poses a challenge to measurement.  Will the standard be that all students can read sheet music?  Play a ditty on a recorder?  Draw a still life?

Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantelpiece, Picasso, courtesy of the MET
The Guitar and Clarinet on a Mantlepiece, Pablo Picasso, 1915.  Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York

It’s unlikely that consensus could be reached at scale on such a prescribed program; instead, arts standards are far more likely to be of the species Lewis warns us about — an exercise in creating a generation of art critics, and not in creating artists.

Teaching students to “understand” or “appreciate” a subject before giving them worthy examples to imitate or an inkling of its elements can lead to deep frustration (for some) and a false sense of confidence (for others).   Lewis reminds us that appreciation cannot really be aimed for directly.  It is a byproduct of having put in some work on the front end.  Most worthy things are like that.