Thursday, August 30, 2012

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.


  1. This is a great post. I am emphatically for the change in structure of education. There is rampant waste in schools today.

    We seem to focus on the hoops so much that were not being as effective as we can. We are not putting enough emphasis on student learning...

  2. I also very much like this post. I agree with the sentiment on many levels.

    If I were to be critical I'd say the 'solution' needs a lot more elaboration if the aim is to get the support of the general public.

    Also while they certainly would be cheaper to run but I'm not buying the idea of eliminating 'unecessary stress'. My experience is that different environments create different stresses. In Thailand you may worry about annual flooding but in Canada you have to worry about winter heating. Kids might not have the stress of the current testing environment but they may stress about something else we haven't thought of yet.

    Criticism aside, I'm right with you. We need discussion on changes to education now.

  3. I also have been blogging for some time on education reform--but I come from a background of teaching experience in urban (read that "inner city") schools.

    I know that for many of my better students, the compulsory nature of school was a Godsend and a reprieve, despite the spotty quality of the schools they attended.

    If school were NOT compulsory:

    Some would have been forced to drop out and work (even longer) hours to help support the family.

    Others would have been expected to become full-time babysitters for older family members, regardless of their own aspirations. More than one student in this situation went on to become a nurse or other professional, that I could name if it were appropriate--although her family saw her only as a free babysitter.

    Numerous others, and most of those in the categories above, would not have had access to breakfast or lunch at all, in a food-insecure life where supper was hit-or-miss.

    I agree that for many students compulsory school for hours and hours, taking courses in subjects they'll never use again, seems fruitless, especially in the upper grades. However, everyone has basic literacy and numeracy needs, and God knows we need a populace that understands at least a little history, science, and civics.

    Before I could buy into your solution, I'd need to know a lot more about it, and how it accommodates the needs of those in the lowest socio-economic brackets.

    They are there through no fault of their own, and they are possessed of as many God-given talents as kids in richer school districts--but far fewer chances to develop them.

  4. Jan,

    Sorry for the late reply. I don't get updates about comments here.

    This is an interesting topic, because what we are really talking about is that some (many) kids need protection from their family life. I maintain that kids allowed freedom and access to resources will achieve basic literacy and math skills, as well as lots of other trivia and useful knowledge/experience. The concerns you raise however are very real, and unless an authority above the parent/guardian requires the child to do something, then many kids will be denied opportunity. Kids who are required to struggle for existence are not free to the level I am talking about.

    I think one reason regimented classes and standardized testing are so popular is because it justifies the requirement that children leave their family. If we just require the kids to come to "school", but then let them play basketball or video games and hang out socializing with their friends all day, then people would object much more to the compulsory aspect. Even if this method leads to happier children just as capable, people will object because it seems arbitrary.

    So some sort of transition or stable compromise is necessary.

    I think putting any money at all into truly free institutions (along side schools) that are available for kids before and after school and during breaks would be a good step. Eventually society could offer these institutions as options to families for during school hours, but not relax the compulsory aspect. All steps in this direction are good.

    Thanks for pushing the discussion.


  5. I'm living proof that mandatory education isn't necessary to professional success. I was home schooled, and am very successful professionally.

    It's more personal success that it caused a problem. Give me a business interaction with defined expectations and I'm golden. However, having been raised extremely isolated from other people, I'm not confident in personal interactions. It's hard to make friends, for example, and god forbid finding a love.

    Most of my brothers are similarly successful professionally and inept romantically ^_^.