Thursday, October 17, 2019

Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.


The Strongest Support for School Vouchers Comes from Lower-Income Families

When it comes to education, the word voucher tends to elicit strong reactions in three broad public opinion camps. First, there are those who feel strongly that vouchers can expand education options for families by allowing children to attend a private school using some or all of the per-pupil spending amount allocated to the local district school.

In other words, if a school district spends around $13,000 per student (the national average), then families would be able to use some or all of that tax money toward private school tuition instead. Second, there are those who feel that vouchers and other education choice mechanisms threaten conventional mass schooling by expanding private options. Finally, there are those who believe that no tax dollars should be allocated toward education, either public or private.

Vermont's Voucher Program

As political fodder, voucher programs are sometimes used to pit people against each other. Yet, school voucher programs have been around for a long time, serving myriad purposes, often with wide support. In Vermont, for instance, the nation’s oldest school voucher program flourishes.

Created in 1869, Vermont’s voucher program allows students in towns without public schools to attend any public or non-religious private school, including elite prep schools and boarding schools, in Vermont or out-of-state—with the home district footing the bill. As of 2016, 95 Vermont towns offered a town tuition voucher for one or more grades.

Vermont also recently enacted a preschool voucher program, allowing parents to take advantage of up to 10 hours per week of publicly funded preschool services through either a public or private preschool provider. For a state with such a strong voucher legacy, it’s ironic that longtime Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate, Bernie Sanders, opposes vouchers, asserting that he is

strongly opposed to any voucher system that would re-direct public education dollars to private schools, including through the use of tax credits.

Other school districts around the country pay for out-of-district placements for students, typically with special needs, who require services or settings that the district cannot provide. This also works like a voucher, with the home district paying the tuition to the receiving school. Then there are Federal Pell Grants in higher education that allocate needs-based public money to college students, also acting as a voucher.

In fact, Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren advocated expanding these Pell Grant vouchers, which go to students at both public and private colleges and universities, while stating that she is opposed to private school vouchers at the K-12 level. Finally, vouchers are widely accepted outside of education in everything from housing vouchers for low-income families to food stamps and the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC).

The Attack on Vouchers

Given the vast use and acceptance of vouchers in many areas of our society, including education, the targeted attack on K-12 school voucher programs is misguided. Calling them aid, subsidies, grants, tuition programs, or any other euphemism doesn’t dismiss the fact that these tax money allocations are, indeed, vouchers. While school voucher programs have long been criticized by those who want to retain the mass schooling status quo and limit a family’s education choices, particularly for low-income families, the tide may be turning. Public opinion appears to be shifting toward more choice for more families through school vouchers.

According to recent findings from the “2019 Welfare, Work, and Wealth National Survey,” conducted by the Cato Institute, the majority of Americans (58 percent) support taxpayer-funded K-12 private school vouchers. Some groups are particularly favorable toward vouchers. Responding to the survey question, which asked how respondents feel about a proposal “that would give all families with children in public school a wider choice by allowing them to use a voucher to enroll their children in private schools instead, with government helping to pay the tuition,” African Americans responded most enthusiastically, with 69 percent support.

Low-income Americans and those with only a high school diploma were also highly supportive of K-12 private school vouchers, but that support dwindled among those with higher incomes and college degrees. Poorer and less well-educated Americans demand more choice beyond an assigned district school, even as more privileged citizens oppose granting it. The survey also found some political nuances to voucher preferences, as well. While Republicans and independents are most favorable toward vouchers, 60 percent of moderate Democrats also support them, as do 39 percent of liberal Democrats.

The majority of Americans, according to the Cato survey, would rather send their children to a private school, while 59 percent of Democrats prefer public school. Let parents decide where and how to educate their children. If parents prefer public school for their kids, then they should send their kids to public school; but they shouldn’t limit other parents’ choices because of their own personal preferences or political leanings.

American taxpayers spend over $700 billion each year on K-12 public schooling. Vouchers give families more choice over how that money is spent, allowing them to select the best educational fit for their children beyond a mandatory local school assignment. Parents are increasingly dissatisfied with a one-size-fits-all mass schooling model and want access to expanded educational options for their kids. Vouchers expand access and options. It’s good to see that more Americans agree.


We Teach Nothing, We Know Nothing—and That Could Cost the United States Everything

A couple of years ago, a retired teacher who stays in close touch with history teachers across Texas told me something disturbing. Like most states, Texas has standardized testing. Unlike most states, Texas requires public school students to study Texas history in the 4th and 7th grades. Texas history is red in tooth and claw and full of big personalities and big ideas. Standardized testing is forcing teachers to drop about half of the second semester of Texas history to focus on U.S. history -- not to deepen students' understanding of American history, but to teach to the standardized tests.

This, according to my friend, shortchanges students from learning about key parts of Texas history. Teaching to the test is shallow. Add in that history teaching is being watered down overall across our public education system, and we have a problem.

That problem was exposed, unintentionally, by an Obama administration official.

Far be it from me to agree with an Obama acolyte, but Ben Rhodes infamously said, "They literally know nothing" about the journalists he manipulated to sell the awful Iran nuclear deal. This, he said, made it easy to sell that deal. He was a liberal, most journalists are default liberal, so they believed whatever he told them. Lack of knowledge makes a whole lot of things easier for crafty people.

He wasn't wrong. And he wasn't just talking about journalists. Most people literally know nothing about history. And along with losing foundations in history, public schools no longer teach rhetoric or critical thinking. So people don't know what they don't know, and don't know what that means.

Cracking foundations

If Americans had solid foundations in our history, things like what's happened to Thomas Jefferson wouldn't happen. When museums such as Monticello turn away from much of Thomas Jefferson's life and his ideas to focus on slavery, this distorts history. Soon enough, the city he lived in and founded a major university in votes to stop acknowledging his birthday. They're erasing him from history. The fact that Jefferson is among those responsible for their even having the right to vote is entirely lost on them. Jefferson was like everyone else in that he was a man of his times, and he was imperfect. But today, he must be denounced as irredeemable based entirely on the flawed thinking of our times.

Just in the past few months we have seen the political landscape shift dramatically. The Democrats now have a spiritual if not electoral leader, Bernie Sanders. Sanders won't win the nomination but he has dragged his party hard to the left, to the point that their entire presidential field is endorsing some version of the following platform.

"Free" education. Again, meaning redistributive and taxpayer-funded.
Some version of nationalizing energy policy, either a fracking ban or something along the lines of national policy. Think about the economic and national security implications of that, with a war brewing in the Middle East (again).

Andrew Yang is promising to pay millions of Americans a "universal wage" -- create dependence, via confiscation and redistribution.

Beto O'Rourke is a special case. He's promising to disarm Americans, destroy our churches and force wealthy Americans out of their homes. You may think "I'm not wealthy, so why should I care?" The definition of "wealthy" being elastic, this could mean a whole lot of people would get shoved around at gunpoint under a Beto regime. Including you. Like Sanders, O'Rourke won't win. But he is shifting issues left in that his fellow Democrats will not condemn him.

Ban all fossil fuels. How? And what would this do to our economy?

Open borders.

They're gathering around these proposals under the guise of "ending income inequality."
Ending income inequality is literally impossible. It cannot be done, ever, under any human circumstance. Some people will always make more money than some other people. You have rich and poor people in capitalist countries, and you have rich and poor people in communist and socialist countries. The main difference is, the rich in the communist and socialist countries are more likely to have openly killed and stolen from large numbers of people to acquire their wealth. They're less likely to create something of value and profit from that, because socialist and communist systems either strongly curb or outright ban private property and profit. There's more blood in the treasure chests of rich communists and socialists.

And there are more billionaires, millionaires and thousandaires in capitalist countries. Everything gets democratized under capitalism. Everything gets centralized into the hands of the powerful few under socialism/communism. It's just common sense. That's how the different systems literally work.

Power corrupts

Fidel Castro died a very rich man -- almost a billionaire. Cuba is an extremely poor country thanks to him. Hugo Chavez died a very rich man -- half a billionaire. Chavez destroyed Venezuela, which as recently as the 1990s was the third-richest country in the Americas. It's not anymore. These aren't faraway places. They're in our neighborhood. Cuba is closer to Florida than Austin is to Dallas.

China's communist rulers are getting filthy rich right now.

How. Does. This. Happen. under regimes that bill themselves as offering economic equality and ending "income inequality"?

Once you seize power in a centralist system you're free to take whatever you want from whoever has it. Who's to stop you? You "nationalize" industries, meaning you grab them and treat them as piggy banks. You kick everyone who speaks out against you square in the face, mock and ostracize them, run them out of the country, de-platform them by controlling the media, imprison and torture them, or line them up and shoot them.

That's exactly what Castro did, and he had henchmen like Che Guevara to help him. It's what Chavez did and Maduro is still doing in Venezuela. This is less history than current events, but absent context and the means to process, it's too easy to ignore or distort.

Red platform

The Democrats' emerging platform appears to be a mix of two recent, modern regimes -- that of Venezuela, and that of the Khmer Rouge. Both regimes are modern horrors. The former has been publicly praised by the likes of Bernie Sanders and Robert Kennedy Jr. The latter sounds like a makeup line pitched by the Kardashians and probably 95% of Americans have never even heard of it. Johnny Depp and other Hollywood derps run around wearing Che shirts. Probably 99% of Americans have no idea who Pol Pot was or what evil things he did, or the influence of Chinese communism on him. He's not a brand of legalized Colorado cannabis. He forcibly relocated people, stole their property and killed them -- killing about 25% of his country in about three years. If you've ever met a Cambodian living in the United States, you have probably met someone Pol Pot was trying to kill.

Hugo Chavez ran on a platform pretty much identical to Sanders' and now most Democrats'. Chavez's platform was:

End income inequality
Make education free
Make electricity free (by nationalizing it)
Get rid of privately owned guns to "improve security"

He promised free stuff -- safety and security. He won. And He proceeded to enrich himself, disarm the people, crush dissent and destroy his country. Every single one of these newly minted Democratic socialists in the United States is wealthy. Sanders is a millionaire who owns three houses. Even former bartender AOC now gets $300 haircuts and wants a raise on top of her very high congressional salary. Sanders isn't sharing his wealth. None of these Democrats are. But they'll happily confiscate and "share" yours.

The price of knowing nothing

Texas fought a whole revolution over just this idea -- centralist government or federalist (republican) government. Thankfully the latter won. But hardly anyone is aware of this, and the left will rewrite that story the first chance they get and turn it into a war over race and class -- not ideas. The left won't forget the Alamo, they'll just remember it incorrectly. Or do we think the same forces denouncing Jefferson now don't have designs on the Alamo, Gettysburg, Mount Vernon, Yorktown... wherever the American story can be destroyed? Of course they do. They've already attacked the national anthem and the Betsy Ross flag.

Because millions know nothing, warnings about what's happened in the past or now don't work. Thomas Jefferson is worse than that Cambodian dictator they've never heard of. The National Basketball Association should've been more specific with the "national" part of its branding. Which nation do they belong to now? This past week they've enforced speech codes on behalf of Maoist communist China. Golden State (social justice) Warriors coach Steve Kerr, an outspoken critic of the United States, refused to criticize China's abysmal human rights record. They've been joined by Apple and Blizzard. Right now, Hong Kong may be the most important city in the world. But too many Americans who know nothing don't understand that, and are happily selling it out for Chinese money.

History is not dusty books and broken swords and statues without arms and noses. History is how we got where we are -- and it's often a foreboding warning. In modern times it's a stream of events from the bloody French Revolution through Marx and Engels to the Cold War and the Killing Fields to Havana and Caracas to prisons full of Chinese dissidents being harvested for organs, to statements coming out of the mouths of people who, without irony, refer to themselves as social justice warriors and "Democrats."

Socialism should be exposed for what it is and will always be: a mix of greed, lust, envy and slavery. If you are not allowed to own property, if you are not allowed to keep the fruit of your ideas and labors -- you are enslaved. That is the ultimate promise of socialism.

But because we teach nothing, we know nothing. And that stands a strong chance of costing us everything.


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