The only solution is to opt-out

Sunday’s Times cover story was a cheery article about an entire generation crippled by massive student debt.

Happy Mother’s Day!

Seriously, this is getting old.   College is too expensive, schools are ineffective, bullying is on the increase, testing is insane.

But bring up an alternative like, say, unschooling or even just changing our school system to model the success of Finland, and people flip out.   “Oh no, we MUST have compulsory schooling, testing, college!”   “How will kids learn anything otherwise?  How will we be able to keep track of what they are learning?”


The key element behind all this vehement insistence on keeping a woefully out of date and broken system is something rarely mentioned.

The key is money.

Specifically, the money made by the people who profit enormously from the system just as it is.  Do away with testing?  Surely you jest.  Testing, if we’re estimating low, is a $400 million dollar industry in the U.S. and most of that money is made by four companies.  The Big Four, as they are called.  They are: Harcourt Educational Measurement, CTB McGraw-Hill, Riverside Publishing (a Houghton Mifflin company), and NCS Pearson.   Pearson, you say?  Yes, the same Pearson to whom New York State pays 32 million dollars to write standardized tests that include questions about a race between a pineapple and a hare.

Lower college tuitions?  Are you crazy?  Student loan debt is making SOME people a ton of money, and those people have a lot more influence than you or I.

School reform?  Please.  Schools are not failing.   They are doing exactly what they were designed to do, and there is a hugely complicated and cumbersome system in place to make sure that change, to any real degree, never happens.   As evidence, here is a somewhat lengthy (but completely worthwhile)  excerpt from John Taylor Gatto’s book,  The Underground History of American Education.  This is from Chapter 17, and the title is “Three Holes in My Floor”:

In October 1990, three round holes the size of silver dollars appeared in the floor of my classroom at Booker T. Washington Junior High between West 107th and 108th streets in Spanish Harlem, about twelve blocks from Columbia Teachers College. My room was on the third floor and the holes went through to the second floor room beneath. In unguarded moments, those holes proved an irresistible lure to my students, who dropped spitballs, food, and ball bearings down on the heads of helpless children below without warning. The screams of outrage were appalling. So pragmatically, without thinking much about it, I closed off the holes with a large flat of plywood and dutifully sent a note to the school custodian asking for professional assistance.

The next day when I reported to work my makeshift closure was gone, the holes were open, and I found a warning against “unauthorized repairs” in my mailbox. That day three different teachers used the room with the holes. During each occupancy various objects plummeted through the floor to the consternation of occupants in the space below. In one particularly offensive assault, human waste was retrieved from the toilet, fashioned into a missile, and dropped on a shrieking victim. All the while, the attacking classroom exploded in cackles of laughter, I was later told.

On the third day of these aerial assaults, the building principal appeared at my door demanding the bombardment cease at once. I pointed out that I had been forbidden to close off the holes, that many other teachers used the room in my absence, that the school provided no sanctions for student aggressors, and that it was impossible to teach a class of thirty-five kids and still keep close watch on three well-dispersed holes in the floor. I offered to repair the holes again at my own expense, pointing out in a reasonable tone that this easy solution was still available and that, in my opinion, there were traces of insanity in allowing any protocol, however well meant, to delay solving the problem at once before another fecal bombardment was unleashed.

At that moment I had no idea that I was challenging an invisible legion of salarymen it had taken a century to evolve. I only wanted to spare myself those cries from below. My request was denied and I was reminded again not to take matters into my own hands. Five months later a repair was effected by a team of technicians. In the meantime, however, my classroom door lock had been broken and three panes of window glass facing Columbus Avenue shattered by vandals. The repair crew turned a deaf ear to what I felt was a pretty sensible request to do all the work at once, none of it complicated. The technicians were on a particular mission I was told. Only it had been duly authorized.

Commenting on the whole genus of such school turf wars, the New York Observer’s Terry Golway said, “Critical decisions are made in a bureaucrat’s office far from the site requiring repairs. One official’s decision can be countermanded by another’s, and layer upon layer of officialdom prolongs the process. A physical task that requires a couple of minutes work can take weeks, if not months, to snake through the bureaucracy. In the meantime the condition may worsen, causing inconvenience to children and teachers. In the end, no one is accountable.” Thanks to Mr. Golway, I found out why the missile attack had been allowed to continue.

In my case, the problem lay in the journey of my original note to the custodian, where it was translated into form P.O. 18. P.O. 18 set out on a road which would terminate in an eventual repair but not before eight other stops were made along the way and 150 days had passed. A study of these eight stops will provide a scalpel to expose some of the gangrenous tissue of institutional schooling. Although this is New York City, something similar is found everywhere else the government school flag waves. I think we must finally grow up enough to realize that what follows is unavoidable, endemic to large systems.

Stop One: P.O. 18 was signed by the principal, who gave a copy to his secretary to file, returning the original to the custodian. This typically takes several days.

Stop Two: The custodian gave a copy of the form to his secretary to file, then sent the request on to a District Plant Manager (DPM), one of thirty-one in New York City.

Stop Three: In an office far removed from my perforated floor, the DPM assigned the repair a Priority Code. Three or four weeks had now passed from the minute a ball bearing bounced off Paul Colon’s head and a turd splattered in gooey fragments on Rosie Santiago’s desk.1A copy of P.O. 18 was given to the DPM’s secretary to file, and the form went to the Resource Planning Manager (RPM), based in Long Island City.

Stop Four: The RPM collects ALL the work orders in the city, sorting them according to priority codes and available resources, and selects a Resource Planning Team (RPT). This team then enters the P.O. 18 in its own computer. A repair sequence is arrested at Stop Four for a period of weeks.

Stop Five: The P.O. 18 is relayed to the Integrated Purchasing and Inventory System (IPIS), which spits out a Work Order and sends it to the Supervising Supervisor. Three months have passed, and used toilet paper is raining down into the airless cell beneath John Gatto’s English class.

Stop Six: The Supervising Supervisor has one responsibility, to supervise the Trade Supervisors and decide which one will at some time not fix but supervise the fixing of my floor. Such a decision requires DUE TIME before an order is issued.

Stop Seven: The Trade Supervisor has responsibility for selecting service people of flesh and blood to actually do the work. Eventually the Trade Supervisor does this, dispatching a Work Crew to perform the repair. Time elapsed (in this case): five months. Some repairs take ten years. Some forever. I was lucky.

Stop Eight: Armed with bags and utility belts, tradespeople enter the school to examine the problem. If it can be repaired with the tools they carry, fine; if not they must fill out a P.O. 17 to requisition the needed materials and a new and different sequence begins. It’s all very logical. Each step is justified. If you think this can be reformed you are indeed ignorant. Fire all these people and unless you are willing to kill them, they will just have to be employed in some other fashion equally useless.

At the heart of the durability of mass schooling is a brilliantly designed power fragmentation system which distributes decision-making so widely among so many different warring interests that large-scale change is impossible to those without a codebook. Even when a favorable chance alteration occurs, it has a short life span, usually exactly as long as the originator of the happy change has political protection. When the first boom of enthusiasm wanes or protection erodes, the innovation follows soon after.

No visible level of the system, top, middle, or bottom, is allowed to institute any significant change without permission from many other layers. To secure this coalition of forces puts the supplicant in such a compromised position (and takes so long) that any possibility of very extensive alteration is foreclosed.”

How many people got paid to fix those three holes in the floor?  How many jobs were involved?  Effective school reform would eliminate a lot of those jobs.   It ain’t happening, people.

The ONLY way to challenge this system is to leave it.  This is the conclusion that people like John Holt came to after years of agitating for school reform; it is likewise the conclusion of Gatto, a public school educator for 30 years.   Opting out of testing is a good start; opting out of school is even better.

As for college, the same holds true.   There is a reason that Blake Boles, whose first book was College Without High School has now written Better Than College: Creating a Successful Life Without a Four Year Degree.   Blake has come to the conclusion which any sane person whose income does not derive from maintaining the status quo in education would come to:  the cost of college isn’t worth it.  You can learn everything you need & want to know, follow your dreams & be part of a community without paying someone tens of thousands of dollars to do it.  You can even make money while learning and building your life.

Now there’s an idea worth implementing.

It’s nice to think of the way things could be; to envision a place where school is not compulsory and there are open learning centers available to anyone.   To put all that wasted testing money into expanding our libraries – those most democratic of self-directed learning facilities.   To stop basically admitting that school is free childcare by saying unschooling isn’t possible when parents need to work and who would look after the kids during the day?

It’s nice to think of all that.  But if you have kids, can you really afford to wait and hope that reform will happen before your kids are out of school and weighed down with college debt?    Parents make all kinds of sacrifices to send their kids to college.  How about making a few sacrifices to allow them to learn outside of school right now?

A twenty-five-year-old school dropout walked the length of the planet without help, a seventeen-year-old school dropout worked a twenty-six-foot sailboat all by herself around the girdle of the globe. What else does it take to realize the horrifying limitations we have inflicted on our children? School is a liar’s world. Let us be done with it.     — John Taylor Gatto


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