The best way to understand earning power—no matter what your age—is to understand the factors that go into it. For example, most people who have careers that are plateauing usually have a learning problem that manifests itself as an earning problem.

And for parents, schooling discussions are really earning discussions. Because you can say that kids with a love of learning are lifelong learners (essential for workplace success today), but truly, who wants an unemployed Ph.D candidate? You don’t want a lawyer who can’t get a job because of poor social skills, you don’t want a kid with perfect SAT scores who marries for money because supporting oneself seems too hard. Every parent wants to raise a kid who is capable of supporting himself and capable of finding engaging work for a stable life.

Here’s how schooling affects earning power.

1. Focus on pre-K through third grade.
Why focus on pre-K? There is very solid data that the earning power of kids who attend a pre-K program is so much higher than kids who don’t that Head Start is one of the most sacred of all publicly funded programs in the US. So the school impact on one’s earning potential starts in pre-K.

Why third grade? Research from Project STAR shows that after third grade, the quality of one’s classroom has little impact on one’s future earning potential. There is clear data (spanning 25 years and researchers at six universities) that shows that test scores after third grade are not indicators of future earning potential.

2. Ignore standardized test results, obsess over self-confidence levels.
This means, of course, that it doesn’t matter how one performs on national standardized tests since those test scores do not have impact on the sixty years one spends in the workforce.

And this conclusion is consistent with one of my favorite studies in the whole world: It is from Alan Kreuger, professor at Princeton, that shows that while it is true that kids who go to Harvard and Princeton have advantages over others when it comes to future earning, you can get those same advantages just by applying to those schools. It’s having ambition and believing in yourself that are the real harbingers of success. The fancy diploma is a red herring.

3. Teach kids to find mentors.
Faye Crosby, professor at the University of Santa Cruz says that the two most important factors in a person’s earning potential are quality of schooling and quality of mentoring. Now we know that the schooling part of this equation is up to third grade. So maybe, starting in fourth grade, we should be teaching our kids how to get the best mentors.

Let’s consider what life would look like if you took all fourth graders out of school and started teaching them how to get mentors. First of all, the act of finding a mentor is very consistent with what current research on education reform says that kids should be doing: Following the paths that interest them and finding someone to guide them.

4. The best schooling after third grade is unschooling.
Here is a fascinating article from Psychology Today about why school reform will not work because schools are so incredibly ill-suited for teaching kids. In fact, the formula for school—telling kids what they should learn and how they should learn—is a method only for killing their creativity.

Lisa Neilsen, who manages teacher training for New York City public schools, also comes down hard on the classroom structure. She tells parents that kids should learn in a project-based program where the lesson plans are dictated by a child’s current interests. Neilsen says that if the school won’t do that for your kid, take your kid out of school.

5. Aim for out of the box. Way out of the box. That’s when things will look right.
So let’s say you take the advice of people whose job is to study what is the best way to teach your kid. Let’s say you take the advice of the reams of research about what factors influence a child’s future earning potential.

What you are left with is waking up every day, asking your child what he or she wants to do, and then finding someone to help them, if you are are not the right person. Some days you will offer up some ideas, some days your kid will say no to everything and decide to play video games.

Here’s what I’m doing to increase my fourth-grader’s earning potential: Pottery.

He told me he wanted to do clay. He said he’s upset that each year of school he got to do a clay project, and this year, since we’re homeschooling, he’s going to miss it.

So I did a little Googling, and I found a pottery studio: Bethel Horizons. (It is Christian, of course. Everything in rural America that has funding is either government or Christian.)

The minute I walked into the studio, I knew we were so lucky. Krista is the pottery teacher, and she took incredible care to make sure each step was a way to focus mentally and “connect with the clay.”

She showed him how to use machines and tools and she showed him that part of the process is keeping the workspace neat and clean so the brain and the hands can work in peace.

Then Krista told my son he’d make a pot each time he sits at the wheel. I thought about the study about pottery in Malcolm Gladwell’s book Outliers. Students who were asked to make one, great pot, learned much slower than kids who made a terrible pot each time at the wheel. Greatness comes from lots of terribleness, so I liked that we were on that path.

I coach so many people who want advice about their career, but so often, these people really just need to learn how to figure out what they want: experiment, find what might be fun. Try it for a bit. People need coaching on how to take risks and not worry if they fail. People need coaching on how to find a mentor who is invested in their particular path. I see that all these things are related to earning power, and all these things are what kids learn when they direct their own curriculum.

So, my son probably will not grow up to make expensive pots to sell. But I know that while he’s skipping school and managing his pottery-learning himself, his earning power is going up, and it’s a joy to watch.

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  1. my honest answer
    my honest answer says:

    “Every parent wants to raise a kid who is capable of supporting himself and capable of finding engaging work for a STABLE life”. 

    Which is why, as much as I love the pottery-as-a-life-lesson thing, I think your kids should go back to school. Because structure, routine, and being surrounded by a learning environment will, in my opinion, do much more for them than being at home in the craziness of your current relationship turmoil.

    If your home-life were more stable, I’d applaud your attempts to increase their future earnings by thinking differently. As it is, I think you’re using it as a distraction so you don’t have to focus on other areas of your life, and that is not the best thing for THEM it’s the best thing for YOU.

    • Michael Fontaine
      Michael Fontaine says:

      You might–MIGHT–have a point if Penelope hadn’t bothered to provide plenty of research to back this idea up. Sure, stability is important. But the stability that traditional school provides is shown–RIGHT THERE IN THE RESEARCH–to undermine the very thing that school is supposed to be providing: learning.

      This post has nothing to do with making life better for Penelope. Have you ever unschooled or homeschooled anyone? It is tremendously challenging and not an easy path for any parent.

      • my honest answer
        my honest answer says:

        I actually think homeschooling is great – I’m a huge proponent of it personally.

        I just think in this situation the kids would get a lot from being outside the home and witnessing some stable grown up relationships that don’t involve violence and fear.

        To me, that’s much more important because while math, English and Science can be taught and learnt, we tend to take lessons in relationships from our own life experiences. I’d like those kids to know there’s another way for adults to relate to one another.

        • Julzie
          Julzie says:

          Sometimes life isn’t perfect.

          People can go to school and get bullied or feel lonely. Anywhere people are, relationships are, and that will always cause some problems.

          Im sure Penelope is showing her kids how to deal with life and learning as best she can and as real as she can.

          • Killerwhale681
            Killerwhale681 says:

            Sometimes, especially if dealing with a mental disorder such as Aspergers, it becomes ridiculous to expect such a person to be able to teach children how to deal with life. Have yolu actually read her blog? Feel good answers don’t work when her children pay the price for her disfunctional behavior. I really believe that my mother has Aspergers also. She would pursue my father and scream at him when he tried to get away from her. Guess what, Julzie? My brother and I watched ALL of that, and it ruined our hopes of a normal family life. “As best as she can, and as real as she can?” Are you aware just how inane that sounds? Why don’t you read the relevant info about Asperger syndrome, and THEN try to reconcile your statement.

          • AspieMom
            AspieMom says:

            I’m sorry your parents had a dysfunctional relationship and that your mother was mentally unhealthy. However, it is grossly incorrect to imply, as you do, that all people on the spectrum are dysfunction and incapable of teaching their children how to deal with life. I am an Aspie, a wife, and a mother, and we have a very happy, peaceful home life. My husband and I work through disagreements by discussing and negotiating.  Our children are friendly, sociable, and well-adjusted (one autistic, one neurotypical). And I am extremely aware of my deficits – if I think I might be missing a social cue, I ask my (neurotypical) husband or a friend. If I am uncertain of the emotional component of a disagreement, I ask my husband explicitly, “Does this make you angry, or are you being quiet for some other reason?” No, it’s not “normal,” but I don’t feel that it in anyway has inhibited our children from having a stable, predictable home. Learning to work with our weaknesses is as much a part of dealing with life as anything else one can.  (I haven’t read the rest of this blog, I was linked to this specific post, so I can’t comment about the author’s home life. I simply felt the need to respond to the implication that people on the spectrum are per se dysfunctional parents)

        • Julzie
          Julzie says:

          Sometimes life isn’t perfect.

          People can go to school and get bullied or feel lonely. Anywhere people are, relationships are, and that will always cause some problems.

          Im sure Penelope is showing her kids how to deal with life and learning as best she can and as real as she can.

      • Valerie
        Valerie says:

        “my honest answer” simply said that it seemed homeschooling provided a distraction from other areas of Penelope’s life. This is also how it seems to me. The chaos of Penelope’s home life does not sound healthy. Will P stay on the farm? Will she call the police the next time she and the Farmer get in a fight and it turns physical? How many confrontations have been witnessed by the children? Until there is more stability in the home (e.g., more civil interactions between the Farmer and Penelope, still referred to by the Farmer as “citygirlfriend” in his blog, so I guess he realizes that the two are not legally married), adding the “tremendously challenging” job of homeschooling seems odd.

    • Kris
      Kris says:

      Seems a bit harsh HA. IMHO she’s teaching her kid some amazing things. #1 Honesty, no matter what. #2 Hanging  in a tough situation, even when it’s messy and the path’s not clear. #3 Finding what you love and doing it. #4 Caring enough about her kid to try and find what works best for him , even if it’s not particularly perfect or convenient.

  2. Dale
    Dale says:

    Penny, I believe that home schooling is the ideal – though it is seldom perceived to be even possible. 
    It is most natural for young beings to learn from their parents, and with all the virtual schools around, none of us need to be expert in anything, we often all learn together – muddle through and discover for ourselves.  Play is often a great teacher for this reason. 
    The socialization question often comes up, but that is easily addressed by having one’s children engage in clubs, teams, etc.  We should be homeschooling to give our kids the best, not to isolate them entirely from society.
    If home schooling is not possible, then spending a large amount of time with one’s children – ideally daily – is very beneficial, but it is really important that you be your kid’s most significant referent group. 
    Mytwocentsworth

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      It’s funny. Even as a child I had the sense that my parents were limited as a “referent group.” I knew there were people in the world who thought differently and wanted access to various adult perspectives. 

        • MJ
          MJ says:

          I had to detox myself from my parental referent group (narrow minded, poorly educated, irrational, overly emotional, bigoted…). Not all parents are useful as teachers or examples.

          • redrock
            redrock says:

            I have to agree with MJ. My parents were educated and open minded but provided nothing which can even remotely be compared to an environment which encourages learning. We are discussing here the ideal, very engaged, positive, and balanced parents as homeschool-family – this is not the norm but the exception. 

    • Penelope
      Penelope says:

      To be clear, though, I don’t think school reform/unschooling/whatever is about having kids spend more time with their parents. I mean, parents can spend plenty of time with their kids if they spend form 3-8pm every day and all day on the weekends. That’s a lot of time.

      School reform is about child-directed learning, and project-based learning. It doesn’t even need to be with parents, it’s just that the cost of doing it in a school is absolutely prohibitive for most income brackets.

      I feel like ranting now. So I’m just going to point out, that self-directed learning and project-based learning is exactly what you need to do at work today in order to succeed. The difference between people who can do that and people who can’t is the difference between career stability and career death.

      Penelope

      • Ruth
        Ruth says:

        That last paragraph rocks Penelope!  So true.  The school system, as it exists currently, sucks the ‘go get ’em’ right out of our kids.  It spits out spineless, entitled whiners who think that if they fail, someone will certainly pick up the pieces on their behalf and make everything neat and tidy.  No winners, no losers, everyone gets a medal, no matter the subject and whether or not you give a shit.  Add to the mix a legacy of helicopter parenting, and it’s a wonder that anyone has the balls to take risks.  I have 5 kids, all with different needs, interests and skills.  I hope that they all fail and learn what they love and have the confidence to take risks in order to do what they love professionally one day.  Whatever that might be.

  3. Jwhite
    Jwhite says:

    Are you absolutely NUTS?  My first thought on seeing the title was “duh”, education is essential for a future career.  Then I read some of your comments.  Although thinking outside the box is great for adults who need new ideas for their company, its NOT a good idea for grade school children who still need to learn the basics of math, reading and writing.   Quit focusing on the edge cases; that’s not going to help the majority of people who need jobs.

    Joe

    • Anonymous
      Anonymous says:

      One of the most profound realizations of my working life: No job I’ve had has ever required anything I learned IN SCHOOL past the seventh grade. Not a one. Most of it was learned from pursuing personal and intellectual and even physical interests. That includes high-paying work.

      You learn the basics of reading and writing by the 3rd or 4th grade. The rest is practice. You can get up to advanced algebra by 8th grade. People in fields that don’t involve math don’t necessarily need more. And again, you don’t need to learn this in a formal school.

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

         NO, you don’t.  You may learn to add, subtract, multiply and divide, but that’s on barest of essentials.  If you want a job that is anything further than operating a cash register, you absolutely need far more understanding of math–including: exponents, logs, roots and basic algebra.  If you want to understand literature–and the symbolism it contains–you can pick that up by reading on your own, or you could learn it in a classroom where you’d receive an educated discussion of the material. 

        Many of today’s jobs are highly technical.  A third grade, or even a seventh grade, education simply will not cut it.  Nor would a person with that level of education even be considered for those types of jobs. 

        • MJ
          MJ says:

          It depends.  I work in tax, a field that scares off most lawyers because it involves “math.”  Yeah, it involves multiplication, division and using a business calculator for compounding interest.  I took calculus in college, never used it after an advanced econ class.  Might have gotten some brain benefits from learning roots and logs once but I haven’t looked at them in the last 25 years.

          • Jwhite
            Jwhite says:

            Fair enough, but do you think it helped develop your thinking ability?    You may not need to use roots or logs in your current work, but at least you know what they are and could use them if need be.  We all learn more than we need or want in school; that’s one purpose for education, ie to prepare us for what we need and may encounter as adults. 

          • Ginger
            Ginger says:

            today’s job market favors those with quantative skills in a major way.   I know for myself I never totally understood calculus (although I got pretty good at drawing graphs) but taking the class and doing the work really brushed up my algebra and other underlying math skills.  Jobs that pay often require problem solving and algebra is very helpful for that.

            If I were going to homeschool my kids I would look into purchasing an on-line math program.

          • Ginger
            Ginger says:

            today’s job market favors those with quantative skills in a major way.   I know for myself I never totally understood calculus (although I got pretty good at drawing graphs) but taking the class and doing the work really brushed up my algebra and other underlying math skills.  Jobs that pay often require problem solving and algebra is very helpful for that.

            If I were going to homeschool my kids I would look into purchasing an on-line math program.

          • Ljm
            Ljm says:

            Different people develop their ability to think in different ways.

            And the fact is that, no, we absolutely do not “learn” more than we need or want in school.  We memorize more than we need or want in school.  There is a significant difference between the two.

        • Ljm
          Ljm says:

          This is demonstrably false.  There are lots and lots of people who know almost nothing about exponents, logs, roots, or, gasp, even basic algebra who are not “operating a cash register” and have very fulfilling (emotionally and financially) careers.

    • Woodsedge
      Woodsedge says:

      Joe, Home schoolers continue to learn the basics/essentials: math, science, reading, writing, and analytical.  In addition, they learn it in context with how they will need to use it. So rather than doing a crappy worksheet, they get the context needed to really learn it and take it to a more useful level.  Studies show that homeschoolers do much better on standardized tests and life skills than those who aren’t home schooled. 

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

        You know, I’ve know a few people who have been home schooled–as well as their parents.  I would never suggest that they are unintelligent.  I disagree with Penelope’s comments. 

        I also know that some home schoolers are home schooled through 8th grade, and then attend high school.  Why?  I suggest that its because teachers in public schools, and private academies, have more focused and in depth knowledge of the subjects they teach.  This is not to say that home school teachers don’t have those same abilities; however, being proficient in more than a few subjects is difficult. 

        I think Penelope’s comments favor a small percentage of people.  I also think that advanced students are far better off learning in school, where they have greater opportunity for interaction with other students, teachers, and extracurricular activities. 

        That’s why I said Penelope’s comments favor the ‘edge’ case.  Homeschooling may do just as well as public schooling, but I think most students will fare better with a public education. 

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

        You know, I’ve know a few people who have been home schooled–as well as their parents.  I would never suggest that they are unintelligent.  I disagree with Penelope’s comments. 

        I also know that some home schoolers are home schooled through 8th grade, and then attend high school.  Why?  I suggest that its because teachers in public schools, and private academies, have more focused and in depth knowledge of the subjects they teach.  This is not to say that home school teachers don’t have those same abilities; however, being proficient in more than a few subjects is difficult. 

        I think Penelope’s comments favor a small percentage of people.  I also think that advanced students are far better off learning in school, where they have greater opportunity for interaction with other students, teachers, and extracurricular activities. 

        That’s why I said Penelope’s comments favor the ‘edge’ case.  Homeschooling may do just as well as public schooling, but I think most students will fare better with a public education. 

        • Ljm
          Ljm says:

          Since there is zero evidence to suggest that teens who go to high school do better in any regard than teens who spend those years learning at home or otherwise on their own, why do you believe most students fare better with a public education?

        • Misty
          Misty says:

          My 11th grade English teacher had a M.A. in English. The year she taught me was the second in 10 she had taught English; the rest of the years she taught math. Because the school was so small they needed someone to cover when the math teacher left and couldn’t afford to hire outside the school system at that time. Specialized education making them better suited to teaching?? Ha, IF they’re lucky enough to actually teach the subject they studied.

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        I am convinced that learning should not always be dictated by what you know you will need. And mentoring means helping someone to fullfill their potential and it does not mean to teach them the basics. That is what teachers are for. If you want to become a poet, you need to learn about poetry first and develop you style, that is what a teacher is for. A mentor will help you to make connections and sell your work. 

    • Woodsedge
      Woodsedge says:

      Joe, Home schoolers continue to learn the basics/essentials: math, science, reading, writing, and analytical.  In addition, they learn it in context with how they will need to use it. So rather than doing a crappy worksheet, they get the context needed to really learn it and take it to a more useful level.  Studies show that homeschoolers do much better on standardized tests and life skills than those who aren’t home schooled. 

  4. Jwhite
    Jwhite says:

    And one more thing: those test scores DO matter.  The PSAT is used for determining National Merit Scholoarships.  This is important for scholarships in college.  You think these scores–PSAT and SAT/ACT–are not worth the effort?  Try getting a scholarship with crappy scores.

    Joe

    • Ljm
      Ljm says:

      So, they do matter in terms of convincing bureaucracies to fund part of your college education.  But most kids attend and do fine in college without National Merit Scholarships. And in terms of actual learning, test scores certainly are useless. 

    • Ljm
      Ljm says:

      So, they do matter in terms of convincing bureaucracies to fund part of your college education.  But most kids attend and do fine in college without National Merit Scholarships. And in terms of actual learning, test scores certainly are useless. 

    • Ljm
      Ljm says:

      So, they do matter in terms of convincing bureaucracies to fund part of your college education.  But most kids attend and do fine in college without National Merit Scholarships. And in terms of actual learning, test scores certainly are useless. 

  5. Spyros Heniadis
    Spyros Heniadis says:

    “most people who have careers that are plateauing usually have a learning problem that manifests itself as an earning problem.”

    Truer words have not been written.

    I went through the k-12 system, and some college, but it didn’t break me. I am thankful every day that I am a lifelong learner, and while my income isn’t super high, I don’t care. My life is interesting, I’m engaged, challenged, I’m learning and I’m happy.

  6. Adey Chaplin
    Adey Chaplin says:

    Excellent article. The only problem is the part about Head Start. Pre-K education is undoubtedly sacred, but Head Start has simply not had proven effects on a large-scale. It showed incredible results when it was small-scale, but when the US implemented it nationwide, it failed to demonstrate lasting results. What makes Head Start so important, though, is that it shows that we are experimenting and changing our education system. It’s clear the traditional education system is failing. What we need is more publicly funded experiments like Head Start and charter schools, where local school administrators have the freedom to try new things.

    • My Little Nomads
      My Little Nomads says:

      Isn’t it that poor kids benefit a lot from Head Start but middle class and above don’t? 

      Which I think is what you’re saying. Small-scale that focuses on less privileged kids worked. Large scale that included wealthier families didn’t.

  7. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    Hang in there with your homeschooling!  I think it is especially important to homeschool in the earlier grades.  I would never have sent my little ones to “real” school.  When I eventually did enroll my children in private school after 11 years of homeschooling, they informed me repeatedly that they had learned so much more at home and that school was “dumbing them down”.  Plus, they had lots of free time to pursue their interests.  I miss those days! 

  8. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    Hang in there with your homeschooling!  I think it is especially important to homeschool in the earlier grades.  I would never have sent my little ones to “real” school.  When I eventually did enroll my children in private school after 11 years of homeschooling, they informed me repeatedly that they had learned so much more at home and that school was “dumbing them down”.  Plus, they had lots of free time to pursue their interests.  I miss those days! 

  9. Rhonda
    Rhonda says:

    Hang in there with your homeschooling!  I think it is especially important to homeschool in the earlier grades.  I would never have sent my little ones to “real” school.  When I eventually did enroll my children in private school after 11 years of homeschooling, they informed me repeatedly that they had learned so much more at home and that school was “dumbing them down”.  Plus, they had lots of free time to pursue their interests.  I miss those days! 

  10. Marie-Eve Boudreault
    Marie-Eve Boudreault says:

    Thanks for your excellent research again! I’ll make sure to share it around and add your points in my at-home and homeschooling articles.

    I would be interested about how homeschooling the first years would be great for kids if well done. I read a book about the most important years being before 6 year old, how we should teach them to read sooner etc. Maybe the point is to give them a head start at school or not.

    I am enlighted by your information on when finding them a mentor, being a parent or a professional, and self-confidence.

  11. Mark Wiehenstroer
    Mark Wiehenstroer says:

    I thought of your friend, Marci Alboher, while reading this post and the concept of slash/braided careers. There’s many things being taught in school today that will not directly relate to the careers of tomorrow. And if they do directly relate, there will be new technologies, ideas, and ways of doing things before they even graduate. So while I like the idea of learning how to find a mentor, it should also be accompanied with how to deal with change as the workforce changes and evolves. I think this may be where self-directed learning enters the picture and comes in handy.

  12. Mark Wiehenstroer
    Mark Wiehenstroer says:

    I thought of your friend, Marci Alboher, while reading this post and the concept of slash/braided careers. There’s many things being taught in school today that will not directly relate to the careers of tomorrow. And if they do directly relate, there will be new technologies, ideas, and ways of doing things before they even graduate. So while I like the idea of learning how to find a mentor, it should also be accompanied with how to deal with change as the workforce changes and evolves. I think this may be where self-directed learning enters the picture and comes in handy.

  13. DL
    DL says:

    I agree with the creativity part and kids learning to think outside the box, especially since I was that kind of learner 40 years ago. I would have benefitted greatly and had a greater level of confidence had my “weird” ideas been encouraged.

    That said, I also disagree with the theory of kids completely choosing what they want to learn. What kid is willingly going to learn things they don’t like, or that don’t come easily to them? I certainly wouldn’t have pursued math as a child. Yet today, my creativity is fueled by the math I had to learn. Of course it is, because math is in everything…art, nature, music, even words…all the things I love and excel in. The same can be said for other kids and literature. We certainly need to expose ourselves to good writing, yet, many kids just don’t naturally jive on reading. Should we let them skip that part of learning?

    • Penelope Trunk
      Penelope Trunk says:

      DL,
      The part of math you need to learn to do the things you love, you would have, of course, taught yourself eventually.

      In adult life, we simply do not learn things we don’t want to. We learn things that we need to know in order to do the things we want to do. So why spend the first 18 years being taught to live life differently?

      Most importantly, though, there is such incredibly solid evidence that kids do fine directing their own studies. So it really gets to me when people ignore the reams of data and first-hand studies and simply announce that it’s not enough for kids to learn what they want to.

      What about all the research???? What blows my mind is the people who refute research with their gut. I think the crux of the school reform movement right now is that all the research points to one thing, and all the people who don’t want change ignore the research because it’s so overwhelming to the status quo.

      This reminds me of ten years ago when I said that job hopping was okay and that starting a business was safer than working for someone else. People simply cancelled my column (I used to be syndicated in newspapers). The ideas were so challenging to the status quo that people just clicked cancel to make them go away.

      But of course those ideas did not go away. And the truth of schooling will not go away, either.

      Penelope

      • redrock
        redrock says:

        “stand on the shoulders of giants”. Knowledge is cumulative, a good teacher can not be substituted by internet reading. period. And yes, I realize that you will reply with the fact that if you really want to learn something then you will find a teacher on your own. And yes, you might… if you know what to look for. Learning is not only about fun, and interest, learning is about building a solid knowledge base which will follow you and be an advantage all your life. Often I dig out obscure knowledge I thought I would ever need again, and certainly would never have hit on in solely self guided study. Having heard about it gives me now the opportunity to follow the trail on my own, but without initial exposure there would not be a starting point. 

      • Kris
        Kris says:

        A real life example,
        My husband went to Catholic School. Was humiliated and coerced into reading and writing even though he was dyslexic. In our 10 yrs of marriage I have NEVER seen him pick up a book for pleasure.Lots of tech manuals An avid reader, I can’t even imagine this.
        I noticed early on that our son had zero interest in reading and or writing. Public school for him was a disaster. Homeschooling worked great for him, he became an avid reader thanks to Pokemon. Is mastering the art of writing slowly and is a master at all things computer and Audio. My heart skipped a beat the other night, to find him reading Harry Potter to himself.  I completely gave up on Public School after I had spent 6 months trying to share with his teacher and the IEP team about kids with learning challenges and how handwriting for many of them was a waste of time, and they would do far better with keyboarding and alternative technology. Of course at the school awards program they gave him a certificate for “Most Improved Handwriting!” We’re not going back anytime soon!

        • Ginger
          Ginger says:

          I’ve come to the conclusion that most kids learn to read despite the efforts of the educational establishment to teach them. 

      • Kris
        Kris says:

        A real life example,
        My husband went to Catholic School. Was humiliated and coerced into reading and writing even though he was dyslexic. In our 10 yrs of marriage I have NEVER seen him pick up a book for pleasure.Lots of tech manuals An avid reader, I can’t even imagine this.
        I noticed early on that our son had zero interest in reading and or writing. Public school for him was a disaster. Homeschooling worked great for him, he became an avid reader thanks to Pokemon. Is mastering the art of writing slowly and is a master at all things computer and Audio. My heart skipped a beat the other night, to find him reading Harry Potter to himself.  I completely gave up on Public School after I had spent 6 months trying to share with his teacher and the IEP team about kids with learning challenges and how handwriting for many of them was a waste of time, and they would do far better with keyboarding and alternative technology. Of course at the school awards program they gave him a certificate for “Most Improved Handwriting!” We’re not going back anytime soon!

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

        “In adult life, we simply do not learn things we don’t want to. We
        learn things that we need to know in order to do the things we want to
        do. So why spend the first 18 years being taught to live life
        differently? ”

        Here’s why I disagree with your comments:
        1. We’re discussing childhood education –NOT adult education.  Children and young adults need to learn basic and general information in order to function as adults in society.  Adults already have that information. 
        2. “Thinking outside the box” is great for adults, but children need to learn what the box is first, in other words, they need to learn the basics in order to reach outside of those fundamental concepts. 
        3. No one would take on home schooling if they were not capable of doing so, BUT the number of those people who would is a fraction of the adult population in this country.  The vast majority either have no desire for it, or are not capable of it. 
        4. Those standardized test scores DO matter … period.  Why?  Because employers and college admissions personnel look at them.  In fact, they are required in some settings. 
        5. The current educational system may not be ideal, but it does have an established curriculum.  Home schooling will have a curriculum.  How consistent these might be, I don’t know. 

        We send our children to school to learn what they need to know to live in our society–to prepare them for what they might encounter.  That means they will be learning much more than they want to learn.  Self-directed study is often useful for adults.  It’s even useful for children–we call it ‘homework’.  Teachers provide context, resources, books, and HELP when necessary. 

        I think some of your comments are great for adults, but applying them to children and young teens is a flawed idea. 

        Joe

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

        “In adult life, we simply do not learn things we don’t want to. We
        learn things that we need to know in order to do the things we want to
        do. So why spend the first 18 years being taught to live life
        differently? ”

        Here’s why I disagree with your comments:
        1. We’re discussing childhood education –NOT adult education.  Children and young adults need to learn basic and general information in order to function as adults in society.  Adults already have that information. 
        2. “Thinking outside the box” is great for adults, but children need to learn what the box is first, in other words, they need to learn the basics in order to reach outside of those fundamental concepts. 
        3. No one would take on home schooling if they were not capable of doing so, BUT the number of those people who would is a fraction of the adult population in this country.  The vast majority either have no desire for it, or are not capable of it. 
        4. Those standardized test scores DO matter … period.  Why?  Because employers and college admissions personnel look at them.  In fact, they are required in some settings. 
        5. The current educational system may not be ideal, but it does have an established curriculum.  Home schooling will have a curriculum.  How consistent these might be, I don’t know. 

        We send our children to school to learn what they need to know to live in our society–to prepare them for what they might encounter.  That means they will be learning much more than they want to learn.  Self-directed study is often useful for adults.  It’s even useful for children–we call it ‘homework’.  Teachers provide context, resources, books, and HELP when necessary. 

        I think some of your comments are great for adults, but applying them to children and young teens is a flawed idea. 

        Joe

      • Jwhite
        Jwhite says:

        “In adult life, we simply do not learn things we don’t want to. We
        learn things that we need to know in order to do the things we want to
        do. So why spend the first 18 years being taught to live life
        differently? ”

        Here’s why I disagree with your comments:
        1. We’re discussing childhood education –NOT adult education.  Children and young adults need to learn basic and general information in order to function as adults in society.  Adults already have that information. 
        2. “Thinking outside the box” is great for adults, but children need to learn what the box is first, in other words, they need to learn the basics in order to reach outside of those fundamental concepts. 
        3. No one would take on home schooling if they were not capable of doing so, BUT the number of those people who would is a fraction of the adult population in this country.  The vast majority either have no desire for it, or are not capable of it. 
        4. Those standardized test scores DO matter … period.  Why?  Because employers and college admissions personnel look at them.  In fact, they are required in some settings. 
        5. The current educational system may not be ideal, but it does have an established curriculum.  Home schooling will have a curriculum.  How consistent these might be, I don’t know. 

        We send our children to school to learn what they need to know to live in our society–to prepare them for what they might encounter.  That means they will be learning much more than they want to learn.  Self-directed study is often useful for adults.  It’s even useful for children–we call it ‘homework’.  Teachers provide context, resources, books, and HELP when necessary. 

        I think some of your comments are great for adults, but applying them to children and young teens is a flawed idea. 

        Joe

        • Ljm
          Ljm says:

          Joe, the inarguable fact is that there are more and more adults who had exactly the kind of education you’re arguing against, and who are happy, productive members of society.  There are thousands upon thousands of kids experiencing exactly the kind of education you’re arguing against, who show no signs of being unprepared for life.

          There absolutely are lots of kids and families for whom public education is the very best choice.  But suggesting that the unschooling approach is somehow not as good for kids as traditional school, is a lot like arguing that heavier-than-air flight is impossible in 1910.  It’s not only possible, it’s been happening successfully for years.

          • Jwhite
            Jwhite says:

             LJM: You missed the point.  I am NOT arguing against home schooling .  My point is that the comments Penelope presented are what ADULTs should do.  I think it is a flawed idea to apply them to children and teens. 

          • Jwhite
            Jwhite says:

             LJM: You missed the point.  I am NOT arguing against home schooling .  My point is that the comments Penelope presented are what ADULTs should do.  I think it is a flawed idea to apply them to children and teens. 

          • Jwhite
            Jwhite says:

             LJM: You missed the point.  I am NOT arguing against home schooling .  My point is that the comments Penelope presented are what ADULTs should do.  I think it is a flawed idea to apply them to children and teens. 

          • Ljm
            Ljm says:

            But, Joe, they ARE being applied to children and teens and have been for a while, now.  And the adults who had them applied to them as children have grown up happy and successful.  You’re arguing against an approach that has been proven to work for most of the people who use it.

    • Whitney
      Whitney says:

      DL,

      You’d be surprised. I took math in school and hated it. Then, one day in college (so I wasn’t a “kid”, so what?) I picked up a book of stories about real-life mathematicians and real-life math problems. Two months later I was a math major. What I’m saying is, it doesn’t SEEM like kids would ever pick math (or any less favorable subject), but it IS possible.

      Just sayin’…

  14. DL
    DL says:

    I agree with the creativity part and kids learning to think outside the box, especially since I was that kind of learner 40 years ago. I would have benefitted greatly and had a greater level of confidence had my “weird” ideas been encouraged.

    That said, I also disagree with the theory of kids completely choosing what they want to learn. What kid is willingly going to learn things they don’t like, or that don’t come easily to them? I certainly wouldn’t have pursued math as a child. Yet today, my creativity is fueled by the math I had to learn. Of course it is, because math is in everything…art, nature, music, even words…all the things I love and excel in. The same can be said for other kids and literature. We certainly need to expose ourselves to good writing, yet, many kids just don’t naturally jive on reading. Should we let them skip that part of learning?

  15. Ilana Rabinowitz
    Ilana Rabinowitz says:

    If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to check out the book, The Education of Millionaires, which says there is no decent ROI on higher education and people should find mentors and coaches to help them learn what they are interested in and what helps them earn money.

  16. Ilana Rabinowitz
    Ilana Rabinowitz says:

    If you haven’t read it yet, you may want to check out the book, The Education of Millionaires, which says there is no decent ROI on higher education and people should find mentors and coaches to help them learn what they are interested in and what helps them earn money.

  17. Guest
    Guest says:

    Interesting article…I particularly like the this line in the last paragraph

    ‘experiment, find what might be fun. Try it for a bit.’

    Great advice for finding a career.

  18. Guest
    Guest says:

    Interesting article…I particularly like the this line in the last paragraph

    ‘experiment, find what might be fun. Try it for a bit.’

    Great advice for finding a career.

  19. Guest
    Guest says:

    Interesting article…I particularly like the this line in the last paragraph

    ‘experiment, find what might be fun. Try it for a bit.’

    Great advice for finding a career.

  20. Harriet May
    Harriet May says:

    I think this is sort of what I’m trying to do for myself, now at 24.  I feel like I am behind, even though I have a Masters degree and a good job.  But there is so much I don’t know that I wish I did, like graphic design and photography and what to look for when you’re setting up a bank account (because no one ever taught me that last one I have acquired a bunch of different accounts through a process of trial-and-error, and am thankful for the online chat and patient customer service reps at Ally).  Even when I was in school I didn’t understand why we were being given maps to color when we could have been taught personal finance and current events and how to speak to customs officials when you’re re-entering the country, because those are things that are actually useful.  But now it’s fun because I feel like things are opening up to me all the time, and I never felt that way in school, where every day felt like checking things off someone else’s list rather than actually really learning.

    • redrock
      redrock says:

      Sometimes I think there should really be a distinction between life skills and academic learning. There should definitely be some teaching of life skills in school, but I actually think that school is more responsible for the academic side. Not that knowing the pythagorean theorem is going to get you across the border, but learning how to derive it will teach abstract thinking and discovery. Getting it wrong, finding a new way to do it, and finally being able to come up with a proof. 

  21. Cescalouise
    Cescalouise says:

    I love your comment about mentors. Mostly, I love that you urge us to TEACH the students to find mentors. Not to GIVE them mentors. Lately, I have been thinking that we don’t do enough teaching our students the new skills they need to succeed in the new global economy. We hand them things: tests, study aids at best, insults, self confidence slayers at worst, but we don’t teach them to handle themselves very well in a society that is very different from the one we, as adults grew up in. I’ve been in education a long time. First as a teacher of children then of  adults, then as an art specialist, and now as an education leader. I’m a little obsessed right now with the idea of opportunity, and the notion that if we actually TAUGHT our kids how to go after it, students would have a much better chance at the American Dream than they do right now. I’ll send you the book when it’s done. :)

    • TanyaZ
      TanyaZ says:

      I agree with you 100% about not enough teaching of skills.  I finished 14th in my high school class out of 200 students, had no problem getting in a state university of my choice, but once in my first real job after college I couldn’t do anything that didn’t come with an instruction manual or someone telling me what to do.  It was pathetic.  I had a lot of life skills building to do even after all that education that didn’t seem to do much else for me but push me through an educational system.  My son will not be filling in circles on a test page with a #2 pencil – no thanks. 

  22. Paul Hassing
    Paul Hassing says:

    Yep yep yeppity yep! I totally agree it’s vital to try and fail at a swag of things to see what you dig. The pottery analogy is fab. Krista sure sounds like a keeper. Nice find, P! :)

  23. Laura
    Laura says:

    I love seeing him make his pots.  What a neat thing!

    Just wanted to add, that Head Start was mostly a complete failure for long term benefits.  Most children had lost all the advantages of a non head start pre schooler by the end of 1st grade and by the end of 3rd grade they were pretty much unrecognizable amongst children.  This was from the Oklahoma study which is where the Head Start push first began. 

  24. Livia
    Livia says:

    Your first point is absolute BS. There’s a million reasons why kids may be underachievers in Kindergarten to grade 3, including ADD, learning disabilities or issues that may resolve itself after grade 3. In fact, my grade 2 teacher told my parents that I’d likely never get to university/college, she was considering failing me because I wasn’t ‘catching on’ as fast as the other students (never mind that i wasn’t interested in 99% of what I was learning at the time), but I am now attending one of the top law schools in the United States, and will likely be earning a salary of $100K when out.

    There’s plenty of people that mimic my story… what about those who just have a slow start or just “late bloomers”. EINSTEIN of all people, is a perfect example. He also failed grade 1 or 2, was told by teachers he wasn’t achieving, because of a learning disorder/issue that affected his early motor & math skills. He wasn’t able to tie his shoe laces until age 8, i believe. There was another genius that only learned to talk at a later age, forget which scientist it was. But really… there’s plenty of examples. Half of my law school class was probably underachievers at some point in time… don’t take it as a sign of success for the rest of your life – giving up too soon is pointless for your child’s development and I owe everything to my parents and those teachers that believed in me, rather than relying on IQ tests at the age of 6 that’s supposed to predict your entire life’s success. Way to be totally presumptuous. 

  25. Sean Crawford
    Sean Crawford says:

    Reminder: Canada, where they speak English, is just across the border. I live there. Fact: People up here very seldom feel any need to put the adjective “good” in front of school or university. The quality is pretty good and pretty universal. Any one could check if my fact is wrong by simply driving north and asking. Then you could start asking how to get quality… 

  26. Killerwhale681
    Killerwhale681 says:

    The following comments are certainly not PC, but here goes….My mother reminds me a lot of Penelope, and mores the pity. You see, kids pattern themselves after what they see, good or bad. Some commenters feel that Penelope is borderline, and that may be true. However, it’s obvious that she is very intelligent, but that really doesn’t help her sons. My mother came home one time with a 100 lb sack of soybeans, and proceeded to make us eat them ALL. It was manic, really, but to this day, she doesn’t understand what she did wrong. I get the feeling that Penelope is the same way. Sounds good, but the application is whacked out, and I’m sure she has some really cool reasons why her ideas should work, but let us face the facts…she says she has Asperger Syndrome. That in and of itself means she DOESN’T understand how to actually relate to her children, or the Farmer….more’s the pity, it seems.

    • AspieMom
      AspieMom says:

      This is a stereotype of people on the spectrum, and not actually true of every Aspie or autistic. It takes more work for people on the spectrum to learn how people relate (to learn to read vocal intonation, to read facial expressions, etc). That is by no means the same as saying that we can’t learn how to relate to others. There are those of us on the spectrum with good marriages, happy families, and close friendships – it just takes work for us to get there (which, really, is true for any good relationship).

  27. Alan Kay
    Alan Kay says:

    Agree with what you say. Standardized schooling isn’t bad for every child – some respond well to structured learning and learn to use the knowledge effectively. Given the cost of educating young people we have to make it work. Others, need to learn a different way. The question is, can we customize learning? 
    We can re-frame the way teaching is delivered in the classroom. If you talk to teachers who love to teach they will tell you that they work with the learner they way she/he is, vs trying to re-shape them. 
    Parents have a big role in helping the child make the most of the class – it’s as much the learner’s responsibility to use the learning as it is the teacher’s job to help them become successful citizens.

  28. Alan Kay
    Alan Kay says:

    Agree with what you say. Standardized schooling isn’t bad for every child – some respond well to structured learning and learn to use the knowledge effectively. Given the cost of educating young people we have to make it work. Others, need to learn a different way. The question is, can we customize learning? 
    We can re-frame the way teaching is delivered in the classroom. If you talk to teachers who love to teach they will tell you that they work with the learner they way she/he is, vs trying to re-shape them. 
    Parents have a big role in helping the child make the most of the class – it’s as much the learner’s responsibility to use the learning as it is the teacher’s job to help them become successful citizens.

  29. Kahlie
    Kahlie says:

    I am a teacher.  I have been reading your column for years.  At first most of the things you wrote about where a bit irrelevant to me – but I found it interesting.  Now you talk heaps about school and I really like that.  

    I agree so much with what you have said here… unfortunately we are constrained by the structures we work under.

    I have a little girl and I think about school, and how she will benefit from it.  I think about home schooling her.  I also know people that homeschool (i grew up in a rural community 4 hrs from the closets city and it was all the go) and they were simply strange.  I wish there was a community of homeschooler who thought like you and me.  

    • TanyaZ
      TanyaZ says:

      Can I ask you to clarify what you mean by strange?  When we first started mentioning the posibility of homeschooling our son, people would tell us the homeschoolers they knew of or met were strange or weird, but could never really explain how or why.  And I’m still curious.  What does this mean? 

  30. Kahlie
    Kahlie says:

    I am a teacher.  I have been reading your column for years.  At first most of the things you wrote about where a bit irrelevant to me – but I found it interesting.  Now you talk heaps about school and I really like that.  

    I agree so much with what you have said here… unfortunately we are constrained by the structures we work under.

    I have a little girl and I think about school, and how she will benefit from it.  I think about home schooling her.  I also know people that homeschool (i grew up in a rural community 4 hrs from the closets city and it was all the go) and they were simply strange.  I wish there was a community of homeschooler who thought like you and me.  

  31. elizabeth
    elizabeth says:

    I run a small farm (some might call it a hobby farm) in a wealthy county.  Both public and home schools call to request field trips.  I’m starting to dread the home schooler calls.  They ask for the world and seem to expect it to be given for free whereas the requests we get from public school are generally more realistic, enjoyable and remunerative.  

    I understand, P, that you’re likely paying Krista to teach pottery to your son.  If so, thank you for that.  But there are many of us working in small, creative establishments who are fielding ever more intrusive, loopy requests from home schoolers.  It’s starting to feel like a problem.

  32. Illini2k
    Illini2k says:

    P before you start scolding people for not rolling lock step with the ‘research’ keep in mind that many of the articles you post are actually opinion pieces from researchers, not their actual research.

    This spring I took my son out of school to go watch Albert Pujols and the Cardinals take batting practice.  We had a great time, talked baseball, a few hot dogs.  It was a great bonding moment for both of us.  It was not, however, homeschooling. It was me hanging out with my son.  It’s ok to say “I spent the day with my son, and we had a great time” and leave it at that. 

  33. Fgardner
    Fgardner says:

    This post is entirely sensible to me. I don’t usually find myself agreeing with everything you say — which is fine too! — but this time I did. 

  34. Ginger
    Ginger says:

    Head Start is a sacred program, but the research I’ve read indicates the effects wear off by middle-school. 

    I think the real reason to focus on K-3 is that those are the years when a child learns to read.  If your child doesn’t learn to read, and read well they’re going to  have problems.   You know where a lot of kids who didn’t learn to read well by 3rd grade finally learn?  In prison where there is nothing else to do.

    I view your “quality mentoring” in a different way.  It’s not the external mentor who’s important.  It’s your childs’ ability to learn from the people around them.  Your child won’t always have the most perfect mentors available.  They’ll have whoever is there.  If they can connect with who they encounter they’ll learn what they can and benefit.

  35. Betsy Cross
    Betsy Cross says:

    I LOVE this post! I homeschooled my kids for 6 months and stressed out and sent them back! I couldn’t keep up with public school, and I knew they were headed back the following year. Then I read “A Thomas Jefferson Education”, which based learning in the classics. THEN, I thought,”Hey! I love family history. Maybe a curriculum based in that?” I’m all about treating each child as an individual and helping him/her find mentors. I’m not a “helicopter” parent. My joy comes from seeing my kids’ passion about something. The passion that doesn’t need my encouragement to keep them going.

  36. Betsy Cross
    Betsy Cross says:

    I LOVE this post! I homeschooled my kids for 6 months and stressed out and sent them back! I couldn’t keep up with public school, and I knew they were headed back the following year. Then I read “A Thomas Jefferson Education”, which based learning in the classics. THEN, I thought,”Hey! I love family history. Maybe a curriculum based in that?” I’m all about treating each child as an individual and helping him/her find mentors. I’m not a “helicopter” parent. My joy comes from seeing my kids’ passion about something. The passion that doesn’t need my encouragement to keep them going.

  37. Diannasyed
    Diannasyed says:

    I don’t home school because I would lose my mind and we would be homeless.
    But you have given my lots of ideas in this post and your considerate reply.  Life is messy.

  38. Elaine
    Elaine says:

    Penelope,
    Thank you, and thank you for confirming what I knew in my heart and brain all these years.  My kids are now 25, 23 and 19 and even though I didn’t have all the research to back up my “relaxed homeschool” and later unschooling approach, my kids are bearing testimony to it’s potential.

  39. William ResumeWriter Mitchell
    William ResumeWriter Mitchell says:

    Item #2 especially caught my eye. I try to always communicate to my
    nephews and nieces the value of confidence and persistence. I have a
    friend who always struggled in school who owns his own computer
    programming firm, while my high school valedictorian sells cookies in
    the mall. The difference was self-confidence and toughness when things
    went off the rails. It doesn’t matter how fancy the degree if you
    crumble at the sign of the first speed bump.

  40. Ap23
    Ap23 says:

    I’m not sure that items 4 and 5 aren’t going to result in gifted kids being all the more successful and ordinary kids being deeper failures.  Not only can’t you give every kid a bespoke education, some people need defined environments and paths.  

    I know; I’m the latter.  All the freedom I was given ruined my life.

  41. Kelly@MB
    Kelly@MB says:

    It’s so true that every child is expected to learn and retain information in exaclty the same way as the child sitting next to him. This is clearly not the ideal aspect of the education system these days, when it’s easy to see that people in general, not just kids, need to be stimulated in a way that is going to aid them in a particular way to maximize their potential. Way too much pressure is put on kids in terms of standardized tests. This way of assesing knowledge needs to be updated, so that kids understand that the measure of how smart they are is not as black and white as the words on the page of a test. Intelligence is a comparative strategy to young kids, who size themselves up by peering at their neighbors math score, where the focus should be on determining specific interests, clear goals, and specialized learning tactics that will optimize their education experience. Lend kids the knowledge to know that everyone is their own person, and learns at different paces in different ways– and they will have much more confidence in themselves and their abilities.

  42. Bernard Ringwald
    Bernard Ringwald says:

    I have found having a good mentor to be more helpful to my financial well-being than almost anything else I can think of. When I was younger, I thought “why would anyone mentor?”. Now that I’m older, I can see what is in it for the mentor – the satisfaction of helping others, of giving back to the community, and the joy of watching a younger person blossom. Some of us old fogies just like being around the enthusiasm and optimism of untarnished youth.

  43. K. J. Southall
    K. J. Southall says:

    The socialization and order idea, as provided by standard ‘traditional’ schooling, has some merit to it on the surface but it can be challenged.

    Beyond studies one of the most erudite, and persuasive, takes on the issue is provided by John Taylor Gatto, an awarded public school teacher by profession and decades of experience, who quit out of disgust and is now a major advocate of home schooling.

    As for what a few comments mention about Penelope’s home stability, not to be snide but since this blog’s inception more often than not her romantic, marital, and home life has been depicted as a matter of turmoil.

    I wish you all the best Penelope but I don’t think you’d disagree with this perception. Why this is a constant theme in your life, and not the lives of others, is a question only you and your partner can answer. I don’t think you’d be shielding your children from it by “sending them to normal school” as the case may be, and honestly if, if, you are

    Turmoil and instability are as real a part of real life as stability and harmony, what’s chiefly important is that children are loved, and if exposed to chaos at home a real effort is still being put forth to provide some measure of structure.

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