Viewing posts from the Education category

Talk Early, Talk Often

What can you as a parent do to help your children develop their language skills?

Workbooks? Flash cards? No, my advice is much simpler. Talk to them. Talk early. Talk often. Talk about all the interesting aspects of your life together.

My fans may remember the 30 million word research. Today, I discovered an extensive interview with one of the authors, Dr. Todd Risley. It’s long, but well worth reading or listening to the end.

Doctors Hart and Risley observed very young children – 0 to three years of age – trying to find out why some have rich vocabularies in the preschool years, and discovered something unexpected. Children hear on average 1500 words per hour, but some hear as few as 600 per hour, and some 2100 words per hour. The children whose parents or caregivers talk a lot, come away with richer vocabularies than those with taciturn caregivers.

It’s not just quantity. Ever child hears a certain amount of “business talk” – do this, come here, stop that. These directives tend to be simple and repetitive. The additional talk is varied, complex, interesting, and vocabulary-rich. It entices the child with pictures and rhythm and back-and-forth engagement. It helps to develop important centers of the child’s brain.

You’ll find that the correlation between this sort of speech and measures of children’s reading, IQ at age 3, and academic success is strong. And it does not matter what the socio-economic status is. A poor minority parent who engages with her child – or is able to place her child with such a caregiver at an early age – will impart a great gift to her child; the gift of a rich vocabulary, learned during the crucial early years of the child’s life.

I stress again – this is early development, the development of babies and toddlers. Conversation, back and forth, as you change the baby’s diaper or nurse her or clothe her or take her shopping. You needn’t spend money; you needn’t do any more than converse with your little children. Early and often.


No Such Thing As Free School

Remember the saying? There’s no such thing as a free lunch? This is true for all “free” goods provided by the government. First off, obviously, taxpayers cover the costs. Second, government is seldom or never the most efficient provider of services.

But most importantly, “free” school (the topic of this article) comes packaged with a bundle of problems. Someone else, not you, gets to decide which hours children should attend school; which subjects should be taught; and what the content of those subjects might be. Some one else decides which spin of history and economics and philosophy shall be taught.

It should come as no surprise that, when the government teaches, it happens to teach that government is a positive good, and that without government, there’d be no roads, and we’d all be at the mercy of war lords and other horrible creatures. So shut up, submit, pay your taxes and follow the rules.

We are discovering, however, that many things which were presumed to need government intervention, do not. Parents are teaching their children at home and in co-ops, independent of government. In India, millions of parents are spurning government schools, in favor of parent-funded government-free schools. Millions of customers use ride-sharing services, breaking the stranglehold of licensed taxicab drivers. People are using Bitcoin to transact business. In a myriad of ways, people are discovering that government isn’t free; that freedom works better and at lower cost.

You Are Your Own Worst Critic

Over the past forty years of striving to make computers do what I want, I have gained a few hard-won truths. One is that we can be very poor critics of own ideas. We love those ideas; we poured our own blood, sweat and tears into them. Of course they must be right; of course the computer must have misunderstood what we intended to happen.

Well, no. Whether we refer to computer programs, science, politics or economics, when we get stuck, or even when we think everything is going swimmingly, we need to bring in other pairs of eyes to take a fresh look, to spot what we may have blocked ourselves from seeing.

As I write this, Brian Wansink has made the news in a very unfortunate manner; he unwittingly invited people to scrutinize his research and his writings, and the results were not pretty. Now, I must stress that his conclusions might be right; we don’t know one way or the other. What we do know is that he didn’t take care to prove his points; his methods were not up to the task.

Brian Wansink, bless him, is probably a good fellow who was trying to do the right thing. But he admits that he hasn’t kept up with what we now know as the Replication Crisis – the fact that many research papers, especially in the social sciences, cannot be replicated.

I say to anybody in search of the truth: invite criticism. Borrowing from the experiences of those who create and use Open Source Software, open up your data, your methods, your research; your little “tricks” and “kludges” and “smoothing” algorithms. If you had good, solid reasons for your tweaks, they’ll stand the light of scrutiny. As Eric Raymond put it, given enough eyeballs, all bugs are shallow – or perhaps it is better to say that problems are easily solved if you can find the right pair of eyes with the right expertise to examine them. Many people, it seems, assume that they already have sufficient expertise; they hoard their data, their algorithms, their thinking processes, and declare that the “science is settled” rather too easily.

Makework Expands To Fill Time

Why are school lessons so bad? Perhaps we overlook the most crucial of reasons, discovered by Parkinson: work expands to fill time. Compulsory attendance laws mandate that children attend to something for ever-increasing parts of their lives, under the direction of professional educators, at ever-increasing cost.

It simply wouldn’t do to pay these educators to take long naps while the students fly paper airplanes, or dance, or play other random games of their own devising. No, they must be kept busy. And so, busywork and tedium fill all the days of our children’s lives. That which is simple is made complex. That which might be interesting in five-minute doses, is stretched to 45 interminable minutes.

Daniel Greenberg, of Sudbury Valley Schools, reported that it takes about twenty hours of classroom instruction to teach a group of interested students the fundamentals of arithmetic. In conventional schools, the same fundamentals are spaced out over six years or more, times 180 days, multiplied by three quarters of an hour per day. And by the end of twelve years, distressingly large percentages of students cannot even compute a 15% tip, much less cope with a tax form.

Now, it may be argued that most of us ordinarily use calculators and spreadsheets – but my question is, why do schools stretch twenty hours of focused, effective instruction into a thousand hours of tedium? I reply that school teachers and administrators feel compelled to do something with all of those mandatory hours. Anything will do, lest the illogic of mandatory attendance become too evident.

And that, folks, is why so many of our children are alternately bored to tears, and anxious about “keeping up.”

Freedom Zone Confronts City Council

“Let’s bring this meeting to order,” said the Mayor. “Order, please.” He banged the gavel. Quiet emerged in the packed City Council Chambers. Cameras flashed.

“All right, to begin, this is a highly informal meeting, at the request of a group which calls themselves the Freedom Zone. This group, and the area where they reside, have no legal basis, but the City has agreed to work with them informally, to move this forward and try to come to a resolution.”

In the back, somebody whispered “windbag.”

“hush” whispered another.

The Mayor continued. “I’d like to give the floor to our Finance Director, Sasha Baldwin. Sasha.”

Sasha rose. “You can read a summary of our findings up on screen. As you can see, landowners and retail establishments are in arrears on property taxes, sales taxes, and wage taxes. These property taxes are based on assessed values. The sales and wage figures are guesstimates, since the people in arrears have filed no reports; they have not complied with laws which require them to file tax forms. In addition, no fees have been paid for inspections, licensing, and other matters which are deemed vital for public safety.”

After further speechification and verbiage, the Mayor invited Troy Freeman-Li to the stand. An aide made an adjustment to the video projector; a map appeared, showing the informal Freedom Zone, and the words “Speaking: Troy Freeman-Li.”

About 1.9 meters tall, dark haired, athletic in build, wearing a bespoke suit, Troy commanded attention. He introduced himself in strong, confident tones. “Hello, my name is Troy Freeman-Li, of the Freedom Zone. I speak for myself and, by their request, the interests of the others who have been described by the finance minister as ‘in arrears.’ They remain free to speak for themselves or to separate themselves from my informal representation, should I depart from their intentions.” As he spoke, captions appeared, in sync; all of this video generated by Troy’s Interface.

The Mayor had scrawled “A kid?” on his scratch paper. His aide wrote “Owns 1/2 zone. Could buy 1/2 city. Respect.”

“I’d like to address two issues with the property tax. First, the assessed value; the City has raised appraised values by 140%, not because it spends more money on us in the Zone, but because the City believes that we have no choice but to pay; it seeks to charge the highest price that we will tolerate. Second, with respect to school tax: No child in Freedom Zone attends city schools, and some outside of this zone have chosen to study within it. Twelve thousand students are educated at our own expense. We see no reason to continue to pay City school taxes, nor to pay these huge increases, simply because of arbitrary increases in assessed value.”

Graphics compared the increases in assessed values and taxes, versus the drop in cost of actual services, since the Zone had begun providing better and cheaper alternatives.

Troy took a sip of water. “Furthermore, I’d like the Police Chief to speak a moment about crime statistics, and demand for police services in this Zone. Chief, please.”

The Police Chief stood. “It may cost my job to say this, but any of my officers will tell you the same story. There is hardly any violent crime in this area; it is a ‘Safe Zone.’ One officer has been killed in the past three years; it was found that he was attempting to rape a woman, who shot him. This was ruled a regrettable but justifiable homicide; no charges were filed. Two officers who were beating a homeless man, and got themselves a bit of a beat-down; they chose to file no charges. A few purses have been snatched; the perpetrators were caught, the property returned. In short, the zone does a great job of policing itself. Furthermore, ambulance services run out of a facility adjacent to ours. They report zero calls from this zone, the past three years. The same for fire services. This zone resolves their own problems.”

The Chief sat down. Troy continued. “To sum up our position, we hardly need the City; the City needs us. We’ve happily paid for and supported city water and sewage, which we do use. We have our own waste disposal firms. We police our streets. We educate our children. We are asking only to keep what is our own, and to put it to better use for our own purposes.”

A Council Member stood up: “You are asking for tax subsidies.”

“No. We are asking to be left alone. We have little need for your ‘services.” And I, personally, have offered to buy your decrepit water treatment facilities, improve them at my expense, and to sell better water to city residents at lower prices than they now pay.”

Another Council Member: “Your 12,000 children don’t seem to go to school at all. They’re in the streets and shops at all hours of the day.”

A boy stood and requested attention. He looked to be about twelve years old. He approached the mike. Troy stepped aside.

“Hello everyone. My name is Isaac Kaplan. I don’t go to school, because I want to learn all the time, every day. I learn when I read at the library; I learn when I play with my friends; I learn when I visit with Rabbi Small; I learn when I work in my Aunt Tilda’s book store. I’m learning right now, and I don’t need somebody to make this an ‘assignment’, nor to tell me to write a report. I’ll write my own report in a newsletter for my paying customers, and the better I write, the more I get paid. I write for incentives which are real to me, not for gold stars.”

Audience members applauded.

Another Council Member rose. “What about drugs and prostitution?”

Troy answered. “Both are openly available, of high quality, offered under conditions which are safe for both customers and providers.”

“What about licensing and code enforcement?”

“Were somebody to explain the benefits of specific programs, we would be more than happy to find ways to provide better services at lower cost. In fact, as a landlord, I fund inspectors who examine every property I own, and fix problems so that my tenants and I can have a good working relationship in a safe and healthy environment. This is how we do things in the Zone.”

The audience ooohed. The Mayor called for order. “Anything further, Mr. Freeman-Li?”

“To sum up, the City has broken faith with us. It collects taxes under false pretenses. These taxes, we have been told, are merely the ‘price we pay for civilization’; the price for safe street, for good schools, for paved roads, and so forth. By any honest assessment, the City has hardly ever delivered on its promises. Any contract between equal parties would be voided by such egregious non-performance, but the City claims special status – the power to demand taxes without actually having to deliver on its side of the bargain. I ask that a new bargain be struck, a bargain which more fairly reflects the interests of those who carry the burden and bear the costs.”

“We choose to protect our neighbors because we want to live in a clean and safe neighborhood. We provide food, health, and lodging for the indigent because they are our neighbors, and when we help them, we help all of our neighbors. And we are able to do this because we have refused to been pay millions of dollars in unjust taxes for services which the City is actually not providing. I’d be happy to sit down and talk with the folks in your city who provide services which we do use – such as water and sewage – and find ways to pay a reasonable price for reasonable service. But the attitude of the city is not based upon service, nor upon voluntary exchange; it is based upon their determination to use law suits and the threat of police action and account seizures to pick a price – your price, not ours – and to demand it, whether or not we even wish to be included with what you have decided is the “right” package of goods and services.”

“As I said earlier, we do not use your schools. If your city had to pay for the 12,000 childdrenn within our boundaries, you’d have even worse finanical problems – and both parents and children would be deeply unhappy with your services.”

“This young man” – Troy put an arm around Isaac – “can run rings around most of your high school graduates, and he is six years younger than they. Neither he, nor his parents, nor I wish to pay top-drawer prices for bottom-drawer goods.”

“So I conclude. Please let me know when we can negotiate terms which respect our needs and wants, where you and we are not enemies, nor master and subjects, but voluntary, equitable partners. Until this happens, we will not send a dime to the City, except for the water and sewage.”

“Is that an ultimatum?” asked the Mayor.

“It is what it is – a reasonable position which we hope that any reasonable person would at least consider.”

“Or else?”

“Or else, we will leave. You can have your empty property. We will take ourselves away. You’ll not be bothered by our presence. You’ll have empty land and buildings, and nothing to show for it.”

Behind Troy, people began to disappear, one by one. Seats emptied. Only Troy and Isaac remained, calmly gazing at the Mayor and City Council.

An Aide to the Mayor spoke in a stage whisper. “I wasn’t kidding about Wallenberg. Troy Li-Freeman is the brother of the girl who invented the teleporters, and their father helped to organize the evacuation of Wallenberg, the Rapture.”

“I thought that was a tabloid story.”

“My dad was there, sir.”

The Mayor stood. “I take your point, sir. My council and I will withdraw and consult amongst ourselves. Thank you for your time.”

“One more thing, please.”

Isaac walked up to the Mayor, and hung a bright golden sun amulet around the Mayor’s neck, and proceeded down the line.

“This State has a Sunshine Law. In the interests of Sunshine, I’ve made it easy for you to keep a transparent and open record of all your conversations. Thank you very much for your time. I look forward to our next meeting.”

The Mayor looked at the amulet with some distaste. But he did not remove it. He nodded his head, and watched as Troy and Isaac winked out.

May It Please The Crown, Let Our Children Go

One of the most viral posts this year involved a parent humbly begging the Crown for permission to take their child on an educational trip without risking the threat of force.

The post reproduced a letter to a parent. The principal who signed that letter thought this highly unfair, since her goals were allegedly aligned with the parents.

I quote from the letter itself:

“An accumulation of unexcused absences can result in a referral to our attendance officer and a subsequent notice of a violation of the compulsory attendance law.”

Such  a serious threat would arouse fear in any parent’s heart. After shaking an iron-clad fist in this manner, “please call me if you have any questions,” is not a good-faith suggestion that we just talk about our shared goals. No, the status has already been clearly defined: the parent must placate and soothe, as a serf must appease a lord.

I do not reproduce that letter itself, since that particular principal is but one of a vast horde. Had she been a solitary exception, this meme would not have sparked so much outrage. I write to raise the consciousness of all teachers and administrators. I commend to their reading the resignation letter of John Taylor Gatto – but shall not threaten to call enforcement officers upon them, should they choose to spend their time otherwise.

If teachers and administrators truly wish to work amiably and in good faith with parents and students, they should renounce such use of force. Compulsory attendance laws should not be used as weapons against parents; all such laws should be repealed.

Good ideas can and should be propagated without the threat of force. If your ideas have value, sell them; do not force them.

Socialization is Normal

The most common question for home educators, by far, is “What about socialization?” I’m always shocked. Socialization was always the least of my concerns.

It’s a big world out there. Let kids out in the world, and they’ll socialize with everybody. Humans are inherently social; socialization is as natural as walking and talking. Actually, socialization is talking – and talking is the main thing you’re not allowed to do in the cloistered environment of schools.

The socialization question arises from a deep misapprehension, from the belief that you and your children will stay at home, all day, every day. Most of us would go stark raving mad! We’d be homicidal! So, we don’t do that. We go out. We explore. We socialize.

Do we send children to school to learn how to walk and talk? Not unless they have severe difficulty in acquiring these natural skills. They pick them up easily, as part of interacting with and engaging with the world. For most children, socialization is equally natural.

There’s a fine article which expands on these ideas, and which motivated me to write my first blog about socialization. (Can’t believe it took me so long!)

Why I don’t worry about my homeschoolers’ socialization

(This is a replay of one of my most popular posts. It’s a very common peeve.)

Home Education: A “Public Benefit?”

Random comment from the ‘Net: “I think a tax break for home schooled families is a great idea. However, you forget that we live in a community, and no man is an island. Those families do benefit from living in a community where others are educated.”

Whoa! This argument cuts both ways: the community arguably benefits more from brilliantly-educated home schoolers than home-schoolers benefit from badly-educated children at government schools; therefore, the home schoolers might deserve a break.

Consider Erik Demaine, who obtained a PhD in mathematics by the age of 20; the community benefits from his teaching of mathematics and computer science at MIT; the community benefits from his having obtained that PhD six years earlier than usual, due to homeschoolng. Yet, it is also obvious that Erick Demaine himself benefits – he started his career six years earlier, and his lifetime earnings will be enriched by at least six years of near-peak earning levels. Erik is but one of many famous people who were educated at home.  The image above is of Alexander Graham Bell, a renowned  home-schooler.

I must insert a caveat regarding the preceding list. Horace Mann, famous advocate for the Common School movement, curses be upon his name, was largely self-educated, but did spend a few weeks per year in formal schooling before he was accepted to university. In fact, most children in those days spent only a few weeks per year attending; they were expected to learn and read independently, not to be micro-managed and spoon-fed 180 days per year for twelve years.

Despite the preceding argument, I am still rather nervous about tax credits for home schoolers, mainly for this reason: when governments deign to “grant” tax credits, they usually push for more regulation, not less. Politicians don’t understand home education – even those few who do home school their own tend to be categorically different from many other home schoolers, more likely to be “control freaks” who cannot perceive the harm done by arbitrary regulations.

Studies by Home School Legal Defense Association (HSLDA) show that the regulatory environment has at best no statistical relation to the success of home schooling, and may actually be harmful. Part of the reason why government regulations do not much alter outcomes may be that a) regulations are unenforceable and are mostly ignored, and b) home schoolers do so much better than government schools that it is unlikely that would-be regulators even have a clue about what home schoolers need to do.

It is pointless to translate regulations designed for government schools, which are doing badly, to the very different realm of home education, which is doing extremely well. Home educators enjoy learning every day, not merely half the calendar, and they learn in very unconventional ways.

I propose that Government schools are actually a Public Bad, for many reasons, chief among which is that graduates of such government schools, and of private schools which use textbooks either approved by or heavily influenced by the government, so often graduate without having a clue about what is and is not a “Public Good.” It is not hard to discover the truth; even the wikipedia page defines “public good” in the first sentence: “In economics, a public good is a good that is both non-excludable and non-rivalrous in that individuals cannot be effectively excluded from use and where use by one individual does not reduce availability to others.”

Education is obviously excludable – students in the school obtain the bulk of the benefits; children playing in the street outside do not. The fact that there are some spillover benefits to outsiders does not make education a “public good” — if it did, then your planting a garden would be a “public good”, since others smell the fragrance and see the pretty flowers; everything with a positive externality would be a “public good” by such a vague definition.

Schools which teach students – even good students – to think badly are a public bad. There are incentives for government teachers and administrators to teach such confusion. There are incentives for such teachers, administrators, regulators, and other politicians not to teach about Public Choice Theory in the “civics” curriculum; such truthful analysis makes them look bad indeed.

Pedants: Converting Good to Bad

A standard argument for government provision of education is that it would otherwise be under-provided. The theory is that, since one’s education also benefits other people, one who purchases education for one’s own self would only pay enough for the benefits to oneself.

If we take this argument seriously, we must determine how much education is under-provided, and subsidize that portion. This argument can never justify 100% subsidy of education. The early arguments for state subsidies proposed merely to fill in the alleged gaps of existing methods for the provision of education.

But laying that aside, there is a much more fundamental problem: what exactly is “education?” The theory assumes that there is one good called education, and widespread agreement about what is desirable, and how it should be provided. Those who have followed the many controversies about education might be excused for scratching their heads at this point, if not laughing out loud. If we do not all agree on what a “good” education is, how can we agree on what should be subsidized?

“School choice” proponents claim to get around this objection. Pick your school, and the government will subsidize it. Really? What happens when the Happy Coven establishes a school, and requests equal remuneration? Or, as allegedly happened in San Bernardino recently, a group of Happy Nepotists use government funds to enrich family members? Is there to be no oversight over the use of these funds?

More broadly speaking, governments are not very good at managing resources.

What is this “education” variable? It’s quite an oversimplification. Is the education which suits one person the same as that which suits another? Let us take an example: a first grade reading class.

Typically, about a quarter of the class arrive already knowing how to read; some, quite fluently. When required to sit through “See Dick Run” or some other first grade primer, their education is not being enhanced, but slowed down. Their time is being wasted. They are being taught to endure frustration without purpose. This is a bad, not a good; but the tidy aggregate equations of some economists do not measure this.

Likewise with math skills. The typical “First Grade Math” curriculum lags far behind a certain number of students. I know of a young fellow who could mentally multiply double-digit numbers, and even larger ones; who could work easily with exponents and fractions and decimals and negative numbers. Even a “gifted” first grade class would have been an utter waste of his time. Yet another portion of students find the typical pace to be quite confusing; their time also is squandered by classes unsuited to their needs.

Bureaucrats thrive on tidiness and regularity. The variations of real children are far too diverse and confusing for bureaucrats and pedants and certain economists. This zombie argument for the government provision of education should be nuked wherever it arises.

The education of our children is far too important to be jammed into Procrustean beds by the arbitrary and uncaring mechanisms of politics. We need, rather, for such important decisions to be left to individual parents, students, and teachers themselves.