Wednesday, July 7, 2010

An Expensive Private Education for Less than $3,000 per Year

I'm delighted to share this inspiring recipe for home or cooperative schooling.  This is from Michael Strong, who I consider an intellectual mentor.  I highly recommend his book, Habit of Thought.  

How to Give Your Child an Expensive Private Education
– For Less Than $3,000 per Year

Michael Strong, FLOW, Inc.

Part I:  Introduction

Many parents are rightly dissatisfied with their local government schools, and yet they cannot afford to pay for an expensive private education.  Are they therefore doomed to watch their child suffer a mediocre education year after year, foreclosing life options with each year in which their child is not encouraged to flourish?

Not at all.  For many parents and many children it is not that difficult to create at home a world-class private education for less than $3,000 per year.  Here I will provide a brief description of the goals of the education and the pre-requisites for success.  In the next installment, I’ll provide a sketch of the content up until “high school.”  In the final installment, I’ll describe what “high school” looks like through this approach and how to keep costs under $3,000 per year for such an education.

Goals of the Education

Academic Goals

A sixteen year old student will be a competitive candidate at the best colleges in the U.S. if she:

1.  Has SAT scores above 1400 (preferably above 1500).
2.  Has taken three or more Advanced Placement (AP) exams in diverse academic subjects and scored a “4” or higher.
3.  Has successfully undertaken a substantial enterprise that has been recognized on its merits by the adult world – a volunteer enterprise, a business enterprise, an academic or research enterprise, has published papers, extraordinary physical or artistic achievement, etc.

School, in the usual sense, is entirely unnecessary for achieving these goals and in many cases is, in fact, a hindrance.

While other bells and whistles could be added, and although no particular resume will guarantee admissions into Harvard or other highly competitive colleges, a student that has achieved unambiguous excellence by these three measures will be a strong candidate for admissions to virtually any university – without a high school diploma or transcript.  For students and families for whom this level of academic achievement is not a goal, all the advice given here still applies to the fundamentals of academic development; one can merely scale back to whatever goal is appropriate to your child and your family.

Social-Emotional Goals

Some parents fear that home schooled children will not be adequately socialized.  And, indeed, there are children who are raised in such complete isolation that it would be have been better for them to have attended school.

That said, most of the socialization that goes on at most schools is not positive.  School children are often more cruel than adults ever are.  In traditional cultures young people were far more closely integrated into the adult community than are our children in schools, and as a consequence such traditional cultures did not have the rampant breeding grounds for immature cruelty that is characteristic of most of our schools, public and private.  A home schooled child who spends several hours each week in peer group activities (group lessons in music, dance, martial arts, art, academics, etc.) is likely to develop healthy, positive peer relationships without experiencing the unnatural cruelty that routinely takes place in schools.

Pre-Requisites for Success

The term “home-schooling” frightens many parents because they have been taught to believe that there is some special expertise required to “teach” children, and that it is wiser to relinquish control of their children to the “experts.”  While it is true that under some circumstances, especially regarding learning disabilities, in which specific expertise is helpful, in those circumstances a parent may hire an appropriate tutor or coach with expertise in, say, dyslexia.  Much of the remaining “expertise” represents a set of over-rated strategies for managing large groups of students who are, in essence, prison inmates and forcing them to “learn” meaningless terms that they will forget as soon as the test has been taken.  If your child has been raised well in a loving environment, which has included the consistent setting of firm boundaries, then much of the most challenging task of educating your child has already been achieved.

Indeed, the single most important pre-requisite for a successful education consists of the habits and attitudes of respect, responsibility, focus, and optimism that you have instilled in your child in the first few years of life.  The short version for success in this project consists of:

1.  Consistently loving, nurturing, attitude towards your child.
2.  Clear, consistent, setting of appropriate behavioral boundaries, enforced consistently by both parents as well as other caregivers, with appropriate consequences for violating the boundaries.
3.  Time for the child to explore in an environment rich in learning opportunities – and little or no electronic stimulations (television, video or computer games, etc.)

The last one may seem to be the most challenging, given the pervasiveness of electronic addictions among today’s young.  Your child will certainly have many friends who will expose him or her to the ever-exploding array of technological gadgets and entertainments.  The simplest way to avoid a never ending battle with your child is from the time of birth creating a warm, rich, interesting, loving household in which it is normal not to spend time indulging in electronic addictions.  Make it normal to talk, sing, read, write, build things, cook, plant, and so forth.  Your child will get used to playing with gadgets elsewhere, and you will preserve your home as a sanctuary for learning and family life.  Tim Seldin’s book How to Raise an Amazing Child:  The Montessori Way provides far more detailed advice along these lines.

Emotionally secure children who have been habituated to respect fundamental behavioral boundaries and who have developed the habit of focusing their attention will be far easier to home school.  Indeed, “home schooling” is a misleading term; the ideal is to develop capable, sophisticated autodidacts by the age of four or five – “amazing children,” who are spontaneously curious, happy, and loving.  In addition, the children should be responsible, polite, and willing to take initiative.  Such children will be a joy to work with, both for you and for any tutors whom you may hire.

Parents who have not raised their children in this fashion face a more difficult task in re-training their children, especially if their children have developed addictions to electronic stimulations, or if their children have developed manipulative interaction habits that have been successful in the past.  We will not dwell on these issues here; suffice it to say that in order to give your child an expensive private school education for less than $3,000 per year, the single most important pre-requisite is to develop their core habits and attitudes appropriately.  While it is far easier to use electronic gadgets to entertain your child, and to allow you and your spouse to remain inconsistent in the quality of attention that you give to your child, in the long run whether you educate your child at home or send her to school she will be more successful and happier if you have developed the core habits and attitudes well.

Part II:  Academic Content Sketch

I.  From year one to year six or so:

The single most important learning task in the early years, apart from allowing focus and curiosity to develop in learning rich environments, is to develop the skill of reading in a positive environment.  From the earliest years, read with your child, read in front of your child, teach your child the alphabet, help your child sound out words, and most of all bond your child positively to the act of reading.

The vast public debate between “phonics” and “whole language” approaches to teaching reading should entirely vanish in the home environment.  Of course teach your child to read phonetically.  That said, the original impulse behind the “whole language” movement was to make reading also real and positive.  A family that authentically loves their child and loves reading and that is not anxious about the act of reading will spontaneously give their child a “whole” approach to reading while also teach phonetics.  The goal is not to have reading become a tedious, difficult, and painful drill, in which the child perceives an anxious parent trying to force something natural upon them.  Instead the goal is to introduce the child into a sacred and honorable family tradition, a source of joy and enrichment for all family members.

Often anxiety is associated with children who are slow in learning to read.  The fact is that different children learn to read at different points in time.  If a child seems to be having a hard time learning to read at the age of five or six, after several years of reading together, sounding out words, etc., it may be appropriate to hire a professional diagnostician to check for learning disabilities, and, if necessary, work with the child using professional techniques.  That said, the most important goal for the parent remains to keep reading as a positive activity, a means of child-parent bonding, an opportunity for conversation, mutual wonder, and loving interaction.

Ideally not only should the child develop no electronic addictions, but also the parents and other family members and care-givers should not exhibit electronic addictions.  Your most important act of teaching is your modeling.  If each evening everyone in the family picks up a book, the non-reader will want to do as the readers are doing.  Conversely if everyone in the family sits down in front of the television each evening, it is unrealistic to expect a child to want to read when everyone else is watching television.

II.  From the Age of Reading to Early Adolescence:

The three biggest tasks in this phase consist of:

1.  Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.
2.  The development of sophisticated writing skills.
3.  As much advancement in mathematics as is possible.

While any number of additional activities are wonderful supplements here, including music, art, physical activity, foreign language development, entrepreneurial activity, etc., we will focus on developing the core academic skills needed to succeed at the highest levels.

1.  Reading, reading, reading, and more reading.

Because of the tyranny of “schooling,” many parents become highly concerned with “what curriculum” they should “teach” their child.  They look to the schools to see what is being “taught” at each grade level.  And they begin teaching their children the curriculum.

While there is nothing wrong with this per se, from my perspective curriculum all too often interferes with the core academic skill, the skill the development of which supercedes all else, which is reading.  Leaving mathematics aside for the time being, whenever I encounter a student who is a habitual reader I regard the educational problem as 90% solved.

It would be far better to develop in your child an appetite for diverse reading materials, including the habitual reading of history and science, than to take them away from reading (at the elementary level) in order to “teach” them history or science.  It is your responsibility to create a rich learning environment, which should include numerous books, magazines, and other resources that introduce your child to the amazingly vast world of knowledge.  You can even require that they do a certain amount of reading in the fields of science and history, and discuss the reading in these subjects with them (just as you are discussing literature with them).  But a child who has read hundreds of books in science and hundreds of books in history, prior to adolescence, will typically “know” more science and history than do most students who have “studied” these subjects in school.

Although this sounds odd to modern ears, in many cases some of the most famous thinkers in history self-educated simply by reading, “and then I read all the books in my father’s library.”  Prior to the creation of schooling, reading widely was regarded as fundamental to education. 

Go ahead and teach curricula if you must, but if you really want to give your child a head start, encourage them to be a voracious reader of diverse materials, and allow them plenty of time to read, think, and talk with you about the amazing world they are discovering.

2.  The Development of Sophisticated Writing Skills

There are various techniques and tools for teaching the fundamentals of writing.  These fundamental skills must be taught explicitly, just as fundamental reading skills must be taught explicitly.  In addition, there are various curricula for refining grammar, punctuation, usage, etc.  You do want to develop world-class usage in the fundamentals of written English.  Ultimate mastery of the entire content of Strunk & White’s classic The Elements of Style may serve as a useful target for mastery of those fundamentals; select specific curricula to compensate for your child’s weaknesses in achieving Strunk & White perfection.  The goal is not to “cover curricula.”  The goal is for your child to internalize the norms of effective written prose. 

Again, alongside teaching the fundamentals, you want to encourage dramatic fluency in writing.  It may take a few years of reading and practice of rudimentary writing skills before your child really takes off as a writer, but you will want abundant, habitual writing, motivated by your child’s desire to communicate, ultimately to become part of the fabric of your child’s life.  Again, just as reading skills are developed by means of many hours of reading, writing skills are developed by means of many hours of writing. 

As your child begins to produce significant quantities of writing, you may simultaneously wish to reward the achievement of Strunk & White perfection.  Often a good English teacher will focus on one skill at a time in order to re-enforce the habitual use of standard English:  one week celebrate writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of punctuation, another week encourage writing fluency while teaching, and then rewarding, the perfect use of conjunctions, and so forth.

The importance of conversations about ideas in developing expository writing skills is under-appreciated.  If you have been drawing your child out, not teaching them but rather asking them what they think and why, from the earliest age, then expository writing will become more of a natural process for them.  I focus on expository writing because it is both the most difficult and the most important of all writing skills to develop.  Some children do develop an interest in writing fiction, poetry, or other expressive modes.  This is wonderful and should be encouraged, though if it is not a taste for your child its absence is not a crucial weakness.

But expository writing, the ability to explain his or her understanding of the world and how they obtained such an understanding, is the key to all of collegiate writing and much adult professional writing.  Although one can “teach” techniques for such writing, such teaching proceeds far more naturally if one has spent many thousands of hours talking with your child and asking them why they liked the story, why they respected certain characters, how and why they might have handled certain situations differently, etc.

The ideal is to create a home atmosphere in which thinking and talking about life and how one understands life has become second nature, in which dinner time conversations routinely move ever more deeply into explorations of what happened during the day and why, in which explicitly understanding the world by means of conscious thought is the daily norm.

For children raised in such a rich dialogic atmosphere, for children who have “rehearsed” their thoughts in conversations for thousands of hours, expository writing becomes a natural extension of their habitual conversations.  As they write more and longer pieces, you as parent, or a hired writing coach if you prefer, can assign various structures, coach on the detailed use of mechanics, and develop in your child a rich, distinctive writing voice well before adolescence.  Indeed, a bright child raised in a conversationally rich home environment can easily develop a mastery of Strunk and White by means of coached writing of long essays while most school children are still doing formulaic book reports at school.

3.  As Much Advancement in Mathematics as is Possible

As with reading, the short message is:  Never enough.  The major disadvantage of most school curricula in the U.S. is that the pace of mathematics here is far, far too slow.  If your child happens to have a low aptitude for mathematics, the U.S. grade level mathematics curriculum pace might be appropriate.  But any student who happens to be in, say, the top two-thirds with respect to mathematical ability should be learning more mathematics more quickly than is typically taught in American schools.

Again, there are numerous curricula and approaches to teaching mathematics.  Here I will focus on one core strategy:  Develop in your child the habit of sitting down to work on solving mathematics problems for at least an hour per day, preferably a couple of hours per day.

Many children spontaneously love to read, and do not need to be forced to read.  With a sufficiently rich conversational atmosphere, one can develop in young people an appetite for writing.  Such a spontaneous love for mathematical problem solving seems to be rarer.  This is the single area in which the development of a routine, daily disciplined work period is probably the most important.

Math curricula are fairly linear and standardized.  You (or your child’s math coach) should closely monitor progress to ensure that the child is practicing enough to learn each concept without engaging in repetition to the point of boredom.  Ideally this would be highly individualized; there are some children who grasp some mathematical concepts almost instantaneously and do not need many repetitions.  Other students may need many repetitions of some concepts but grasp other concepts quickly.  Individualized mathematics coaching, combined with an ideal of two hours of highly disciplined practice each day, is one way in which your child can develop a tremendous advantage over students in school.  Because even elite private schools typically adhere to the glacial grade level pace of American mathematics education, a personally coached mathematics student with good work habits can easily arrive at middle school age one, two, three or more years ahead of his or her age-level peers.  Colleges and universities will be impressed if your sixteen year-old child has already taken a multi-variable calculus class at the local community college when she applies for admissions.

Ideally the problem-solving mathematics curriculum would also include rich reading and conversation on mathematics, plenty of science-based examples, and complex word problems that require original mathematical thought.  A mathematics tutor who loves mathematics, and who loves working with your child, is an important investment here.

Part III.  “High School” Academics, a Substantial Enterprise, and Costs

1.  High School Academics

A child who reaches the age of twelve, thirteen, or fourteen, and who has read extensively, written extensively, and has completed advanced algebra, is ready to explore serious college level coursework.  Although the child can continue on the existing paths of deep skill development, it is appropriate at this time to enroll the child in a serious mainstream academic course, in any discipline, so that the child can develop the skills needed to succeed in mainstream course-work.  There are courses available at local schools, community colleges, and on-line.  A child may also prep for an Advanced Placement exam with a coach in order to acquire this kind of experience.

Depending on the study habits developed over the years, the skill level achieved by the child, the child’s personality, and the quality of the academic coach, the first course or two might be difficult.  The orientation should not be at all that a failure has occurred, but rather than this a fundamental element of the strategy:  instead of wasting years in meaningless coursework, you, your child, and your child’s academic coaches have adhered to a strategy of optimal skill development rather than content coverage.  But if the child has decent work habits and has very high level skills, these courses are likely to be easy.  If not the first time through, then soon enough.

The metaphor of “coach” is important here.  Adam Robinson’s What Smart Students Know may be an appropriate supplementary guide.  Rather than a “teacher,” the coach observes the child’s existing strengths and weaknesses and, coming from a place of maturity and experience in preparing for such exams, the coach focuses on developing the specific skill sets needed for the child to succeed vis-à-vis the test.  The ideal is complete auto-didacticism – the child should be developing the ability to prepare for any test on his or her own (A Princeton Director of Admissions was once asked if there were every any “obvious admits” among applicants – and he mentioned a student who had obtained a perfect score on an AP Chemistry exam without having taken a course in AP chemistry.)  But the coach is providing individualized mentoring so that the child knows how to organize her time and attention to optimize performance.  This period should be similar to that of an athlete in training:  All parties know that a challenge is being faced, and that personal excellence in facing that challenge is the goal being pursued by all.

By means of such a strategy, on the academic front a child should be well prepared to take, and pass, a diverse array of AP courses by the age of fifteen.  He or she should also have developed the ability to score well on the SAT.  Not all students may have the capacity to score above 1400, but if they have spent the entire period in a profound commitment to fundamental skill development, most will score far more highly than they would have scored had they spent their time in school. 

Consider the advantage your child will have had if she has spent 3-5 hours each day reading for the past ten years, 2-3 hours engaged in mathematical activity for the past ten years, and 2-3 hours writing each day for the past ten years.  Most students sit in class listening for six hours per so each day, of which much of that time actually consists of teachers managing the class rather than teaching.  The only real time that children practice skills are when they do homework at night, at which point they may be tired and longing for play or free time.  A child that reads, writes, and does math from 9-5 p.m. each day, with time off for lunch, will spend far more hours actually learning than does a child who goes to school – plus that child will be free to spend family time together in the evening instead of chained to their desk at night doing homework.

2.  Undertaking a Substantial Enterprise

Finally, assuming you and your child have done a superlative job on the academic side, at some point your child should undertake a substantial enterprise.  In traditional cultures young people typically underwent a right of passage at the age of thirteen or so, after which they were welcomed into the adult community with adult responsibilities.  In American culture prior to the imposition of compulsory schooling, individuals such as Benjamin Franklin, Andrew Carnegie, and Thomas Edison began their careers at thirteen and built a foundation for lifetime achievement upon real world achievements in adolescence.  This type of real world achievement should be a goal for you and your child.

Often parents eager to get their children into elite colleges are eager for their children to participate in many school “activities.”  And yet colleges are overwhelmed with students who list participation in numerous activities.  They are more interested in real achievement than in long lists of “participations.”  It is one thing to be student body president; it is another to create a successful business, publish an academic article, or develop a career as a professional musician prior to entry into college.

If you have allowed your child the opportunity to develop his or her interests over the years, by adolescence they may well be ready to take a particular interest far more deeply.  Whatever they choose to do should come from them and their passion, not from your conception of what they ought to do.  You can discuss with them what counts as “superb performance” in their chosen domain, and help them to obtain mentors and external benchmarks so that they are both prepared for their challenge and have opportunities for clear feedback on whether or not they are advancing towards their challenge at an adequate rate.  But the expectation should be that they are now living their life – this is not a dress rehearsal.  They will be judged openly by the explicit standards of the adult community.  Part of the ritual of a “right of passage” was the notion of challenge oneself to prove that one was sufficiently capable and mature to join the adult community as a fully responsible member.

From this perspective, existing K-12 education is largely training in immaturity.  We neither expect nor allow our children to aspire to real achievement.  It is all a game for children, and they know it.  One of the goals of having read real books, magazines, journals, and newspapers rather than textbooks is to have introduced your child fully into the adult world as it really is.  They should know about business, and government, and relationships, and entertainment not as “subjects” to be taught but as living realities in the adult communities in which they were raised.  The thousands of hours of conversations should have focused them not on preparation for tests, but rather on understanding the real world of real life.

As a consequence, your child should have a superior understanding of how the world works and what it takes to succeed in that world.  He or she should aspire to create something meaningful in that world, be it by means of employment, volunteerism, virtuosity in sport or music, or the creation of a new enterprise.  Perhaps she will learn to repair Porsches; or create a business importing crafts from a micro-enterprise; or learn performance-quality classical guitar-playing.  These markers of excellence are more meaningful and valuable than are lists of “activities” in school – and good universities know it.


Twenty-five dollars an hour buys an excellent tutor (or academic coach) in most parts of the country.  Many graduate students or retired people would be glad to teach a well-behaved, motivated young person for $25 per hour.  Two days of mathematics coaching would thus be $50 per week; another two days of humanities (reading, writing, and conversation) coaching would be another $50 per week.  At one hundred dollars per week one can buy thirty weeks per year of personalized academic coaching for $3,000.

Whether it requires more or less than this to educate your child depends on his or her motivation, your own skill set and time, and your local talent pool.  Your child might need more hours of contact time per week, you may be able to supplement tutors so that your child needs less contact time, you may find great people willing to tutor for less, etc.  In an alternative model, the parents may provide 100% of the instruction until secondary school, at which point you could budget more than $6,000 per year for custom secondary instruction.

By means of creating joint lessons with other home-schoolers with children interested in similar subjects, you could hire tutors for small “classes” of students and share the costs.  Thus if there were four students engaged in a given set of lessons/tutoring sessions your $3,000 would stretch to four times as many contact hours.  Indeed, in some cases these informal tutoring arrangements can result in the creation of a “private school.”  The point is not whether or not it is a school – it is whether or not your child is getting first-class, personal attention from a talented and caring educator who knows and loves their academic subject.

The more fundamental point is that by means of focusing on truly essential core behavioral characteristics, such as responsibility, motivation, politeness, etc., and on very high-level core academic skills, including serious reading, writing, and mathematics advancement, it is possible to provide a superb education for your child at home for very little cost.

Michael Strong is the author of The Habit of Thought, a book that describes how to use intellectual dialogue in the classroom to develop deeper reading, writing, and thinking skills.  He has also founded several innovative schools based broadly on the strategy described in his book and above, including Moreno Valley High School in Angel Fire, NM, which was ranked the 36th best public high school in its third year of operation based on the Washington Post’s Challenge Index.  His two children, now eighteen and fourteen, have spent a portion of their K-12 education outside of formal schools engaged in activities similar to those described above; both have been admitted to prestigious schools and (in the older case) universities despite an unorthodox schooling.

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