The Problems With Mainstream Education

The following is an edited excerpt from the book, The 5-Hour School Week: An Inspirational Guide to Leaving the Classroom to Embrace Learning in a Way You Never Imagined, by Kaleena and Aaron Amuchastegui.

What’s wrong with school? Why does it always seem so staggeringly inefficient? Such a stunning waste of time and resources? No matter how good the teachers, how dedicated the staff, or how well-constructed the curriculum, mainstream education just can’t work well in this day and age. Even for the academic subjects it’s designed to teach, traditional school will always fall short.

When looking at our current education system, it’s crucial to understand why and how school actually came to be. We have to imagine a much different time in history. Prior to organized, in-class school, children spent their days in the field or working in factories with their parents. With the enactment of child labor laws in the early 1900s, classrooms became the most popular place for children to spend their time, and the curriculum was formulated to produce top-notch factory workers. School was built on a “cookie-cutter” foundation because the government literally wanted to produce robot-type workers for the industrial age.

Times have changed. Factory jobs are few, and jobs requiring innovation and adaptability are the jobs of today. Our world has evolved, but schools are still stuck in the old system meant for a society long behind us. The changes they have made have added to the problems of our stunted education system rather than helped bring more innovation and creativity.

Let’s start with class size.

Most public schools are allowed to have up to thirty-two kids in a classroom, with one full-time teacher and one part-time aide. Aside from the chaos this crowd naturally produces, teachers are forced to teach to the slowest student in the class. That means any kid who is faster, any kid who has already learned the material — or any kid with a different learning style — will be held back. Teachers would love to give individualized attention, but they just have no opportunity. It’s simply impossible.

When Aaron taught Maddie long division in a couple of hours, he could do it because he was teaching her one-on-one. He could see exactly what she understood and what she did not, and he could respond to her questions immediately. That meant Maddie was saved from wasting literally tens of hours in the classroom on this one subject.

No doubt teachers would love to teach at the speed of the fastest students, but of course, that would leave most of the students in a lurch. Each day, the slower kids would fall further and further behind, spend extra hours on homework, or have to go to summer school.

The result? Up until the most advanced levels of high school, literally every student must move at the speed of the slowest kids and must adapt to a single teaching style. Children also have different strengths, so a child who may be at the head of the class in math might be slower to learn in English. As a result, at some points they are waiting on others, while at other times they are holding up the class. Even in a smaller class of ten or fifteen students, this problem leads to misery and boredom.

No wonder kids tune out. No wonder they feel their time is wasted. No wonder classrooms have discipline problems.

In other words, even at a theoretical level, the system has been badly designed. Even the best teachers (and plenty aren’t that great) have been set up to fail. Whether your kid is the best in the class or whether they’re the slowest, they’re not being served well.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss posits that the most efficient work occurs when a single person focuses on a problem, all by themselves. More people in an office? That leads to more distractions. More confusion. Less efficiency.

This same idea applies to learning. Fewer people always works better. The most efficient teaching methods involve one teacher and one student — after that, inefficiencies quickly occur. In fact, if you can pull it off, self-teaching works best of all.

The Trouble With Homework

In the United States, the average kid spends fifty hours a week between commuting to school, sitting in a classroom, and doing homework after school.

That’s simply insane. While there are jobs out there that require this kind of time-intensive labor, and even those that don’t pay overtime for your dedication, this pace is setting them up for an unhealthy work environment. They will enter adulthood thinking these excessive expectations are normal and acceptable. Never, in any of our jobs, have Aaron or I ever worked a full day in an office, then come home and worked an additional one to three hours every single night without overtime pay (although entrepreneurship is a different story). Hopefully, neither have you.

On average, kids are doing more than three hours of homework each night by the time they reach high school. This is on top of the full day of assignments, tests, and lectures they are required to have in class.

This pace is setting them up for an unhealthy work environment and puts them in line for excessive and unhealthy choices and expectations. Don’t we all want better for our kids?

How have we come to put that expectation on a seven-year-old? How dare we say to a young child, “You just spent eight or more hours commuting to school and sitting in a classroom — but guess what? It wasn’t enough to learn the material. You now need to spend two more hours working at home.”

As a school mother, this expectation made me downright angry. Every night, when my girls hauled out backpacks stuffed with homework, I felt so defeated. I kept thinking to myself, You had them for nearly eight hours; how is that not enough? When do I get them to myself? When do we get to enjoy each other?

No doubt the increasingly huge volume of homework follows from the basic problem of classroom learning. When you have lots of kids in a class, the interruptions are constant, and even slow-paced learning fails. Every few minutes, someone raises their hand to ask a question or use the restroom, or a kid makes a joke. Then there’s lunch and recess and paperwork and the crazy challenge of hitting seven subjects a day.

I’ve volunteered in many classrooms, and I know a school day means start and stop, start and stop. The teachers get distracted and sidetracked, then everyone loses ten minutes every time the teacher says, “Okay, kids, put away your math books. We’re on to social studies.”

In this environment, homework becomes the only way to learn anything. Why does homework…work? Because kids sit down without distractions for a focused period of time and learn. They move at their own pace, get personally involved with the material, and don’t have to deal with all the inefficiencies of a lecture.Homework works because it’s the way people have always learned best.

What’s the obvious solution? Eliminate the classroom and make the best possible use of this focused, individual time.

In this book, we call that focused solution the 5-Hour School Week.

Giving Parents The Worst Of Their Kids

Little people are not meant to sit at desks for hours. Physically and mentally, they’re just not able to do that — and of course, even adults find this kind of life intolerable. No one wants to line up in straight lines as someone blows a whistle, raise their hand every time they want to speak, or get a permission slip to use the toilet.

After seven or more hours packed into the “school box,” some kids naturally blow up. All day they’ve been holding it together, and now they need to release the tension where they will not be punished: In the carpool. On their siblings. On their parents. If you watch, you can just see these kids combust.

Small children may simply fall apart from exhaustion. Their minds can’t process everything that was pressed upon them or that occurred out on the playground. So, when they get home, they just shut down. That is, if they do go home. Usually, kids have more to do after school: soccer, piano, karate — or all three. Maybe, just maybe, right after their extracurriculars they can combust or shut down.

Bottom line? School parents usually experience the very worst of their own children. They get the dregs. They cannot even properly function as parents because they cannot talk to their children when they are in these reduced states.

Mornings are cranky times. Mealtimes are rushed times. Family time — genuine time together creating memories and enjoying one another — is nearly nonexistent, and our dream of travel must be squeezed into brief weekend hours or stolen from programmed activities and homework.

Worse, parents often find themselves enforcers for the school’s own rules and deadlines. In the introduction, I said I felt I was becoming a drill sergeant, working for my girls’ private school. This, too, deeply interferes with the parent-child relationship.

Given the odds stacked against kids, it’s no wonder that so many develop serious problems later on in life. Drug and alcohol dependencies, depression, and suicide rates are continually on the rise.2 Why? Kids burn out before they finish high school. In fact, the successful kids often burn out first. Like Maddie, they are pushed and pushed by teachers and parents alike. High school high-achievers now often use uppers so they can concentrate longer and get a better GPA — often completing half of their first year of college before they have even graduated from high school.

Kids simply cannot cope with the life that society has created for them. They’re cracking, exhausted, under the pressure of the system. They’re addicted, depressed, discouraged, and lacking confidence, none of which I wanted for my kids.

Other children are becoming completely bored by the repetitive class curricula and endless hours in the box. I have a hard time believing that kids want and need to learn the history of the Civil War in the fifth grade. Then again in sixth grade. Then again in eighth. Then again in tenth. Then again…well, no doubt you remember the boredom, even if you don’t remember Gettysburg.

The Artificial Social Life Of School

Before we started the 5-Hour School Week, I was certain that the best and only way kids learned healthy socialization skills was in the school setting. One of my greatest fears was that, if I homeschooled, they would become isolated and strange. As I met actual homeschooling families and read literature, I changed my mind. Little by little, I realized that traditional schools are not only not the only way for kids to build their social skills, but they are not even a healthy environment to build on this important skill. Why? Because schools are so completely unlike the real world.

Aaron and I are both from the same small town in Oregon, and we went from preschool and kindergarten through high school with the same set of kids. When we headed for college, it was a shock. Neither of us knew how to start conversations with people we didn’t know. “I failed dramatically at college social life,” says Aaron, “because, although I was popular in high school, I was a nobody in college, and I didn’t know how to start as the low man on the totem pole. I just didn’t have the confidence to walk across a room and start talking to a stranger.”

In addition, school significantly limits your ability to thoughtfully choose your friendships. You are put in a classroom with thirty kids, and you are told, “These are all your friends, and you will share everything with them and get along. No matter what.” When else will that occur in your life? Is it even healthy?

Aaron and I are firm believers in the saying, “We are the sum of the five people we surround ourselves and spend the most time with.” We each have about five super influential people in our lives, and it’s important to us to be incredibly picky about who they are. When someone tells you, “You must be the friend of every person in this room,” this priority gets diluted — and it certainly does not mirror real life. In real life, you will encounter people you don’t get along with or even agree with — people who live life in an entirely different way than you. We can be kind to and have manners with everyone we meet, but that does not equal real friendship.

School does not teach the vital skill of discerning healthy friendships and how to make choices about who will make up your tribe. School is also only able to supply a limited population of kids, most of whom come from similar environments and upbringings — or from somewhat concerning home lives — making the world our kids live in extremely small and selective.

Age Separation Is Downright Strange

One of the most bizarre social institutions of school is the strict separation by age. Five-year-olds hang only with five-year-olds, ten-year-olds with ten-year-olds, and so on. The only adults the kids encounter at school are teachers, with whom they have a very specific and limited relationship. How does a five-year-old learn to be a ten-year-old if he or she is kept from socializing with ten-year-olds? It’s not easy. How does any kid learn about different ways of being an adult or how to talk to any kind of adult, if they only encounter that very specific breed, called “teacher”?

Now that we homeschool, I see that daily, my kindergartner learns so much from my first grader, and I see that my first grader learns so much from my fourth grader. It’s natural for younger kids to learn from older kids — but school actively prevents that from happening.

It’s healthy and natural for older kids to teach younger kids. In the process of being a teacher to other kids, they learn more about themselves, they learn more about their subjects, and they learn compassion. It’s a great feeling to have mastered something so well that you can teach it to somebody else.

And doesn’t that simulate the world we live in? Age does not define success or capabilities once we leave school. A teacher can present themselves at any age and in any walk of life; a student should be ready to learn from anyone.

Can Your Kids Talk To Anyone?

As we travel and “world-school,” my kids have naturally encountered all kinds of adults — from supermarket checkers to police officers — and they’re becoming comfortable talking to literally anyone.

In his work, Aaron hires a lot of people, many of them recent college graduates. Time and again, he’s amazed how these young adults come to interviews unable to hold a conversation. He says they simply cannot look him in the eye and talk about their lives or their experiences: they look down, or they look at their phone, or they just recite their résumés. It makes him think about the fact that these kids have college degrees — how is it that they aren’t capable of chatting with another adult?

What’s the problem? Throughout their lives, these kids have been living in the “school box” and they just don’t know how to function in the real world. They have had little to no experience carrying on a conversation that wasn’t directed by a teacher. Having original thoughts or sharing interesting facts about oneself has not been encouraged. Usually, by their mid-twenties they will realize how crucial these skills are to landing a job and become frustrated that having a college degree will no longer guarantee a career. By that time, it can be too late.

Real-World Skills

Of course, school doesn’t just fail to “socialize” kids for the real world. It also fails to teach them basic life skills. No one should reach adulthood without knowing how to scramble an egg, open a bank account, do a load of laundry, use a credit card, jump-start a car, or read a subway map. There’s an old gag that goes, “Now that it’s tax season, I’m glad I learned the Pythagorean theorem.” You may laugh now, but when you were twenty-two, maybe that joke wasn’t so funny.

Aaron and I can’t believe the number of young people we meet who have no understanding of where the money that their parents use to pay their college tuition comes from, or who graduate with student loans, not realizing they will have to pay them back.

A genuine education should teach life skills, not just academic skills. Despite the occasional and optional “financial management” class, schools generally turn a deliberately blind eye to the real needs of their students.

Recently, Aaron hired a thirty-two-year-old man with a college degree, highly qualified as a construction engineer. When HR asked this man for a bank account where they could direct-deposit his check, he said, “I don’t have a bank account. I’ll just take it to a check-cashing place.” How could this otherwise educated man have reached thirty-two without a bank account? In part, you have to blame the schools. They’d never thought it important to teach him how to manage his money and never explained how that check-cashing business is taking a percentage of the money he works so hard for. An extension of the problem is the outstanding population of young adults with credit cards and zero comprehension of what interest rates are!

Creating Their Own Victories

In school, kids are responsible for learning their lessons, but they have no freedom or authority to say how they are going to learn. They’re told that there is only one way to find a solution, when, in reality, there may be five ways of coming to the answer.

It’s important for kids to know that they have something to contribute and that their contribution is important. They should be able to say what’s on their mind and ask questions without being afraid that they’ll be reprimanded by other students or teachers. Encouraging passionate learning should be the goal, not preparing to pass a mandated, government-enforced test.

“Alternative Schooling”

It’s beyond the scope of this book to talk about the wide variety of alternative schools now available to parents — such as Acton, Waldorf, Montessori, Play Mountain Place, and the many others.

These programs often improve on the model of school and offer greater independence and lower-stress environments. Often, they try to create projects that imitate the real world — such as creating a profitable business plan and participating in a career fair at Acton Academy.

A big part of building our own 5-Hour School Week has been cherry-picking the parts of these working models that I love most. It’s important to really evaluate what is working and what you would want to be different. Before I took the girls out of school, I had a conversation about my internal struggle about school with a friend. She said, “I’m not interested in raising a Harvard graduate. I’m interested in raising a good, kind, God-honoring human being.” I never looked at curriculum the same again!

What is your goal for your child’s education? If it’s to get them to Harvard, great! Did you know Harvard accepts homeschooled kids? There is never just one path, so I urge you to explore whether you are on the right path for yourself and your kids.

Government “Homeschool Traps”

When we quit traditional school, we knew we wanted to personally guide our children’s practical, real-world learning. Like many beginning homeschoolers, we were first at a loss about how to organize their academic education. We were also afraid of violating the law. So we briefly looked into quasi-government programs, such as the K12 online schools.

We had seen commercials on TV for K12 and thought, Hey, cool, here’s a program that will handle everything for us. Programs like K12 are accredited by the state and claim to offer a “personalized educational experience.”

In some states, these programs not only are tuition-free but even offer stipends to parents who take the role of “learning coach.” Very quickly, however, we saw that K12 (specifically in California) was structured exactly like school — with online teachers, grading, and heavy monitoring by the state. The kids would have to clock in to the internet and sit at desks for six hours a day, just as in a classroom. As in school, they would have to “keep up with the class.” In other states, such as Florida, the K12 program allows more freedom in regard to scheduling and may not require clocking desk time. Systems like this are better equipped to work with our system.

We saw that if we signed up for such a program, we would be falling into a new kind of schooling trap, and not homeschooling at all. We would not be able to travel as we wished to travel, and we would have no time for all the creative projects we wanted to do with our kids.

Real Homeschool Options

Instead, we started researching the many other educational options available in the modern world: from free learning websites to touring educational exhibits to our own entrepreneurial instincts. We discovered that in our state, as in all the states within the United States, we could homeschool legally just by filing the proper paperwork.

In short, we realized that we did not need to outsource our kids’ education to anyone. We saw that we could escape the system — completely. Sure enough, within just a few days of quitting school, we were happily pursuing our own path.

Where To Begin

“How do I even get started?” I get asked this question several times a month. The very thought can be incredibly overwhelming, but I promise, no matter what state you live in or what size your community is, there are several options available to you.

After much research on the pros and cons of more organized programs, such as the state-run K12, we filed the needed paperwork to become our own “private school,” meaning we are unattached to any one program. By using that wonderful search engine Google, we easily found our state requirements and completed the paperwork, painless and quick.

Here are a few ways we made sure to get connected within our community and incorporate some other alternative schooling options.

Community. We knew we needed a community of friends and parents who lived similar educational lifestyles. I started Googling terms such as “homeschool communities,” “local homeschool co-ops,” and “alternative education in my area.” In our area, we’re lucky enough to have a Free to Learn community that focuses on education through play. My girls go there once or twice a week and love it. It also offers me a community of parents and enough support to help me keep from reaching burnout. I encourage you to look into all the options in your area.

Charter Schools. Many charter schools offer a homeschool curriculum. They often provide a financial stipend to help with supplies and extracurricular activities, as well as providing academic and emotional support for any challenges that may come up. Depending on the organization, they may have a very conservative set of rules in regard to attendance and work completed, or may be more lax.

Alternative Schools. We are seeing more and more of these phenomenal choices pop up as well. Alternative schools offer wide varieties of curriculum and educational methods that usually focus on a passion or a principle. For example, Acton Academy focuses on entrepreneurial skills, on learning that grows passion into life skills. These schools vary from city to city, but I encourage you to keep your eyes open. These types of schools are on the rise. Many are really impressive and are a great alternative, but they can also be used in conjunction with homeschool life.

Here are just a few to give you some ideas:

  • Acton Academy: entrepreneurship based
  • Nature Schools: focus on connection to nature
  • Montessori: hands-on learning and play
  • Waldorf: similar to Montessori, with more focus on imagination
  • Magnet Schools: a free school that focuses on a main technical subject
  • Country Day Schools: college prep
  • Green Schools: sustainable-living themed

The most important part is knowing what is going to fit your lifestyle best and what is going to work the best for you and your kids. I strongly encourage parents to take time to research and put together a list of several options that might be a good fit. Visit the schools, and if one of them feels right for your family, consider giving it a try.

Co-Ops and Resource Centers. Some of these options can be parent-founded, parent-run co-ops. With these groups, the parents take turns teaching classes in various subjects, both academic and extracurricular. You may also find a privately owned alternative like the one my girls go to. Churches and community centers are often great resources, and many have their own homeschool groups already established.

Asking for Help and Advice. In the beginning, I used social media to find more information. I asked my homeschooling friends how they and their other homeschooling friends made the options work for their families. I read a decent amount of literature, and I’ll share that list of sources with you throughout the book.

While the 5-Hour School Week focuses on educating at home and on the road, I think it’s just as important to acknowledge, once again, that this just doesn’t work for some families. That doesn’t mean you have to sit back and be dissatisfied with your child’s education. There are so many alternative school options!

Above all — and I will say this repeatedly — this book is about choices for educating our kids! I simply do not believe one size fits all.

Eager to learn more? Open up Google and start finding what your choices are! And read on — I think we can help a little more. In the next chapter, we’ll explain exactly how the 5-Hour School Week works, how we incorporated it into our own lives, and why it works.

For more on how to give your kids the best education possible, check out The 5-Hour School Week: An Inspirational Guide to Leaving the Classroom to Embrace Learning in a Way You Never Imagined by Kaleena and Aaron Amuchastegui.