deschooling, family-style

Out of Poverty, Family-Style - NYTimes.com: An article in the NYT about a new anti-poverty program that breaks with a whole lot of conventional so-called wisdom and attitudes.  This program offers a lens through which to discuss moving from schooling as a compulsory, one-size-fits-all model to a voluntary, student and family based social service.  So many people will admit that education could be voluntary and full of choices for some families, sure homeschoolers can do it, but these services could not possibly work that way for the poor and families without an education background.  And that attitude consistently underestimates poorer families.

Lim Miller, the founder of the anti-poverty program, takes a similar approach:
Lim Miller had come to believe that the American social welfare system focused too much on poor people’s needs and deficits, while overlooking — and even inhibiting — their strengths. A safety net is crucial when people are in crisis, he said. But most poor families are not in free fall. They don’t need nets to catch them so much as they need springboards to jump higher. In a conversation with Oakland’s mayor Jerry Brown (now California’s governor), Brown challenged Lim Miller to try something different and gave him broad scope to be creative.
Miller creates small groups, provides support and then gets out of the way, a critical part of his strategy.  Education, too, could be done as social service where families were supported and schools focused on meeting those families needs and then allowing the families to make the decisions, something professional educators would have a hard time doing.  Lim Miller met that same inability to stop helping in his program:
"Most important, families had to agree to meet as a group at least once a month in a confidential setting to discuss their goals and any issues they deemed important. FII didn’t guide the agenda and its liaisons did not act as facilitators. They established the structure and backed off, creating a vacuum for families to take the lead. Lim Miller gave his staff strict instructions that they could not offer any advice — not even friendly suggestions. For some, this proved too difficult; he had to fire people who couldn’t help but be helpful. Lim Miller was convinced that the assumption of incapacity behind the helpfulness was a big part of the problem."
This is one reason the DIY aspect of homeschooling is so successful:  it forces families to think for themselves and work from their strengths.  Empowering all parents to choose and shape their children's education would also mean an whole new attitude on the part of families as they start making choices for the first time:
“When you come into a community that is vulnerable with professionals with power and preset ideas, it is overpowering to families and it can hold them back,” he said. “Nobody wants to hear that because we’re all the good guys. But the focus on need undermines our ability to see their strengths — and their ability to see their own strengths.”
The article discusses how anti-poverty programs do not wind up getting the money to the poor: they enable a class of professionals who then are supposed to help.  It is quite the same situation in education where classes of professionals make good jobs out of helping and everyone is waiting for superman:
Lim Miller is clear that FII is not trying to lend comfort to people who want to dismantle the social service system. He wants to fix it: to make it more about incentives. Today, 85 percent of the $400 billion that the government spends to encourage things like home ownership, college attendance, investment and small business ends up in the pockets of the top 20 percent of earners (and half goes to the top 5 percent). Very little ends up helping the working poor. On the other hand, many social benefits cut off when a family’s income rises roughly 30 percent above the poverty line — which is still a far cry from being out of poverty.
I have blogged a lot about how education is a system that culls some by throwing the rest away. The entire ranking and hierarchical approach means by definition that many will not suceed.  Real educational change means changing that fundamental structure.  Miller summarizes the lessons learned from his approach and it is exactly what schools need to be doing:
Lim Miller offers three suggestions as a starter: 1) Where possible, replace case managers with peer families who have succeeded; 2) Make it easier for small scale entrepreneurs to start businesses and raise capital; 3) Solicit regular feedback from the clients. “These families have opinions about what works and what doesn’t work,” he explains. “Our system would work better if it responded to their feedback. And it would be very empowering to them if they knew their voices were heard.” 
John Holt wrote this in "Deschooling and the Poor," an essay in Freedom and Beyond:
I don't think the schools are or can be made into a kind of springboard or ladder to help poor kids rise in the world. Instead, I think that schools and schooling are, by their very nature, purposes, structure, and ways of working, and are meant to be, an obstacle to poor kids, designed and built not to move them up in the world but to keep them at the bottom of it and to make them think it is their own fault.
Getting schools out of the way of poor families mean fundamentally changing schools from compulsory providers of an educational programme to a social service that is run by and for families.  A voluntary service where families can choose what they need and full power to turn down what they don't.

The article in the NYT provides a great look at a program making the same assumptions and breaking all the rules.  That can be done in education by moving toward a citizen-powered model and away from a top-down, professionals-know-best approach.  We are the people we've been waiting for.  We are all supermen and superwomen.

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