Anna’s paper is on top, illegible as always. Jason’s and Zoe’s are as good as expected, but then there’s Ryan’s. At first glance it appears “the” and “a” are the only two words spelled right in the entire paragraph. Jee got off the subject in his second sentence and never returned. And Erik’s. Poor, sweet Erik could churn out a complete story each hour, but his hands just can’t keep up with his vivid imagination.

“Just like last year’s horrifying statistics, that’s four out of six in this classroom unlikely to pass the writing portion of the test,” Mary says out loud while placing Erik’s paper on the bottom of the pile.


In June, 2003, the National Assessment of Educational Progress (the Nation’s Report Card), reported that 36 percent of 4th graders cannot read at what the test defined as a “basic” level. Not only are scores equally dismal in other basic subjects, the evidence strongly suggests the situation gets worse, not better, as these children reach high school.

One of the reasons may be the potpourri of negative learning labels slapped on children today. (from Parent at the Helm)
Here is a story about my son. He was 10 years old before I could honestly say that he was a reader. If I'd sat down at any point and tried to make him a reader, it would have failed because he was so resistant and frustrated by the process. In fact, I did just that, and it was a disaster. He needed to do it in his own time, in his own way, with me acting only as a resource.

He's fluent now. He reads me passages (on his own initiative, yes, because he wants to) from books containing "college-level" words (a term too often used to segregate words for the purpose of so-called intellectual status.) To him it is just part of the landscape of his 13-year-old life.

He uses pencil and paper for various things, by choice, all in block letters. He may some day learn how to write quickly with a smart-looking stroke, just as he set himself the task of learning how to type when he understood how it would benefit him. Or he may never have a reason to do so and decide that the block letters suit him just fine. I had a friend in college who always wrote in block letters, insisting it was fastest and most comfortable for him; it hasn't hindered him one bit in doing what he wants to do with his life. I know other people with chicken-scratch or childish-looking handwriting, who went through the full barrage of mandatory school and beyond, and yet still don't write particularly legibly but somehow managed to create lives that are successful by our society's standards. I have to wonder how they would have fared under our government's current standards programs.

I don't understand. It seems so crystal clear to me, how is it that the rest of the world just doesn't get it? Intelligence and ability to contribute and have a rich, full life isn't going to look the same for everyone. Anna and Erik may not (yet or ever) have the skills to do well on a particular standardized test. The enormous mistake our society is making is to assume that this really means something and that the action that should be taken is to label them, ostensibly so that they can get help, but the reality is that what they are really learning is this: You are not as good. This is your place, and it is at the bottom.

This is why my children are not in school. My children are brilliant, all in their own ways. They know it because they were born knowing it, and I'll be damned if I'm going to let some ignorant "authority" try to convince them otherwise. And that is exactly what would happen if they were in school. My son -- the one who is now reading like it's second nature and who is also a story-teller, inwardly compelled to put his stories onto paper -- would have been "behind". He would have been "learning disabled". And that would have followed him throughout his life. He might have been part of the small percentage to "overcome his disability", or he might have been one of the many who are taught that there is inherently something wrong with them and who end up becoming a self-fulfilled prophecy. If he'd been in school, told that there was something wrong with him because he still wasn't a reader at age 7, 8, and 9, put in "special" classes or just ignored and given bad grades, labeled "a poor achiever", diagnosed and put on dangerous stimulant drugs... would he be confident is his ability to become an author? Would he feel pretty darn good about himself, right here, right now? How many people of "low IQ" are we creating?

The standards are wrong. I can tell you that without even knowing what they are, because I know the simple and obvious truth that everyone is different and learns in different ways, at different paces, with different interests. There can be no objectively correct standard for all people. I remember these idiot standards even from when I was in grade school, way before No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top (bah, everything in our culture has to be a competition, doesn't it.) I could see even then that my peers were falling between the cracks, not because they were stupid, but because they couldn't fit into this tiny little box that the school was trying to force them into. And I could see the people who fit well, who weren't necessarily more intelligent or more creative, yet who were already being primed for success. I could see even then that it was unfair and ugly. A child can see this, yet the people in power, getting paid lots of money to be in power, can't?

We need to stop. Stop playing along as if it's all fine. I have two children now who could conform to the system well enough, but they deserve better than to simply do well in an environment in which that which is normal isn't (think about that for a minute,) and that penalizes people for not being willing or able to conform to an absurdly limited conception of "normal". I would consider that a false, meaningless achievement; what would it cost them to be trained to assume that it's important in any sense?
Our boys weren't yet reading when they were 8 and 9 years old respectively, and we didn't decide how and when to teach them, or to teach them at all. Educational theory of the past several decades says that children must be taught to read, at a specific time and in a specific way, and that when they don't learn according to these dictates, it is evidence of a disorder, and that when they aren't taught according to those dictates, it is neglect. It is taken for granted that this is just the way it is. Considering our situation through that lens, what we allowed to happen looks like pretty severe neglect. But to the contrary, it was a carefully considered decision based on reason and a desire to protect their sense of competency and love of reading. Here are some of the facts that went into our decision:

- People learn most powerfully and most efficiently when they're developmentally ready, and people aren't all ready at the same time.
- Expecting and pressuring them to learn before they're developmentally ready is stressful and creates a feeling in the learner that something is wrong with them.
- The written word is a major form of communication in our culture, and inherent to humanity is the desire to communicate, resulting in a natural drive to master the culture's dominant forms of communication; therefore we trusted that the interest and desire would manifest when able.
- There is no evidence that the "window of opportunity" of optimal learning, if not driven by external means to meet it, could be out of sync with the person's actual needs and desires in a free, rich, supportive environment.
- John Holt wrote that in his experience (as a teacher involved for many years in educational reform) that when children learn without pressure and at their own instigation, the average age of learning to read is nine years old, and that under these conditions it happens relatively quickly and easily. Anecdotes I've found about "late" readers have been in line with this.
- Trying to teach our firstborn phonics at age six was frustrating and made him angry and distrustful of us, and questioning of his own intelligence.
- Unschoolers somehow all manage to escape the "dyslexia" label, though it is common in schools where the root assumption is that if you don't meet or exceed arbitrary expectations for age-based production, that there is something wrong with you.

Put all this together, and clearly the smartest thing for us to do was to be patient and aware of our kids' needs and at the ready to help when needed. Through that lens, what we were doing was the opposite of neglect, it was conscientious and responsible.