Never Normal Newsletter

The Never Normal Schoolhouse

Howdy regular readers and new subscribers just joining us!

Over the last couple of weeks I’ve written about how being a nomad is becoming less of an extreme lifestyle choice and about nomad families traveling with kids.

A common response to the idea of nomad families is “you can only keep it up for the first few years until the kids reach school age.”

Presumably because not putting your kids in a normal school would be detrimental to their future 😱, right?

Not so fast…

You probably know how I feel about “normal life” (Normal is Broken). But of all the so-called normal things that are broken, our education system might well be the most broken of all.

Much has been said about the costs vs benefits of higher education, and the way it saddles young people with debt while failing to prepare them for in-demand jobs…

…but the problems in our education system start much earlier, at the grade school level. Synthesis CEO Chrisman Frank puts it well:The current system seems designed to produce obedient rule-followers in a world that increasingly demands agency and creativity.

And it’s getting worse.

In misguided attempts at achieving equity, New York City ended it’s Gifted and Talented programs, and California attempted to reinvent mathematics to take social justice into account.

This kind of thinking at the school board level, coupled with all the debate about when and how much young children should be taught about controversial issues related to race and gender, have pushed parents to seek alternative options. At the same time, schools closing and adopting remote learning during the pandemic gave parents new visibility into their children’s education, and prompted many more to make a change.

While enrollment in private schools and charter schools is booming, more and more parents are opting out of traditional schools altogether. As the LA Times reports, More parents are home-schooling. Some are never turning back.

Overall, the proportion of American families home-schooling at least one child grew from 5.4% in spring 2020 to 11.1% in fall 2021, according to a U.S. Census Bureau analysis.

The New Yorker’s coverage of The Rise of Black Homeschooling has even more staggering statistics:

Before the pandemic, six percent of Detroit’s fourth graders met proficiency benchmarks in math, and seven percent in reading…Around three percent of Black students were homeschooled before the pandemic; by October [2021], the number had risen to sixteen percent.

But not all families have the resources to send their children to private schools, or the time and ability to homeschool.

Fortunately, as Newton showed us, every action has an equal and opposite reaction. So, as the industrial school system gets worse, the alternative options are getting better and more plentiful.

This is the part that excites me!

I wrote last year about rethinking education and mentioned Synthesis:

Born out of Ad Astra, a school that Elon Musk started on the SpaceX campus for his own kids, Synthesis aims to teach kids what it calls, “the world’s most valuable skill: how to solve complex problems with a team.”

Synthesis has grown 5x over the past year, and they just closed a new round of funding led by Balaji 💖 and Replit founder, Amjad Masad. Balaji explains his rationale for the investment and what’s at stake:

Human capital is the bottleneck to civilizational progress. It’s our scarcest resource. To increase the supply, the highest leverage place to begin is K-12. If we can fix that system, we have a base for a better world. That’s what Synthesis aims to do.

Packy McCormick wrote this week about his investment in another startup focused on reinventing education, Primer:

Primer wants to build a new education system that takes kids seriously. It’s one of the most ambitious companies I’ve encountered, which is appropriate, because it’s building the home for ambitious kids. If human progress is a function of human creativity, ingenuity, ideas, then better educating kids and empowering talented outliers might be the highest-leverage activity.

Primer is using some of this investment to prototype what I believe will be the future of education — a combination of online curriculum and in-person activities.

Microschools are full-day, in-person schools for 10-20 students, enhanced by the larger online Primer community and digital tools. Students will spend a few hours a day on core curriculum, taught online by world-class subject educators, facilitated by on-site instructors.

They’ll spend the rest of their time pursuing passions through projects, Primer Clubs, or good old fashioned unstructured exploration.

The goal is to reimagine the school experience to combine what in-person schools do really well – friendships, childcare, play, and more – with what Primer’s online tools and network allow.

Packy joins a star-studded list of investors on Primer’s cap table, including the founders of notable tech companies, like Tobi Lütke (Shopify) and Tony Xu (DoorDash).

It’s encouraging to see some of the sharpest thinkers and builders turn their attention towards innovating in education. I’m hopeful that by the time my daughter reaches school age, we’ll have more, great options to consider.

In the meantime, here’s a helpful thread from Ana Lorena Fabrega on alternative and supplementary education options that are available now:

BTW, if I was fourteen years old again, I would want to join this school.

That’s all for this week! More soon…

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I write occasional emails to share what I’m thinking, learning, and doing. It’s all related to the idea of breaking free from the “default plan” in life.

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