An earlier version of this essay appeared in educational Horizons (Spring 2007)

Problem Solutions:
uncommon schooling, amateur teaching and paying students to learn

by Wade A. Carpenter, Ph. D.
Berry College

edited 12/9/19

One Problem, Two Audiences: A Three-part Solution

The problem is that for far too many people, schools don't work. The audiences are (1) alienated, bored students and (2) young and old teachers. The solutions are (a) uncommon schooling, (b) amateur teaching, and (c) paying students to learn. Although these ideas may seem revolutionary, they are hardly original; each has been tried before and each has worked. Now maybe it's time to put them together.

The Problem

While driving along a few weeks ago, I heard a radio talk-show host describe high school as "America's bootcamp." As in the military, if one doesn't pass it, one isn't likely to become a "soldier," much less an "officer." The analogy is good enough, I suppose, but I hope that wasn't the sum of his thinking, since taken alone this is the most impoverished view of schools I've ever heard. He mentioned nothing about actually learning worthwhile information, much less about developing the mental capacity or the gumption to do something worthwhile with it. School as he described it is just a shared ordeal to be completed by any who wish to prosper thereafter. I suspect there are plenty of Americans who share this man's assumptions. Sorry, Mister Host, but we can do much better, and we shouldn't settle for just being an outrageously expensive testing site.

At the other extreme is the messianic view of public schools developed by John Dewey and recited almost automatically by most American teachers and teacher educators.1 Sorry, Dr. Dewey, "whole-child education" is not a realistic goal for schools. We cannot do it. We can help, without doubt, and do better than we've been doing, but let's stop trying to do the whole job for the whole child, now, before we hurt any more children. Wholeness can be seen as a gift of God, demonstrably the result of decades of life lived fully. It is not a diploma, and it is certainly not a standardized test score. Surely there's a middle ground between the job we should not do and the job we cannot do. It may take some revolutionary thinking to break out of the (usually false) dichotomies we've debated for the past century, but that's okay: revolutionaries make the world go 'round. Then it will take patient evolution to make it happen. That's okay, too. For those of us who have been altruistic enough to envision school teaching as a way of redeeming kids from dead-end circumstances, our duty now may be to redeem them from dead-end schooling.

Uncommon Schooling

Common schools carry an impossible burden, arising from diversity of purpose, diversity of kids, and perversity of politicians. Horace Mann tried to establish a common school with one purpose, to instruct all citizens in the knowledge and skills that would make them worthwhile Americans. 2 But the common school quickly devolved into a public school. As Joel Spring reminds us, public schools serve public purposes.3 — the purposes of the publics, all three hundred million of them.

They are political, they are high-profile, and they are soft targets. Hence, almost unavoidably, (a) teachers' responsibilities will continue to increase with little if any respite; therefore (b) teachers will always be failing at something and schools will always be attracting negative publicity; and therefore (c) we'll always be supplying cheap issues for ambitious politicians. The futility of fixing education in the public sector was best exemplified by the gentleman who was in charge of the one thing nearly everyone agrees should be a government responsibility: "The charge of incompetence against the U.S. government should be easy to rebut if the American people understand the extent to which the current system of government makes competence next to impossible.” -- Donald Rumsfeld.4 Scaaaary!

To make matters worse, we who teach cannot blame this mess entirely on the officeholders and office seekers. Let's face it: we have overpromised.5 And worse, we have come to believe our own hype that our ragged band of underpaid, narrowly prepared, and over-regulated miracle workers can solve all of America's problems between 8:15 a.m. and 3:30 p.m. The fact that schools have reached most of the kids is a tribute to a lot of heroic people; as the old saying goes, "That's pretty good for government work." But the number of failing kids and departing teachers suggests that we need reinforcements, especially people less bound by red tape and economic necessity than we are.

Next, let's consider that however charitably the "whole child" dogma for public schooling was intended, it can also be frighteningly totalitarian. School people love the proverb about it taking a village to raise a child (or at least since it's supposedly from the Third World, we feel it's too sacrosanct to challenge). Actually, the idea comes from ancient Sparta "The child is property of the state6 ” so it's okay to ask if we really want to depend on a government-run institution to teach our children truth and freedom.

Likewise, "whole child" education implies spiritual and moral formation, but every day, regardless of which gang of belligerents (i.e., political parties) is running things, government demonstrates its incompetence in issues of faith and morals. Political conservatives respond to school people and other big-government advocates by claiming that the family is the better vehicle for child rearing. While in general I agree, I've also seen way too many dysfunctional families to believe the family is adequate. We need mediating institutions, and lots of them. Schools are coercive: kids put up with regimentation and abuse you and I wouldn't tolerate for an hour. For many, especially those not in advanced placement or something of the sort, the situation becomes intolerable.

As discussed previously in this column, for the past few years I've been seeing the worst teaching ever—almost uniformly low-level, rote, test-driven minimalist.7 Nowadays it seems that if one is not in AP, one is pretty much SOL. Thirty years ago I was angry at how often I saw black kids sitting in the back, unengaged. Fifteen years ago it was primarily Latino kids, and I got angry again. Now I'm regularly seeing the smart kids, of whatever ethnicity, literally bored stupid, and once again, I'm fuming. I see little creativity, flexibility, or spontaneity, and only a few half-hearted, unconvincing (and mostly childish) attempts to accommodate differing learning styles. I see no confidence in kids' ability to think deeply or divergently. But I can't blame the teachers for that: the politicians have created a self-fulfilling prophecy.

The bulk of the educational literature suggests that what I am witnessing is not a local phenomenon: No Child Left Behind and its fallout have created a system obsessed with raising scores on tests that no one would consider "rocket science." When we attempt to homogenize kids by rules and rubrics rather than distinguish them by reason and response, we should not be surprised when they resist. They ought to. Unfortunately, institutional inertia is probably powerful enough that we may expect dumbed-down curricular tripe and pedagogical traif to be with us awhile.

But educators still hope that somebody's reform will somehow enable us to reach all the kids, that it's just around the corner, and that anyone who opposes this year's "current best practices" (i.e., this year's bandwagon) is uncooperative, unprofessional, and even (if all other pejoratives fail) "traditional." Yawn. Unquestionably, malcontents, drive-by teachers, and intractable old fogies have presented obstacles to constructive change from time to time, but it is also true that public school bureaucracies have promoted trendy, tendentious, and transitory changes with appalling consistency, while simultaneously maintaining tepid, tedious, and trifling customs for decades.8 Indeed, the privatizers are right to point an accusatory finger at the semi-monopoly the public schools enjoy. In his study of Bureaucracy, James Q. Wilson wrote: Innovation is not inevitably good; there are at least as many bad changes as good. And government agencies are especially vulnerable to bad changes because, absent a market that would impose a fitness test on any organizational change, a changed public bureaucracy can persist in doing the wrong thing for years. The Ford Motor Company should not have made the Edsel, but if the government had owned Ford it would still be making Edsels.9

It is, of course, easy to poke fun at government operations, but private schools can't meet the call for universal education, either, even if they wanted to, which they don't. Although they may or may not be splendid for those populations they intend to serve, without a massive (and massively problematic10 ) voucher program those schools will remain limited to moneyed families and whatever smattering of minority and poor kids they can pick up by way of scholarships that do not seem due for any massive infusions of new money. But we've been locked in fruitless arguments over vouchers for so long that we fail to consider third options.

Allow me to suggest that the private-versus-public-school argument is intellectually limited and pedagogically limiting. Maybe we can provide education that's neither standardized nor bowdlerized; neither public, nor private. For now, in its nascent stage, let's call it "personal" education.11 It could be funded by any number of well-heeled sources, ranging from philanthropists to foundations, corporations to churches, civic organizations to political parties. Nothing new: That's already being done, through "uncommon" venues like scouting, parks and recreation leagues, the Y, reading circles, great books clubs, Sunday schools, church youth groups, and countless other providers. They teach different curricula, differently, to kids with different talents and interests, and most seem to do it pretty well. There is typically a great deal of personalization, enthusiasm, and intensity. So why are we wedded to common schools, public and private? Schools as we now have them are, at best, third best. One-on-one teaching (the apprenticeship model) works. One-teaching-few (the discipleship model) works pretty well. But we've chosen big schools with big classes and "professional" teachers to do everything for everybody. That choice has led to overload and dilution. And that choice can be reconsidered.

Amateur Teachers

Only in the past couple of centuries has the word "amateur" come to imply "sloppiness" or "incompetence."12 It comes from the Latin for "to love" (amo, amas, amat . . . remember?), and an amateur was one who did something out of love, and therefore, with care, enthusiasm, and commitment. Let's also remember that just as education is not a state monopoly,13 it does not have to be a professional monopoly either. Though doubtless aware of the positive aspects of professionalism, George Bernard Shaw put the downside perceptively when he remarked that every profession is a conspiracy against the laity.14 Socrates was, of course, famously put out at those who would teach for a fee, and was especially sore about the libel of professionalism alleged against him by Aristophanes.15

The rabbinic tradition favors the nonprofessional teacher, particularly in the instruction of the really important things. In the Talmud (Nedarim 37a) the teacher of Torah gets no remuneration, since that teaching is a mitzvah, a sacred deed. Historically, many rabbis made their living and maintained a level of intellectual independence by some trade or industry, as did some early Christian leaders (Acts 18:3, for instance, tells us that St. Paul was a tentmaker).

Moses Maimonides (1135–1204) amended that principle by allowing a teacher to receive payment for teaching scripture "in a place where this is the custom" (Hilchus Talmud Torah 1:7), and in the 1560s the Shulchan Aruch grudgingly agreed that "the recent custom of paying teachers is permitted, since it is evident that [since he spends his time teaching] he puts aside other employment and business" (Yoreh De'ah 246:5). The specification is, however, that teachers' pay is not to be regarded as sechar (remuneration) but as sechar batalah (remuneration due to the suspension of other work). In short, teacher pay was regarded similarly to unemployment compensation. The teacher, in this system, works at another job (presumably for real money!) and teaches a few hours each week out of love of kids, of teaching, of subject, or of God.16

Perhaps the ancients knew something we have forgotten: adding extrinsic motivation when a person is already intrinsically motivated generally serves to weaken behavior.17 In light of this, it seems odd that our society has decided to pay teachers, who are some of the most internally motivated people in the world,18 and then overload and regulate the daylights out of them. It may be that over the past few hundred years we have gotten education backward: we should be paying kids to learn, and letting teachers teach. Maybe education should be freely given, and should be explicitly and substantially rewarding for the kids.

Paying the Students

But that brings us to the hardest suggestion for many: paying kids to learn. The idea is hardly novel: parents have long paid their children allowances in exchange for performing household chores, as a sensible way to introduce them to the world of money and its management, and to get the darned chores done without having to resort to cutesy Tom Sawyer-like fence-whitewashing tricks (which, as every parent learns, only works just so long!19 ) or unnecessarily punitive measures. Few fear that the kids will develop an "entitlement mentality," if it's managed with any adult level of competence.

So why not apply this to academics? Like the guy on Comedy Central who points out that nobody's asked about Muslim heaven from the virgins' perspective (how would you like to live your whole life virtuously, only to die and become a terrorist's sex slave for all eternity?20), perhaps we should ask ourselves about our little bit of heaven from the perspective of the kids. For instance, for years I've wondered just why we expect tenth-graders to be intrinsically motivated to read the poetry of John Milton. For those who are, I'm happy—if it ain't broke, don't fix it. But we all know that schools as we have them serve many kids much less well, and that two groups stand out in the gloomier statistics: the economically poor and the intellectually rich.

Even in private and elite schools, personal mismatches between "child style" and "school style" account for many losses. Maybe those kids need more concrete rewards. Perhaps we should say something along the lines of: Okay, kid, here's $X. This is your contribution to your family income, or your spending money, or your college savings, or whatever you and your parents negotiate. [Topic(s) Y] is your job for this semester. Learn it to [Level Z] and we continue your contract for next semester. If you don't, we don't. Betcha they'd learn it.

Which brings up the next question: Okay, who's going to do all this? Let's start with the teachers. We may safely estimate that roughly 40 percent of new teachers will leave within the first five years, and, of course, the entire "baby boom" generation is retiring.21 Most appear to remain fond of teaching, but have wearied of the ...shall we say ..."nonsense" that goes with it.22 Many are still available, and given America's history of voluntarism, we may expect little trouble attracting good people to work a few hours per week in a structure as loose as this would be, with its kind of potential. Americans are already giving 2 percent of their annual income to charity as individuals, and including institutional giving the charitable sector is estimated to comprise roughly one-tenth of the U.S. economy. And over and above the dollar figures, 44 percent, or 8.39 million U.S. adults, volunteer; representing the equivalent of more than 9 million full-time employees at a value of $239 billion.23 the goodwill and the teaching skill are already there.

Next, who will pay for it? As mentioned earlier, philanthropists and philanthropic foundations may be persuaded to buy in, as may religious organizations. They are already doing a great deal educationally, given the overall individual charitable giving rate of 2 percent. Imagine what could happen if the 64 percent of the American people claiming that religion is important in their lives gave to their churches and synagogues at a rate even approaching the biblically mandated 10 percent.24 Political parties, civic groups, industry organizations, professional associations, and corporations might find tax advantages and other attractions. They could set their own criteria for teachers, for students and terms of contract,25 and for gauging success, free of government overburdens, but also unconstrained by the profit motive. Again, this is nothing new: many do anyway, except that they're paying adults instead of kids.

Finally, who is going to get this idea from the embryonic stage to the prospectus to the financial arrangements to the delivery of instruction, and when will it happen? I don't know, except that it won't be me (although I'll gladly volunteer), and it won't happen quickly. But what I am sure of is that something like this will happen, and as Ralph Waldo Emerson reputedly said, you can get a lot accomplished if you don't mind who gets the credit.

So let's envision different kinds of schools serving different kinds of kids, schools in which teachers are allowed to teach, teaching kids who want to learn. Does that sound powerful? Of course it does. Does it sound scary? Yes. A runaway imagination might even regard this as subversive to the whole industry. But let me make two things clear:

(1) This idea is not aimed at replacing or even competing with either public or private schools, nor is it aimed at undermining the job market for teachers; it is conceived as providing a short- to medium-term alternative for those kids neither public nor private schools are currently serving satisfactorily, and to do it with mature, qualified adults who are looking for new opportunities to contribute. And,

(2) there is no intention of robbing either public or private schools of money or resources that would otherwise go to them. Going to the public trough would be a bad idea, simply because the strings attached would inevitably dilute and defeat the whole purpose. And although it might attract funds that might otherwise go to professionally run private schools, I would encourage anyone interested to seek funding beyond current providers, simply because their agendas are already tied into current practices. It will happen, sooner or later.

Given the population of fully qualified teachers who are leaving the field prematurely and the supply of highly experienced people who are retiring and who would otherwise be sorely missed, now is a good time to start.


1. John Dewey, Democracy and Education (New York: Macmillan, 1916).

2. Wayne J. Urban and Jennings L. Wagoner, Jr., American Education: A History (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004).

3. Joel Spring, American Education, 11th ed. (Boston: McGraw-Hill, 2004), 7.

4. Quoted in Bob Woodward, State of Denial: Bush at War III (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2006), 487.

5. Larry Cuban, How Teachers Taught: Constancy and Change in American Classrooms, 1880–1990, 2nd ed. (New York: Teachers College Press, 1993); Henry J. Perkinson, The Imperfect Panacea: American Faith in Education, 4th ed. (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1995).

6. H. I. Marrou, A History of Education in Antiquity (Madison: University of Wisconsin, 1956); Paul Cartledge, The Spartans: The World of the Warrior-Heroes of Ancient Greece (New York: Vintage, 2004).

7. Wade A. Carpenter, "Behind Every Silver Lining: The Other Side of No Child Left Behind," Educational Horizons 85 (1) (2006): 7–11.

8. John Taylor Gatto's Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling (Philadelphia: New Society, 1992) and Underground History of American Education (New York: Oxford Village Press, 2003) provide scathing coverage of how this has happened. Although these books are one-sided and hyperbolic, they are not inaccurate. See also Wade A. Carpenter, "Ten Years of Silver Bullets: Dissenting Thoughts on Educational Reform," Phi Delta Kappan 81 (5): 383–389; and Cuban, How Teachers Taught.

9. James Q. Wilson, Bureaucracy (1989), quoted in John Couretas, "The Burden of Planning," The National Interest 84 (summer 2006): 134.

10. For a good overview of that argument, see Educational Horizons 83 (2) (winter 2005).

11. See Emmanuel Mounier, Personalism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1952). Space prohibits a lengthy treatment here, but by way of quick introduction: personalism briefly mounted an interesting challenge to both individualistic capitalism and state socialism in European intellectual circles in the 1940s and '50s before being drowned out by its government-funded rivals' propaganda machines and the trendy, avant-garde existentialism of Camus or Sartre. It is worth a second look, being readable yet intelligent, moderate but unconventional, and compassionate but not maudlin. Jacques Maritain's "integral humanism," described in Education at the Crossroads (New Haven: Yale, 1943), presents a similar but somewhat more individualistic foundation. Although explicitly religious, it has many possible applications for secular teaching. See Educational Horizon's summer 2005 issue discussing Maritain's ideas. For other theoretical bases that are less connected with religious worldviews, the "deschooling" and "alternative education" literatures of the 1960s and '70s provide broad fields for exploration.

12. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed., available at <>.

13. Louis Fischer, David Schimmel, and Leslie R. Stellman, Teachers and the Law, 6th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2006), 388–389.

14. George Bernard Shaw, The Doctor's Dilemma (New York: Penguin, 1911/1946), preface.

15. Plato's Hippias Major, The Sophist, Apology, Republic; Aristophanes' The Clouds.

16. Shulchan Aruch, the "Set Table," is a compendium of those areas of the halachah—Jewish religious law—that are applicable today. Compiled by Rabbi Yosef Karo of Safed, available at <>. For more detail on this rather subtle thinking, begin with Shmuel Yaakov Klein, "Excerpts from To Teach a Jew," available at < toteachajew.html>. So influential on Jewish thinking was Maimonides that Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote, "If one did not know that Maimonides was the name of a man, one would assume it was the name of a university," in Jewish Virtual Library, available at <>. Not a bad epitaph for a scholar.

17. We should note that the current literature on motivation is not clear-cut, as summarized in Robert Slavin's Educational Psychology: Theory and Practice, 8th ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 2006): "There is no simple relationship between extrinsic rewards and intrinsic motivation. In other words, we cannot blithely say that adding extrinsic rewards to intrinsically motivated people always undermines motivation. But we can say that 'The research on the effects of extrinsic rewards on intrinsic motivation does counsel caution in the use of material rewards for intrinsically interesting tasks'" (336); "the use of rewards as a motivational strategy is clearly a risky proposition, so we continue to argue for thinking about educational practices that will engage students' interest and support the development of their self-regulation" (50). My argument is not against this premise, only that it is being applied unsuccessfully for way too many kids, and I see little prospect for dramatically improving teaching methods in either the short or intermediate term.

18. Chapter 1 of Joseph Newman's America's Teachers: An Introduction to Education, 4th ed. (New York: Longman, 1999), contains a fine overview of teachers' motivations.

19. This is not to minimize the delight of those glorious few weeks when one's eldest is old enough to mow the lawn but still young enough to think it's fun. Life is good.

20. B. J. Novak, available online at < watch?v=kBe9XXTMdoA>.

21. The basic source for most information on teacher attrition is E. D. Tabs, Teacher Attrition and Mobility: Results from the Teacher Follow-up Survey, 2000–01 (Washington D.C.: National Center for Educational Statistics, 2004), available at <>; and MetLife, Survey of the American Teacher: Transitions and the Role of Supportive Relationships (2004–2005), available at <>.

22. Newman, America's Teachers. See also Richard M. Ingersoll, "The Teacher Shortage: Myth or Reality?" Educational Horizons 81 (3) (2003): 146–152.

23. For a good beginning on this, see Charles T. Clotfelter, "The Economics of Giving," in Giving Better, Giving Smarter, ed. J. W. Barry and B. V. Manno, chapter 4 (Washington, D.C.: National Commission on Philanthropy and Civic Renewal, 1997), available at <>. For more recent and precise dollar figures, see Giving USA (2006), available at <>; The Charity Navigator: Your Guide to Intelligent Giving (2006), available at <http://>; and The Independent Sector, available at < research/gv01main.html>.

24. The Pew Research Center, Faith-Based Funding Backed, but Church-State Doubts Abound (2001), available at < display.php3?PageID=115>.

25. This raises an issue that will deserve much more exploration, in a subsequent article: To whom will this offer be extended? My own experience suggests that most funders will want to involve the at-risk kids while they are young, before helplessness is learned too well and attitudes have hardened, and then concentrate their efforts on the unchallenged kids at the high school level. I believe they will get "more bang for their buck" that way, and will avoid most of the problems that would arise from trying to use less-formal schooling to remediate hard cases and veteran gang-bangers. However, I hope scholars of and advocates for those "tougher" populations such as Martin Haberman and Jeannie Oakes can prove me wrong, and I invite them to do so.