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News and stories from the campaign to reclaim individual responsibility and liberate Americans from bureaucracy and legal fear.

Blog — Education

Philip Howard Appears on “A Closer Look with Arthur Levitt”

Philip Howard recently sat down for an extensive conversation with Arthur Levitt on his Bloomberg Radio program “A Closer Look with Arthur Levitt.” Topics of discussion with the former SEC chairman included the civil service system, environmental review, education, and presidential authority.

Click here to listen to the interview.

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Is the Global Perception of Risk Destroying Play Opportunities for Children?

By Blair Barrows

An alumna of the University of the South in Sewanee, TN, Blair Barrows recently spent a year traveling the world to study the relationship between child play and education. In the U.S., legal fear and risk aversion have engendered increasing restrictions on children’s ability to explore and experiment freely in their environments. Blair’s story shows why it doesn't have to be this way.

In 2012 I was awarded a Thomas J. Watson Fellowship, a one-year grant for independent study outside of the United States. Through the Fellowship, I planned to explore classrooms that utilize play as a learning tool in South Africa, the UK, Finland, Italy, Germany, India, and New Zealand. At the time, I had no idea how much I would learn about the global play world.

Although I knew that the concept of the “bubble wrapped child” was growing in the U.S., I did not realize how much we do not let our children do until I observed alternatives other countries. While exploring Waldorf, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Environmental, and Holistic education, I saw children, as young as three years old, using knives, carving wood, manning a saw, climbing trees on school property, getting rough in sports, and playing freely in and outside of the classroom at school. Giving children the opportunity to engage in self-driven free play meant that the children would encounter risky situations. In the eyes of these schools, allowing children to experience risk helped the children to handle risk better in the future. For example, if a child is taught how to use a pocketknife correctly at an early age, then he/she is less likely to use one recklessly later in life. In many of the schools that I worked with, the teachers, administration, and parents were confident with the decision to let children experience risk because they understood the rewards. Schools that embodied free play also embraced risk. Reflecting on educational and play trends in the U.S., I began to realize that play was being removed from schools because play had become associated with fear and danger.

When I was not in a classroom, I learned about local organizations that supported play, play advocates, and government initiatives to create more play opportunities. These organizations and personnel understood that the words “risk” and “play” were becoming synonymous, and they wanted to change parents’ and school’s opinions. One such movement that I fell in love with is the Adventure Playground. Adventure Playgrounds, which have been around for a number of decades, capture the pure essence of free play because they allow children to literally create their own play environment using the loose pieces around the playground. Originally founded in the United Kingdom, Adventure Playgrounds can now be found throughout Europe. Often, these playgrounds would allow children to build, on-site, their own structures with nails, hammers, and wood. I observed children grinning with joy as they described a fort they had built, relay race they had organized, or game that they had created. And despite popular belief, each playground organization that I interviewed said that they hardly had any serious injuries. Children who come to the playgrounds understand the importance of safety when working with construction materials and navigating construction sites. Although a few Adventure Playgrounds exist in the U.S., I fear that the movement may never grow because people would not be able to see past the potential risks associated with them. However, if Americans were able to look past the risk, they would see what I saw—happy and confident children.

The last country that I traveled to was New Zealand and, unfortunately, I saw just how much the global trend of risk aversion had affected a country that prided itself on being a “barefoot culture” and popular extreme sports destination. A local play advocate explained that risk aversion is quickly growing in New Zealand. At the time of my interview, July 2013, New Zealand did not have what he referred to as a “suing problem” because it was illegal to sue someone over an incident such as falling on a playground, and therefore, disputes were handled much more on a personal level. This lack of litigation allowed free play to thrive and encouraged parents to let their children be involved in play at home and at school. However, he told me that New Zealand was beginning to change. Schools were tightening down on which games were allowed at recess, parents were supervising their children more, and the “barefoot culture” was being exchanged for a more rigid educational structure. Our conversation showed me just how much the fear of encountering potential risky situations had crept into international policy. When a country without a needless lawsuit problem was succumbing to the social pressures of limiting risk, and thus free play, had the idea of the “bubble wrapped child” gotten out of hand?

Originally, I had hoped to explore the relationship between play and education; however, on my journey I discovered so much more about the importance of play and the growing threats against it. Children’s play opportunities should extend beyond the walls of the classroom, yet schools are cutting out programs left and right. Now that children are seeking play elsewhere, parents and communities are becoming concerned that their play may be too risky. Many play advocates and researchers that I interviewed agreed that in the long run, we are harming our children. In order to create a generation of children who can appropriately analyze risk for themselves, without adult intervention, children must be given more chances to play freely. Through changing the perceptions of what risk and play mean, I believe that more play opportunities can return to schools, streets, backyards, and playgrounds.

If you have comments or questions for Blair, you can reach her at sblairbarrows (at)

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A Half-Baked Idea

The latest example of rules run amok comes from a section of the 2010 “Healthy, Hunger-Free Kids Act” that controls what food can be sold in schools. While the law’s goal—reducing childhood obesity—is noble, its approach is ham-handed, lumping traditional vending machine fare together with bake sales. As the Wall Street Journal explains:

At Chapman School in Nebraska, resourceful students hawk pizza and cookie dough to raise money for school supplies, field trips and an eighth-grade excursion to Washington. They peddle chocolate bars to help fund the yearbook.

But the sales won't be so sweet starting this fall. Campus bake sales—a mainstay of school fundraisers—are going on a diet. A federal law that aims to curb childhood obesity means that, in dozens of states, bake sales must adhere to nutrition requirements that could replace cupcakes and brownies with fruit cups and granola bars.

In an editorial criticizing this aspect of the law, the Santa Cruz Sentinel and Monterey County Herald quote Philip Howard’s The Rule of Nobody:

The rules governing what can be served and what can't be served are so convoluted as to be incomprehensible. Welcome to governing in 2014, when complex written rules are taking precedence over common sense in trying to solve complex health problems. In his new book, ‘The Rule of Nobody,’ writer Philip K. Howard explains it this way: ‘Rules have replaced leadership in America. Bureaucracy, regulation and outmoded law tie our hands and confine policy choices. Nobody asks, 'What's the right thing to do here?' Instead, they wonder 'What does the rule book say?'’

The editorial goes on to make a case for more flexible rules around school nutrition:

Childhood obesity is one issue that's crying out for leadership. Instead of putting the rule book in charge, why not empower schools and school districts to figure out best practices on their own? Childhood obesity is not a one-size-fits-all issue, and enforcing a law substituting grapes for a Snickers bar isn't going to miraculously cure the problem.

This isn’t the first time overzealous laws and regulations have stood in the way of getting food to the hungry, whether schoolchildren via bake sales or the homeless via soup kitchens. Public health is a legitimate concern—but that goal can sometimes be undermined, not promoted, by rules that bar homemade food from being prepared and served.

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A Ray of Hope: Mutual Bureaucratic Disarmament in the Proposed NYC Teachers’ Contract

A retroactive raise is what made the headlines of the proposed new NYC teachers’ contract. But the exciting breakthrough is the potential for abandoning the bureaucratic swamp that has made it impossible to fix NYC schools. 

Some school reformers will be excited that it will be easier to get rid of poor performers—requiring, according to news reports, poor evaluations in two separate schools. This is indeed important. It is impossible to build and maintain a culture of excellence when poor performers are in the classroom next door. One bad apple, studies show, can spoil the barrel.   

But the revelation of the new deal is the idea of mutual bureaucratic disarmament. For decades, the City and the union have done battle by imposing on each other more rules and requirements—for example, detailed requirements, sometimes minute by minute, on how a teacher must deliver a lesson plan, and requirements on exactly how many minutes per month a teacher has to listen to a principal.  

A study by Common Good a few years ago found that there were so many rules for NYC schools that no one had collected them in one place. Even the more rudimentary choices—say, removing a disruptive student from a classroom—are subject to dozens of rules and procedures that effectively remove a teacher’s authority to maintain order. Common Good constructed bubble charts of steps and procedures for basic choices that were five feet long.

All this bureaucracy makes schools unmanageable. But it also does something far worse. Bureaucracy kills the human spirit. It’s that simple. A teacher who is forced to trudge through mindless protocols cannot possibly be enthusiastic. Inspiring students is impossible when the teacher is forced to act like a bureaucratic robot.  

The myth of bureaucracy is that it makes sure things are done properly. But people can only think of one thing at once. Focus on A, as sociologist Robert K. Merton put it, and you cannot see B. Forcing teachers (and principals, and students) to focus on thick rulebooks just snuffs out the candle of human inspiration. What kind of role models are teachers who are forced to act like robots instead of moral models of maturity and fairness?

For decades leaders in schools have been stuck in a downward spiral of bureaucratic warfare. Good principals succeeded by ignoring the rules. New NYC Schools Chancellor Carmen Farina famously built a culture of excellence at PS 6 by, among other things, ignoring the bureaucracy. (I profiled her in my book The Collapse of the Common Good.) Union leader Michael Mulgrew is not one to give an inch, but in many different settings, in conversations with me and others, he too has highlighted how bureaucracy had become the worst enemy of teachers.  

The devil of every deal is in the details. But extra money to teachers is a bargain if New York City can unleash human energy and enthusiasm in its schools. Bureaucracy can’t teach.

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Scrap Zero Tolerance Rules

Howard’s Daily by Philip K. Howard

A learning environment in schools requires safety and order. "Zero tolerance" rules, which first surfaced in the early 1990's, were intended to guarantee safety. School cultures had corroded in the wake of the "due process revolution," and absolutist rules were intended to shore up principals’ authority to act promptly in the face of violent or anti-social behavior.

But the rigid legal approach exemplified in zero tolerance rules has instead fostered a downward spiral of cynicism and legalisms. The worst offenders still argue over discipline—can you prove it? Meanwhile, every few weeks, there are news reports of children suspended for harmless activities: for example, the first-grader suspended for kissing a girl’s hand, or the seventh-grader suspended because she had "possession" of a pill for one second (before she immediately rejected it), or the honors student expelled because a kitchen knife was in the bed of his pickup truck (it had fallen out while he was helping his grandmother move), or the second-grader suspended because he munched his pop tart into the shape of a gun.

Zero tolerance rules have become a standing joke—a reflection of educators’ lack of authority, not a useful tool of school order.

Now comes the Florida legislature with a bill, sponsored by the National Rifle Association, to supposedly solve the unfairness of rigid zero tolerance rules. Its first flaw is that the bill fights the scourge of "overlegalization" with more legalisms. It requires every school to come up with a detailed code of conduct. Its second flaw is that it is transparently designed to serve the NRA agenda, not the unfairness of rigid rules. Here is an excerpt of the NRA’s mono-minded proposal:

Simulating a firearm or weapon while playing or wearing clothing or accessories that depict a firearm or weapon or express an opinion regarding a right guaranteed by the Second Amendment to the United States Constitution is not grounds for disciplinary action…. Simulating a firearm or weapon while playing includes, but is not limited to:

1. Brandishing a partially consumed pastry or other food item to simulate a firearm or weapon.
2. Possessing a toy firearm or weapon that is 2 inches or less in overall length.

I especially like the reference to the Second Amendment—do children worry about a constitutional right to bear arms?

Let’s start again. Fairness almost always requires context. Unilaterally kissing a girl may be excusable in a kindergartner but not in a high school senior. Brandishing a switchblade is different than accidentally leaving a kitchen knife in the bed of a truck. Making a drawing of a gun is different than bringing a gun. That’s why zero tolerance rules are counterproductive, fostering a culture of legal argument instead of being tethered to community norms of right and wrong.

Fairness, in other words, always requires human judgment. Educators must get their authority back. That doesn’t mean they can do anything they want. It is easy to have, say, a teacher-parent committee, or even a student committee, to look at charges of unfair discipline. But only in the most extreme cases should school discipline end up in a legal proceeding. Students are being sent home, not to jail. 

As a first step to a solution, instead of using the silliness of zero tolerance as a vehicle to advance one agenda, it would be more constructive to come up with a model statute that restores common morality to disciplinary decisions. Several years ago, Texas repealed its zero tolerance regime, requiring instead that educators consider factors like a student’s intent when making disciplinary decisions.

Here is my proposed model statute:

"Notwithstanding any rule, including zero tolerance rules, a principal shall have no legal obligation to discipline a student where circumstances are such that the principal believes discipline would be unjust or unfair."

A statute like this would obviate the overreactions to students playing cowboys or soldiers, and also all other rigid overreactions. Bad law should be fixed, not used as a vehicle for self-interested propaganda.

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One Clear Advantage of Charter Schools

Mayor de Blasio’s threat to pull public support of charter schools has elicited powerful reactions, none more so than Peggy Noonan’s column this past weekend: "When a school exists for the students, you can tell. When it exists for the unions, you can tell that too."

The controversy centers on whether charter schools should pay rent or no longer be "co-located" within public schools. To review the bidding, charter schools in NY are privately-run schools that receive roughly the same stipend as the public school district spends. Since the public budget calculation excludes the free rent of existing schools (as well as unfunded pension costs), it’s hard to see why charter schools shouldn’t be kept at parity by getting free rent as well. 

De Blasio’s objection to charter schools seems to be that they are "privileged": they receive supplemental outside funding, often from wealthy people, and tend to attract children of parents seeking a more rigorous educational environment. Many charter schools operate longer hours, more days, and with a longer school year. They also are liberated from the constraints imposed by central public bureaucracy and by the teachers’ union. 

The huge advantage of charter schools is that everybody involved—teachers, parents, yes even funders—have a sense of ownership. The operative question, at all times, is this: "What’s the right thing to do?" If something isn’t working, administrators and parents and teachers can get together and talk about how to make things better. If there’s an opportunity, they have the authority—the freedom—to make exceptions.  

This ownership of daily choices brings with it human power exponentially greater than found in most rote organizations. My youngest daughter teaches first grade in a charter school in the middle of Brooklyn. She leaves just after 6 am and doesn’t get home til after 7. She is bursting with stories about her students. Last year most of her first graders, all from the projects, were reading well above grade level.  

Not all charter schools achieve better academic results than public schools, and charters are (appropriately) subject to periodic re-accreditation. But charter schools almost can’t help but be better in instilling social values of right and wrong. Basic values needed to be a good citizen and hold a job are fostered by a school culture run by human values instead of mindless compliance with thick rulebooks.  

It is correct, as Mayor de Blasio surmises, that charter schools therefore enjoy advantages over public schools. People in charter schools are energized about their ownership of daily choices. But is the solution to impose extra financial burdens on them? Dragging the best down is perhaps not the optimum public policy (as in Vonnegut’s short story "Harrison Bergeron," in which the intelligent get zapped whenever their brains start thinking too much). Maybe the correct policy is to reorganize public schools so that they, too, enjoy the freedoms and energy of charter schools. I bet even the union teachers would like it.

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Let Kids Play

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Notions of "appropriate" play are thrown out the window in this amazing video footage from New Zealand. Kids run around, tackle each other in a game called "bullrush," ride scooters over ramps, climb trees, and—gasp—point sticks like guns. Then they go back to class where, the principal says, they are able to focus on schoolwork. (Thanks to David Webb for finding this video.)

In America, by contrast, schools ban games like tag, or even running at recess. So it’s hardly surprising that there’s an epidemic of ADD. Playgrounds are stripped of any implements that might involve risk—such as merry-go-rounds and jungle gyms. Small wonder there’s a crisis of obesity when it’s more challenging to play video games on the sofa than to go to a playground with no challenge at all.  

Child development experts repeatedly say that it is vital for children, for mental as well as physical development, to deal with normal risks of childhood. (I compiled much of this material in "The Freedom To Take Risks" chapter in Life Without Lawyers.) Coddling children makes them less safe in the long run, because they will be less able to deal with real risks later in life. As the New Zealand principal points out, learning how to handle risk early on makes a young student less likely to take too much risk when he gets a driver’s license.

Letting kids in America play again requires an organized effort. Today, the most innocent accident can mean an expensive lawsuit. That’s why the school board in Broward County, Florida banned running at recess. And, worse, American culture has changed. Parents and educators no longer have an instinct for what's an appropriate risk. Avoiding risk has become an obsession. Safety is only half an idea; the question is what we’re giving up to get it. If children are raised without skills to cope with life, we are increasing risk, not reducing it.

Perhaps what’s needed is a presidential commission on the appropriate risks of childhood. By restating common sense principles, America could then empower judges (as well as parents) to affirmatively embrace healthy risks so that kids can, well, go back to being kids again.

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The Bureaucratic Canary Is a Person

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

"Andrea Rediske’s 11-year-old son Ethan, is dying. Last year, Ethan, who was born with brain damage, has cerebral palsy and is blind, was forced to take a version of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test…. Now his mom has to prove that Ethan, now in a morphine coma, is in no condition to take another test this year." This is the lead in a blog entry from yesterday by the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss.

The federal special education law known today as IDEA was enacted in 1975 to remedy the abuses of special needs children locked up in cruel institutions like Willowbrook. But laws tend to take a life of their own, and the broad legal mandate for special education—requiring "free appropriate public education" in the "least restrictive environment"—leaves little room for judgment or balance. 

Over the past 40 years, special education has become a bureaucratic jungle—where everyone is so tangled in legal vines, and scared of legal claims, that there is no room to do what’s right. Last year in Florida a 9-year-old boy who is blind and born with only a brain stem was forced to submit to a test where instructors asked him to identify pictures. As a school board member commented: "He’s blind. And they’re showing him pictures of a giraffe, a monkey and an elephant—and asking him which one is the monkey…. I'm watching all this and just about to lose my mind."

The absurdist quality of testing children in a coma or born without a brain exposes a regulatory system that has lost the oxygen of common sense. All kinds of bad choices emerge from the self-contained bureaucracy. Some principals say they spend as much as half their time dealing with special ed legal demands. The learning of other students is compromised when uncontrollable, sometimes violent, children, are mainstreamed based on their parents’ legal demands. Wealthy parents have the legal right to demand school districts pay for private schooling—sometimes at a cost that exceeds $100,000 per year. 

How much does all these special ed entitlements and bureaucracy cost? Special ed now consumes over 25% of the total K-12 budget in America, for a tiny proportion of students who actually need it. Meanwhile, there’s almost nothing in programs for gifted students—less than 1%. Nor is there any material budget for pre-K education, which is why New York Mayor de Blasio campaigned for new taxes on the wealthy—which would almost certainly drive some taxpayers out of the jurisdiction. Who made the decision that this special ed spending is the right balance of school budgets? No one. No one is even asking the question. 

Gosh, say defenders of the status quo, we wouldn’t want to go back to the bad old days. But our choice isn’t between cruel neglect and bureaucratic excess. The goal is always balance. As I described in my last book (Life Without Lawyers), countries such as Denmark provide robust special education services in the context of balancing the needs of all students. The difference there is that officials have the responsibility to use their judgment in each situation, not follow mindless mandates.

America’s special ed system is not just unwise, or inefficient, or absurdist. It is immoral. It is immoral not in its broad goals, but in its implementation. It is immoral to give disabled students a Rolls-Royce budget and give all other students what’s left over. It is immoral to treat grieving parents as bureaucratic boxes on a checklist.  

In a recent e-mail seeking relief for her dying son from Florida’s assessment requirements, Andrea Rediske wrote: "Every day that [the special ed teacher] comes to visit, she is required to do paperwork to document his ‘progress.’ Seriously? Why is Ethan Rediske not meeting his 6th-grade hospital homebound curriculum requirements? BECAUSE HE IS IN A MORPHINE COMA. … This madness has got to stop."

The IDEA is expected to be reauthorized as soon as next year. It’s not hard to figure out why there’s no political champion for overhaul. Who wants to incur the wrath of special ed parents who, understandably, want everything possible for their children? But this madness has to stop.

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For Better Schools, Overhaul School Discipline

Howard's Daily by Philip K. Howard

Unfair school discipline is good for no one and corrodes school culture, as today’s Washington Post feature suggests.

Schools should indeed have alternative settings so that disruptive students are not just cast onto the streets. But the core defect is solved not by tweaking the elaborate legal code—such as notoriously rigid "zero tolerance" rules—but by scrapping most legal controls.

The focus on racial disparities in discipline ignores the greater harm of racial disparities in learning—how can anyone learn when there's chaos in a classroom? America needs a complete overhaul of the school discipline system, giving back teachers and principals the authority to act immediately when confronted by disruption and to achieve fairness by using their judgment in context, and safeguarding against unfairness by human checks and balances—say, a student-parent complaint committee. 

Formal legal due process in schools has proved to be a disaster, like pouring legal acid into what is supposed to be a culture of learning and sharing. (See Judging School Discipline by Professor Richard Arum.)

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Should bullies get three months in jail?

by Lenore Skenazy

It's hard to think of anyone in favor of bullying, but this seems truly overboard: A proposal in Australia to prosecute kids as young as age 10 for bullying. According to The Daily Telegraph:

CHILDREN as young as 10 could be criminally charged as part of a radical proposal to overhaul Australia’s approach to bullying.

A symposium organised by the National Centre Against Bullying and the Australian Federal Police will next week consider how laws should be strengthened to fight bullying and cyberbullying.

It’s hoped that as a result of its recommendations, Australia will become the first country in the world to have unified national laws to address bullying.
NCAB chairman Alastair Nicholson, the former Chief Justice of the Family Court of Australia, said the law does not define bullying, cyberbullying or clarify the legal duty of schools, teachers, parents and carers.

He said a summary offence for bullying with a maximum penalty of three months jail would help educate people and act as a deterrent to offenders.
“I think there is a real need to examine the way the law operates, if only so that people know where they stand,” he said.
But bullying shouldn't be handled by the police and courts unless it involves things the police usually deal with, like actual crimes, not just rotten behavior.

The "school to prison pipeline" is already getting clogged with merely disobedient kids now trailing rap sheets, thanks to more and more police, not principals, mediating school scuffles. And besides, says Susan Porter, author of Bully Nation: Why America's Approach to Childhood Aggression is Bad for Everyone: "Laws, by definition, are intended to deal with situations in a uniform way. If there’s one thing we know for sure about children is that they are not uniform, nor do they respond in uniform ways to consequences."

Kids develop in different ways at different times, and even swing between being bullied and being the bullies. Defining them as one or the other isn't the job of the cops unless the kids are breaking a law. (And a real law, at that. Not a "Zero Tolerance" edict issued by some bureaucrat who sees bullying in every schoolyard scuffle.)

As for three months in jail? THREE MONTHS? "These laws are at best misguided," says Porter. "At worst they will hurt the very people we are trying to protect and educate: children."

Draconian laws don't make kids safer. They just make lawmakers look like bullies, eager to pounce on defenseless kids.

Lenore Skenazy is a public speaker and the author of the book and blog “Free-Range Kids,” which launched the anti-helicopter parenting movement. She’s going to be posting here from time to time on issues of interest to Common Good supporters. As Lenore puts it, she’s ready to make “America the Home of the Brave again, not the Home of the Bureaucrats So Stupid that a Hazmat Crew Gets Called to a High School When a Student Brings in a Mercury Thermometer. (Which really happened a few months back, in Florida.)” And here’s her outrage of the week. Chime in!

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