Common Core has produced an illiterate and innumerate generation

It’s almost perversely amusing watching the folks at the New York Times trying to sort out recent Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) scores. PISA is a standardized test administered to students around the globe. It is used to compare academic performance across countries. Lately, PISA is a regular reminder that the United States is spending almost a trillion dollars of taxpayer money on education every year to achieve academic declines and a widening achievement gap.

From the NYT:

The performance of American teenagers in reading and math has been stagnant since 2000, according to the latest results of a rigorous international exam, despite a decades-long effort to raise standards and help students compete with peers across the globe.

And the achievement gap in reading between high and low performers is widening. Although the top quarter of American students have improved their performance on the exam since 2012, the bottom 10th percentile lost ground, according to an analysis by the National Center for Education Statistics, a federal agency.

The disappointing results from the exam, the Program for International Student Assessment, were announced on Tuesday and follow those from the National Assessment of Educational Progress, an American test that recently showed that two-thirds of children were not proficient readers.

Over all, American 15-year-olds who took the PISA test scored slightly above students from peer nations in reading but below the middle of the pack in math.

How have we produced a generation of students where 2/3 are not proficient readers? How has the same country that put a man on the moon and cars on Mars turned into a country that is below-average in math globally?

If you are at the bottom of the pack in the United States, your circumstances are even worse than that:

About a fifth of American 15-year-olds scored so low on the PISA test that it appeared they had not mastered reading skills expected of a 10-year-old, according to Andreas Schleicher, director of education and skills at the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development, which administers the exam.

Those students, he said, face “pretty grim prospects” on the job market.

Our homeschooled 7-year-old is already a stronger reader than a large fraction of public high school students who are supposedly two years away from college age. That’s insane.

How is it that countries like Peru and Colombia are seeing gains in literacy when the United States is not? These are not countries that have a trillion dollars a year to shower on public education.

The New York Times, of course, does not want to attribute this problem to Common Core, the reform darling of liberal educators. Instead, they suggest that the “decentralized” nature of public education might be the culprit. It’s hard to provide unified content to every school district in the US, so we should give the architects of Common Core more control over education and more money. Then we can really see what a bottomless pit our education system can become.

I guess it probably never occurred to them that education in the United States has been decentralized for the entirety of US history and that this systematic level of failure is what’s new.

The achievement gap in education is not difficult to understand. When public schools suck and “reform” means promoting an incoherent, nonsensical curriculum and devoting more classroom time to identity politics than fractions, the kids who get ahead are going to be from strong family units (i.e., their parents are still married) with more economic resources (i.e. their household has a high earner or two incomes). These are the families that will buy books for their children, invest in the best technology, hire SAT tutors, and send their kids to robotics camps. Everyone else gets to survive and be passed through a system that will teach them practically nothing that makes them career- or college-ready. Parents will spend money wisely on education when the government mostly sets money on fire.

Then you have folks like Elizabeth Warren, who sent her own children to private schools that now cost close to $40,000 a year to attend, demanding that we shut down or regulate charter schools into oblivion. (Well, technically, Warren only sent her son to elite private schools. She left her daughter in public schools. I’d love to see the feminist interpretation of that thought process.)

I have said many times that charter schools have become this generation’s historically black colleges and universities. They are how minority communities are achieving the social mobility that is being denied them by our power-hungry, money-guzzling bureaucracy. You have a lot of minorities who have seen success in their professional lives who are giving back to their communities by helping the next generation escape a school system that is mostly just preparing them for welfare or prison. It’s not an accident that public education barnstormers like Warren have zero support from black voters.

Education failures in the United States present quite the paradox. Epic amounts of money are being spent on education (and that’s before you get into the trillions of dollars of outstanding student debt for higher education) and information more easily available now than it ever has. There are better free K-12 education materials online now than what is being used in classrooms. How do you take those circumstances and turn them into lower academic performance? It’s remarkable what destructive public policy can accomplish.

A wonderful website for homeschoolers

A dear friend referred me to the Rainbow Resource Center website yesterday, and I had to share it. The volume of high-quality educational resources and books about homeschooling / philosophies of education on this site is incredible.

I love to have a lot of projects and magazines for what I call “intellectual play” around the house for when our daughter gets bored. (And like most gifted children, she gets bored easily.) This is a fantastic site for procuring those sorts of things.

They have a page where you can request their homeschooling curriculum catalog and their Christmas catalog.

I can’t believe I had not seen this before!

“Quiet rooms” in Chicago Public Schools

Every parent in Chicago should read this article from the Chicago Tribune and Pro Publica about how solitary confinement is increasingly being used to manage school children. It is beyond horrific.

Here is an excerpt:

The spaces have gentle names: The reflection room. The cool-down room. The calming room. The quiet room.

But shut inside them, in public schools across the state, children as young as 5 wail for their parents, scream in anger and beg to be let out.

The students, most of them with disabilities, scratch the windows or tear at the padded walls. They throw their bodies against locked doors. They wet their pants. Some children spend hours inside these rooms, missing class time. Through it all, adults stay outside the door, writing down what happens.

In Illinois, it’s legal for school employees to seclude students in a separate space — to put them in “isolated timeout” — if the students pose a safety threat to themselves or others. Yet every school day, workers isolate children for reasons that violate the law, an investigation by the Chicago Tribune and ProPublica Illinois has found.

Children were sent to isolation after refusing to do classwork, for swearing, for spilling milk, for throwing Legos. School employees use isolated timeout for convenience, out of frustration or as punishment, sometimes referring to it as “serving time.”

For this investigation, ProPublica Illinois and the Tribune obtained and analyzed thousands of detailed records that state law requires schools to create whenever they use seclusion. The resulting database documents more than 20,000 incidents from the 2017-18 school year and through early December 2018.

Of those, about 12,000 included enough detail to determine what prompted the timeout. In more than a third of these incidents, school workers documented no safety reason for the seclusion.

State education officials are unaware of these repeated violations because they do not monitor schools’ use of the practice. Parents, meanwhile, often are told little about what happens to their children.

The Tribune/ProPublica Illinois investigation, which also included more than 120 interviews with parents, children and school officials, provides the first in-depth examination of this practice in Illinois.

Because school employees observing the students often keep a moment-by-moment log, the records examined by reporters offer a rare view of what happens to children inside these rooms — often in their own words.

Without doubt, many of the children being secluded are challenging. Records show school employees struggling to deal with disruptive, even violent behavior, such as hitting, kicking and biting. Workers say that they have to use seclusion to keep everyone in the classroom safe and that the practice can help children learn how to calm themselves.

But disability advocates, special-education experts and administrators in school systems that have banned seclusion argue that the practice has no therapeutic or educational value, that it can traumatize children — and that there are better alternatives.

No federal law regulates the use of seclusion, and Congress has debated off and on for years whether that should change. Last fall, a bill was introduced that would prohibit seclusion in public schools that receive federal funding. A U.S. House committee held a hearing on the issue in January, but there’s been no movement since.

Nineteen states prohibit secluding children in locked rooms; four of them ban any type of seclusion. But Illinois continues to rely on the practice. The last time the U.S. Department of Education calculated state-level seclusion totals, in 2013-14, Illinois ranked No. 1.

When people ask me why we homeschool…. Stuff like this is why we homeschool!

Chick-lit authors pile on a college student who dissed content at a junior high reading level

I don’t know if this story should restore my faith in humanity or nuke it altogether.

An article was published in the local newspaper for Aberdeen, South Dakota (population 28,388) about the Common Read program at Northern State University, a small regional school (enrollment 3,622).

It was something of a human interest story, praising what sounds like a pretty cool program:

The first Common Read book at Northern State University — “The Routes of Man” by Ted Conover — was picked because of a budget and a phone call.

“So I Googled speakers’ reps, and I found a guy and I called him and I said, ‘Who’s your best person for $3,500?’” said Erin Fouberg, professor of geography and director of the honors program. “And he said, ‘Absolutely, hands down Ted Conover.’”

The next couple of books were picked by Fouberg and Jim Smith, president at the time, she said, often with budget in mind.

But as the program has grown and evolved, the books are selected by committee — a committee that anyone can be on, Fouberg said …

At first, the only students required to read the book were Fouberg’s freshman honors students, but it eventually became required reading for all first-year students once freshman seminar was moved from a one-credit class to a two, she said. But it also grew to a campus-wide event, and quickly beyond.

In 2013, the selection was “The Glass Castle” by Jeanette Walls, which was also a popular book club book, Fouberg said.

“People who were in book clubs saw that she was coming to speak, and they showed up, and they have just trusted us ever since,” Fouberg said. “I’ll get stopped in Kessler’s as soon as March and people will be asking, ‘What’s the book?’

They started off with a small group of students reading a book together and talking to the author. People loved the book discussion so much that the program was extended to everyone on campus and then members of the community started joining in as well.

That sounds amazing, right? They have the whole city now reading the same book and getting together to discuss it. Maybe literacy isn’t dead after all.

The article goes on to explain the various motivations students at the university had for joining the committee that selects the books. Remember that this a committee that anyone can be on. Anyone.

One former student said she joined the committee to improve the caliber of books being selected. It would seem some wanted a young adult book to be the common read. She thought pop fiction written for teenage girls was not appropriate for an adult academic environment. They ended up reading Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption, a nonfiction book about wrongful convictions, instead of Sarah Dressen, who writes books with 8th graders as the target audience. And they had the opportunity to speak to a man who experienced being wrongly convicted.

During her junior year, Brooke Nelson said she fought hard against a Sarah Dessen book being selected.

“She’s fine for teen girls,” the 2017 Northern graduate said. “But definitely not up to the level of Common Read. So I became involved simply so I could stop them from ever choosing Sarah Dessen.”

That was the year they ended up picking “Just Mercy,” by Bryan Stevenson.

“It was incredible, so that became the book I supported,” Nelson said, who majored in English and is now working on a master’s degree in Florida. “That’s how I sort-of inadvertently joined the Common Read Committee.”

That was Katie Olson’s favorite Common Read book.

“Not only was it an extremely moving book that spoke about the injustice that can occur within our justice system through the stories of real people, but personally meeting and hearing from one of the individuals we read about was an especially powerful experience,” wrote the senior art education major.

The subject of the book, Anthony Ray Hinton, rather than the author, came to speak that year, Fouberg said.

Now, you might not think the suggestion that college students should be reading books at an adult reading level would be controversial. Sure, if you are in the university’s School of Education, you should be reading young adult books as a study of how to teach them to young people. But that’s not what we are talking about here.

I’m not sure how this became a larger news story than Aberdeen local news, except perhaps that the young adult lit author Sarah Dressen probably Googles herself every day and lost her mind when she discovered that people in flyover country think she writes unserious stuff.

Dressen summoned a posse of chick lit authors on Twitter, including Jennifer Weiner and Jodi Picoult to rant, rant, and rant some more about how a young female English major is oppressing them and suffocating the voices of teenage girls everywhere. They made sure to talk about her directly, to shame her for expressing an opinion and invite their followers to join in the harassment, which from the looks of their feeds is pretty much what these female authors do on social media all day long. Apparently it is lost on the chick lit crowd that we are talking about a college and not junior high school here. (And, honestly, I would hope junior high kids are reading books like To Kill A Mockingbird instead of the bubble gum drivel any of them write.)

I want to talk about this. Not only does it suck because @sarahdessen is one of the loveliest women you’ll ever meet, and because she has been a guiding force into the love or reading for thousands of kids including my own…but because this implies something more sinister. /1— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

This suggests stories about young women matter less. That they are not as worthy or literary as those about anything but young women. That their concerns and hopes and fears are secondary or frivolous. This kind of thinking is what leads to gender discrimination in publishing/2— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

It’s why there are more shows on Broadway with male leads than female ones. It’s why there aren’t many female directors. Even though the majority of book buyers and ticket buyers are women./3— Jodi Picoult (@jodipicoult) November 13, 2019

Got that? If you are a young woman who thinks reading about criminal justice reform is more important than chick lit written at a junior high school reading level, you are doing the work of the patriarchy. Your actions are sinister. You are the reason why there are more male actors than female actresses on Broadway. (Not sure what Broadway has to do with a book club in South Dakota, but okay.) It’s like I always say, if you want to be CEO of a Fortune 500 company, you need to read beach romances so you can talk competently about the needs and aspirations of women.

I don’t read chick lit, never have, but I had no idea that chick lit authors were so mental. I’m starting to get the sense that it’s a prerequisite for the genre, however.

A middle school teacher chimed in, again apparently oblivious that we are talking about college students here, to let everyone know that chick lit is the most circulated content at their school library and the coed critic is probably just jealous the author. In case you wanted another reason to feel sorry for kids in junior high.

I’m a recently retired middle school librarian(and teacher)and Sarah’s books were among the highest circulated books in our library ALWAYS…she was and IS an important voice in YA literature. I personally loved each of her books…any negativity must be jealousy pure and simple.— Bookchick 53 (@JuliaBo53) November 13, 2019

Author Jennifer Weiner thinks this is a #MeToo moment, because not reading young adult books is obviously like rape:

And I will piggyback in what Jodi said, with a reminder: when we tell teenage girls that their stories matter less — or not at all — there are real-world consequences. #MeToo— Jennifer Weiner (@jenniferweiner) November 13, 2019

You’ll note that she’s upset that teenage girl drama is not being taken as seriously as a black man being being sentenced to death for a crime he did not commit. The struggle is real, y’all.

And then there was this, which Weiner seems to have deleted, perhaps when someone pointed out to her that anyone can serve on the committee, no one is turned away:

Weiner even went to the news article to comment, saying that it was sad the college student had “internalized misogyny to the extent that she can see nothing of worth in books beloved by ‘teen girls.'”

If I were the young woman being mentioned, I’d take some screen shots of these comments for my C.V. Getting dog-piled by people like this should be worth something. Cheers to college students who have standards for what the kind of books they want to consume.

Nancy Edison as a model homeschooling mom and proponent of intellectual play

My mother was the making of me. She understood me; she let me follow my bent.

Thomas Edison, on his mother, Nancy Edison
Thomas Edison’s parents

For many months now, our seven-year-old daughter has been begging me to allow her to turn a corner of our house into her “personal laboratory.” Those are her exact words. She wants a laboratory because she feels like she has important research to do, and naturally, she needs privacy, space, and legitimate research equipment for that. She even considered taking over part of the garage, until I reminded her that working in the garage would be like sitting under a broiler during a hot Florida summer.

I am not of the persuasion that is saving my house for some HGTV or Marie Kondo aesthetic. Cold, neutral, minimalist spaces bore me to tears. We have thousands of books that have pretty much have become a form of furniture in themselves, fossil displays, art from all over the world. Our walls are claret, semolina, turquoise, even lavender. (Comme il faut for Florida, in my opinion. Who moves to Florida to get away from color?) My decorating inspiration is more Indiana Jones than Joanna Gaines. So why not let the kid set up a laboratory in the corner?

It strikes me, however, that wanting a personal laboratory is not a “normal” request for a young child, especially when most of her peers are obsessed with princesses, soccer, and (unfortunately) smartphones. It seems to me that if you have the kind of child who is asking for a laboratory, that is something you absolutely must make happen.

It’s no exaggeration to say that Elise has been in love with science – especially biology and ecology – since she learned to speak. She was born very premature and with various medical issues (now fully cured) and spent most of her early years in hospitals surrounded by specialists and nurses. They loved her precociousness and would often take the time to answer her mechanical questions about how different parts of the body function (and malfunction) and the purposes of specific medical equipment. She fully understood that an army of doctors and nurses brave enough to perform surgery on a tiny newborn saved her life, so people who are good at science are her heroes. They are the people in her world who create and improve.

As such, Elise has never had what I call the “princess phase.” She’ll let you put a bow in her hair or paint her nails, but she’s not capable of caring about it for more than a few minutes and certainly does not seek “girly” things out. She spends most of her free time running around outside, usually with a net and a plastic box that she bought at the pet store for collecting insects and lizards. Our only rules are that she can’t collect pollinators or bring any snakes into the house. (And she will sulk if you do not let her take samples on vacation. We came back from Ft. Lauderdale with two shopping bags full of coral and sponges that she refused to part with despite their vomit-inducing stench. They are still sitting on the front porch.)

We have tried to indulge her passion for science as much as possible. We go to the library often, where she checks out dozens of nonfiction books on animals and ecosystems. She has re-read many of these books four or five times. The librarians graciously listen to her rattling off facts about animals, comparing the venom of cobras and black mambas or talking about how she wants to travel to Costa Rica to collect reptiles.

We bought her a microscope and endless slides. We bought petri dishes for growing bacteria in and have tested surfaces from all over town. (I’m less enthusiastic about any book or kit that involves testing water though. We have ponds, creeks, and the Intracoastal Waterway all within very short walks from our house. I’ve had to explain to Elise a million times that the people collecting water samples in her books are not dealing with alligators that can pull them underwater.)

I’ve learned that you can get frogs, crayfish, fetal pigs, and sheep’s brains, eyes, hearts, and kidneys on Amazon to dissect. I’ve even found latex gloves for little children (excellent for messy crafts too, by the way). We have subscriptions for engineering and computer science projects. She always has something going on.

This is how she plays. It is almost impossible to find other little children who want to spend their Saturday dissecting a sheep’s brain. Oh, how I wish I could.

I have learned, however, that one of the best things you can do for a child who loves science this much is to give them biographies of people who had similar obsessions.

We read through Jane Goodall’s My Life with the Chimpanzees, and she could relate to both Goodall’s childhood exploring the forests around her family’s home as well as spending hours at a time observing and tracking an animal.

We read a biography of President Theodore Roosevelt, who had turned his bedroom as a child into a massive natural history collection. Like him, she has enormous collections of rocks, shells, feathers, birds’ nests…. One time, I gave her a beautiful music box with one of those dancing ballerinas in it. While cleaning her room, I opened it to find it stuffed with the hollow blue shells of robin eggs. That was her idea of treasure, not plastic jewelry. She found a kindred spirit in Roosevelt, and admired him for establishing the national park system and protecting endangered wildlife. She liked his macho, go-anywhere attitude. A guy who thought trekking through the rain forest was good for the soul – that’s her kind of leader.

But the person she could most relate to was Thomas Edison. His mother pulled him out of a rigid, stifling public school to homeschool him, just as she is homeschooled. But – I walked right into this one, apparently – his mother let him set up a laboratory in their cellar. See, Mom, other kids have laboratories.

As we were reading about Edison, it occurred to me that his mother was the platonic ideal of homeschoolers. I went looking for more expanded accounts of Edison’s early life and education, and found his biographer Matthew Josephson. Forgive me for quoting at length from this article, which includes a lot of commentary from Josephson, but education is a topic I find irresistibly interesting.

The Edison family’s bad break up with public education (and the plight of having a quirky child that resists institutionalized behavior) is a story many homeschoolers can relate to:

In 1854, Reverend G. B. Engle belittled one of his students, seven-year-old Thomas Alva Edison, as “addled.” This outraged the youngster, and he stormed out of the Port Huron, Michigan school, the first formal school he had ever attended. His mother, Nancy Edison, brought him back the next day to discuss the situation with Reverend Engle, but she became angry at his rigid ways. Everything was forced on the kids. She withdrew her son from the school where he had been for only three months and resolved to educate him at home. Although he seems to have briefly attended two more schools, nearly all his childhood learning took place at home.

Thus arose the legend that Thomas Alva Edison (born February 11, 1847) became America’s most prolific inventor—1,093 patents for such wonders as the microphone, telephone receiver, stock ticker, phonograph, movies, office copiers, and incandescent electric light—despite his lack of schooling.

For years, he looked the part of the improbable, homespun genius: five feet, 10 inches tall, gray eyes, long hair that looked as if he cut it himself, baggy acid-stained pants, scruffy shoes, and hands discolored by chemicals. Later he took to wearing city clothes—black. On more than one occasion passers-by mistook him for a priest and respectfully tipped their hats.

Yet Edison probably gained a far better education than most children of his time or ours. This wasn’t because his mother had official credentials. She had taught school, but only a little. Nor was it because his parents had money. They were poor and lived on the outskirts of a declining town. Nancy Edison’s secret: she was more dedicated than any teacher was likely to be, and she had the flexibility to experiment with various ways of nurturing her son’s love for learning.

“She avoided forcing or prodding,” wrote Edison biographer Matthew Josephson, “and made an effort to engage his interest by reading him works of good literature and history that she had learned to love—and she was said to have been a fine reader.”

Thomas Edison plunged into great books. Before he was 12, he had read works by Shakespeare and Dickens, Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, David Hume’s History of England, and more.

Because Nancy Edison was devoted and observant, she discovered simple ways to nurture her son’s enthusiasm. She brought him a book on the physical sciences—R. G. Parker’s School of Natural Philosophy, which explained how to perform chemistry experiments at home. Edison recalled this was “the first book in science I read when a boy.” It made learning fun, and he performed every experiment in the book. Then Nancy Edison brought him The Dictionary of Science which further spurred his interest. He became passionate about chemistry, spending all his spare money buying chemicals from a local pharmacist, collecting bottles, wires, and other items for experiments. He built his first laboratory in the cellar of the family’s Port Huron house.

“Thus,” Josephson noted, “his mother had accomplished that which all truly great teachers do for their pupils, she brought him to the stage of learning things for himself, learning that which most amused and interested him, and she encouraged him to go on in that path. It was the very best thing she could have done for this singular boy.” 

I like that: “Because she was devoted and observant….” Providing a good education involves caring about what fascinates your child and their native curiosities. It’s the opposite of the education factories that our country spends literally a trillion dollars a year on with predictably bad results.

Edison benefited from having two parents pulling him in opposite directions intellectually: a mother who indulged his love of science and a father who forced him to consume as much as possible of the humanities. Both parents were cool with having a very independent young child.

Sam Edison disapproved of all the time his son spent in the cellar. Sometimes he offered the boy a penny to resume reading literature. At 12, for example, Thomas read Thomas Paine’s Age of Reason. “I can still remember the flash of enlightenment that shone from his pages,” he recalled. Typically, though, he used his pennies to buy more chemicals for experiments in the cellar.

But Thomas Edison had discovered intellectual play. He wanted to learn everything he could about steam engines, electricity, battery power, electromagnetism, and especially the telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse had attracted tremendous crowds when he demonstrated the telegraph back in 1838, and telegraph lines were extended across the country by the time Thomas Edison was conducting his experiments. The idea of transmitting information over a wire utterly fascinated him. He used scrap metal to build a telegraph set and practiced the Morse code. Through his experiments, he learned more and more about electricity which was to revolutionize the world.

When the Grand Trunk Railroad was extended to Port Huron in 1859, he got a job as newsboy for the day-long run to Detroit and back. After about a year, he looked for ways to make better use of the five-hour layover in Detroit before the train made its return trip. He got permission to move his cellar laboratory equipment aboard the baggage car, so he could continue his experiments. This worked well for a while until the train lurched, spilled some chemicals, and the laboratory caught on fire.

In 1862, a train accident injured his ears, and the 15-year-old began to lose much of his hearing. Apparently, he realized that as a handicapped boy without any credentials, he must learn everything he needed to know on his own. He dramatically intensified his self-education.

“Deafness probably drove me to reading,” he reflected later. He was among the first people to use the Detroit Free Library—with card number 33—and he systematically read through it shelf by shelf. He read literature. He was thrilled by Victor Hugo’s new romantic epic, Les Miserables, especially the stories of lost children. He talked so much about the book that his friends called him “Victor Hugo” Edison.

Of course, what fascinated Edison most was science. He devoured books on electricity, mechanics, chemical analysis, manufacturing technology and more. He struggled with Isaac Newton’s Principles, which made him realize his future would be with practical matters, not theorizing.

One of the best arguments for homeschooling – even versus sending your child to an elite private school, for those who can afford that option – is that it nurtures becoming an autodidact in ways that a traditional school never will. (Even Montessori schools are mostly gimmicks when it comes to this.) A lot of educational institutions try to channelize bright minds, I assume because they are looking for the “payoff” of someone being respected early in a given field. I think this is a weakness of most gifted and talented programs. They would rather brag about having a prodigy in something than a bright kid who is interested in everything. This is why Silicon Valley is littered with drop-outs, even from prestigious schools with the “best” resources. (Incidentally, homeschooling is becoming increasingly popular with the tech crowd.)

Someone like Edison could master intellectual content in every direction, and he was blessed that his parents encouraged that:

As a home-schooled, self-educated youth, Edison learned lessons that were to serve him all his life. He learned education was his own responsibility. He learned to take initiative. He learned to be persistent. He learned he could gain practical knowledge, inspiration and wisdom by reading books. He learned to discover all kinds of things from methodical observation. He learned education is a continuing, joyful process.

At 20, Edison got a job as itinerant Western Union telegraph operator and became remarkably proficient. He worked in Cincinnati, Louisville, Indianapolis, Memphis, Boston, and New York. The more he learned about telegraphy, the more he wanted to learn. He took apart equipment and reassembled it until he understood how it worked. He experimented with ways to make it better. He decided that greater knowledge of chemistry would help him, so he haunted used bookstores and ordered chemistry books from London and Paris. He filled his rented rooms with chemicals and junk metal for his experiments. One associate observed: “He spent his money buying apparatus and books, and wouldn’t buy clothing. That winter he went without an overcoat and nearly froze.”

Edison’s knowledge and enterprise led to a dramatic series of inventions. On January 25, 1869, he applied for a patent on a telegraphic stock ticker which, after he filed patents for dozens of successive improvements, became standard office equipment in America and Europe. Edison invented a printing telegraph for gold bullion and foreign exchange dealers. Western Union and its rivals battled to gain control of Edison’s patents which revolutionized the telegraph business. For example, he figured out how a central telegraph office could control the performance of telegraph equipment at remote locations. He developed a method for transmitting four messages simultaneously over the same wire. Intense curiosity, nourished by his home education, drove him to become perhaps America’s best technician on telegraphy.

From his practical experience, Edison learned to make the most of unexpected opportunities. For example, on July 18, 1877, he was testing an automatic telegraph which had a stylus to read coded indentations on strips of paper. For some reason, perhaps excessive voltage, the stylus suddenly began moving so fast through the indentations that the friction resulted in a sound. It might have been only a hum, but it got Edison’s attention. His imagination made a wild leap. Explains archivist Douglas Tarr at the Edison National Historical Site, West Orange, New Jersey: “Edison seemed to reason that if a stylus going through indentations could produce a sound unintentionally, then it could produce a sound intentionally, in which case he should be able to reproduce the human voice.” A talking machine!

Edison worked out its fundamental principles in his notebooks, and on December 17, 1877, he filed a patent application for the phonograph (“sound writing”). This was no improvement of existing technology. It was something brand new, Edison’s most original invention. It was also one thing he didn’t seek to invent, unlike the light bulb, power generation systems, and other famous inventions which he deliberately pursued. Having developed the idea, Edison followed up, working on and off for more than two decades to produce recorded sound quality which would thrill millions.

With a flexible and open mind, Edison enjoyed an important advantage in the race for electric light. Other inventors were committed to refining low-resistance arc lights (then used in light houses) which required large amounts of electrical power and copper wire—the most costly part of their lighting systems. In September 1878, Edison cheerfully began considering the opposite: a high resistance system which would require far less electrical power and copper wire. This could mean small electric lights suitable for home use. By January 1879, at the laboratory he established in Menlo Park, New Jersey, Edison had built his first high-resistance, incandescent electric light. It worked by passing electricity through a thin platinum filament in a glass vacuum bulb to delay the filament from melting.

But the lamp worked for only an hour or two. Improving performance required all the persistence Edison had learned as a child. He tested many other metals. He thought about tungsten, the metal in light bulb filaments now, but he couldn’t work with it using tools available in his day. He tried carbon. He tested carbonized filaments of every imaginable plant material, including baywood, boxwood, hickory, cedar, flax, and bamboo. He contacted biologists who could send him plant fibers from the tropics. “Before I got through,” he recalled, “I tested no fewer than 6,000 vegetable growths, and ransacked the world for the most suitable filament material.” Best performer for many years: carbonized filaments from cotton thread.

This proved to be one of Edison’s most perplexing inventions. “The electric light has caused me the greatest amount of study and has required the most elaborate experiments,” he wrote. “I was never myself discouraged, or inclined to be hopeless of success. I cannot say the same for all my associates.” Edison at the peak of his inventive powers drew inspiration, as he did in his youth, from Victor Hugo’s novel Toilers of the Sea. The hero, Gilliatt, struggled against the waves, the tides and a storm to save a steamship from destruction on a reef.

Hailed as “The Wizard of Menlo Park,” Edison was often able to see possibilities others missed because he continuously educated himself about different technologies. For example, during the late 1880s and early 1890s, he read widely about the latest developments in photographic optics. He investigated the potential of tough, flexible celluloid as motion picture film and had George Eastman make 50-foot-long, 35mm wide test strips. Edison worked out the mechanical problems of advancing film steadily across a photographic lens without tearing. He linked his new motion picture camera to an improved phonograph, capturing sound synchronized with motion pictures. Then Edison developed what he called the Kinetoscope to project these “talking” images on a screen.

In 1887, Edison built a magnificent laboratory in West Orange, New Jersey. It was 10 times larger than his first, fabled facility in Menlo Park. The main building alone contained some 60,000 square feet of floor space for machine shops, glass-blowing operations, electrical testing rooms, chemical stockrooms, electrical power generation, and other functions.

Once a day, Edison toured this vast facility to see what was going on, but he did most work in the library. It had a great hall, a 30-foot-high ceiling and two galleries. Right in the center, Edison sat at a desk with three dozen pigeonholes, surrounded by some 10,000 books. Here he would ponder new ideas and hear his associates report on their progress.

As Edison grew older, he became stouter and harder of hearing, but he remained as enthusiastic as ever about the free-wheeling pursuit of practical knowledge. In 1903, he hired Martin Andre Rosanoff, a Russian-born, Paris-trained chemist who asked about laboratory rules. “Hell,” Edison snorted, “there ain’t no rules around here! We’re tryin’ to accomplish somep’n.”

After Edison died on Sunday, October 18, 1931, his coffin was placed in his beloved West Orange library for mourners to pay their respects. Rosanoff identified a key to the Old Man’s enduring fame: “Had Edison been formally schooled, he might not have had the audacity to create such impossible things.”


Edison is far from alone in this respect. His story is also the story of Benjamin Franklin and Albert Einstein. Both had adults in their life who helped them have unconventional home educations that were centered on intellectual play. Imagine an alternative universe where Franklin and Einstein were given ADHD meds and told to sit still all day.

The worst college admissions scam has nothing to do with celebrities

Did you ever think about where your child’s data goes when they take the SAT?

For 47 cents, the College Board sells your child’s data to various colleges and universities around the country.

You might not think that is a bad thing on its face. You might love seeing the joyful look on your child’s face when they receive hefty marketing packages from elite schools after sitting for what you perceive is a high-stakes exam.

You will probably encourage your child to apply to a litany of schools that have sought your child out. Doesn’t it feel so wonderful to be wanted?

Your child is indeed being sought out, but not for the reason you think.

Many of these schools have zero intention of admitting your kid. In more rational moments, you probably understood that. These schools already know, before the marketing package is put in the mail, that they are going to reject your kid based on your child’s test performance and other factors. But they still want them to apply. So they can reject them.

This is how colleges and universities are padding their admissions numbers now (1) to appear more exclusive and (2) to get fee income from families.

A couple million high school students sat for the SAT this past year, and more for practice exams. That’s a lot of kids applying to colleges and a lot of dough for the College Board. These are also fat years for most schools in terms of the students applying for them. But elite schools need to make sure that ordinary students still want to take their chances and apply to them to keep their percentage of rejections high. And up-and-coming schools who want to build an image of exclusivity have found a path to achieving that through big data.

So they pump -and-dump kids they know they don’t want as a statistical insurance policy.

You also pay hundreds of dollars for the privilege of being “considered.” You are just part of the higher education fee machine, even for schools your kid will never attend. They aren’t investing any effort into getting to know the kids they are going to dump. It’s a fee-generating algorithm for them. (It’s somewhat incredible how much higher education resembles pre-financial crisis Wall Street these days.)

The College Board, which administers the SAT, made $100 million of revenue from its unit that sells students data in 2017. According to the Wall Street Journal (link above), the company sells students’ score range, geographical location, gender, ethnicity, major, GPA, email address, educational aspirations, financial aid information, sports, college living preferences, and much more.

In an era when most Americans are righteously mocking celebrities that are faking test scores and even extracurricular activities for their spawn, universities have quietly become even more cynical than that about the admissions process.