School Alternatives 101

The Albany Free School in Albany New York
The Albany Free School in Albany New York
In my personal discussions with teachers and other parents, and my written interchange with people commenting on the DailyKOS version of my blog, I feel like a broken record stressing the need for many more “alternative” schools, so that our kids can have real educational choices. Discussing my seeming obsession with this “many paths” concept, my partner Sally suggested that maybe a lot of people have trouble conceiving of what a truly alternative school is. This then limits the discussion on how to transform our education system. I think she may be right, and there lies a big obstacle as I try again and again to make the argument for many educational paths.

The fallacy that many people seem to be caught up in is this… All schools (particularly public schools) by definition are “instructional”. There is a standard curriculum that has been previously designed and approved by some higher authority that is passed down through districts, principals to teachers to instruct to the young people attending their school as students. Anything else is some counter-cultural flotsam of the 1960’s, and not really an educational establishment worthy of the label “school”.

One of the telling and mostly pejorative definitions of the word “school” is as a verb used by sports reporters to describe one team showing another team “how the game is really played” by playing at a much higher level of proficiency and beating the other team badly. Those who are “schooled” definitely “learn their lesson”, with all the negative undertones those phrases can have in our culture.

But getting back to my main point, I believe that there are in fact three fundamentally different types of schools, only one of which is the kind most people think of when they hear the word. Lacking better labels, I describe the three types as: instructional, holistic and free. They each can be defined by how they compare in three key aspects: educational content or curriculum, educational methodology, and governance model. (Oh how I love these analytical categorizations!)

Instructional Schools

Virtually all public schools and the overwhelming majority of private schools (at least in our country) are instructional. Though I don’t know the statistics, I suspect that at least 95% of American schools fall into this category.

The content of the educational curriculum (what is learned) is generally a large set of facts and skills mandated by some higher authority (e.g. state legislature or commission), clearly compartmentalized into major “subjects” (English, language arts, mathematics, science, social studies, and perhaps even physical education, art, music, drama, etc), which all students are expected to learn by the time they matriculate.

The educational methodology (how, where and when the content is learned) is primarily instruction of age-based curriculum, done in age-segregated classrooms. Students listen to the teacher or read excerpts assigned by a teacher from a textbook, and occasionally work problems or do labs. The students (and the general effectiveness of the instruction) are evaluated by high-stakes quizzes and tests that contribute to the student’s ranked final “grades” in each subject, which remain on that student’s permanent record. Students then are ranked overall based on their grade point average.

The governance model is generally top-down, with the highest level educational bureaucracy setting educational content and methodology, which is then passed down through the hierarchy (through districts and school principals) to highly trained teachers that then impart that content to and evaluate the students on their mastery of that content. Being top-down, the level below (in the hierarchy) has little or no input into the “marching orders” given by the level above. Students generally don’t have a significant say in how the teacher runs the classroom, and teachers don’t have a significant role in how teachers run the school (and on up the ladder).

Sound familiar? Isn’t that how all schools function? Not really!

FYI… this type of school was conceived and implemented in the U.S. originally by Horace Mann, the main founder of our public school system, based on the educational model developed in Prussia (yes Prussia of all places) for that country’s public school system.

Holistic Schools

This category includes a large variety of diverse schools based on diverse educational methodologies, so I will focus on some commonalities. Some of the most familiar names (to Americans) in this category are Montessori and Waldorf, but there are a lot more, including schools based on American progressive educator John Dewey and Asian educators Aurobindo Ghose and Inayat Khan.

The schools in this category tend to have founders who were highly insightful and charismatic educational innovators (e.g. Maria Montessori, Rudolf Steiner and John Dewey). Again, not knowing the statistics, I suspect that they account for less than five percent of American schools.

The educational curriculum can vary greatly (particularly because they are generally private rather than public) and tends to be much more integrated than instructional schools. The curriculum often includes a broader scope of topics, often beyond the secular into more metaphysical or spiritual areas; thus the label “holistic”.

The methodology is one of the hallmarks of a holistic school, defining the “Waldorf brand” and differentiating it from the “Montessori brand”, as it were. All these holistic methodologies differ from the instructional methodology because the former generally attempt to make education more learner-driven with the teacher playing more the role of facilitator rather than instructor. The expectation is that student’s natural interest in learning will take over when placed in an enriched environment managed by the teacher.

You may find the rare public charter school adopting the Montessori, Waldorf or Dewey ideas, but the overwhelming majority of the schools of this type are private, since their methodologies generally clash with the restrictive public educational standards, which were written under the assumption that all schools are instructional and essentially mandate that schools instruct.

Holistic schools employ more of the ideas of human developmental theory (often ignored and run roughshod over in instructional schools) and make more of an effort to personalize the learning to the individual student. They often self-describe their approach as “child-centered” (a phrase you would rarely hear applied to an instructional school).

Evaluation of students is most likely to be done by portfolios, teacher narrative and/or checklists of skill development, rather than ranking by grades. Comparing students with each other is usually antithetical to the basic holistic philosophies these schools are based on.

To achieve these challenging goals, holistic schools tend to employ, develop and nurture highly talented, caring and dedicated teachers, and focus more on an enriched educational environment, including more focus on diverse and developmentally appropriate educational materials and more time spent outside the classroom in the larger community.

In terms of governance, holistic schools tend to be less hierarchical than instruction schools, with the teachers playing an important role in running the school. As the quintessential example of this, the Waldorf K-8 school in our neighborhood is collectively run by the teachers, without a principal.

Free Schools

Particularly to a person who hears the word “school” and thinks of the instructional variety with mandated curriculum and rigidly scheduled classes, a “free school” may sound like an oxymoron. But these schools, though generally few and far between, do exist, and provide a very different educational path than either holistic or instructional schools. I would hazard to guess that significantly less than one percent or American schools fall into this category, but I think they need to be called out because they represent a profoundly different approach to education that would have great value for so many kids (like my own) who do poorly in more traditional classroom environments.

The two progenitors of free schools that I am aware of are the “Modern Schools” based on the ideas of Spanish anarchist educator Francesco Ferrer and A.S. Neill’s Summerhill School in Lyme Regis, England. Possibly the most well known example of free schools in America (at least in alternative education circles) is the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts, and schools based on its model in other parts of the country. Other such schools include the Manhattan Free School and the Albany Free School in New York, and the Clonlara School in my hometown of Ann Arbor Michigan.

One of the hallmarks of these schools is that, unlike instructional or holistic schools, each student is expected to develop and pursue their own curriculum and manage their own time when they are on the school site. The adult staff tend to be more advisors and resource people, rather than teachers (either in an instructional or facilitative sense). In free schools most of the educational experience happens outside of what would be considered a “classroom” and the rigid schedule built around “classes”.

At Sudbury Valley School, which is particularly libertarian in its philosophy, the adult staff is not even supposed to suggest curriculum or offer “classes” unless requested by one or more students. The school’s campus is a farm that the students have the complete run of. There is absolutely no mandatory learning, including each student making the decision when and even whether to learn to read (though they all end up doing so as far as I can tell).

Another hallmark of these schools is their highly unorthodox governance model. Unlike even holistic schools that may be run by the teachers, free schools are generally run jointly by the students and adult staff using either majority rule or consensus democratic process. There are regular daily or weekly meetings to discuss school issues and make or revise school rules and other policies. Subcommittees may be set up as needed to handle different aspects of school logistics and to adjudicate disputes between school participants (whether adult or youth) or violations of school rules.

As to formal student evaluation, there generally is little or none, but allowances are generally made to offer students some sort of high school diploma, to facilitate their next developmental step to college or work. For example, at the Sudbury Valley School, there is a process where students can present their “thesis” (however the student defines it) to a school committee for acceptance (or not), and award of that diploma if accepted.

The Path Forward

I am convinced that the secret to a successful American education system in the 21st Century is to create an educational environment of “many paths”, ideally making all three of these types of schools (along with homeschooling) available to all families. This includes encouraging (rather than the current state school standards discouraging) public charter schools to open based on holistic and free school models, instead of just the more conventional instructional model.

I believe that something less than fifty percent of our youth do well in (and would prefer, given the choice) an instructional school environment. I am not aware of studies or statistics speaking to this other than the high dropout rates in many school districts. Most kids (particularly the overwhelming majority whose families cannot afford private schools) do not currently have the option of attending holistic or free schools, so must stumble through instructional school as best they can. That said, many parents may not even be aware that all schools are not instructional, and that there may be holistic or free school alternatives out there.

But if these other two profoundly alternative school types were more widely available and publicized, I believe many more of our youth would get an appropriate education to help them become happier, healthier and more successful adult members of our society. I think that I personally, and both our kids, would have thrived in a free school environment, since we tend to be autodidacts (self-learners). I suspect that their mom (my partner Sally) would have done best as a youth in more of a holistic school, where she could get more expert guidance and mentoring towards better integration of mind, heart and soul.

Sally and I stumbled through instructional schools, but I think both of us were not well served and were set back developmentally in the process. Similarly, our daughter Emma probably could have toughed it out (given no other options) through four years of instructional high school. But she was given the choice, and chose (with her parents’ blessing) to homeschool based on more of a free school model (generally referred to as “unschooling”), which better facilitated her development.

Her older brother Eric was the canary in the coal mine, crashing and burning in middle school and pretty much doomed to educational failure until we pulled him out. His harrowing experience raised our consciousness, and propelled us to research the alternative educational paths that I address above. Not being able to afford the few expensive private holistic schools we found in our area, we let him “unschool” at home instead. That was perfect for him as a hardcore autodidact, and blazed a trail that his sister also chose to follow four years later.

5 replies on “School Alternatives 101”

  1. Interesting post. Thanks.

    In the “Free School” model, what is going to happen to children who don’t have intensive training in mathematics, language, history, all of which have NECESSARY and real consequence in adult life? Hasn’t the public school system failed, in general, our children in these subjects, already? And wouldn’t voluntarily deferring large groups of students toward studies that reduce education in these areas make for less capable contributors to societal progress, politically, financially, and culturally? I tend to think so.

    However, I tend to agree that some freedom of ed. focus could be implemented in HS ages, perhaps.

  2. Person from Norcross Schools…

    Thanks for your comment. Sorry for the late reply!

    I think the public schools are successfully educating maybe half of the kids who attend them, kids who do well in the sort of instructional, external motivation learning environment. These kids seem to thrive on, or at least do okay with, someone else telling them what to learn, when and how to learn it, and even when to stop learning and move on.

    For the other half of our kids who need a more self-directed, experiential, less academic, or a more “deep learning” approach, I think our current public schools fail them completely. These kids need a very different learning environment that leverages rather than suppresses their self-direction and passion for one area (perhaps at the expense of another).

    My own kids did self-directed learning at home rather than attend an instructional high school. Other than my daughter struggling through Geometry (and hating every minute of it) with my help tutoring her, she and her brother have had no math or science except what they have picked up on their own or on their jobs. My kids, now 20 and 24 are doing well in their adult lives and work worlds.

    Given their lack of abstract math and science background, they are not looking for jobs in medicine or science, but they have never been interested in those areas, being more interested in writing, project management and game design, which they both excel at.

    Finally, you seem very tenuous about giving even high school age youth any freedom of educational self-direction. Why such reticence?

    I followed your link and it took me to a Christian/Mormon school which I assume you are associated with. I would be interested how your school differentiates education to match a student’s interests or learning style, if it does so at all.

    Thank you again for your comment!

  3. Norcross School’s comment:
    voluntarily deferring large groups of students toward studies that reduce education in these areas

    seems to make an assumption that holistic and free school approaches “reduce education in these areas”— but this is a faulty assumption. They reduce instruction in these areas because they are not instructional schools, but instruction is not the same thing as education. Children in free school/holistic school environments become educated in many varied areas depending on their interest. Some children may develop extraordinary skills and talents in mathematics, language, history, science etc. that they would never have developed if they had been in an instructional school environment.

    As for Lefty Parent, thanks for the link to this from your Daily Kos posting. You express a lot of things I’ve studied for years in a way that is clear and useful.

    As to why we can’t get more of the holistic and free school types of environments, I am somewhat pessimistic on that front. It seems there are always only a fringe segment of educationally oriented people interested in this. The notion that education necessarily involves adult-controlled instruction, standardized testing, grading and grade levels is very highly ingrained in our culture. When kids don’t thrive in that system the approach is to try to fix or change the child to fit the environment rather than changing the environment to work better for the child.

    My background is as a speech-language pathologist who got my Master’s in 1977, which was a time that free schools were enjoying some recognition. I remember being assigned Summerhill in my required Philosophy of Education class. I read John Holt before I had kids, and unschooled them all the way. They are now 25 and 22 and thrived in the free environment. I was also very enamored of Waldorf ideas and incorporated lots of that into their early elementary years.

    I work with schooled children (as well as infants to the elderly) and it is so painfully clear that what you say about large numbers of children needing a different kind of environment is true. Parents mostly see no alternatives–the working poor mostly don’t see homeschooling as an option–so most do what they can to help (or force) their child conform to the only learning environment available to them. I am in a rural area, so there is only public school and a handful of Christian schools (which largely do some kinds of heavily scripted programmed curricula).

  4. Leslie… thanks for your long and thoughtful comment… looks like you have experienced, studies and thought about education a great deal.

    FYI… In case you haven’t figured it out, Cooper Zale and Lefty Parent are the same person.

    Anyway… I am glad other parents and educators are starting to see this gulf between at least of some of our youth and an OSFA (One size fits all) school system that can’t possibly be all things to all people.

    Leslie… are you familiar with the Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)? They have a magazine, online forums, and a great yearly conference in upstate New York which I unfortunately will not be able to go to this year.

    Cooper Zale (aka Lefty Parent)

  5. […] SCHOOL ALTERNATIVES 101 – As I see it, there are three basic types of schools, representing the three basic approaches to education: (1) Instructional – like most conventional schools with teachers instructing students, (2) Holistic – like Montessori or Waldorf where the teacher is more a guide thru an enriched learning environment, and (3) Democratic-Free – where the student charts their own course of learning. http://www.leftyparent.c… […]

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