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Sustainable education

What is NOT sustainable is the national craze of high stakes testing. It is from the last vestiges of a failed education system. Its paradigm was “We are the teachers. We have all the information you will need to have a productive life. Just listen to us, learn what we think you should learn, and you’ll be set for life.”

Well, if that paradigm was EVER useful, it certainly doesn’t work in today’s world. What people need today (and children ARE people!) is confidence in themselves as learners, tools so they can find the answers to their questions themselves, preparation for life-long learning, and in general, a learner-centered approach rather than one which is curriculum driven.

And most important, memorizing facts is NOT important (and this is the most typical aspect of high stakes testing). When Albert Einstein was once asked the speed of sound he said, “I don’t bother memorizing what I can easily look up!”

We’ve been though this before. The Eight Year Study of progressive schools in the 1930’s came up with a very definitive result: Progressive and learner-centered schools were more effective for students than traditional school!

This was true during high school, during college and after college for the progressive students. As of 1940 people expected a dramatic shift in how schools were run. But then came the Second World War, followed immediately by the creation of teacher’s unions. Since there were no unions for the students, the teacher’s voice has held sway since then, freezing the system in place in a form which continues today, almost unchanged, and increasingly anachronistic.

Did you even wonder which forces created an authoritarian public school system in a society which prides itself on being the world home of democracy? That’s a long story. You can read some theories about it in John Gatto’s book, Underground History of American Education. Suffice it to say that this system is not the proper preparation needed for students to ultimately participate in a democracy. Is it any wonder that fewer and fewer people vote in local and national elections?

Nevertheless, there is an education revolution going on, and it is long overdue. It is moving in the diametrically opposite direction of the “testing” push. The latter comes from the bureaucrats from within that dying system, who do know there is something wrong. But since they can’t think “out of the box,” the only remedy they can come up with is longer hours, more homework, and “teaching to the test,” in other words, more of the same.

The education revolution is coming from people who have created alternative schools and programs, thousands of them, and from others who have checked “none of the above” and have decided to home educate. There are now nearly two million people home educating. The first charter school was started in 1991. Now there are 2500 of them! And there are over 7500 additional alternatives in our database and many thousands more we have yet to discover. All of these fall in the general category of “learner-centered” approaches. We list many of them in our book, The Almanac of Education Choices. These people are steadfastly OPPOSED to the governmental thrust for more “standardization” and testing.So a battle is looming. The testers will ultimately lose. It has happened before, most recently in the 80’s with the “Back to Basics” movement. The question is only how long it will take, and how much destructiveness will happen in the interim.

The new education revolution was sparked by the publication of the book Summerhill, by A.S. Neill, about the Summerhill School, which he founded in 1921. When that book was published in the United States in 1961 it led immediately to the free school movement, with the creation of thousands of democratic, learner-centered schools. They lasted an average of 18 months. But many of them survived, even to this day, such as Sudbury Valley School in Framingham, Massachusetts, recently featured on CBS’s 60 Minutes. Now, dozens of schools based on Sudbury Valley are starting around the country.

Meanwhile, the free school movement led to the public school’s alternative school movement, and thousands exist today. Some, called “choice” public alternatives are open to any student who wants a more learner centered approach. Others, called “public at-risk,” are for children who have not been successful.

These phenomena gave rise to the charter school movement, where a group of parents and teachers can start a school free of the usual red tape and regulations, but as long as it meets certain goals and is non-discriminatory, it gets reimbursed on a per pupil basis with public school funds.

John Holt, who wrote a series of books critical of the public schools, including How Children Fail, finally gave up on the system and wrote one called Teach Your Own, which was a catalyst for the home education movement.

Recently Ron Miller, a historian of holistic education, has released a book about the free school movement called Free Schools, Free People, Education & Democracy after the 1960’s.

Last summer’s decision by the Supreme Court legitimizing the fledgling voucher programs around the country could have a further impact. This allows states or municipalities to create programs where parents may use the money designated for their children’s education in another public or private school.All of these, public and private, are potential models for the education of the future. However, one which has not yet been mentioned is the homeschool resource center. With the explosive growth of home education, it is now possible to set up centers for home educators in which a variety of social activities take place. They are now scattered around the country, but it is only a matter of time before their influence becomes greater. This will enable even working parents to home educate their children.

The parents take the basic educational responsibility, but the centers are available as a resource for them as often as they want or need it. One example is Pathfinder Education Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where 40-50 students attend up to five days a week, studying what they wish. Another example is Puget Sound Community School in Seattle, WA, which started out meeting in borrowed spaces three days a week. Starting next year they will have their own space.

This revolution is not limited to the United States. For example, the School of Self-Determination is a 1200 student, inner city public school. The school is run by an elected parliament. They have a constitutional right to leave any class without explanation, and they interview the teachers, have them do test classes, and then vote on who is to be hired. The school is in Moscow, Russia!

As I write this I am about to go to the 10th International Democratic Education Conference (IDEC), in Christchurch, New Zealand, organized by Tamariki School, a democratic school. Seven of us will go from here, including a contingent from Albany’s Free School, a democratic, inner city school in Albany, New York.

The interracial school has no minimum tuition. Most of its funds come from donations from residents of row houses they have renovated which they bought at auction for as little as $500. The students and staff raised the funds to go on this trip. The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) and the Free School hope to co-host next year’s IDEC for the first time in the United States in 2003.

Jerry Mintz is the Director of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. He is the author of No Homework and Recess All Day: How to Have Freedom and Democracy in Education. Editor of the Handbook of Alternative Education and Almanac of Education Choices. Founded and then directed the Shaker Mountain School in Vermont for 17 years, a democratic free school with a sliding scale tuition. He has homeschooled his niece, run an education radio show on Talk America, and speaks around the world about educational alternatives.

Photo by: Einar Erici. Children in a ring, Pinnarp, Östergötland, Sweden. ca 1930s (Swedish National Heritage Board).

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