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post-industrial education for post-industrial organizations
January 8, 2014 4:44 PM   Subscribe

Sudbury Valley School - "It upends your views about what school is for, why it has to cost as much as it does, and whether our current model makes any sense at all. But what's most amazing about the school, a claim the founders make which was backed up by my brief observations, my conversations with students, and the written recollections of alumni, is that the school has taken the angst out of education. Students like going there, and they like their teachers. Because they are never made to take a class they don't like, they don't rue learning. They don't hate homework because they don't have homework. School causes no fights with their parents." (previously-er)
In short, Sudbury Valley students relate to their work the same way that adults who love their jobs—many artists, writers, chefs; the very fortunate doctors and lawyers and teachers—relate to work: They chose it, so they like it. Perhaps that's because students at Sudbury are, in fact, treated as full adults. They have equal votes in making budget decisions, administering the school, making and enforcing discipline. There are currently about 35 Sudbury-model schools, in 15 states and six foreign countries, and one thing they have in common is their stance against age discrimination. They say that all ages are equal, and they mean it.
also btw...
-Zappos is going holacratic: no job titles, no managers, no hierarchy
-The Next Big Thing You Missed: Companies That Work Better Without Bosses
-Here's Why Eliminating Titles And Managers At Zappos Probably Won't Work
-No More Bosses For Zappos (A Cautionary Tale)
posted by kliuless (63 comments total) 20 users marked this as a favorite

 
But where will they learn good (Protestant|Catholic) [pick one] Values and how to sit quietly for hours at a time?
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 4:49 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


There's a Sudbury school in my area; I hope we're in a position to send our kid there, if it's right for her, when the time comes. I suspect that model of education would have been really, really good for me as a kid. But then Bob Black's "The Abolition of Work" destroyed my "work ethic" when I was 18 or so.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 4:54 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


This depends so much on the home environment behind the child; even child self-selection comes from there.
posted by kewb at 5:00 PM on January 8 [13 favorites]


See also the Summerhill School.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:18 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


re: Zappos

No more bosses doesn't mean no more power structures; instead you've just removed some of the traditional protections that subordinates have from their employers and supervisors. You've also likely ramped up the internal politics astonishingly. It seems to me, at first blush, a pretty dumb idea; it's the work equivalent of the classic xkcd strip on sex and drama.

But would be happy to be proved wrong. Hopefully they've read Foucault.
posted by leotrotsky at 5:20 PM on January 8 [13 favorites]



But where will they learn good (Protestant|Catholic) [pick one] Values and how to sit quietly for hours at a time?


almost favorited and then I realized, this isn't funny, this is actually how the vast majority would think about such radical stuff -- school/work/life in general not being something to be enjoyed but endured. quietly.
posted by philip-random at 5:30 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


There's a Sudbury school in my area

I'm guessing you mean the albany free school... which is interesting because, at least from a distance, they look like they have a student body which is less privileged than sudbury (or summerhill originally.)

there are a lot of problems with the idea... I mean, to start with, if you want your kids to be free why are you sending them to school in the first place? The answer being that if you didn't you would have to supervise them and wouldn't be working... which is to say that all of this freedom is based on someones ability to earn money. the school is, in the end, a kind of babysitter and all of these schools are, in the end, privately funded schools. as noted in the article, they tend to be founded by people who believe that their own vision of freedom is actually at odds with knowledge i.e. you should be free to be ignorant. nevermind whether you can ever be free if you are ignorant. freedom is a kind of difficult idea.

however, the upshot is that they can end up sort of replicating the kind of things they might denounce. i am thinking of a "free" high school in my area that employs local college students and various others to "tutor" their students to basic GED level while offering a variety of electives (taught by volunteers) that students are free to attend or not (school is democratically managed et al). the result being that they have replaced well-paid, (nominally) highly educated teachers, with low paid temporary tutors and a skeletal administrative staff. they look a lot like a vision of "for profit" education with a lot of happy talk about democracy.
posted by ennui.bz at 5:42 PM on January 8 [5 favorites]


This is meant to be a method for suburban education reform? Or for urban and rural environments, as well? As for whether or not you like going there....who says that matters?
posted by GrapeApiary at 5:44 PM on January 8


Windsor House in North Vancouver is another example. Their core principles.
posted by philip-random at 5:54 PM on January 8


I like the idea. I really like the idea. And this is the sentence where I say I'm going to say why this doesn't actually work. We looked into the Sudbury School. SVS is about three miles from where I live, so actually having a kid attend it would be possible. My son is a pretty independent thinker, he's a tinker, and his general nature suggests to me that he would really like to be able to plot his own course whenever possible. For him, Sudbury would be kind of a dream.

Here's the thing. He's five. He doesn't really know what he wants to do, or the steps needed to get there. And he spends enough time trying to invent machines, build robots, build forts, make maps, and otherwise do things that are somewhere on the applied sciences and engineering end of things. There are things that are required to know to get to do those things. No math and science implies no robots. If he instead wants to be a banker - no math, no economics, no business - despite the school graduating several students who later become entrepreneurs. No history - that means yes - your child can be prevented from Goodwinning a thread (or an implied Goodwinning as I'm doing here). Moreover - the school instructors are just people - hanging out with kids. I'm sure many of them are handy, many of them may be master craftsmen and artists. But, in my family's research on the school we also found out that they aren't accredited. Sure, they don't seek accreditation, but effectively you're signing up to pay for someone to teach your kid something that they may not be knowledgeable in, and your kid is going to have to pick up the pieces and find out whatever the adults knowledge misses.

That's almost fine for a five year old - they're curious but they aren't pushing the limits of calculus and physics. That's insanity for someone in high school... and if they didn't put the pieces together at five - they didn't get to high school with the tool chest that gets them to their goals.

I sat through a great keynote from Merril Hoge on how at 7 he asked for a corkboard and he used it to put up pictures of Walter Peyton and 'find a way' to get him to the NFL and to his dream team the Pittsburgh Steelers, and then beat cancer - with each step along the way he said 'find a way' and he did. Not every kid can find a way. I wish they all were. I hope my kids are (driven that is - football players only if they want to be). And even in his story he still points out the odds were repeatedly one in a million, and that he knows he beat the odds. Seriously, it was one of the best pep talk stories I've ever heard... I'm glad he knew at seven what he wanted to be and what it would take to be there, and when he didn't know what it would take - he had the fore thought and ability to read up and the opportunity and support to get there.

This is a school which proports it is giving kids the freedom to be what they want to be. But at the end of the day the freedom actually has potential to take away if the kid wants to do something that they didn't know and didn't prepare for when they started. That is the purpose of general education. Sure, if your kid isn't performing in school, in an existing curricula and they've got a solid foundation because of either social pressures or academic head butting - this may be a great school for you - but if you start your kid in this kind of program - you are likely taking away just as much opportunity as you think you are giving them.

Also, I hope my kids have the drive of Merril Hoge and take the opportunity to find their way - whatever way that is.
posted by Nanukthedog at 5:58 PM on January 8 [21 favorites]


Watching the video this school for kids age 4-7 seemed idyllic and I was totally ready to be a convert. My kid having the confidence to climb a tree, get warm by a fire, carve wood with a knife, slide down a snowy hill on a shovel? And the most you usually have to worry about is tics? It looked wonderful.

I started thinking about this a little more, though, and I can't imagine how someone would get through something like AP Calculus or Physics. Not knowing who Martin Luther King was is kind of a problem, right? I get the feeling that these are not occasional holes in the student's knowledge, but more like a swiss cheese landscape. No homework? Homework is where I did my hardest work in high school.

Still, it looks lovely.
posted by onlyconnect at 6:03 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


I'm guessing you mean the albany free school... which is interesting because, at least from a distance, they look like they have a student body which is less privileged than sudbury (or summerhill originally.)

Nope, it's the Hudson Valley Sudbury School. As for why I'd send them to a school rather than home schooling, it's because I want to continue to write--to do the important play of my own life. it's taken me thirty years to get to a place where I can say that this is important to me and I want a life that lets me carve out time for that. I couldn't while I was in school, and I had trouble doing so while I was stuck in the tyranny of more typical "work." Homeschooling education often falls disproportionately to women, and, though my husband s a dream, I don't doubt that this would be the case in my own relationship. And I'm not the best person to expose my child to a variety of people and viewpoints and passions, which is what they get just by virtue of leaving the confines of our apartment and, you know, going to school.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:06 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


It's good stuff. I'm heartily in support. I applied to work at the MA school right out of college; didn't get hired, ended up at another progressive school. There's no question that they get at least as good an education as anyone else is getting.

But, in my family's research on the school we also found out that they aren't accredited.

Do you mean certified? The teachers aren't certified? No, they're not, but almost no private school requires certification. That's a public accountability model. Do you mean that the schools are not accredited? Private school accreditation is a patchwork quilt. A lot of schools don't bother because it's expensive, time-consuming, and not directly related to instruction.

your kid is going to have to pick up the pieces and find out whatever the adults knowledge misses.

I found this to be true of my highly-rated suburban public education and my private liberal arts college, as well.

I agree that this model isn't right for everybody. However, after a long time in education, I also think that most of the way we think about education is ...wishful. There's very little evidence-based education out there; even if there were, we still stubbornly believe that not all kids are the same, and so choices proliferate. And almost everyone is reasoning from narrow, anecdotal data.
posted by Miko at 6:07 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


Any approach to education is amazing when students are allowed to self-select into the approach they like. Witness Youth Challenge Academies, which puts low income kids into a high workload, almost militarized cultural environment, and has had huge success graduating kids and sending them to college from the direst conditions of poverty. Their secret? The only kids going have chosen to be there.
posted by fatbird at 6:08 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


I think getting kids into peer groups and giving them experiences outside the family is important, too. Homeschooling models don't always emphasize this basic requirement for well-roundedness and adaptability. Being among other young people is different from being at home with your parents and whatever curriculum they devise for you.
posted by Miko at 6:09 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


No homework? Homework is where I did my hardest work in high school.

Also, ha, I never did homework. From the time that I was about . . . 8? Homework and schoolwork and the actual lessons of school were almost always a distraction from writing and art projects and whatever it was I happened to be passionate about. There wasn't nearly enough "read about the middle ages and write fanfic about ninja turtles" time in school. If I loved what we were learning it tended to feed into my projects and passions but otherwise distracted from them. This was really, really reflected in my grades. My grades ranged from As to Ds in middle and high school, but in college and grad school, where I could pick my coursework? Very close to a 4.0. Maybe I'm just a weirdly driven, focused nerd in that way, though.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:10 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


Look, somebody needs to shove some math down these kids throats. They'll be grateful for it later.
posted by zscore at 6:10 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


Look, somebody needs to shove some math down these kids throats. They'll be grateful for it later.

Does that work? Math as it's done in school is so . . . boring. I can add and subtract and divide, figure out a tip and all of that, which is great, but the only time I've ever caught the sparkling wild beauty of math was watching Vi Hart videos on youtube. What if math had always been presented as amazing and fun and beautiful rather than something that needed to be shoved down my throat?

My husband was told he has a non-verbal learning disability and that's why he did so poorly in math in school. But after getting into poker he became incredibly good at figuring out probability. I just don't know that knowledge is well-imparted when shoved down anybody's throat, especially when done so in the dry, dispassionate way certain subjects (math, history) are often approached in school.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 6:15 PM on January 8 [5 favorites]


I recently found out a friend of mine attended Sudbury school. I didn't have a chance to press him for details, only to tell him that I was furiously jealous of him. I should ask him more about his experience.


I just imagined the kind of curriculum Kid Mustachio would have made up -

Art class
Drama
Hiding in trees
Super Gross Anatomy
Snakes class
posted by louche mustachio at 6:16 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


Did anyone else notice that the article doesn't actually make a case for the sudbury system?

I mean, I think we can all agree HURF DURF PUBLIC SKEWEL SUX, but 13 years of anarchy doesn't really sound like… well, an education.

You could accomplish the same thing with 7 hours of public school and leaving the balance of the day to your children as fuckaround time. Don't schedule them for 3 hours of sports and dance a day, and they'll have time to frolic, write plays and build robots.

The sad part is these kids are getting a taste for democracy the likes of which simply does not exist in America.
posted by butterstick at 6:28 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


I was unimpressed with the study of just 119 alumni.
posted by Miko at 6:41 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


How many of these kids become entrepreneurs because they always wanted to be an entrepreneur, and how many kids become entrepreneurs because they can't work in the confines of the real world after spending their education being able to refuse to do things because they are hard and feel unnatural?

Some comments from Sudbury Valley non-graduates and a pretty good portion of Legacy of Trust: Life After Sudbury Valley
posted by Nanukthedog at 6:46 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


Perhaps one size does not fit all when it comes to child rearing in general and education in particular.
posted by Tell Me No Lies at 6:48 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


I am in my second year as a teacher in an urban area (I began right out of college without any experience in education), and I have to say that I really like the idea of Summerhill and Sudbury. I do believe that what you learn in school (particularly during your early years) isn't as important as the social experiences and thinking skills you acquire from being in a classroom. If you acquire these skills and grow up to be a functioning adult, then discover that you have a hole in your knowledge you really need to fill, you will find a way to fill it.

I also think that too many people feel like school and work (and eventually, life) are chores to be done rather than experiences to enjoy. Sadly, I myself probably think too much like this, and I wish I enjoyed more.

However, enjoying school, work, and life isn't so much about only getting to do what you love as it is about loving what you get to do.

In life, everyone has to do unpleasant tasks. Sometimes these unpleasant tasks actually bring you closer to accomplishing your goals or acquiring something pleasant. Sometimes tasks are ambiguous (part fun, part drudgery.) Perhaps we shouldn't be showing children how to avoid unpleasant things, we should be finding ways (perhaps through meditation, healthy, de-stressing activities etc...) to help them gain control of their emotions and help them love being in the moment. We should help children learn to love what they have to do.

My students don't have problems because I am forcing them to do math. In fact, they can become really engaged in topics they don't anticipate enjoying. This happens when they are feeling comfortable with where they are, when they are in good moods, when they are loving what they get to do. Now, it's true that its hard to be in this mindset all the time, but I think its worth striving for. I also think that having structure and some discipline can help give students what they need to feel like they are in a safe, comfortable, and ordered environment. Not everyone wants endless choices all the time, especially not kids, who have to become accustomed to lots of new information about their environment every day.
posted by Lee Shore at 6:48 PM on January 8 [16 favorites]


You know, it was the teachers who tried to make math "interesting" who actually made me hate math class. Word problems, anyone? It wasn't until I had a "Gifted and Talented" breakout class with the Saxon books—which are basically hundreds of pages of problems, with no clutter—that I started to really learn and understand. Even though the problems were not "interesting," they drilled in the concepts that allowed me to understand concepts that I later found fascinating and beautiful.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:02 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


I submitted before I intended. Oops.

The arts are the same way; some movies, for example, are easy to enjoy. Others are deeper and require a more sophisticated understanding—they're not "interesting," not to a child—but they are more beautiful than any popcorn movie that I can see a 10 year old choosing to watch. The game of Go is a few months of boring confusion and then it unfolds into a beautiful, endless labyrinth.

I concur with Lee Shore: learning that "boredom" is a choice, and that rewards later are often greater than rewards now, is an important part of an education. Watching Elf is amusing, sort of, in a braindead "I can watch this with my family" way—but watching An Autumn Afternoon or Stalker is a beautiful experience.
posted by sonic meat machine at 7:09 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


Although I definitely agree with the problems pointed out, one thing struck me from the article: the students framing and executing their own disciplinary scheme. I wonder if such an arrangement could work in a public school setting, to the end of reducing bullying and acting purely for the sake of exerting power and defying authority?

But then again, I'm guessing most of these children are fairly well disciplined at home (not necessarily in a punitive sense) by parents who are committed to teaching them mutual respect and acceptance. The cynic in me says it's too difficult to overcome parental examples of disrespect and/or aggression.
posted by daisystomper at 7:12 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


My experience being around hundreds of homeschooled kids over the years (and Sudbury is a lot more like homeschooling than it is like school) is that this sort of education model works for a lot more kids than you would guess. Not all, obviously, maybe not even a majority, but a big enough percentage that we would do well to find ways to make it more widely available.
posted by COD at 7:13 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


If you acquire these skills and grow up to be a functioning adult, then discover that you have a hole in your knowledge you really need to fill, you will find a way to fill it

Except that older brains are less plastic than younger brains, and you are setting those students up to compete with/catch up to students who have already gotten the general education foundations these kids don't.

Yes, obviously, different learning styles work differently for different people. But the idea of school as a public good (whether paid out of public or private purses) somewhat necessitates an agreement on basic general education standards that everyone must adhere to, I think.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 7:24 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


In life, everyone has to do unpleasant tasks. Sometimes these unpleasant tasks actually bring you closer to accomplishing your goals or acquiring something pleasant.

If you read the texts behind the educational philosophies (this is a big one), you find that this is actually the underpinning of the whole idea--that "work" when the person in question is self-motivated to accomplish an end-task does not seem drab or boring but will actually be enjoyable. If I want to, I don't know, play poker really well, learning about probability won't be boring at all. If I want to write a novel, then reading about the monomyth or absorbing different frameworks for stories won't be dry but will be fascinating. But the key is that this all arises out of genuine passion and interest. The wrong way to do it, according to Neill, is to tell children they should enjoy and appreciate the steps because knowledge. We drop kids into a sea of rote learning all the time and it might occasionally happen to work--sonic meat machine's example, for instance. But maybe that's because it just happens to be something that thrills you, like fishing or stories or poker might happen to thrill other kids.

The problem, according to Neill, is that passion is separated from most learning. We're constantly trying to teach kids to appreciate doing things that are, in and of themselves, fundamentally boring, and it's one thing when we ask that of adults--and pay them in exchange for it. But children don't really get anything in exchange for their labor. However, children and adults alike can be remarkably self-motivated about learning when they choose their own goals. And, in fact, most kids are incredibly excited about learning all sorts of stuff until they are taught that it's supposed to be grueling and dry and drab. Once you start teaching children that, you have to do a lot of unlearning to get them to pursue educational goals for themselves.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 7:32 PM on January 8 [4 favorites]


In the 90s, Sudbury was literally the place you'd get sent after being expelled for drug possession, or equivalent acting out, from elite private high schools in the metro Boston area, if your wealthy liberal parents didn't decide to send you to public school to scare you straight.

Only anecdote I recall—from an acquaintance—was that they had to vote to spend money on a new computer lab or smoking lounge. The smoking lounge won.

Some kids thrived. Others didn't.

There's probably an argument to be made here re theoretical alternative social structures and actual existing alternative social structures. Doesn't mean we shouldn't keep trying—slippery slope is a fallacy.
posted by tsmo at 7:35 PM on January 8


There's something to be said for making kids learn some fundamentals when their brains are plastic enough to absorb the stuff even if they don't see the point of it right now. There's plenty of stuff I'm glad I know *now* that I'd have had a much harder time learning as a less-flexible-brained person because 8-year-old me didn't care about it back then.
posted by rtha at 7:40 PM on January 8 [3 favorites]


I love the idea of Sudberry school and I sent my oldest there for a couple of weeks. If they took the computer lab out, it probably would have worked. But computers are addictive and I noticed a few kids spent way too much time playing flash games on them.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 7:42 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Ok but do any of you saying why this would never work have any real knowledge of the philosophy or methods behind this type of approach? Or the results? Have you taught or been taught this way?

There's a lot of dismissing going on in this thread without a whole lot of data, just assumptions on how learning really works based on how you learned or how you think other kids learn.

Maybe it is all happy talk, but I would rather hear some solid reasons why based on experience and research.

And while some types of grappling with hard work must be learned, there's a pernicious assumption that seems to attach to that idea; namely that learning without suffering is somehow worth less.
posted by emjaybee at 8:05 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


Learning without suffering is worth less. That's why they build schools in the snow, on slopes that go uphill both ways.

The schools we have are the result of a historical process, and ritual mortification is part of what school is in most societies. It wouldn't be school if it weren't boring and/or hard. And there needs to be a great uniformity so that everyone learns the same things at the same rate, and you need big exams and big tests, and uniforms for some and...

This seems like a reaction against boredom, uniformity and hierarchy, which are overemphasized in most schools, relative to some relatively universal standard of "what education should be".

I can see it working for some people, and it might have worked for me. Like a lot of people here I'm that smart kid who couldn't stand how slow things were going in class most of the time. At the same time, it was fun showing off how smart I was (even though that might not have been an optimal strategy socially-wise).

There is certainly a real social good in making sure everyone has a certain basic level of knowledge and skill. But it might be possible, for a lot of kids, to do it in less time than is currently spent.
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 8:53 PM on January 8 [2 favorites]


There's a lot of dismissing going on in this thread without a whole lot of data, just assumptions on how learning really works based on how you learned or how you think other kids learn.

I'll bite:
Take a look at the link that I provided earlier to Legacy of Trust, a publication on the outcomes of the school put out by SVS.

Now, from what is available they only provide pages for students who started high school plus, but there are roughly 100 pages of survey data showing the outcomes of the students. Looking at the 50 students (94% response rate) who responded that were at SVS for their high school, 37 (74%) finished the school with a diploma, of the remaining 13 they provide data indicating four of those 13 got a college degree (including one with a PhD, one a Doctor, and one a MS in theology). They then swap back out to the larger group of 50 to provide outcomes. "forty-five (90%) have at some time or another attended formal classes in order to further their education. Twenty (40%) completed the requirements for one or more degrees." Keep in mind, they just indicated that four of those were those that did not leave with a diploma. so out of 37 that responded and left with a diploma, only 16 got a college education. Go ahead and look, you'll see the schools they attend. There were a lot of schools attended, but a piss poor (and yes, I do mean piss poor) success rate. 31 kids went to a college, and out of this only five B.S. and seven B.A. degrees were earned.

They go on and break out those that did two years, those that did one year, and those that did not finish. The success post SVS is not what I would strive for if I was spending $8,200 for tuition. (Note: that is listed as the tuition. I can't say if that is full year tuition or if that is semester tuition.) I'd say that that is a far cry cheaper than the $40K daytime tuition for St. Mark's School the next town over in Southborough (And maybe you considered having your kid in the Fay School before St. Mark's which costs $59.7K for grade 9, and slightly less for elementary). The bottom line - these are not results of a school that is actively preparing students in MA - when you consider the school is in Framingham, Sudbury, Marlborough, or Northborough/Southborough which all have pretty excellent College readiness scores. Marlborough - an area with 36% economically disadvantaged families - tests really really well. That is the next town over. Yes, this is an area of over achievers, and maybe that's tough on kids, but this school is conspicuous in the way it genuinely fails to provide the tools for success for local students.


I can understand the desire to find a school for your child that helps make them feel special and love to learn, but it is possible to do the same thing locally, publicly and do well. Maybe other areas where sudbury style schools exist don't have high quality education, but the concept of unlearning is so ... liberal ... that I can't imagine it surviving in an area where there weren't rich yuppies.
posted by Nanukthedog at 9:24 PM on January 8 [1 favorite]


"Freedom of choice
Is what you've got.
Freedom from choice
Is what you want."

--Devo
posted by zardoz at 9:25 PM on January 8


My father used to teach at a school like this in Switzerland. Students would make their own program - however they did work and do chores. He once suggested the best school for Jr. High kids would be a farm with other kids - they would learn about other people, and how to collaborate to get food on the table.

I do think part of the effectiveness is the small number of students. There are institutional reasons why the number of students matters. Large organizations tend toward hierarchy to get things done, and toward oligarchy to make decisions.

However, I do wonder if the impact of the computer screen, in particular the internet, is providing unintended challenges.
posted by john wilkins at 9:58 PM on January 8


That is the kind of school I wish I could have gone to as a child. Instead I HATED school, every long and boring minute of it. It was a bad fit for me but in the places we lived there weren't other options.

In contrast I loved most parts of graduate school, where I was free to follow my interests in whatever idiosyncratic way I wanted.

It's not a model that would work for all or even most, but I do wish that every town had an option like that available for the kids for whom it is a good fit.
posted by Dip Flash at 11:13 PM on January 8


Yeah, I don't know.
We investigated a Sudbury style school for our kid, went on the tour, spoke to the principal, etc. and did not get a good impression at all.

For us, the complete and utter lack of any sort of guidance was a major turn-off. I mean, I can get behind the spirit of let the kids learn what they want to learn, when they want to learn it.
It makes sense, especially when they are younger.
But to have no adult direction whatsoever, no one saying, 'Hey, you know, you might really be interested in marine biology, since you liked the section on fish last year'. To rely solely on a child to discover a good path on their own? Too much.

The second, more pressing issue, was that the faculty had no answer for what I thought was a really basic question.
"How do you ensure that a given child graduates with the breadth of knowledge to be a well-rounded, participatory member of society?"
For example, an adult should have at least a cursory idea of how statistics work, but it is a subject that I sincerely doubt many teens would take unless you made them. And indeed, this school didn't offer statistics (nor economics, nor civics) because the students hadn't "voted" to offer them.
They did have a minecraft lab though. And a game room.

What I'm getting at is there is a spectrum between "Just show up and do whatever you like" and "You vill sit, and you vill learn".
Sudbury school are too close to the far end for me.
posted by madajb at 11:16 PM on January 8 [11 favorites]


I am shocked that children from upper middle class to wealthy families have good life outcomes despite not having a well-rounded education.

Also in reference to the wisdom of children choosing their own curriculum, I'm reminded of the 'children don't have fully developed brains and can't be held accountable for their actions' verbiage that comes out in every thread about anyone under the age of thirty who does something terrible.
posted by winna at 1:56 AM on January 9 [11 favorites]


I am shocked that children from upper middle class to wealthy families have good life outcomes despite not having a well-rounded education.

Again, this works really well if you have parents who are both interested in and value their child's education, the financial standing to pay $8,200 in tuition, and the confidence that the kids will find some way to make a living down the road. Households in the populations that must rely on public education do not typically have those three traits, not all at once.

But guess what? It's damned hard to fail with that background no matter what. A good chunk of Sudbury advocacy reeks of unexamined economic privilege, from the easy deployment of "postindustrial" as both net good and nationwide condition to the implicit argument for disinvestment in public education that seems to undergird so many of the "regular schools suck" parts of the argument.

The posters who compare Sudbury to the best kind of homeschooling are right, but not just in the way they seemingly intend. Homeschooling works really well if the parent is involved, if the household is financially stable enough to allow a parent to homeschool, and more generally if the parents know how to work around or through existing systems of certification, application, and accreditation. This isn't innately empowering so much as it's the leveraging of existing, accumulated power.

I do like the notion of community schooling outside a rigid curriculum, but at present, that depends a lot on the culture, economics, and, yes, privilege of your immediate community. Making it work everywhere requires addressing complex issues, and -- at bottom -- will require a redistribution of resources that cuts against the notion almost every caring, dedicated parent has that her or his kids had better get the best and the most of all available resources.

That's the situation we've got now, where parents in, say, Winnetka will fight tooth and nail and lawyer against anything other than local funding, and the hell with those kids in failing schools elsewhere in the Chicago metro area. Even in my relatively small city of origin, the game-playing that went on over which zip codes got to go to the "good" public high school and which got stuck with the "bad" one looked like something out of The Borgias. And the parents were right; opportunities and experiences, not to mention outcomes, were radically different, even within a supposedly singular school district.

Sudbury? Unschooling? Individually, they probably are the best options for parents who are situated to take advantage of them. Socially? They're another means by which some children are yet again disadvantaged and abandoned. Way down the line, you could get to a place where everyone has great opportunities and multiple options. In the short term, though, you're telling privileged people that they can't get exactly what their kid needs or wants because some stranger somewhere else isn't doing so well, doesn't know how to get the very best for their kids, or (sadly) doesn't care to.
posted by kewb at 5:49 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


I should clarify that I'm not trying to call anyone here a bad guy; I'm not sure, with the exception of a few vulture capitalists and their cronies working to profit from public disinvestment, that there are any willfully malicious actors. I do, however, think that our society has worked very damned hard to turn one of the most basic of all public goods into something that looks and works a lot like a zero-sum game of resource allocation, and that in the short term fixing that will feel a lot like a zero-sum game as a result.
posted by kewb at 5:56 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


List of all pertinent questions from Indiana state legislators for deciding whether the Sudbury system should be adopted statewide for public schooling:

1. Are Sudbury teachers union members?

End of questions.
posted by Thorzdad at 5:56 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I appreciate nanukthedog's comments above. My older two kids, 12 and 9, are homeschooled, and one of the things I've learned about them is that, temperamentally, they're not self-starters. It's actually a major goal of what we're doing right now to get them taking action with me being the driving force for it. I have a friend whose son floundered in a democratic school for similar reasons--he needed a little more support to make decisions and get started than the staff were willing to give him. I could see that happening with my kids as well.

I'm going to be going back to school full-time in another year or so, and we've wondered what to do about their homeschooling. Hopefully, we'll be moving to Massachusetts, and I thought, "Hey, if we're close enough, Sudbury!" But when I recently read through their materials, I thought it would probably not work well. My 12-year-old is a building and engineering type; my ideal fantasy education for him involves apprenticing him to a Tony-Stark-lite kind of tinkerer. My 9-year-old has wide-ranging interests but a major one is anatomy. He needs biology lab. At Sudbury, it seems like the resources are there for anything humanities-like you want to do, but not so much if what you want is someone who can guide you as you build and test structures, for instance.

Temperamentally, I think my kids would struggle. Educationally, I don't think they'd get what they need most. Alas.

Another option in western Massachusetts is North Star Teens, which is a mentoring program for homeschoolers in which they develop their own educational plan. But when I look at their course offerings the most engineering-like thing I see is computer programming. It's all verbal head-work. These kinds of options would have been great for me, but not so much for my kids.
posted by not that girl at 6:00 AM on January 9


I wonder if such an arrangement could work in a public school setting, to the end of reducing bullying and acting purely for the sake of exerting power and defying authority?

It has been used in public schools and can work. See the Responsive Classroom and the work of Beatrice McCarthy.

older brains are less plastic than younger brains

...which is offset by the fact that they are better at learning.

the faculty had no answer for what I thought was a really basic question.
"How do you ensure that a given child graduates with the breadth of knowledge to be a well-rounded, participatory member of society?"


I think that begs an examination of your premise. Is breadth of knowledge necessary to being a well-rounded, participatory member of society? We tend to make claims like this, yet when I look around me, I see products of many other kinds of schooling who do not have much breadth of knowledge and are not well-rounded, yet who participate in society.

This philosophy is interesting in part because the reason it makes people uncomfortable is that it reveals our biases about schooling and society - why one should fit in, how one should fit in, what is required to "make it" and "be successful" as an adult in our society. We have instrumental, utilitarian and meritocratic values about schooling. What if those values don't have much, if any, correlation with success? What if a controlled, randomized study revealed that there's not much difference in life outcomes between the rest of our educational system and this one? What if success in life is not how many professional workers and how many PhDs, but something different than what we generally imagine it to be?
posted by Miko at 6:02 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


daisystomper: "Although I definitely agree with the problems pointed out, one thing struck me from the article: the students framing and executing their own disciplinary scheme. I wonder if such an arrangement could work in a public school setting, to the end of reducing bullying and acting purely for the sake of exerting power and defying authority?"

This is actually pretty common in public schools. While at the district level we have to have uniform policies w/r/t serious disciplinary issues (for equal protection and due process reasons), at the school and classroom level, students are quite often involved in disciplinary rule setting. It's very, very common for elementary school teachers to have a class meeting at the beginning of the year where students decide collaboratively on the rules for the classroom and the consequences for breaking them. At the high school level, peer mediation programs are very common (and, working with the local prosecutor's office, can even be used for more serious offenses that otherwise would be low-level criminal offenses, such as minor fistfights).

Parent-Teacher conferences have been replaced in many schools by "family conferences" where the child attends as well and participates in the discussion about how he or she is doing in school, and (if there are problems) talks WITH the parents and teachers about how they can improve. Special Ed students are often included in their own IEP meetings (when appropriate -- that's a little touchier).

We have something called a "behavioral contract" where a student teetering on the edge of expulsion can get a "suspended sentence" if they write a contract between the parents, teachers, student, and principal, and the student must come up with several ways he or she will improve behavior and cope with their problem situations. A lot of these are things like, "when I feel like I'm getting too angry to be in the classroom, I will take my pass from its spot by the door and go for a short to calm down; if I need a long walk, I'll go to the principal's office and wait for an adult who can go on an outdoor walk with me." Notice how this gives the student responsibility to know when she's angry, a self-directed solution the STUDENT has come up with, responsibility for carrying out that solution (and in this case, extra responsibility in that she's allowed to wander the halls alone), and a resource in case she needs more help than she can give herself. One of the big things in these contracts is not PUNISHING the student but making the student more RESPONSIBLE for figuring out ways to manage their own behavior issues, and they work really well.

I'm on a committee right now that's looking at cell phones and other personal devices and what the policies relating to them should be, and we're actively soliciting input from students (right now via widespread surveys) and later we expect to involve several students in our discussions. I'm also on a health department committee that's looking at high STD rates and in addition to lots of epidemiologists and public health nurses and clinic directors, the committee includes four high school students who have been very active and engaged and great resources.

We're a large, high-poverty district. We're typically a little bit on the vanguard because we're so large (small districts tend to be more conservative for various reasons), but student involvement in discipline and rule-making and other things like that is just best practice these days and has a lot of data to support it. It's just silly to try to make rules AT students without soliciting their input and buy-in.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 6:22 AM on January 9 [3 favorites]


An emphatic yes, yes, yes to everything that kewb says. Having done a tiny bit of visiting to SVS, and some talking with folks involved with the school, this is what struck me.

The Good

1. Age mixing. To me this is the biggest single advantage, and the thing which is most insane about conventional schooling. The kids I met at SVS all looked me in the eye and interacted with me as a human being. I've met lots of affluent children of educated parents who respond to adults with blank stares or waiting to be told how to respond -- not so with SVS kids, even as young as 6-7.

2. Participatory democracy. The School Meeting (the governing body of the school) and the Judicial Committee ("JC," the disciplinary body) both mean that children have to learn from a very young age how to articulate their thoughts, argue for their position and assert their rights. The founders are completely right that this really does prepare their students to be participating members of a democratic society.

3. Non-abusive environment. Children shouldn't be made to feel like shit every single day. Conventional school contains a huge dose of humiliation, fear, and soul-crushing pressure. Even the lovey-dovey liberal schools STILL routinely make students feel like garbage all the time, but in a horrible passive-agressive way. It's shocking that it's so rare, but at SVS the students are treated with the same respect as adults.

The Bad

1. Isolation from the rest of the world. SVS is on a gorgeous piece of land abutting a state park. If you're a small child, it's got to be magical because you can take in what nature has to offer and teach you. If you're a teenager, on the other hand, it can be terribly stifling because you need to have a car to be able to get anywhere else. If you're looking toward your future and want to know what different professions/jobs are really like, it would be nice if you could visit or apprentice easily with adults. They don't make this easy at SVS.

2. Lack of student body diversity. They do everything they can to get students of different backgrounds at SVS, but there is one very stark limitation (other than cost, which is actually a bargain by Massachusetts public school standards): transportation. It's tough to get there.

3. Unlimited computer/video game access. I'm sorry. I love video games, and I've played them since I was very young, and I turned out OK -- but they're not 100% benign.

The Ugly

1. "Heads I Win, Tails You Lose" outcome measurement. The school is dishonest in how they advertise students' post-SVS academic performance. I wrote about this in another comment.

2. Emotional/ideological demands on parents & staff. If you send your kids to SVS, you have to be 100% on program. If you want to work at SVS, may God have mercy on your soul if you are ever at odds with their ideology. This is quite ironic, because on the one hand, children are treated with great respect and given full status as human beings -- and yet, if you, as a parent, deviate from the SVS philosophy by wanting to give your kid math tutoring, the child is presumed to be so horribly manipulated and coerced by any deviation from SVS philosophy that their natural love of learning will wither and die.

3. Manipulation of the democratic process, rendering it not a real democracy. DISCLAIMER: This is based only on things that I have heard, not seen for myself. However, I have heard the same thing from multiple independent reliable sources. The School Meeting at SVS no longer has a secret ballot. Those who go against the prevailing wind, therefore, are known dissenters. Other aspects of school management occur behind closed doors. This is extremely troubling. If this doesn't make you look really damn hard at the whole project, it ought to.

posted by overeducated_alligator at 6:37 AM on January 9 [8 favorites]


This type of education seems like it would be a perfect fit for a certain type of kid, slightly worse than a "typical" school for most kids, and just plain useless for a small, but significant number of kids.

It would have been perfect for me. I was reading adult novels at age 9 and programming in AppleBasic at age 10. I was incredibly motivated in those areas for a small child. Had I gone to one of these schools, no doubt I would have been afforded opportunities to cultivate my programming and reading/writing skills, putting me leaps and bounds ahead of the "average" kid.

However, I hated math, despised handwriting, loathed sports, and had a broken/undeveloped set of social skills. Dunno if one of these schools would have helped with any of that. Perhaps I would have learned how to program my computer to do math problems for me, without ever memorizing my times tables. Or maybe I would have never even encountered math at all since I didn't like it, and that would have actually hindered my programming development. As for handwriting, I would have never learned cursive, which would have been AWESOME. Such a waste of time that could have been spent on something else. Seriously, fuck cursive. But then again, do these schools even make kids learn their basic A-B-Cs if they don't want to? Probably irrelevant in my case, since I learned that before even starting 1st grade. Sports, I would have never gotten into. I wish that, earlier in life, someone had clued me in that there's more to fitness than team sports, but I don't know if that'd gibe with these schools' "non-interference" ethos. Hard to say if I'da done better socially in one of these schools. On the one hand, I'd think the hippie-dippie ethos, combined with a greater amount of personal attention from teachers may have mitigated some of the nonstop bullying I experienced as a teen. And maybe the self-selection implicit in enrolling in such a school would have screened out some of the bullies. Then again, the comments upthread identifying this school as a place where problem kids were sent makes me think otherwise.

I was also a very ... difficult child. Lots of uncorrected personality traits my parents thought were cute because they were idiots. I don't think those traits would have played out well anywhere.

So, even for me, who at first blush would have seemed a perfect for this kind of education, I'm not sure it would have worked out that well.

On second thought, yeah, I guess it probably would have, since I did so poorly at public school -- both socially and academically -- that I ultimately dropped out and got a GED. I'm sure the Sudbury school would have given me at least a slightly better education than that, although that isn't a terribly high bar to set.
posted by evil otto at 7:03 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


Not every kid can find a way.

The goal isn't to teach every kid to find a way. It's to teach them how to look for one.
posted by Slap*Happy at 7:11 AM on January 9


I was in a long meeting yesterday at work. During one boring section, while I tuned out the person going "blah blah blah," I caught myself watching the second hand on the clock move around. It reminded me of how, especially in middle and high school, I spent hours upon hours watching the second hand move around the clock, bored to tears. It wouldn't surprise me if, cumulatively, I've spent more of my life watching the second hand than I have watching movies or TV.

"How do you ensure that a given child graduates with the breadth of knowledge to be a well-rounded, participatory member of society?"

You certainly don't guarantee that with the kinds of mediocre public schools I went to. I mean, we all had to take English and Math and History, but there wasn't much learning going on and there wasn't much well-rounding either, especially for someone a bit brighter or not very academic -- both ends of that spectrum were basically ignored.

It's obvious to me that freeform schools like this are only good for self-motivated students who have involved parents, where learning is already happening outside of the school hours, and where families have the resources to ensure good outcomes no matter what. It's not a replacement for a functioning public school system that works hard to reach all students, provide a wide range of resources, and so on. But for some small minority of students, it really is a better fit, just like homeschooling is for some people, or magnet arts or science schools, or vocational programs. A good system would be providing all of these, instead of the stultifying one-size-fits-all places I was stuck in.
posted by Dip Flash at 7:53 AM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I teach at the college level at a place that sounds like this in some ways. Students design their own course of study and follow their passions. And, you know, it sort of works for college. Emphasis on the "sort of" and on the "for college". Even at the college level, we have a bunch of students who just want to eat their dessert first (i.e. get to the "good stuff" and skip the "boring stuff"). "I want to build neural networks" . . . "I want to design video games" . . . "I want to build an electric car." And you know what? That's awesome. BUT, if you don't understand how to sort a list or search a database or calculate forces, it's going to be really hard to do all of those cool things. I've had students who had really interesting creative ideas for projects that violated the second law of thermodynamics. If you don't have the necessary background, you won't even understand where to start with these ideas. I can see this working for young kids (i.e. "find what interests you") and for college-aged kids (i.e. "build on what you've learned and dig deep into an area that interests you."). But at some point in between those two phases, you have to build the foundation on which you'll accomplish the amazing things you'll do.

And, you know, I can always tell the students who went to alternative high schools before coming to college. They have a ton of enthusiasm about learning, a ton of creativity, amazing ideas, and none of the skills or knowledge to make those things into reality. Not always, of course. In the best cases, students from these schools can be fantastic. However, my experience is that schools like this fail to educate their students in a meaningful way at a much higher rate than the traditional schools that they aim to replace.

I think there are serious problems with traditional education. I think there are interesting things that schools like SVC can teach us about how to inspire passions in students. However, there's that old line* about alternative medicine and medicine that I think applies here: if this were really the best way to educate students, a lot more people would be doing it this way.

*What do you call alternative medicine that works? Medicine.
posted by Betelgeuse at 8:06 AM on January 9 [5 favorites]


i was watching this interview with LINE CEO akira morikawa about japanese startups where he talks about 'distributed authority' that i think describes well The Sudbury Valley School Judicial Committee, which was the most impressive thing to me about the school, i guess like the conflict mediation that takes place in 'the class' (if not 'to be and to have' ;) having a student disciplinary committee seems like an excellent introduction to civics (and balanced and restorative justice!)

or think about how we (who choose to join) can all flag something as inappropriate and escalate things to the mods or metatalk for an informal jury of our peers; leadership is still needed of course (ask india or nigeria or the US, for that matter) and flameouts possible, but that just reminds us of our powers of exit, voice & loyalty to the community -- say, in the context of digital nationalism -- with an idea towards basing society on mutual respect and not power relations.

tl;dr: faculty-student disciplinary committees (like they have in france?) might be a good idea for public schools among other things that seem to work well at sudbury :P

on preview: "This is actually pretty common in public schools." yay!

also btw

A good chunk of Sudbury advocacy reeks of unexamined economic privilege, from the easy deployment of "postindustrial" as both net good and nationwide condition to the implicit argument for disinvestment in public education that seems to undergird so many of the "regular schools suck" parts of the argument.

and

This philosophy is interesting in part because the reason it makes people uncomfortable is that it reveals our biases about schooling and society - why one should fit in, how one should fit in, what is required to "make it" and "be successful" as an adult in our society.

re: an examination of premises, to the extent that educational systems reflect the way communities 'want' to mold their children and propagate culture and society, there appears to be a creeping suspicion that unless you can, for example, understand the math behind causal inference (or work with someone that does; i don't, for either, in any case ;) then you're screwed in the rapidly approaching post-industrial hierarchical dystopia of the 'sharing economy' so be prepared to toil under the übermensch of the dark enlightenment (or something!) i dunno, it could be happening, but for the rest of us i just figure no one really wants to live that way and so it's incumbent on us to make it the way we want; be the change, etc., and maybe that's something the sudbury student body is learning in an age mixing, non-abusive, participatory democracy...
posted by kliuless at 8:11 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


Nanukthedog, I did read the link you provided, and it didn't really tell me much; it's a small group of students, and from what I read, none of them finished their education there (and then there were other students interviewed who were only there for a short time). It appears to have been written in 92, as well. The information seems incomplete, but of course I don't have the entire book available either.

Are there larger studies of Sudbury graduates that are more recent?

I am perfectly willing to believe that Sudbury's method has problems, that its methods don't scale easily, that it's not the be-all and end-all, and so on.

But I have noticed in education threads that we are all (myself included) very quick to leap in with our personal experiences in education and then extrapolate them to kids in general, and how learning takes place or should take place.

And maybe the objective assessment that I'm looking for doesn't exist. There are certainly lots of theories and studies out there, but they are bewildering to the non-educator. I was hoping we would get some educators in this thread who could provide that guidance or at least some experience in different kinds of teaching.
posted by emjaybee at 9:18 AM on January 9 [1 favorite]


//But I have noticed in education threads that we are all (myself included) very quick to leap in with our personal experiences in education and then extrapolate them to kids in general, and how learning takes place or should take place. //

I think the issue is that there is no one answer that explains how learning takes place. There are general theories and broad consistencies, but at the end of the day every kid is different and some percentage of them are different enough that the one size fits all model of our public schools simply fails some percentage of kids. So people get excited when other models like Sudbury work. This is especially true of people that have personal experience with the public schools not working.

The message I get from these threads is that we need to do a much, much better job of helping the 20-40% (my guess) of kids that would thrive outside of the traditional institutional school model. Today, most of them are stuck in schools that don't work for them.
posted by COD at 10:50 AM on January 9


I went to a couple of similar type schools--one grade school, then one high school--and certain aspects really really worked. For me. For certain things.

The downside, particularly at the grade school level, was that kids don't know nothin about nothin. I was smart, pretty inquisitive, did well on tests, and was all told a pretty good learner. But I was a kid, and I could have used more guidance in finding and learning the right information. I spent a lot of time on personal projects, some of which were more educational than others, but I felt like the adults at the school were sort of holding out on me when I'd ask them directly what I should be working on. It was always, "What are you interested in?" when in fact, a lot of the time, I was interested in making sure I knew the stuff I'd need once I went back to regular schools and the stuff I'd need to become a grownup.

I'd ask other kids who went to traditional schools what they were working on, and I'd try to learn those things myself, but I really could have benefited from some more forthcoming adults who could guide me and help me find resources to keep up with my peers. So, for example, I taught myself cursive because I knew kids learned that at my grade level, but I did it by making a cheat book where I found examples of each letter of the alphabet written in cursive that I found lying around in various places. So I ended up with neat, precise, and totally idiosyncratic handwriting because it had never occurred to me that not all grownups followed the same prescriptions or any prescriptions at all. When I went back to regular school, I had to re-teach myself on the fly using those handwriting banners they had in the classrooms. That sucked.

I really could have used some advice from an actual grownup, watching what I was doing and if nothing else, offering me some suggestions, helping me find resources, and just giving me some idea of what things I would need to know and what I wouldn't. You need someone there to help you prioritize things like memorizing, say, a phrenology diagram vs. a world map, and studying alchemy vs. algebra, because kids don't always know.

Fortunately, I was in a Junior Great Books thing, so I had some guidance there.

And this is not to say at all that traditional schools are better. I was in open schools because traditional schools were just destroying me.

For me, personally, a little guidance and direction, and directed teaching just every now and again probably would have been ideal. Every kid is different, of course, but I'd think that most kids probably need some sort of mix of the two styles.
posted by ernielundquist at 1:27 PM on January 9 [2 favorites]


I think you make a great point, ernielundquist, about adults "holding out on you." I think similar things could be said about the school I taught in. And I link this to people who think that understanding that grammar is prescriptive rather than descriptive means that there are no important social rules about the use of that grammar. As adults and educators, we do know what society values and generally what kinds of skills may be most useful. We also know a bit more about the rubrics the students will be compared to if they go on to university or into professional life. Whatever we believe about the quality of those, we can't make them not exist; so there is an argument for at least outlining the fields of knowledge and the sets of skills that are broadly available in society, and making instruction on those available.

It's a tricky balance. This anxiety over how much any individual should know of what others know is whence springs "cultural literacy" and state-mandated curricula. And yet as long as our society provides differentiated and economically driven access to a basic quality of life, it remains important.
posted by Miko at 2:00 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


You certainly don't guarantee that with the kinds of mediocre public schools I went to. I mean, we all had to take English and Math and History, but there wasn't much learning going on and there wasn't much well-rounding either, especially for someone a bit brighter or not very academic -- both ends of that spectrum were basically ignored.

I don't mean to suggest that the "generic" school system we have in most places in this country is the best way.

I think there is definitely room to allow children to direct their own learning, and to decide for themselves the topics of real interest to them.
I am also a big fan of the Sudbury mixed age classrooms.

But I think a basic truth is that children need guidance and the Sudbury model did not provide enough to make me feel comfortable with it.
posted by madajb at 4:28 PM on January 9


COD: "There are general theories and broad consistencies, but at the end of the day every kid is different and some percentage of them are different enough that the one size fits all model of our public schools simply fails some percentage of kids. ... The message I get from these threads is that we need to do a much, much better job of helping the 20-40% (my guess) of kids that would thrive outside of the traditional institutional school model. "

I've noticed a disproportionate number of people who had these bad, one-size-fits-all experiences (who talk about them on metafilter) ironically grew up in middle-class or upper-middle-class suburbs that their parents often moved to for the good schools. If you live in a suburb with one high school, there are a limited number of programs, and when each suburb has its own moderately-sized high school for its own attendance area and regional schools are difficult and often impractical due to transportation issues, they all have the same limited number of programs.

My large urban district has probably a dozen different high schooling models -- a costmetology program where students graduate with a license AND a high school diploma; an IB diploma program; a direct-entry health care program where students can do their licensure hours while seniors to work as nurse assistants immediately upon graduation; an evening school for kids who can't get their butts up for normal school; a work-study program where students can work for pay at local businesses and attend school simultaneously; an alternative program (that also has infant and toddler care during school hours) for students at high risk of dropping out; even an arts program where baby PhoB could have worked on her novels for half the day and been in regular classes for the other half, culminating in a college-ready diploma AND a senior capstone project in her chosen art. A lot of these programs have been around for 20 or 30 years or more. (A few are brand new; Voc Tech is recently resurrected.) But we're a system of 14,000 students in a city dense enough to make transporting students to all these different programs viable.

Another issue that arises is the "quality of peers" issue. Most college-bound high school students are in the college-prep curriculum. If you are bright but struggle with morning classes and want to be in evening school, you are going to have one or two really bright peers, but most of your class of 20 is going to be moving at a slower pace. So even when these options are available, students (and their parents) have to make a decision about whether they're better served by the alternative programs or by being with a larger number of peers who share their interests. For a child who is failing completely in the standard system that's a pretty easy decision, but for a child who is doing okay but bored and struggling, that may be a different balance to strike.

But yeah, we spend a LOT of time on school board talking about how to reach that 20% (or whatever) of kids who aren't well-served in a traditional school setting -- not because they're dumb, but because it's not the right setting for them to learn. I don't know of any public Sudbury schools, but there are definitely public Montessoris. Nearby me there is a public farm school, where students live and manually labor on a farm and also attend classes, but it's restricted to students with pretty severe behavioral issues and funding comes from a juvie-alternative fund, not education funding. But it's very successful with certain kinds of boys (95% of student body, IIRC, is male) who NEED to be outdoors and doing lots of physical stuff in order to be able to function. It'd be good if more of those programs were available to general student populations instead of just high-need student populations, but funding is too often restricted.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 5:06 PM on January 9 [6 favorites]


In the end a lot of these problems evolve out of our strained USian funding context - the local-control principle which engenders a competitive, zero-sum approach in every municipality and state, and the general desperation of the sector for funds. It's something that would be eased up in a more equitable society that supported education more thoroughly, providing a greater range of possibilities within the system and making the consequences of failing out of the system less dire.
posted by Miko at 6:47 PM on January 9 [1 favorite]


I think Quebec would be an example of a place with less competition between local boards and better funding. There is some good stuff being done, but one problem is that standardization is a really strong urge here because of what led to the establishment of the current system: a completely dysfunctional local-control system where every little village had its own school, right up to the 1960s. Any deviation from "the program" can be seen as going against the huge progress that was made in the 60s and 70s.

Something like that happens in France, where historically schoolteachers acted as a propaganda arm for the central government. Any change or deviation is accompanied by handwringing over "republican values".
posted by Monday, stony Monday at 9:11 PM on January 9


yea, re: funding, colorado tried...
posted by kliuless at 9:33 PM on January 9


Well, a lot of states have tried: New Jersey tries, New Hampshire tries. But I think the difficulty lies at both ends, and it's the classic local-control vs. central-control dichotomy: with local control you get heterogeneity and competition, which is both good and bad, and has winners and losers; with central control you get standardization and discourage entrepreneurial approaches. So, to be clear, I think to retain the positives within each system we'd need an entirely different kind of environment that offers such abundant fiscal support that we don't have to use funding as the driving constraint for decision-making, while at the same time creating legitimate choice (not "vouchers") of educational styles and formats within every system, and supporting experimentation through lab schools and the like.
posted by Miko at 5:33 AM on January 10


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