At some schools, students, and not adults, are the leaders.
Tallgrass Sudbury School in Riverside, Illinois is part of a radical experiment in American education. At these schools, writes Eric Schulzke of the Deseret News, the students enforce the rules and also make them. They have a vote in matters like budget, hiring and firing of staff, and curriculum, with each child, each of the two full-time staff members, and the three part-time staff members getting one vote.
The 20 students are remarkably autonomous. Teachers are called “staff members” and they are directed to assist children in developing their own interests, but to avoid pressuring them.
Sudbury schools have been open since 1968, but now are getting the attention of the opponents to one-size-fits-all schools. The Common Core, high-stakes standardized exams, increased pressure to get into good colleges, and competition for the best jobs have culminated in a backlash by many anti-factory education proponents.
Across the nation, a segment of parents want change. Anti-testing advocates have loudly protested in Colorado, Florida, and New York, and more than 100,000 students opted out of tests in New York this year. Homeschooling has increased from 850,000 in 1999 to 1.8 million in 2013. The push for higher standards has made some parents and educators take a long look at schools like Sudbury, which are part of the “democratic” or “free schools” movement.
Mix in the “unschooled” children, about 10% of homeschooled kids, and these combined alternative approaches are responding traditional lock-step education by doing away with testing and structure altogether.
The proposition is that children learn better when they are allowed to engage in their own interests, are surrounded with older and younger peers, and interact with adults who support them in their efforts. The Alternative Education Resource Organization reports there are 102 democratic schools in the US. On a typical day in a Sudbury classroom there are kids wandering, groups mingling, students playing computer games, reading, and old-fashioned game playing.
How are parents to know if this approach works? Parents and staff at Sudbury acknowledge they are taking a chance that could very well end with negative results. They are willing to take the chance, reports Nicole Gorman, writing for Education World.
There have been follow-ups conducted on Sudbury graduates to attempt to determine if the model is producing successful adults. Researcher Peter Gray did such a study without putting any emphasis on career earnings or college acceptance rates. He did examine career paths, however, and he found that students who attended Sudbury for seven or more years were in jobs that focused on fun, included “hands on” work, and centered on relating to other people.
For some parents, Sudbury was a choice made in response to the over-diagnosis and over-medication of children for attention and anxiety disorders.
“Kids at Tallgrass don’t have to ‘focus,’ because there is no homework and their school day is up to them. Throughout the day, kids of all ages mingle, with older ones serving as informal mentors,” meaning that kids at Sudbury school are not alienated for what is often seen as symptoms of disorders like ADHD.
Josh Aronson, an applied psychology professor, said that after he observed the Sudbury school he was drawn to the “self-determination theory”, which is a therapeutic motivational model theorizing that persistence and creativity emerge when a person is able to experience competence, autonomy, and connectedness with other people.
The School at Kirkridge in Upper Mount Bethel Township, Pennsylvania is to open in September for children in kindergarten to eighth grade and will follow the Sudbury model, according to John Best writing for PennLive. Patricia Mulroy, a former East Stroudsburg High School principal, former Bangor Area School District superintendent, and Kirkridge school developer, said the mission of the school is to de-emphasize traditional classes and allow students to participate in projects of their choice.
“I was really struggling with what was happening in public education,” Mulroy said. “This whole idea of students becoming driven to be in charge of their learning, rather than just being receptacles of the learning, really intrigued me.”
The new school will also follow aspects of the philosophies of Maria Montessori, Reggio Emilia, and Parker Palmer. Basically, these educational paradigms encourage more freedom for students than do many other, more traditional public schools.
“People jump to the conclusion that, if kids are making their own rules and driving their own learning, there is no accountability,” said Mulroy. “In fact, I think quite the opposite may be true.”