Girls Inc Ad, New York TImes March 27, 2005
In the last decade, schools have grown increasingly bloated, and the factory-model of education has become a multinational phenomenon. Across the globe, learning is traded and assessed as a commodity. Through vast banks of educational data, student scores are compared like quarterly earnings. Education has become a product, geared not toward the needs or desires of students, but to the improvement of test scores. The result is a widespread containment of knowledge and a standardization of educational practice. Much like McDonald’s, school is beginning to taste the same everywhere.
In the face of this dominance, subversive and alternative approaches to education are needed more than ever. One such philosophy grows out of the Taoist reverence for old, gnarly trees. As described in a parable told over thousands of years, the story involves a traveling carpenter who notices a herd resting under an ancient tree’s huge, spreading shadow. Taking its size into account, the carpenter dreams of the money to be made from selling the wood to build coffins. On closer inspection, however, he finds that the tree is unusable, noting its knotted wood, bitter leaves, and lack of fruit. Considered worthless, the tree was left to grow in its own way, uncultivated by human needs. The moral is that so-called worthlessness can be a great resource. In Taoist philosophy, unusable things often come to have hidden value – in this case providing sanctuary from the sun.
Our schools, much like our forests, have been transformed into monocultures. Through standardization, students across the globe now study identical curricula in identically sterile environments. For those looking for alternatives, the lessons of Taoism point us in positive, original directions. In education, the “unusable” are students who drop out or otherwise resist factory-model schooling. Often called “at-risk” or “antiauthoritarian,” these youth have been largely abandoned by the system. As a result, thousands of alternative education programs have being sprouting across North America to make up for this shameful failure of mainstream schooling.
The alternative movement has taken time to grow. During the ‘60s, high dropout rates and low participation pointed toward a failure of the school system. Alternative educators criticized schools for using coercion, regimentation, large classes, and rigid time structures to reinforce society’s stratification and produce a docile, conformist citizenry. Initially, a small number of wealthy private schools emerged. Less than a decade later, a strong second wave of alternative growth occurred in the urban public system, establishing many exceptional schools. Presently there is a third renaissance, with alternatives spreading to rural districts and even the suburbs.
In this post-Columbine landscape, academics, parents, educators, students and even the mainstream media have begun to question the value of large, impersonal education environments. It is not just rebellious “de-schoolers” but educational districts and government agencies who are recognizing the need for change. Alternative schools, having intuited this need four decades earlier, offer a variety of solutions. Like an old-growth forest, each of these schools is a unique entity. One principle they all agree on however is the concept that size matters. Instead of establishing larger and larger factory-modeled schools, alternative schools foster drastically smaller learning populations. The preference for small size reinforces the over-arching goal of such places – to nurture belonging, compassion and a sense of community.
Alternative educators have helped raise a generation of creative and radical thinkers, offering new definitions of what it means to go to school. Artists, activists, and compassionate educators have a responsibility to foster this growth, and exceptional schools – many of which are in dire need of community mentors – must be vociferously supported, promoted and publicized if this progress is to continue. The seeds of change have already been planted – what they need now is nourishment.
Kier Miner has 20 years experience in alternative schools and is working on a book entitled The Tao of School: Meditations on Alternative Education.
-from ADBUSTERS Magazine:
COMMENTS:I wanted to be a teacher, but I wasn't allowed to do my student teaching at an alternative school.
I grew up in Hong Kong, and I spent 17 years failing most of my classes, thinking that I will have a failing future, just like what my mainstream teachers had told me. Luckily, my family supported my decision to study abroad and I am now a college student in Johnston Center, University of Redlands. This school is one of the very few alternative programs where it allows students to create their own majors. Unfortunetely, I am the only international Chinese student, from 300 students in this program. This is because most Chinese families do not support a program that encourages liberal studies; most families think it is important to study something that would make money in the future, such as a business major. I feel that many students are also brainwashed by the consumerist economy and even the students themselves are not willing to look for better education.
Yu Yin To
I strong heartedly agree that districts are not teaching all of the curriculum our students need. Most of my 5th graders – half of which were Title 1 – could graph Y= 2X + 1 this year. I was very proud of their ability to understand this abstract of a concept at such a young age. They have the potential to learn so much more. But will they be taught personal finance skills by the time they graduate high school? How many of my past 5th graders will not have the skills to understand how credit cards work or the basics of income taxes? The politicians that decide what curriculum our students need should first understand our students better.
What else is there to say but I agree. Over here in Britain we have Blair's higher education driver, widening access and participation, to blame for a real bland bunch of students around the place. I think the best alternative school is the one you can create in your room.
The school systems are quite the joke. I'm having problems starting college because key concepts were never taught to me, so I just thought it was boring and never tried. If they had taught evolution, I would of understood biology better. Chemistry would benefit from teaching that most elements were forged inside stars. And what kid is going to care about math if they don't know who figured it out and how it benefited earlier societies? Don't get me started on American history. I wish I had been homeschooled. Alternative education is the way to go.
I like the ancient idea of communities raising the children. Spending time with different memebers of the community in groups and one-on-one settings learning different skills and wisdom. I believe knowledge is watered down and delivered slowly in the public system and kids could deal with real issues a lot faster if we gave them the foundation and chance. I attended an alternative school for most of my childhood in the city then moved to a public school in the suburbs. I never ended up graduating highschool, but was always tested at an above average IQ. Since then, travelIing and Taoism have helped me realize where i'm headed, something that the high school system never really helped with.
In our society it is too often held as solemn fact that education cannot be both profitable and personally fulfilling. It's nice to hear that a student-centered system of education, which caters to both the skills needed to survive and the personal development of the individual not only exists, but is being fought for.
I have designed, with a friend, a charter school that allows students to take a much greater role in their own education. The courses are conceived of by students, parents and teachers and voted on. Assessments are individualized after discussions between student and teacher including looking at what the student needs academically. Finally, there are no grades or grading. Students are grouped not by age but by interest and skill level. 'Passing' means you fullfilled the rubric that you and the teacher agreed upon. Until that is complete, credit for the course is not granted. Please contact me at csipe[at]gmail.com if you live in the NYC area and may be interested in helping to put this plan into action.
Basic common standards are important benchmarks for students and educators. I remember a friend who was valedictorian of her class down in rural Georgia. The quality of education there was such that this straight A valedictorian couldn't pass the math section of the GREs 8th grade math. She was taking remedial courses in writing and mathematics in order to gain some basic competencies and take the test for the 3rd time before I lost track of her. Another story. I taught English and Social Studies in NYC for a number of years and I remember being told by my administrator that I had to give an illiterate student who could not write a sentence never mind a paragraph an A because he had illustrated his understanding of history with stick figures. I'm not in favor of the factory model – but I am in favor of basic standards across schools, districts, and states. Certainly, some alternative schools work well, but plenty of them are shut down because they don't. How do we know what works? Make a common test and see if the students can pass it. If they can't pass a test for basic literacies, the program, whether traditional or alternative, hasn't succeeded. I don't like NCLB, but neither do I like the no-standards summer camp education that produced illiterates in NYC and valedictorians in the rural south with a 6th grade education.
As a high school student I fully realize that my life is played around with by adults: teachers, politicians, employers. I'm not sure what to do, so I've always gone with the flow, tried to get good grades but I don't think it's going to be enough. On top of that I need extracurriculars, volunteer hours, and good ACTs/SATs.
The problem is we're spending too much time with schooling and not enough time with education. The Public School System is more or less a warehouse for those children whose families are either unable or unwilling to find other means of teaching their children. In many areas of North America, if you go to a public school, you can't go to another school out of the school's boundaries unless you move or you have permission from the school board to do so; then you have to go to the high school which the elementary schools are the feeders for. That's okay if any of the school's teachers are competent and the other students aren't beating the living shit out of you everytime you show up. But 90% of the public schools are warzones of cliques and bullies run by teachers and adminstrators who are more worried about their paychecks than actually teaching the kids. This mentality needs to change immediately if we're going to stop graduating kids who don't know their country's history, math, science, or culture and get meaningless jobs in some factory or office.
As a retired teacher who fought the system for 37 years, I have come to know both the joys and the frustrations of the teaching profession. I know how to teach and love teaching, but not by the standards which cripple the very minds of the children I love.
Public schools have the potential to be democratic. Instead of progressive parents and teachers pulling out of the public/integrated system and into the alternative separate and not equal system, I wish we could come together and demand quality democratic education for all our children.