In fall of 2018, 50.7 million American children (nearly 16% of the population), ranging from prekindergarten to grade 12, enrolled to attend a school in one of the country’s 13,506 districts. Of the nation’s 13,506 school districts, only 2,000 of them offer alternative schooling options. (nces.ed.gov). The demand for an alternative is growing, and in a quickly evolving world, it is unfitting that the modern American public education system so closely resembles the model developed over 100 years ago. While this system is successful for most, there are many students in need of a more personalized education. Alternative education, a crucial component in effective, multifaceted school systems, should be increasingly accessible to students from all regional and socioeconomic backgrounds.
Alternative schooling is a type of education that caters to children/adolescents whose needs cannot be properly met in a traditional public school setting. The term “alternative schooling” often has bad connotations attached; however, contrary to popular belief, not all students in need of alternative schooling are “at risk” youth. There are various reasons a student may require a more individualized approach to their education, including medical needs, behavioral problems, intellectual giftedness, etc. In the same way that there’s a diverse range of students in need of nontraditional schooling, there are many types of alternative schooling that have been proven successful, and therefore should be more widely available. Some of the more common options of alternative schooling in the U.S. include, but are not limited to, hybrid schools, internet courses/programs, Waldorf schools, Montessori schools, charter schools, and homeschool. (educationrevolution.org).
Commonly, hybrid schools incorporate a part-time classroom setting, typically with small class sizes, and a part-time online program from home. This type of program enables students to independently work at their own pace with the guidance of instructors and peers. Early high school graduation is often seen in hybrid schools. The system provides a flexible schedule for families/students who travel often for work, who engage in extracurricular activities, etc. For parents concerned about homeschooling lacking social stimulation, a hybrid program may be more appealing. Hybrid education gives students with varying learning abilities the opportunity to receive a personalized education fit for their own needs. (educationrevolution.org).
Homeschooling is the most common form of alternative education, with approximately 2.3 million k-12 students in America (nheri.org). The parent/guardian/learning coach is to be entirely responsible for providing an education to the student. Homeschooling is unique in that it requires no contribution from the American taxpayer, unlike most other types of alternative education – “The finances associated with their homeschooling likely represent over $27 billion that American taxpayers do not have to spend” (nheri.org). Another benefit is the potential to achieve more academically than in public school, as the curriculum is designed with the student’s needs/goals in mind.
Internet programs provide independent students with the freedom to learn with guidance, and with minimal help from a guardian, unlike home schools, which require the learning coach of the student to oversee studies. Internet programs also differ from homeschooling in that the curriculum follows state standards, testing is most always required, and is typically provided by the district. Students enrolled in online education programs have the freedom to learn from virtually anywhere with internet access, and each student’s education is completely customized to fit their own needs and learning abilities. (educationrevolution.org). The Waldorf education system is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, anthroposophist and scientist, of the early 20th century. Waldorf education is often referred to as “imagination based learning”, takes place in a full time classroom setting, and is a holistic approach to learning. This method has been shown to be a very successful curriculum for young learners. The Waldorf model empowers front-line educators by reducing the influence of local government and minimizing financial dependency. In turn, the Waldorf school is able to focus on the development of the “whole” child – spiritually, emotionally, cognitively, socially, and physically – similar to the Montessori education system. Children are paired with the same teacher from kindergarten through 8th grade, enabling the teacher to become familiar with each child’s learning style, allowing for a personalized and successful education. (educationrevolution.org).
The Montessori method was developed by Dr. Maria Montessori, the first female doctor in Italy. She was a physician and educator best known for her education philosophy. The system includes groups of students from a range of ages to encourage peer learning, which closely resembles real-life situations where people work with others from a variety of demographics. Emphasis is put on the environment to be aesthetically pleasing – the children work with materials provided to develop and improve cognitive abilities. Montessori education focuses on developing the whole child, much like the Waldorf system. (educationrevolution.org). As previously mentioned, each nontraditional option varies in suitability depending on the individual. Regardless of the type, alternative schools all have a common theme of producing a more successful student – as measured by improved test scores, decreased drop-out rates, and behavioral stability – by providing smaller class sizes, personalized education, increased student resources, and adaptable curriculum.
Dr. Cheryl M. Lange, who has over three decades worth of experience in research, consulting, and educating, conducted and gathered research in 2002, examining the history of alternative schools in America, the demographic of students enrolled in alternative schooling, and the outcomes of students who enrolled in some type of alternative education. While her research is slightly outdated and limited, the findings that were not inconclusive favored increasing the availability of nontraditional programs. One study Dr. Lange mentions, which was funded by the U.S Dept. of Education, looked at nationwide drop-out prevention programs. The study concluded that, “At the middle school level, the alternative schools and schools within schools were effective for dropout prevention and academic progress. When researchers compared these students with other, similar, middle school students who were not in the program, they report that students in the alternative programs were much less likely to drop out and were promoted an average of half a grade more than the other students.” (Lange 17). Dr. Lange notes a similar successful study, this time funded by the U.S. Dept. of Labor, which essentially concluded that, given a small class size of the drop-out prevention program, students were much more likely to graduate, earn credits, and attend class regularly than the students who had not enrolled in the program (Lange 18). The findings are fairly vague, but are promising nonetheless.
Another favorable study, published by Princeton University and written by Frederick Mosteller, a world renowned statistician and founding chairman of Harvard’s statistics department, highlights the correlation between smaller class sizes and higher standardized test scores amongst elementary school children. This study, though dated, is significant because of the amount of funding provided, the large sample size, and the diversity amongst observed students. Research of this size, duration, credibility, and lack of bias is a rarity, and should’t be overlooked or discredited due to its age. During the four year experiment, called STAR (Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio), conducted between 1985-89, there were 79 participating schools and 6,400 participants who comprised 108 small classes, which had 35% fewer students than regular class sizes, 101 regular sized classes, and 99 classes of regular size with a teacher’s aide. A $10 million budget was provided to hire enough teachers to conduct the study, and to analyze the data gathered. It’s worth noting that the participating 17 districts had the lowest incomes in the state. (Mosteller 116).
The findings of the study were truly comprehensive – math and reading scores of the students in smaller class sizes—the students involved in the nontraditional education program—demonstrated standardized test scores that were 10% higher than the national average. The classes that were provided a teacher’s aide had “about 35% of the gain achieved by reducing class size from regular to small”, still numbers not to be scoffed at. (Mosteller 119). What’s more interesting, Mosteller noted, was the effect of smaller class sizes on minority students. “The effect size for minorities was double that for majorities” (Mollester 119). The last year of the study followed the students into late elementary and middle school, and found that the students who participated in the small class sizes ended up scoring higher on standardized and curriculum tests later on than the students who had been in a regular sized class. So, the benefits young children received from small class sizes persisted throughout their higher education.
A study of this type is a rarity and shouldn’t be taken lightly. Mosteller concludes, in short, that it is evident that small class sizes have a very positive effect on the learner, especially the young learner, and makes note that different alternatives could further contribute to the success of the student.
It’s worth comparing America’s primary education system to that of another country’s whose test scores consistently surpass our own. Take Finland, for example. Finland is notorious for having an uncommon approach to education, and their test scores are comparable to the most elite nations in the country. The proof can be found in the PISA (Programme for International Student Assessment) Survey, carried out every three years by the OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development). The survey analyzes test scores from 15 year-olds around the world. Since the year 2000, Finland consistently ranks very high, competing with countries like South Korea, China, and Singapore for the top scores. America’s PISA Survey scores are average at best. (theatlantic.com). “In the most recent assessment in 2009, they ranked sixth in math, second in science and third in reading. By comparison, U.S. students ranked 30th, 23rd and 17th, respectively, of the 65 tested countries/economies.” (news.standford.edu). The most radical aspect of the Finnish education system is their time spent in school – an average of 3 hours 45 minutes, 5 days a week (centerforpubliceducation.org). This is evidence that children do not need to spend 40 hours a week in order to grow to be intellectual adults, and that the concept of rest, recovery, and creative play are essential elements in producing successful students.
Finland’s education system is glowing example of a highly successful alternative education method, producing highly successful students, without the demand for additional funding in order to be achieve such great success. An opponent of the need for availability in nontraditional eduction in the U.S. might argue that the budget for America’s school systems wouldn’t allow for an increase in types of schooling, but Finland is a prime example of a system that requires a small(er) budget while still maintaining above-average test scores. One might also argue that Finland, with a population of 5.4 million, is much smaller than America. This is a weak argument, however, considering that the education system in America is managed at a state, local level: with an average state size of 6.5 million, the model of the Finish education system is completely attainable in this country.