23 January 2019
What Public Schools Can Learn from Alternative Methods of Education
Throughout American history, since the creation of the system to be implemented across the country, the model for public school education has remained the same. In a time of constant change and growth, how can students be prepared for such a world if their learning is structured the same way that worked one hundred, fifty, or even twenty years ago? The source of a nation’s strength and wealth comes from the stability of the institutions set up within it. This has been the mindset in America, where our basic principles of life, liberty, and right to property remain steadfast. However, we compromise innovation in fear of losing stability, failing to evaluate the benefits of overhauling the current education system. People often have misconceptions of alternative methods of education, not understanding the importance of a specialized education for individuals. These misconceptions contribute to how public schools dismiss innovation in how they are structured, thus dismissing innovation altogether in the process.
Many schools across the nation are attempting to remedy this issue. One example is the Waldorf Education System, where there is an emphasis on educating the wholistic spirit of the student. Anthroposophy is the philosophy the founder, Rudolf Steiner, developed when creating this system of education. It holds that humans are spiritual beings, an idea which underlies aalso leads to a very humanities- focused education, as one former student and current AP US History teacher, Jamaica Krepps, informed me. There is also a lot of emphasis on life skills in addition to, and understanding human nature (Krepps). Krepps greatly appreciates this background, however she struggled in math and science later in life, as these subjects were not enforced very well in the Waldorf system. Some common misconceptions are that all alternative methods of education are the same, that they’re all unstructured, and that they don’t prepare students for the real world. Another fairly popular schooling system is the Montessori education system, though it is far from the practices of Waldorf. What unites the schools is how they focus on developing the curiosity of the child, but their methods in doing so are quite different. One key difference is how they encourage kids to connect to their environments. While Waldorf emphasizes imagination, often omitting tangible subjects like math and reading at a young age, Montessori encourages kids to pay attention to their current soundings. In simpler words, Montessori schools teach kids to understand how things are, while Waldorf teaches kids to see what things could be.
So what does the current public school system teach kids? If Montessori teaches in ways to comprehend what’s current, and Waldorf teaches how to see the possibilities of the future, then it seems that the only manner left for public schools to teach in is of the past. I don’t mean history class–what I am referring to is the old fashioned curriculum public schools have maintained since their beginning. We ignore the individual strengths of students in an attempt to make things even across the board, and measure success in ways that, even the founder of standardized testing Frederick J. Kelly agreed, are outdated. According to Kelly, “These tests are too crude to be used and should be abandoned.” At their creation in 1914, Kelly was addressing a national crisis before World War 1: a rapid influx of immigrants, a lack of teachers due to the war, and two years of high school becoming mandatory by law (previously this was only required for those bound for college). Students needed to be processed quickly, or the system risked lagging behind. However after World War 1, Kelly heavily championed a new educational reform, a model with integrated problem based learning. At this point it was too late, and thus the SAT was born, with the ACT not too far behind. For kids taking these tests today, we are overlooking a key fact–we are no longer in such a crisis as World War 1. If anything, we are at a renaissance of innovation in America. However, most public schools have yet to catch on. Ken Robinson, a British author, is another prominent advocate for education reform. In his TED talk, Robinson says, “My contention is that creativity now is as important in education as literacy, and we should treat it with the same status.” To be creative requires taking risks, often times coming up with incorrect answers. One key issue in how the current schooling system approaches the subject is the manner we teach being “wrong.” Another quote from Robinson’s TED talk: “I don’t mean to say that being wrong is the same thing as being creative. What we do know is, if you’re not prepared to be wrong, you’ll never come up with anything original…” By increasing kids fear of being incorrect, we limit their space to be creative. And when our standards for being right are so narrow, riddled with standardized tests, it’s no wonder we take less risks as we age.
I may not have a solution on how to fix the current system, nor am I saying that all the methods alternative schools implement are feasible. However, in looking at what other schools are accomplishing, little by little we can learn ways to reform, and match our current and future world of innovation. One example is the Bali Green School, a school located in Bali, Indonesia, loosely related to the Waldorf system. Its goal is to create “green leaders,” allowing kids to innovate and take green projects into their own hands. One student- led project provided used-cooking-oil-fueled bio buses to transport students. Another had fourth-graders taking out loans to buy chickens, raising them to the point where they could sell their eggs. These are real world applications to things students in a regular school would learn sitting in a classroom. Green School encourages kids to use their resources and imagination in practice, rather than keeping them behind four walls. In one case discussed in the book “What School Could Be,” the author describes a cheating scenario that took place at a school and how that school responded to the scandal:. “Apparently government officials want to prevent the kind of cheating that took place in Atlanta, so they’re going to extremes to ensure that kids can’t access those darn resources they’ll have at their fingertips for the rest of their adult lives.” The point made here is that the public school system as of now ignores all the resources students have access to these days, rigidly following an outdated system. Rather than ignoring the world of new information the internet has surrounded us with, why don’t we teach kids how to navigate? What’s keeping us from adapting?
In my research, I found no shortage of people advocating for change in the public education system. However, there are a multitude of factors preventing change from occurring. There are those that simply believe the current system is the best format, or don’t know enough about the subject, though extensive articles make efforts to explain away their reasoning. Ultimately, the politics surrounding public schools and teacher unions are the main reason progress is difficult to make. There are a few arguments standardized test advocates seem to use often when arguing for the benefits of the current education system. One of these is that giving the same tests nationwide is the best way to avoid favoritism, or giving certain students advantages. The idea is to let the tests speak for themselves, though this ignores the fact that affluent students are more capable of paying for tutors to help improve scores on such “equalizing” tests. Another point frequently brought up is how standardization across the board helps to see what schools and districts are thriving and failing. This information has been used in cases such as George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind” act, with the intention of holding schools accountable for how well they educate students. What ended up happening, however, is that schools with little funding were less able to prepare students for tests determining progress, the solution being to close underperforming schools. This drastic punishment encouraged schools to become stricter in following rigid standards, as this was the only way to stay afloat. Clearly, though the standard system has its advocates, there are matching counterpoints. Almost more detrimental than those who actively don’t see an issue in the current system are those that are simply unaware of the discussion taking place. Something I found shocking was how little public school teachers seemed to know about alternative methods of education, which could potentially bridge the gap between the old system and a new one. In one interview, though the teacher seemed to have a good idea of the politics surrounding his own subject, he knew little about Waldorf or Montessori schools. There is little room for blame here though, as many people that become teachers are the people that the system worked for. To them, there is often no reason to look for other methods. Many people of the general population just don’t know that such alternative systems exist and/or can be successful. Overall, it is the politics that truly prevent change. Teacher Unions make it nearly impossible to fire underperforming teachers, and maintain the same hours across the nation, making it impossible for schools to ask teachers to spend any extra time than mandated. A teacher putting in minimal time to their job may have little effect on an already affluent and fairly successful school district, but how can the achievement gap between such a school and a poorer counterpart be diminished with this same mediocrity of teaching? Such change requires hard work and time, something that teacher unions sometimes seem to make it impossible to require.
There are issues with the public system, the general solution being a more specialized education fitting the niches of more students. I may not have an idea of what system works best, but I do know that alternative methods of education, when not overlooked, have the potential to be the link between how the current public school system exists and how it can adapt to our current world of innovation.