A Radical Alternative The first American free schools drew their inspiration from the Summerhill School, in Leiston, England, founded in 1921 by German educator A. S. Neill, who believed education was effective only when pursued based on the interests and motivations of children, not when made compulsory by teachers or parents. It was a radical and largely unpopular idea in Austria, where Neill relocated, and it was no better received—at first—in England, where he moved the school in 1923. It wasn’t until 1960, when a collection of Neill’s writings was published in the United States, that the philosophy really caught on.
they have to sit at a desk and prepare for first grade, rather than play in a sandbox, that’s where you start to see problems,” she says.
Again and again, free-school advocates point to testing as a prime example of where mainstream American education has gone awry. “Under No Child Left Behind, the gathering of information, rather than the ability to think criticall , has become para- mount,” says Hiner. Trained to perform for tests, rather than engage in real-life situa- tions, she says, children simply learn to work the system. “If they don’t see a context, if they don’t see the purpose, they’ll resort to memorization, and that’s a lower cognitive function than real, meaningful learning.”
In 1969, his book Summerhill: A Radical Approach to Child Rearing, appealing to an
At the New School, testing does happen, but not in the way you’d expect. “Kids test
Playing video games, horsing around, or lazing around on a couch are viewed as a necessary part of a child’s development, possibly even a gateway
to a lifelong passion.
American readership already familiar with Montessori and Waldorf schools and other alternative, European-born teaching styles, sold more than 200,000 copies. That same year, the Albany Free School, in Alban , New York, was founded to do something Neill thought impossible: bring free-school principles to inner-city children, launching a tradition of urban-based democratic schools that continues to this day.
The differences between the Summerhill School, American free schools, democratic schools, and Sudbury schools are far less noticeable than their similarities. Though they may differ by degree, all offer an egalitar- ian school system and an open curriculum that aims to make children the architects of their own educations. Typically, tuition at free schools is less than that of private, non- sectarian schools, which makes them attrac- tive to students struggling in the public school system. To these kids, free schools offer a radical alternative based on the conviction that mainstream education has, in striving for conformity and standardization, failed them by crushing their natural interests.
“Children are burning out,” says Melanie Hiner, founder of the New School, a free school in Newark, Delaware, who sees atten- tion deficit disorder, adolescent depression, and other problems as symptoms of a system that fails to respond to children’s individual needs. “When children are doing pen-and- pencil work in kindergarten and are told
themselves all the time,” she says. “When a kid climbs a tree maybe a little higher than before, that’s a test. When a student tries to write something and comes to me and says, ‘What do you think?’ that’s a test. That’s the right kind of test.”
Ellen Winner, a professor of psychology at Boston College who studies children’s devel- opment, agrees. “There’s a lot of teaching to the test and learning for the test, which can take place without real genuine understand- ing,” she says. When children are under the gun to perform well on a test, Winner explains, a different and lesser form of learn- ing takes place. Students learn, she adds, to “spit back memorized informa- tion, rather than having a gen- uine understanding that would allow them to go beyond the information given and make real connections to the world.”
But without exams, how does anyone know how a child is faring? Whether it’s a stan- dardized test or a simple pop quiz, a test gives schools some accountability to the outside world, includ- ing to parents—a convention most free schools, and all Sudbury schools, reject. “If parents ask how kids are doing, the answer is simple and very clear: ‘Ask your child,’” says Greenberg. “‘And it works. Parents sa , ‘My ability to communicate with my children has blossomed.’” Circle School founder Jim
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Rietmulder concurs. “I’m not sure what it would mean to say a child is ‘not doing well in school,’” he says. “It’s probably more like ‘not doing well in life,’ and it’s not like we need some sort of diagnostic technique to determine that.”
This approach sounds good in principle, but what about the students, particularly adolescents, who often have relationships with their parents that are a long way from “blossoming”? No school, says Ted Sizer, an education reformer and a visiting professor at the Harvard School of Education, should take that much responsibility for a child’s education.
For one thing, says Sizer, “it takes money to run schools, and that money isn’t coming from teachers. It’s coming from either par- ents or the school system, and those people have to know how the school is doing.” Furthermore, testing helps students, too. “It’s hard to teach a kid without giving him feed- back,” he adds. “And that means there have to be demonstrations of mastery.” Even if he doesn’t specifically ask for it, says Sizer, “a child has to be told, quite frankl , how close he is to mastering his subject.”
More worrisome is the possibility of a stu- dent slipping without the knowledge of his or her parents, who could be, and often are, the first responders. “If I am concerned about a youngster’s progress,” says Sizer, “I’ve got to work in concert with the people who domi- nate the majority of that kid’s time. For me to presume to go off in my own direction, or to leave it up to the kid, is just irresponsible. These kids are minors.”
Even those parents with sufficient faith in the system may balk at the prospect of paying tuition to a school where their child will be allowed to pass an entire day playing video games, horsing around, or lazing around on a couch. To free- school educators, those activ- ities are viewed as a necessary part of a child’s development, possibly even a potential gate- way to a lifelong passion. But critics fear the free-school system may cheat less motivated students. “For some kids, the ones who teach themselves, free schools are great,” says Boston College’s Ellen Winner. “But for the typical kid, they might say, ‘I don’t have to do anything, so I won’t.’ You don’t want to wait and discover at age thirty all