Education Opinion

Alternative Answer

By Ronald A. Wolk — April 01, 2000 3 min read
Reform often creates as many problems as it solves.

One of the sad ironies of reform is that it often creates as many problems as it solves. And so it seems with the current standards movement.

As several articles in this special issue show, states need to revisit the academic standards they’ve set and the accountability systems they’ve created. Most have gone overboard, demanding that schools cover an enormous—if not impossible—body of arbitrarily chosen content. At the same time, they’ve turned to crude standardized tests as the ultimate measure of school and student performance. These faulty reform instruments may bring down the standards movement. But perhaps worse, they threaten the very schools that are having the greatest success with our neediest students: the nation’s alternative schools. These programs have lower dropout rates and higher attendance rates than most traditional schools with similar enrollments. What’s more, they are sending higher percentages of their students on to college. The irony is that alternative schools are doing exactly what standards-setters aspire to do: They are changing—improving—the way we educate kids.

We must find ways to protect and nourish these schools before the inflexible and overzealous standards movement destroys them. Policymakers—perhaps with some federal incentive money— should move quickly to create a new alternative system of public schools, one that would operate parallel to the mainstream system.

In some ways, we are already moving in this direction, albeit haltingly and more by default than design. Today, there are probably as many as 3,000 nontraditional public schools in the United States, many of them built on progressive principles:

  • They are small and possess a clear sense of mission, which is shared—along with power and responsibility—among students, parents, and teachers.
  • They personalize learning, which means they are child- centered rather than curriculum-centered.
  • And they use teaching methods that reflect what we have discovered in the past 30 years about learning.

Though these schools share much in common, they aren’t built from the same blueprint. Some were founded in the 1960s and ‘70s to serve children on the verge of dropping out—or being thrown out—of mainstream schools. The 1980s, meanwhile, saw a wave of magnet schools created to promote racial integration. But many have sprouted up over the past decade, as traditional schools began subdividing into innovative “houses” or academies and the charter-school movement gained steam.

These newest alternative schools are trailblazers—the vanguard of what could become a parallel public education system.

These newest alternative schools are trailblazers—the vanguard of what could become a sizable parallel public education system. Incubating new ideas and testing new approaches, they are providing fundamentally different learning opportunities than traditional schools. Some are even semi-autonomous, almost like private schools, controlling their own budgets and personnel policies.

We should not, of course, exempt these alternative schools from standards. Like all schools, they need to be held accountable. But in the spirit, if not the letter, of the standards movement, we should permit them to decide for themselves what their students should know and be able to do. They, too, should be judged on their performance, but not by the flawed standardized tests that are now dictating much of the tone and content of American public education.

A parallel system of public schools would introduce more variety, more choice, and more competition without undermining public education. Those public school defenders who fear vouchers and privatization would be wise to get behind the idea. States pursuing two reform strategies simultaneously—standards and a parallel system—would double the chances for higher student achievement. In fact, a parallel system of innovative public schools could serve as a kind of research-and-development arm for the conventional system.

Whatever we do, we must not allow this cadre of successful alternative schools to fall victim to a reform strategy that, for the moment, only promises better schools.

—Ronald A. Wolk

A version of this article appeared in the April 01, 2000 edition of Teacher as Alternative Answer