School of Life

By Meg Sommerfeld — February 01, 1993 6 min read

As economists across the country discuss how to reduce the massive federal deficit, they might consider soliciting the advice of a growing number of young citizens whose daily lessons focus to a surprising degree on complex fiscal matters.

Take, for example, the students of the City Magnet “microsociety” school in Lowell, Mass. Several years ago, these youngsters wrestled with an economic crisis of their own when the school’s legislature ran out of its in-house currency, the “mogan,” and failed to make its payroll for government “employees”—among them judges, public defenders, and police officers—for five weeks. As a result, the school’s junior civil servants could no longer pay their taxes, which in turn saddled their peers with a tremendous micro-society deficit.

The Lowell students are not alone in learning how to tackle such real-life problems at an early age. The micro-society school they attend—the nation’s first—has been replicated in at least two dozen schools that aim to link lessons more intimately with the workings of society.

Micro-society schools are exactly what they sound like: schools that operate miniature civilizations, complete with all the trappings of the real world, including a legislature, courts, banks, post offices, newspapers, a host of entrepreneurial businesses, and even an Internal Revenue Service. Students hold jobs and are paid salaries in an ersatz currency, which they use to pay simulated taxes and tuition and to purchase a variety of goods and services at the school’s marketplace.

Until this past September, the creators of the micro-society concept thought there were only five such schools in the nation—three in New York state and two in Massachusetts. But, after an article about the program appeared in Time magazine that month, a slew of other schools reported that they had adopted the approach on their own.

Today, there are at least 24 such schools in operation, 14 more known to be in the planning stages, and another three dozen seeking seed money to begin planning. What was once a handful of innovative schools has rapidly materialized into a restructuring network. “We’re no longer alone and isolated in the wild,” remarks Carolynn King, a Philadelphia lawyer who serves as executive director of a new consortium of micro-society schools.

Such schools are the brainchild of George Richmond, who first sketched a blueprint for them nearly 20 years ago in a now out-of-print book, The Micro-Society School: A Real World in Miniature. The philosophy is simple: Make schooling more relevant by connecting lessons to actual societal institutions and by creating a form of mock currency to use as an incentive system.

Although Richmond set up small-scale versions of the program while working as a public-school teacher and administrator in New York City and Hartford, Conn., in the 1970s, it wasn’t until 1981 that his idea was integrated into the curriculum of an entire school. That year, several educators from Lowell asked Richmond to help them create a magnet school that would use the resources of their city to reinforce connections between academics and the work force. Since then, the Lowell experiment has become the prototype for others. Many that came to light after the Time article turned out to be the creations of educators who had visited Lowell.

Each morning at the schools, students have lessons in traditional academic subjects, but they are taught in a manner emphasizing their real-world applications. Social studies, English, mathematics, and science thus metamorphose into government, publishing, economics, and architecture and engineering.

In the afternoons, the students go to their “jobs” at student-run businesses, newspapers, and government agencies. Through these experiences, students learn to answer many of their own fundamental questions about society: What do people get paid for? What can they spend their money on? What are they taxed on? Where do taxes go? Teachers also derive benefits from the schools’ miniature market systems. They receive a portion of the “tuition” students pay to use for rewards, and they can levy fines when students chew gum in class or forget their homework.

The primary goal of the simulation, says Evans Clinchy, a consultant to the Lowell school, is for students to “develop in their heads very complete mental models of what a society is and how it works.”

The focus on economics and work-related skills also addresses American business leaders’ concerns that students are not being prepared adequately for the work force, says Samuel Matsa, K-12 issues manager for IBM’s education program. At the micro- society schools, he says, students “are not just learning multiplication for its own sake, they’re learning math because it’s important to balance their checkbooks.”

But proponents of the schools say their objective is not just to churn out competent, compliant workers for corporations; they also seek to cultivate the skills students need to be good citizens in a democratic society. Most micro-society schools have a student-written constitution, an elected legislature, and an elaborate court system. Students serve as judges, prosecutors, defense lawyers, bailiffs, and jurors in trials that resolve actual disputes arising from such incidents as stolen lunch money or playground games gone awry.

In addition to settling the conflict at hand, a trial becomes an opportunity to teach morals and ethics, notes Fred Hernandez, principal of Eugenio Maria de Hostos Micro-Society School, a public elementary school in Yonkers, N.Y. The students also “get satisfaction out of someone in their peer group hearing out the issue,” he says. “And they follow the process through until justice is rendered.”

This justice system in miniature can also help students better understand the interaction between the different branches of the nation’s government. Richmond recalls a time when a former student of his, a particularly brawny 6th grader, was extorting money from his classmates and threatening to beat them up. Students at the school quickly discovered they could not press charges because their constitution had no law banning extortion. So, the legislature quickly passed a bill outlawing it, and, shortly afterward, the culprit was taken to court, found guilty, and fined by a jury of his peers.

While the notion that students learn best through experience is far from new, advocates of the micro-societies say few schools have truly put this philosophy into practice. For the most part, Richmond contends, schools still resemble feudal societies, and teachers are “the manor lords who stand up in front of class and lecture.” In contrast, he asserts, a micro-society school is a living, breathing “laboratory of democracy,” where “the school itself becomes a medium of instruction, not just a place where instruction takes place.”

Administrators at the schools—most of them public elementary and middle schools, though some private schools have shown interest in the concept—say the program has been a tremendous success. The schools, they say, have proved enormously popular, and several have lengthy waiting lists for prospective students. Since the program came to the Yonkers school, pupil attendance has improved dramatically, the suspension rate has dropped, and students’ scores on standardized tests have improved.

Richmond acknowledges that the concept has some weaknesses. Most micro-society schools have emphasized verbal, math, and social studies skills at the expense of science and technology. To address that shortcoming, the new consortium has enlisted the aid of Mario Salvadori, a former professor of civil engineering and architecture at Columbia University, to help bolster the schools’ science and technology efforts. “There’s so much to do,” remarks Richmond, who still seems a bit dazed by the fact that his two-decade-old vision has suddenly attracted national attention.

Because the micro-society schools incorporate many elements of the education-reform movement—such as cooperative learning, hands-on instruction, small class size, and interdisciplinary teaching—observers suggest that it is likely to have staying power. “The concept,” says Matsa of IBM, “has so much potential to really take hold all over the country.”

A version of this article appeared in the February 01, 1993 edition of Teacher as School of Life