The Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts, is perhaps the United States’ most extreme example of progressive education. When Teacher visited in 1994, we found a school that did not test or grade its 130 students. In fact, there were no required homework assignments, no compulsory courses, no set curriculum. Now, five years later, with educators and policymakers nationwide obsessing over all the things American students should be required to learn, there are still no tests, grades, courses, or curriculum at the private Sudbury. Nor will there ever be, boasts Dan Greenberg, who founded the “free school” with his wife, Hannah, in 1968.
With guidance from Sudbury teachers, the school’s students-there are now 210, ages 4 to 19-decide for themselves what and when they want to study. They spend their days as they see fit-working, playing, and roaming about the school’s sprawling grounds. Students and faculty govern the facility together, voting on everything from school rules to teacher hirings and firings.
“We’re more secure in our philosophy than ever,” says Greenberg, a 68-year-old former physics professor. “We’re also more popular than ever, thanks in part to the way educators are now turning the screws with more discipline and more tests. A significant number of people are looking at that and saying, ‘No, that’s not what we had in mind.’''
According to Greenberg, 15 U.S. schools and five in other parts of the world now model themselves on Sudbury. Interestingly, the Sudbury concept is making inroads in Japan, a country known for its toe-the-line approach to schooling. Three of Greenberg’s education tracts have been translated into Japanese, and Sudbury was the focus of a TV documentary on important “new” ideas in American education. On a recent tour of nine Japanese cities, the Greenbergs were treated like celebrities.
“The Japanese know they’re looking at the 21st century from behind the eight ball,” Greenberg explains. “Rigorous discipline and obedience are no longer serving them well, so they’re looking at alternatives that go far beyond tinkering with the present model.”
These days, Greenberg’s enthusiasm for his school is matched only by his disdain for the education establishment. “Have you seen the new 600-page K-12 curriculum guidelines?” he asks. “No living human being could possibly master that material. This system will collapse under its own absurdity.”
The Internet, Greenberg believes, will accelerate the system’s downfall: “The Internet is a Trojan horse. The students can get the information they want without any school intervention. No wonder the school system is working so hard to control student access.”
A version of this article appeared in the August 01, 1999 edition of Teacher