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Laissez-Faire Education

It's easy to forget at the start of the fall semester that private schools enjoy certain advantages over their public school counterparts. I was reminded of this difference by the Little Lake Free School in Ann Arbor, Mich. that opened its doors on Sept. 7. It is the antithesis of the standardization of education that is sweeping the country.

First, the school's curriculum is determined by what students want to learn, rather than what teachers tell them to learn. The idea is that their natural curiosity will lead them on the road to discovery. The responsibility of teachers, therefore, is to support students on their journey.

Second, students are not grouped by age and grade but by the progress they make. As a result, learning is individualized, reducing the boredom or frustration of students who feel the material is respectively either too easy or too hard.

Third, assessment is based on student projects, portfolios and performance that are deemed more authentic measures of learning than the multiple-choice tests in widespread use across the country. This demonstration of mastery allows for far more creativity.

As I've written often before, I believe that parents have the right to choose the schools they feel best meet the needs and interests of their children. So the Little Lake Free School certainly is a possibility for some families. For others, however, it would be a disaster.

I say that because so much of the Little Lake Free School is reminiscent of Summerhill School in England. Started by A.S. Neill in 1921, Summerhill by the 1960's had become a model for alternative education in the U.S. (Neill's writings are still highly regarded by progressive educators.) But in 1999, the British government threatened to shutter the school after Ofsted (Office for Standards in Education) found that "Summerhill is not providing an adequate education for its pupils."

Now we can argue about what constitutes an "adequate education." Everybody who has been to school has opinions about the subject. I remember reading a letter to the editor in the Wall Street Journal by a teacher who had taught biology for 40 years in this country. He said that ..."I have never encountered a committee of students who came up independently with Mendel's Laws or a proof of the circulation of the blood." One quipster put it this way: "It's unlikely that children will learn Archimedes' Principle by playing with rubber ducks in the bathtub."

Supporters of Summerhill and its clones will maintain that teachers should be Socratic, by asking their students a question and letting them work out the answer by themselves. There is some truth to this position. But eventually students need direction. This is particularly the case in science and math, where answers tend to be more clear cut than in other subjects.

Whether the Little Lake Free School will fare better than Summerhill remains to be seen. It is not unique. In 2004, for example, the private Brooklyn (N.Y.) Free School opened in the belief that it could provide a better education than traditional public schools. It followed many of the tenets of Summerhill. Certain students thrived there, and their parents were elated. The hard part, however, is to know beforehand who they are.

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The opinions expressed in Walt Gardner's Reality Check are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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