Alternative Schools Research Paper

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Ever since its beginnings at the turn of the eighteenth to nineteenth century, the modern educational system has been accompanied by alternative schools, the numbers and broad effects of which have varied over the course of the years. This coexistence is by no means based on independence, but is the manifestation of complex reciprocal relations which exist despite fundamental differences in the ideologies of the two approaches. Phases of intensive development in the domain of traditional schools have been mirrored by similar phases of intense activity in the alternative school movement; alternative schools fulfill important functions within the general spectrum of educational possibilities.

1. Background And Conception

Because proponents of alternative schooling are critical of contemporary manifestations of the traditional school system, the focus of their critique has shifted over time. In general, however, their criticism is based on objections to the structures and functions of the modern school. They do not restrict their demands to a return to earlier historical epochs and structures in which schools still played a minor role. Their objectives are for duress (compulsory education and instruction) to be replaced by freedom; teacher-directed schooling and instruction by self-directed action on the part of the student; the curriculum by the individual needs of the student; competition and rivalry by community; compartmentalization by wholeness and integral methods in instruction; the separation of life and school by an interweaving of the two spheres (e.g., Holzman 1997). The fundamental criticism of traditional schooling is based on the conviction that this form of education is burdened by a basic contradiction: Although adults—and particularly adults living in modern democracies—are granted dignity, majority, and self-determination, children and adolescents at school are denied these basic rights, albeit on the pretext that they first have to learn how to exercise them. Because it is not possible to recreate the historical conditions which preceded institutionalized education and its inherent ambivalences, however, the critics of traditional schooling have to resort to so-called ‘counterschool’ initiatives (German: Gegenschulen). Although some of these are embedded in a variety of alternative organizations (e.g., flat-sharing communes, communal child care, and even dietetic measures), in general it is not society that is deschooled, but school itself. The extent to which this radical rearrangement leads to the complete disintegration of institutions is dependent on its (partly unintended) consequences.

2. Structural And Organizational Characteristics

Pedagogical aims are reflected in the specific organizational characteristics of any given school (e.g., the general structure of the school, the relationships between teachers, parents, and students, the organization of classes, the methods implemented). In turn, these characteristics constitute the decisive prerequisites allowing many alternative institutions to exceed the norm with regard to content and in both the pedagogical and the social fields. Indeed, the typical approach of the alternative schools can be reduced to a simple formula: in contrast to the universal institutions of the traditional system, which are characterized by high levels of internal differentiation and complicated organizational structures, alternative institutions are distinguished by social clarity and immediacy owing to the fact that they are, from the outset, geared to the particularities of their respective clients. Accordingly, the student body in an alternative school on average numbers less than 200 (cf. Mintz et al. 1994). Thus, irrespective of content-related differences, the alternative school represents a special type of school or, more specifically, a type of school offering a special kind of education. While this offer may formally be an open one, it in fact only reaches the few who know how to take it up.

Due to these invisible processes of selection, alternative schools can be expected to be more or less immune to many of the problems arising in schools which really are open to all (as is made clear by the reports and evaluations of alternative schools; cf. as a very vivid example Duke and Perry 1978). In accordance with the very definition of the alternative school, however, these assets cannot readily be transferred to the mass school system as a whole. Instead of having to simultaneously meet the needs of students from different backgrounds and with various levels of qualification, alternative schools are able to respond to individual differences and developments emanating from a more homogeneous context of attitudes and lifestyles. The additional potential for motivation and identification (in both students and teachers) which is inherent in a free choice of school or in the decision to embark upon a rather unusual experiment constitutes another factor which cannot easily be transferred to the traditional school. As a rule, ‘counterschools’ are spared the arduous coordination of pedagogical subfunctions on the basis of a division of labor: because of the small size of these institutions, instruction and education, counseling and care all rest in the hands of a few. Instead of having to strictly adhere to general and at least partly formulated rules in order to ensure the smooth running of the school and its classes, confidence in the closer personal ties and connections of the school community makes it possible to act more effortlessly, easily, and flexibly. Finally, the danger of merely running out of inspiration within the confines of internal school processes is reduced, as the high levels of input from the local environment mean that the system’s contours remain rather diffuse. The close links between the home and the school, which are not limited to financial support, but also involve the parents’ practical cooperation, can be seen as another important asset.

3. Developments Since The 1960s

The concepts behind alternative schooling and its implementation reach far back in time, and in some respects they refer to the founders of modern educational theory (e.g., Rousseau or Herbart). Progressive education in the United States and so-called Reformpadagogik in Germany, both of which emerged after the end of the nineteenth century, may certainly be considered to be phases of activity to which a number of existing institutions can be traced back (e.g., Semel and Sadovnik 1999). However, the main wave of alternative school foundation resulted from political and social conditions including the failure or petering out of large-scale attempts at educational reform (e.g., Carnie et al. 1996); this holds especially for the Anglo-American countries since the 1960s. Most of the alternative institutions founded during this phase were set up in the United States, and the majority are still to be found there (cf. Mintz et al. 1994). Although less than 5 percent of students at elementary and secondary school actually attend alternative schools, the institutions now number several thousands in the United States, most of them elementary schools. The institutions are highly divergent in terms of their targets, methods, integration of parents and students, links with the traditional system, locus of control, and circles of addressees. It would thus seem justified to focus this overview of alternative schooling since the 1960s on the situation in the United States, all the more so because both the fundamental principle of alternative schools (‘as many institutions as there are needs and groups’) and current trends in development (adopting the tasks of the traditional system) are to be observed there.

One important form of alternative education is home schooling (cf. Evans 1973), where parents instruct their children at home with the permission of the state. If—as is quite often the case—these children meet up with other home students in (elementary) schools on single days of the week, there is a sliding transition to school cooperatives aiming at unconstrained, playful, spontaneous learning in open instruction. Other institutions specifically target problematic cases, so-called at-risk students, including not only chronic truants and low-performing students, but also talented nonconformers (in the broadest sense). A well-balanced program of drill and freedom is intended to render school attractive again, thus helping these students to enhance their performance.

However, this development has also led to a reverse trend, a sort of back-to-basics shift to formal ‘three Rs’ schools, which specifically emphasize the basic skills, discipline, and respect for the authority of parents and teachers (cf., e.g., Deal and Nolan 1978). Similar trends are to be observed at the secondary level. The large number of schools-within-schools— smaller, less complex units running different experimental programs, and affiliated to larger state schools—is particularly notable. The spectrum also includes schools attempting to set themselves up as ‘just community schools’ based on the principles of Kohlberg’s developmental theory (cf. Kohlberg 1985). The so-called ‘schools without walls’ represent another form of alternative education. They not only offer a ‘normal’ curriculum (differing from that of the traditional school in terms of content and time), but give students the opportunity to learn in the adult world. This is intended to provide students with extrascholastic experience and to enable them to prove themselves in the world of work. Although this approach initially seemed very promising, experience has shown that it is in fact very hard to put into practice.

4. Recent Trends And Perspectives

Over the past few decades, there have been signs of a kind of division of function and labor between the traditional and the alternative schools in the United States. This has been expressed in an increase in the state-controlled administration of alternative institutions. The fact that such large numbers of US alternative schools were founded at the beginning of the 1980s is probably related to this development. The radical free schools (e.g., Dennison 1969), which signaled the upheavals of the 1960s and certainly provided considerable impetus for subsequent developments, play a lesser role in today’s broader stream of initiatives. The basic conceptions and expectations of alternative schooling have also been affected, resulting in the extremely short lifespan of some of these institutions. There is still a great deal of fluctuation, making it hard to make valid evaluations of these institutions (cf. the data in Mintz et al. 1994, p. 10ff.). Even the early approaches and experiments demonstrated the great weaknesses and dangers of such institutions—the cost of their structure-related advantages (cf. also Swidler 1979). Critics have reduced this to the polemic formula that precisely those principles and premises which allowed the pure ‘counterschool’ initiatives of the early period to emerge later threatened their ability to survive. Wherever the concept of freedom as a counterpole to the compulsory character of the traditional institutions went hand in hand with systematic shortcomings in the specification of learning targets, there was the risk that later conflicts be all the more severe due to the differing hopes and expectations of those involved (cf. Barth 1972, especially p. 108ff). When every schoolrelated action was dependent on the consensus of every single member of the school community, the school’s fate was put in the hands of changing minorities with the power of veto, all the more so when the small size of these private institutions kindled fears of sudden financial ruin. Allowing almost all of those concerned to take an active role in the decisionmaking process did not in fact ensure the equality of all participants—instead of increasing the capacity to solve problems, there was a growing risk of disappointment, and the necessary basic consensus was threatened by frequent conflicts and failures in minor matters. The firm and wide-ranging commitment of parents, extending well into issues of classroom practice, often resulted not so much in the enhancement as in the disturbance of school activities. Teachers were consequently made to feel insecure and were put on the defensive instead being provided with support and control. Attempts to simultaneously cope with the factual demands, organizational affairs, and personal standards inherent in these institutions—preferably without referring to preset guidelines—led to the systematic overexertion of those concerned, and the end of many ‘counterschools’ was marked by the burnout of the teaching staff (Dennison described this phenomenon as early as 1969). The unconditional openness with respect to the other members of the school community and the intimacy of the small group responsible for the school meant that factual disputes often escalated into personal trials. Moreover, school affairs were often overshadowed by secondary motives such as parental self-realization or the search for security.

By integrating and promoting alternative schools, the state aims to increase the diversification of the educational spectrum, to enhance the overall efficiency of schools (which has been subject to criticism for decades; cf., e.g., Goodlad 1984), and to better meet the specific needs of certain problem groups in both school and society. The US programs of community schools, magnet schools and, more recently, charter schools provide evidence for this trend, and are looked upon with growing interest by other countries as possible models for the resolution of system-related problems. However, more detailed analyses of these models point to significant limitations in their problem-solving capacity, limitations which are ultimately rooted in the basic concepts of market and choice (cf. Lauder et al. 1999). The community schools program has already been thwarted by the US authorities’ desegregation measures: although these schools were directed at the advancement of members of the underprivileged minorities, most of whom are colored, they undermined the desired objective of racial integration. Magnet schools were supposed to be a free choice of school with a special educational program which acted like a magnet, attracting students from beyond the racial boundaries marked out in residential areas and school districts. They were intended to promote racial integration, which can scarcely be achieved through the compulsory measure of busing. A number of objections have been voiced against this school form. For example, it is argued that the enlargement of catchment areas weakens the link between the school and the parental home. Furthermore, although magnet schools may well establish a balanced relation between whites and blacks in their own student bodies, there are too few magnet schools to ensure social compensation on a large scale.

Moreover, there is an imperceptible shift in their circle of addressees: instead of reaching the underprivileged, out-of-school colored population with their specific educational provision, magnet schools in fact seem to appeal to white parents and their children who would otherwise switch to private schools or the more privileged suburbs (cf. Smrekar and Goldring 1999).

The charter schools, on the other hand, which in a way transfer the principles of the private school (i.e., the autonomy of schools and a free choice of school) to the state school system, are faced with comparable problems on a different level inasmuch as unforeseen side effects have been revealed in the social process. Despite the fact that the numbers of charter schools have increased considerably over the past few years, they are still far from ever being able to constitute the majority of state schools, belonging by definition to the optional domain of educational provision. The half-hearted legislative reservations perceptible in most of the federal states against according too many privileges to these schools threaten to render the entire charter program futile (cf. Hassel 1999).


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