Saturday, October 16, 2010

Free riding off of smart self-starters

Some kids have what it takes to master core academic subjects, become well-informed citizens, and land satisfying jobs without instruction from k12 teachers, and, indeed, in spite of whatever goes on in their k12 classes.  These are, most typically, the smart, resourceful, self-starters; those who thrive in the absence of structure and are endowed with a strong drive to learn and create, and ability to learn and create independently--whether by devouring books, tinkering with machinery, improvising on a stage, or putting pen to paper, brush to canvass, or fingers to keyboard; or otherwise exploring the world around them. It helps, of course, if their parents have the resources to facilitate these activities, or to supplement them with things like private lessons, field trips, and inspiring conversation.

And if you could convince enough parents of such children that, despite all this, it would be a good idea enroll their children at your new k12 school, and if you fill your school with books, art supplies, science equipment, plenty of space, and a certain number of adult "facilitators", and then give the children the freedom to do what they want, the results would be quite impressive.  And people all around would credit, first and foremost, the school, its pedagogy, and its teachers and principal.

At least, that's my prediction for the various curriculum-free "free schools" that (dating back to 1921 with the Summerhill School in England) have been popping up around the country, one of which, the Philadelphia Free School, was recently profiled in the Philadelphia Inquirer:
The Free School, which plans to launch a pilot program in January in South Philadelphia for students ages 4 to 18, follows a democratic model of education, meaning no tests, no curriculum, no bells every 45 minutes, no separation into grades, and no teachers. The adults at the school will be called "staff" and be elected by the students each year. The students will also vote on the school's budget and serve on a judicial committee that deliberates on misbehaving peers.
The school isn't literally free; it plans to charge between $9,000 and $10,000 in tuition. Nor does it fully renounce actual instruction; it just farms out this instruction to others:
[Founder Robert Loucas] said all students enrolled in the program would receive additional schooling each weekday from a separate certified education program. The students will be homeschooled, take online courses, or be enrolled part-time at a public school so they meet their legal requirements.
How does such a school ensure that their students are mostly smart, self-starters with well-to-do parents? To some extent, this will happen automatically through selection bias. First there's the tuition. Then there's the sort of parents most likely to think this school a good match for their children. The parent of the unmotivated child, or the child with learning disabilities, or the structure-craving left-brainer, is not going to be banging on the doors trying to get in.  

But the school itself can do some strategic handpicking--assuming that it generates enough buzz (e.g. through front page articles in the Philadelphia Inquirer) to have more applicants than spots. Besides weeding out the weaker-looking students, you might do what schools like the Science and Leadership Academy (not a free school, but a free-ish school) does. Interview the applicants; ask for portfolios of their independent work and have them present it; require them to be the ones who initiate certain key parts of the application process. Shy away from the shy, the inarticulate and uncharismatic, and those who under-emote about their interests.

Is there a problem with schools like these? If parents of intelligent, driven, self-starters want to shell out this kind of money for a school that may not be adding much more value than that which comes from surrounding their children with like-minded peers, more power to them. The problem is, rather, when people look at these schools and see how happy and productive their students are, and how well they do after graduation, and conclude that this model (or certain aspects of this model) is the ideal way to educate everyone.


FMA said...

I don't get it. You can sign a child up for all of kinds of programs, summer camps and activities nowadays. Why spend a fortune on a school that isn't really a school?

The Math Witch said...

Intriguing! I totally understand the appeal, because the un-interested, intellectually lazy, over-privileged, and just plain mean rich kids (combined with devastating budget issues, huge classes, and complete focus on teaching to the standardized tests) have ruined our local public schools. I wouldn't enroll my kids in that kind of school, though (and they do go to private school right now), because I would fear (and my husband would know) that it wasn't "academically rigorous" enough to truly prepare them for college. Fascinating model, though. Don't all schools free-ride off kids who naturally excel, though?