Alternatives in Education
The U.S. school system was modeled
after German schools created in the 1800's for the express purpose of producing obedient
soldiers and factory workers (This is true! I've read it in many different good
sources). The German system was extremely successful in achieving its goal in Germany and
was therefore copied by other countries, including the U.S. The great American
tycoons and Robber Barons were big supporters of the German system in America since they
wanted literate but obedient factory workers. Our schools are operated pretty much
the same way today in the 1990's as they were back when Thomas Edison was kicked out for
being "addled." Creativity and independent thought and action were discouraged
because such traits were problematic in a war or a factory. Today these traits
interfere with our cookie cutter, mass production educational system; a bureaucratic
system which is unable to change itself.
"Somewhere between the ages of
eleven and fifteen, the average child begins to suffer from an atrophy, the paralysis of
curiosity and the suspension of the power to observe. The trouble I should judge to
lie with the schools." - Thomas Edison.
Obviously the brightest and most creative
kids are going to have the biggest problem dealing with this restrictive environment.
I've had many people tell me they give their child Ritalin "only when they're
in school" to prevent behavioral problems. It would seem in those cases that
the school is the real problem. Traditional schools emphasize rote memorization and
drill above everything else. A child's natural curiosity and willingness to learn are not
harnessed, rather, they are ignored in order to make time for more drills. Students
take a passive role in learning, and class sizes are large and impersonal. The trend
lately has been for more assigned homework and less time in recess or learning the arts.
In general, teaching and rules are the focus rather than real learning by the
student. Creative and gifted kids often have independent and fickle learning styles which
are completely incompatible with this traditional approach. And when they act out or space
out, the ADD label is applied.
Why do parents settle for this? I
suspect one reason is that they don't know there are alternatives. Good alternatives,
often inexpensive or even free. My purpose for this page is to introduce my readers
to these alternatives and to provide resources for additional information.
|The Evergreen Sudbury School in Maine
is an example of a democratic-style or "free" school in which creative and
gifted kids often thrive. Here's an excerpt from their web page:
What kinds of kids do well at Evergreen?
- Bright, highly motivated kids who
want to surge ahead and challenge themselves.
- Kids with unique learning styles who
want to move at their own pace.
- Kids who are "different" in
some way and want an atmosphere of tolerance and friendliness.
- Social kids who want to be part of a
democratic community - one person, one vote.
- Little kids who are passionately
engaged in exploring and creating.
- High-energy, restless kids who want
to be active.
- Frustrated kids who are sick of
- Shy, sensitive kids who want to
pursue their own interests.
- Self-directed kids who are ready for
If you are the parent of an
ADD or creative child, please don't underestimate how traumatic school can be for these
kids. Large public school also foster large exclusionary social groups that can become
predatory towards our more creative kids who tend to lack in social skills. Some ADD
children actually develop school phobias so severe they experience panic attacks. It is a
major source of anxiety, depression and even rage. Many adults have told me that school
was the worst time of their entire life, and that things became much easier once they
graduated and could make their own choices. I believe it is therefore critical to
get these kids out of large, rigid, dull, repetitive schools, and that includes most
public schools and even many private schools.
Nearly all of the information on this page
comes from a 1997 book called "The Parents'
Guide to Alternatives in Education" by Ronald E. Koetzsch Ph.D. Some of the
school types listed are found not only in the U.S. but around the world. Certain
schools are expensive money making ventures, while others are a bargain and operated at
cost by people with a deep conviction that schools should be better. The annual
tuition at one well-known "Free" school I called was only in the $3000 to $4000
range. Some schools also have aid packages for those who cannot afford to pay.
Finally, some public schools have adopted alternative curricula, such as Essential Schools
and those using the Foxfire approach. These schools are free.
I have not included religious schools here
because for most ADD children because they vary so much. For some ADDers the smaller
class size and discipline may be helpful. On the other hand, such schools may be
quite intolerant, judgemental and rigid.
Not all ADD children are the same, so what
works for one child may not work for another. I cannot stress enough that every situation
and child is unique. For example, a bright, learning-oriented kid who requires
independence may fluorish in a "free school." Another child labeled ADD
might find the environment in a free school far too chaotic. There are no simple
answers. Parents should learn as much as they can about the alternatives and then
use their judgement.
On This Page:
Self Schooling for Teenagers
Free (or Democratic) Schools
Multiple Intelligence Education
The International Baccalaureate
Additional Resources and Contacts
Homeschooling is highly recommended for kids
classified as ADHD! I began
homeschooling my son Ryan in 2000 when he would otherwise go into the 2nd grade. My
experience so far has been tremendous, and Ryan immediately began doing work on a 3rd
grade level. I was surprised to find the school year much less stressful and far
more family-oriented since I have been homeschooling. It feels like we are living
the life we were meant to live, where before it felt like the school bureaucracy was
intruding into every facet of our lives. No more frantic morning rush or battles to
get homework done. No more teachers telling me exactly when and what to read to my
son, or when to teach him to tie his shoes, or how often he should make his bed and clean
his room (yes, these were all homework assignments in first grade). No more of Ryan
sitting around (wiggling around?) waiting for all the other students to catch up, long
rides on the school bus, or complaining about being bored at school. Now he sets his own
pace and spends most of his day playing like a 7 year old boy should.
I would advise against homeschooling if the
stay-at-home parent and the child normally have trouble getting along. Homeschooling
would probably just make things worse. However, if you love your child just the way
he or she is, but school has become a problem, homeschooling is the perfect solution.
Some homeschoolers of ADD/gifted children
opt for a method called "unschooling." This works particularly well for
bright, independent kids who learn naturally on their own. In general, the student is
allowed to set their own ciricullum and pace. I am using many unschooling ideas,
although I do require Ryan to work on certain subjects that I do not think he would
naturally learn out of curiosity, like spelling and math facts. Kids who are not so
interested in learning things like math and reading may require a more traditional
approach, using schedules and lessons.
kids may miss the social atmosphere of the public school, or want to be in a
"normal" environment. Depending on where you live, there may be
many opportunities for your child to socialize. I was able to sign Ryan up for Youth
Soccer, classes at our local Community Center, swimming lessons, and the Boys and Girls
Club. He also made friends with local homeschoolers, in addition to his old friends
from the public school. All in all, he is socializing more than his friends who
attend public and private schools.
ADHD kids with social difficulties may
benefit from homeschooling. Studies have shown that homeschooled children behave
better around other children, significantly better. Social contact is more often in
controlled situations with a small number of children, rather than in near chaos on the
school bus, recess or the lunch room. When children are placed in large groups, like
at most schools, they begin to adopt crowd or group behavior, establishing a pecking order
just like in the story "Lord of the Flies." This is just what ADHD kids DO
There are many resources on the internet
for homeschooling, and many support groups as well, so I'm not going to repeat their work.
The best one I've found is at about.com,
which even lists all the state requirements in the U.S. If you're interested in more info,
check out Jan's Positively ADD: Parenting and Unschooling.
Jan is Unschooling an active boy and she has many links on homeschooling. Her
approach is very similar to mine. Another website is offered by Carol, who is homeschooling an ADHD child
using a very different approach than Jan, and who has a lot of tips for parents.
Schooling for Teenagers
Grace Llewellyn has written two books on this subject -- "The Teenage
Liberation Handbook: How to Quit School and Get a Real Education" and "Real
Lives: Eleven Teenagers Who Don't Go to School."
|"Relax and let go of your
anxieties about status -- your own and your child's -- and about your child's academic and
vocational future. The list of famous and successful people who did not complete a
regular high-school program is long and impressive. It includes Margaret Meade,
Frank Lloyd Wright, Mark Twain, Thomas Edison, and Pearl Buck. And the list of
accomplished and famous people who went to school but wish they hadn't also is long and
impressive, and includes Winston Churchill, Woody Allen, and Claude Monet. It is not
the end of the world if your child does not go to high school." - Grace Llewellyn
In the age of computers and the Internet it
is easier for teenagers to continue their education out of the classroom. Self
schooling ( a version of homeschooling) is ideal for teenagers who are fed up with school
and are at the brink of dropping out. Such children CAN get into great colleges, by
College Instead of High
Simon's Rock College is
for high school kids who are bored and ready for "real" school. It's a real
college, and reportedly a pretty good one, so it's like these kids get to just skip the
last year or two of high school and go straight to college. The catch: To get in the
student must be getting good grade in high school, so the underachieving gifted high
school kids won't be able to go there.
This is a new boarding school for ADHD boys located in Vermont. Any fan of Thom
Hartmann will know exactly what the school's slant is: ADDers are Hunters in a Farmer's
world. Here's their website.
or "Democratic" Schools
The Free School movement goes back to an experimental school called Summerhill founded in
1921 in England. These school utilize a radical
"unschooling" approach. An example is Sudbury
Valley School in Framingham Mass, opened in the 1960's, of which there are now many
copies scattered throughout the U.S. and elsewhere in the world.
Valley School is a place where children are free. Their natural curiosity is the
starting point for everything that happens at the school. Here, students initiate all
their own activities. The staff, the plant, the equipment are there to answer their
needs. Learning takes place in formal and informal settings, in large and small
groups, or individually. All ages are free to mix at all times. The dynamics among
students of different ages, helping each other learn about everything from human relations
to math, is one of the greatest strengths of the school."
I believe many ADD children
would do very well in this environment. I asked about ADD in on a SVS mailgroup and
got the following comment: "If a child is free to come and go whereever, whenever and
doesn't have to pay attention to stuff he's not interested in, how could anyone say he has
an attention problem? The school environment creates these 'disabilities.' I'm
totally convinced of this. It's very sick and sad. We are killing generations of
creativity and curiousity." Several other mailgroup members agreed, leading me
to believe that the ADD child's differences are far less likely to be perceived as
negatives in this type of school.
This style of school may be too chaotic for
some children, especially those who show no interest in learning basic subjects. The
creative/gifted child who, for example, enjoys doing higher level math for the fun of it
but gets poor grades in school out of boredom is a good candidate for this type of school.
There is a list of other Sudbury
style schools as well as a discussion group at the Sudbury
Valley School Website.
For more information:
The Sudbury Valley School Press
2 Winch Street
Framingham, MA 01701
And visit their website.
These schools are the product of a reform movement
within the public schools in the U.S. It was spawned in the early 1980's when Theodore
Sizer, a former dean of Harvard's School of Education, directed a study of American high
schools. The typical school was found to be one in which there are as many as 5,000
students and 300 teachers, and teachers have little freedom in what or how they
teach. The curriculum is mandated by the state, and students memorize facts for
standardized tests. Many students lack motivation and are only "serving
time" until they graduate. There is a powerful bureaucracy and many special
interest groups (teacher's unions, textbook publishers, vendors) who all have a vested
interest in maintaining the status quo. These observations were published in
"Horace's Compromise," in which Sizer also proposed reform.
Sizer then founded the Coalition of Essential Schools, an association
of schools committed to reform. Some differences from mainstream schools:
- Smaller classroom sizes.
- Students are to be active learners rather
than passive recipients of teacher lectures.
- Long-term, in-depth projects are preferred.
- Grouping is multi-aged and there is no
- Cooperative and collaborative learning is
- Students are assessed on the basis of a
portfolio of their work.
- Thinking, evaluation and synthesis is
favored over memorization.
- The school should be democratic when
As of 1995 there were 220 member schools,
263 planning to implement it, and 469 schools looking into the program.
For further information:
Coalition of Essential Schools
1814 Franklin St. Suite 700
Oakland, CA 94612
The Foxfire approach to education started in 1966 when Elliot Wigginton decided to have
his students create a magazine about Appalachian culture and history. His goal was
to use experiential, student-initiated learning in order to motivate his students.
"Foxfire" magazine was read around the nation, and the students who wrote it
learned not only writing skills, but gained an in-depth knowledge about their local
culture in the process.
The goal of the Foxfire method is for
students to become thoughtful participants in their education, while developing
independence, responsible behavior, and wisdom. Some elements of the approach:
- There is an audience for student work
(besides the teacher)
- Peer teaching, small group work and teamwork
- Students learn actively, not passively
- The teacher is not a boss, but a guide
- Work flows from student desire and choice
- Aesthetic experiences are valued
- Time is set aside for reflection
The Foxfire Institute, through grants and
by using money from the sale of its magazine, has worked to spread the Foxfire method
throughout America. This is done primarily by training teachers, of which there are
now over 4,000 trained. Many of these teachers use the Foxfire Method in standard
public schools. Others teach in schools which have converted over the Foxfire
method. For more information:
Hilton Smith, Executive Director
P.O. Box 541
Mountain City , GA 30562
In 1983 Howard Gardner wrote a popular book called "Frames of Mind: The Theory of
Multiple Intelligence." In it, Gardner refuted the concept of a singular type
of intelligence (IQ) and replaced it with seven types of intelligence: linguistic,
logical-mathematical, spatial, bodily-kinesthetic, musical, interpersonal, and
Most teaching in schools focuses on linguistic and
logical-mathematical skills, and almost ignores the remaining intelligences.
Children with natural spatial or musical talents but lacking in the more traditional
intelligences are often denied a chance to develop their talents, and wind up feeling
inferior because they are always struggling in school.
Some schools have begun to actively use a Multiple
Intelligence (MI) approach to teaching. These schools are naturally more
experiential and hands-on than traditional schools. Here is an example of a fifth
grade class studying westward expansion of the U.S. in the 1800s and one of their lists of
- Math-Logical: measure distances; work with maps
- Musical: study and play Indian music; make instruments
- Spatial: make pictures of Indians; make models of wagons
- Linguistics: read Indian tales; have a debate over land
seizure: write a story about Indians
- Bodily-kinesthetic: do an Indian rain dance; have a wagon
- Intrapersonal: keep a journal of myself as an Indian during
- Interpersonal: go on a hike together; have a powwow
|"This is a wonderful approach to
learning. Each child is stimulated and challenged in a variety of ways. And each
has the opportunity to learn and to excel in his or her own way. A child who is not
so good at reading or math may shine in the music or in the handwork. It's very good
for their self-image and sense of worth. Besides, each child, regardless of their learning
style, seems to grasp the material better if they have experienced it in a number of
ways." - Cherylann Parker, a fifth grade MI teacher.
For a list of public and private schools
using this approach, send your request and a self-addressed, stamped envelope to:
Harvard Graduate School of Education
321 Longfellow Hall
13 Appian Way
Cambridge, MA 02138
Clearly, most of the schools listed on this page are progressive in a generic or
descriptive sense, and may identify themselves as such. This section has to do with
other schools not falling into one of the described categories which follow a particular
progressive ideology. "Progressive" schools got their start in the 1920s and
were originally formed in response to ideas articulated by John Dewey. There
have been several movements in the public school system towards progressive ideas, and an
equal number of reactionary back-lashes. We are currently in a backlash phase as an
increasing number of public schools are going so far as to eliminate recess for first
graders and increasing the amount of homework young children bring home. Many
progressive programs therefore are not labeled "progressive" due to this
Key components of Progressive schools and programs are:
- Students play a significant role in determining the
- Learning is self-directed and experiential
- Research and hands-on learning is favored over memorization
- The teacher is a guide rather than an encyclopedia of
- Depth rather than breadth is emphasized
- Democracy is used when possible (e.g., making rules)
- There are fewer or no written tests and grades
- A noncompetitive atmosphere is encouraged.
- Arts, crafts, music and drama are important
- Development of curiosity and critical thinking skills are
The Common School in Amherst, Massachusetts is small
private school which has operated as a Progressive school since 1967. There are 120
children ranging from ages four to twelve.
|"While the academic work seems
rigorous and challenging, the school has a relaxed, noncompetitive atmosphere. There
are no tests at the Common School and no report cards with grades. Parents receive
regular narrative reports on their child and have a conference with the teacher twice a
year. Students call teachers by their first name. The 'hub' of the school is
a cozy, woodpaneled library where students come to read, curled up on oversized pillows
strewn on the floor. They are encouraged to read books of their own choosing and to keep a
reader's log." - Ronald E. Koetzsch, Ph.D.
Acres School in Rockville, Maryland is another example of a progressive school.
For more information:
Institute for Democracy in Education (IDE)
313 McCracken Hall
College of Education
Athens, OH 45710
In 1919 the Free Waldorf School opened in Germany as a radical alternative to the
German school system. Its purpose was to create free, creative, independent, moral,
and happy human beings rather than good soldiers and factory workers (remember that the
current public schools in the U.S. are modeled after the old German schools).
Waldorf Schools quickly sprung up around Europe and in 1928 the first American
school was opened. Today there are 600 Waldorf schools worldwide, 140 of them in the
United States. Most are private schools.
The system of education was designed by Rudolf Steiner, a
well-known spiritual intellectual in Europe at the time. Steiner believed that there
are three major functions in life: willing, feeling, and thinking. Up to age 7, children
are beings of will and movement. They are exploratory and constantly in motion.
From ages 7 to 14, children are beings of feeling, aesthetic sensitivity,
imagination, and artistic creativity. Starting at age 14, they begin to think
abstractly, analyze, conceptualize and become highly critical. Waldorf schools are
designed for children to learn in a way which is consistent with these three stages.
In Elementary schools, there is a primary teacher who
follows the children up through the grades. Art, music, handwork and crafts are
important. Steiner believed that when children make crafts or sing a song, their
brains and nervous system are enhanced so that future learning is easier.
Modern brain research tends to affirm this theory. Waldorf schools do not pressure
children to learn to read or master other academic skills in the early grades.
Imagination is considered more important.
Most Waldorf schools do not yet have a high school,
although some are planning one. The high school is similar to other small private
schools, with some exceptions. Steiner believed that teenagers were in a search for
meaning and essentially idealistic. Therefore, the cirriculum stresses themes such as the
"unity and harmony of nature; the dignity of the human being; the accomplishments and
the interrelatedness of human culture; and the potential of the human being to make a
difference in the world." Arts and crafts are still considered to be important.
Analysis and critical thinking skills are the primary focus in highly school,
School in Lexington, Massachusetts is an example of such a school. For further
information on Waldorf Schools in North America:
The Association of Waldorf Schools of North America
3911 Bannister Road
Fair Oaks, CA 95628
I've had one person tell me that they were diagnosed
with ADD and doing poorly in school, but when they were put into a Baccalaureate programs
they suddenly excelled. This program may be especially good for those kids who are
gifted but without serious learning disabilities. It is not recommended for all ADD
|This is a program for
students "who want more rigor, more academic challenge, more material to master, and
more skill development. They are tired of the smorgasbord of fluff courses designed
to attract students rather than to challenge them as learners; they are tired of inflated
grades; and they are tired of an environment in which to be smart is to risk being
socially ostracized. They want to be challenged and measured." -Ronald E.
Baccalaureate (IB) is a liberal arts program in which high school students work at the
college level for two years. There are difficult exams which must be passed.
At the end of the program, the student receives a diploma which is recognized around the
world as a measure of high achievement in high school. There are about 180 schools
in the U.S., mostly public, which have an IB program. For more information:
International Baccalaureate North America
200 Madison Avenue, Suite 2007
New York, NY 10016
There are several thousand Montessori schools in the United States, mostly private
not-for-profit. Although the majority are for preschool or kindergarten children, others
go up to the sixth grade. The Montessori movement started in the early 1900's by Maria
Montessori, who founded a school in Rome for special needs and disadvantaged
children. Using her methods, these children learned rapidly. By the age of
five they could read, write and had learned the basics of arithmetic. The concept caught
on quickly and spread around the world.
Montessori believed that young children are primarily
focused on their senses: sight, hearing, touch, taste, and smell, and must be able to use
these senses in order to learn. Montessori schools take advantage of this
There are two types of Montessori Schools: those affiliated
with the American Montessori Institute (AMI) and those in line with the American
Montessori Society (AMS). The former follows the ideology of Maria Montessori very
closely, while the latter is willing to adapt the Montessori method to American culture
and values. For example, AMI-affiliated schools do not have toys, or value creative,
spontaneous play, while AMS-affiliated schools often do.
|"Yet even in the elementary
grades, knowledge is presented in tangible form through time lines, scientific exhibits,
and other objects and displays that are part of the classroom environment. There is
no required work, but the teacher helps each child to plan and record his or her learning
activities. Art is integrated into the daily curriculum and music plays an important role.
In many Montessori elementary schools the students present a play, a musical, or an
opera each year."
For further information:
American Montessori Society (AMS)
281 Park Avenue South, 6th Floor
New York, NY 10010
Association Montessori Internationale - USA (AMI-USA)
170 West Schofield Road
Rochester, NY 14617
Resources and Contacts:
1. The Parents'
Guide to Alternatives in Education by Ronald E. Koetzsch Ph.D., 1997. Most of
the information on this site came from this book.
2. National Coalition of
Alternative Community Schools (NCACS)
P.O. Box 15036
Santa Fe, NM 87506
3. Peterson's Annual Guide to Independent Schools (609)
4. Private Independent Schools: Bunting &
Lyons (203) 269-3333
5. The Educational Register: Vincent Curtis, publisher (617) 536-0100
6. The Handbook of Private Schools: Porter Sargent
Publishers (617) 523-1670