Every year millions of children sit down at desks and get a public school education. Many parents feel a little uneasy at the prospect of sending their kids into the state education system. Some feel the quality of education they will receive is insufficient. Others oppose the emphasis on standardized testing or the lack of physical exercise children get in normal schools.
Whatever the reason, many parents are uncomfortable sending their children to normal public schools. However they may not have the resources or knowledge about what some of the other options are.
We break down some of the alternative education options available.
Charter Schools (Free Schools in the UK) are state funded schools founded and run by local community members according to an agreement (or charter) between the stakeholders and the state. The main difference between a charter school and a regular state school is that state schools are centrally controlled whereas charter schools are independent and decentralized.
In America charter schools are established with a contract between the school and a local regulating authority, such as a school board or university. The contract outlines specific goals which must be met in order for the school to remain open. Some charter schools are run by for-profit companies, while others are non-profit. The exact rules vary state by state and as well as by the regulating body granting the charter. The ethos and goals of the founders also heavily influence the nature of the school, so no two charter schools are alike.
Proponents say they empower parents by providing genuine choice in schooling. Opponents say they are another form of social exclusion which enable wealthy families to divert state resources to create lower budget private schools.
Pros: Organizers of the school likely to be more invested in your child than a state school.
Cons: May be narrowly focused and lack breadth.
Some private schools are elite preparatory schools which begin the process of training children for admission into top-tier universities and ultimately into the highest echelons of society. Highly exclusive these schools rigorously police admissions through astronomical fees, academic entry requirements and class-based social screening. Most parents will never have access to these schools, although it is unclear whether they provide more of a social advantage through the networking opportunities of the “old school tie” or that much of a genuinely superior education. Others are less expensive but have still have a higher quality of facilities and faculty than an ordinary school might.
Pros: World-class facilities, individual care and attention, highly qualified and dedicated teaching staff, huge range of sporting and extracurricular options, social networking opportunities.
Cons: Can be exclusionary if your family is from the wrong class. Very expensive, fees can be as much as $100,000 a year.
Religious private schools exist to give children a grounding in the religious beliefs and practices of a specific sect. Usually parents who choose a religious school are deeply religious and want their children to be raised in an environment that fits their religious principles. Sometimes these schools have better education such as some Catholic high schools in the UK which have a good reputation for providing an above average education. Most however see the added value in the theological education they provide. Muslim or Jewish schools may teach Arabic or Hebrew. Christian schools may include bible study. Religious private schools also may have other features such as daily prayer, modesty dress codes and strict codes of conduct which extent outside of school hours.
Pros: Will give your child an education and experience grounded in the faith of your choice.
Cons: Expensive. May isolate your child from other faith groups and ways of seeing the world.
Democratic schools are those where pupils have a say in what and how they learn. They take a variety of forms but include ones where school meetings include pupils who vote on what is to take place in exercises of direct democracy. The oldest such school in existence is Summerhill, in the UK, founded in 1921. There a general meeting of pupils and teachers in which everyone has one vote determines the rules. The school was taken as a model by later generations of educators, especially in the 1960s, who set up Free Schools or Democratic Schools based on the same principles of interest-led learning, non-compulsory lessons and democratic institutions.
One such model of schools are Sudbury Schools, named after the 1968 Sudbury School in America. These schools have near democratic parity between teachers and students and encourage interest-led learning. They have also achieved excellent results, with students from Democratic Schools going on to enter Ivy League colleges, start their own businesses and live full and flourishing lives. Many become highly motivated self-starters and those who go on to college often report outperforming their peers. Many democratic schools
Pros: Children have a lot more freedom and responsibility to learn what they want.
Cons: Some perceive democratic schools as undisciplined. May not get traditional curriculum. Can be quite expensive.
Montessori schools are based on the philosophy of Dr. Maria Montessori. She saw children as naturally curious and built her method around scientific observation of children. Montessori schools focus on creating an environment which fosters learning, multiage classrooms and uninterrupted blocks of work time. Children interact with the learning environment as they see fit, turning to the teacher for guidance where appropriate. Montessori schools focus on learning practical skills from an early age. The philosophy is very popular and there are thousands of such schools around the world, including in the United States. There is however a lack of structure.
Pros: Hands on learning, mimics real world, fosters independence.
Cons: Expensive. Lack of structure can lead to graduates unwilling to take direction which could be a problem in the workforce.
Steiner schools, also called Waldorf schools were developed by the Austrian thinker Rudolf Steiner. He created the philosophy with the goal of raising children who would not choose war in the aftermath of the devastation caused by WWI. Although they are frequently confused with Montessori schools they differ in a number of key ways. Steiner schools emphasize the role of imagination and play to a greater extent. It is also more structured, there is a morning ritual followed by a two hour lesson at the start of the day, for example, and the curriculum follows a pattern established by Steiner. In elementary school children have just one teacher, while for high school outside experts are brought in to teach specialist subjects.
Pros: Nurturing and imaginative.
Cons: Can be expensive, focus on the arts leaves science and math behind somewhat.
Parents teach their children themselves at home. Currently an estimated two to three million children are homeschooled in the United States each year. Homeschooled children vary in achievement depending on the abilities and dedication of the parents teaching them. Resources such as homeschooling.com provide a lot of information to parents seeking to build their own curriculums and speak to other parents about the various issues which come up. How exactly to homeschool varies significantly by household. Some implement a set schedule of learning and mirror closely what might be done in a school. Others have far less structure, or may do a lot of practical learning such as carpentry or coding.
It’s really up to the parent. The main resource drain is time, as one parent will have to be available to teach/monitor the children. The other thing people worry about is socialization. Depending on where you live there may be many other homeschooled children nearby you can meeting up with in the day. Of course they will also be able to see other children during extra curricular activities, in the evenings or at the weekend.
You will however have to fill out government paperwork to register as homeschooled. This varies depending on where you live and different places have different minimum requirements for what they want from you. You will also need to educate yourself, as you will no longer be relying on trained professionals to teach your little ones. Instead you will be the dispenser of knowledge, or at least the person who knows which books/videos/online courses to recommend.
Pros: You can tailor the curriculum to exactly what you want.
Cons: Very large investment in time and energy. Only really possible for households with enough resources for one parent to stay home full time.
Unschooling goes one step further by removing school altogether. It is the idea that children learn best when they decide what they want to learn and how, rather than by going through any kind of a structure. Proponents claim it releases children from the strictures of top-down learning approaches and fosters their innate creativity and curiosity. Opponents claim it lets children flit from subject to subject without giving them the discipline to really master what’s important, regardless of their personal whims. This doesn’t mean leaving the kid alone all day though. Unschooling involves actively participating in the child’s learning process, guiding them towards relevant books and other learning materials once a topic has piqued their interest, teaching where appropriate and connecting with the child/student to help them discover their true interests. As with home schooling in general, the outcome depends on some combination of the curiosity and abilities of the child in question and the skill of the parent in drawing out and empowering the child’s curiosity. Some go further and promote Radical Unschooling, which extends that freedom to all aspects of a child’s life.
Read our interview with Radical Unschooling advocate Dayna Martin.
Pros: Fosters very independent children
Cons: Total lack of structure, requires extremely high level of emotional skill and engagement.