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Labeling Quality as "Alternative"

"Quit making alternative education programs the 'alternative.' "

These are the thoughts of Sir Ken Robinson, a renowned "educationalist" who champions the deliberate inclusion of creativity in contemporary classrooms. He's brilliant in his insight, experience and forward-thinking posture. He's an instructional guru. Let's allow a more expansive expression of his perspective. "Non-alternative education, or what we currently think of as the 'normal' way of doing things in American education, encourages a kind of conformity. Yes, we all need to learn to add and read; that's a good thing to conform to. But as it is, education is forcing a lot of American kids to pour themselves into a one-size-only mold. The result is that (too many) children just jump out of the mold entirely."

The label of "Alternative Education" represents the fourth of my identified potentially harmful labels frequently applied in the field of American public education. I am dedicating this post to the exclusive examination of this label because it serves to accomplish two negative outcomes: 1) It suggests that students who do not easily fit into the mold of "regular education" are, somehow, outliers, "odd" or deficient and, 2) that the approaches utilized in "alternative education" settings are in some way radical or should be considered with a degree of cautious suspicion. Both of these conclusions are simultaneously misinformed, short-sided, dangerous and just plain wrong.

For the final thirteen years of my professional career, I served as the principal of a school that was considered "alternative." Ours was a school that was deliberate in its interest to cultivate thinkers, innovators and risk takers. We held high expectations for both the students and the adults serving them. We deliberately focused on the inherent interests and motivation of our students. We deliberately offered a curriculum that did not mimic that of the comprehensive schools in our district, while steadfastly adhering to the established learning outcomes of the system. We deliberately sought to assure that the instructional experiences we offered were relevant to our learners. And we deliberately listened to kids, and made our best effort to understand their personal and academic goals. Again, quoting Sir Robinson, "Alternative education programs tell a different story. They're set up not as mechanical molding systems, but human systems."

Are you curious about the outcome? We consistently had a 96-100% on time graduation rate (compared to 77% for our state and 85.9% for the district). We saw 100% of our graduates successfully pursue post-secondary training, many to rather prestigious institutions. (Can we say USC, Julliard, Columbia, UCLA, Berklee School of Music, NYU? You get the idea.) Yet, we were considered "alternative."

So, ask yourself this question. What would I want for my child, my grandchild, the students in my classroom? Would I prefer the status quo, the typical standardized "regular education" model that pervades our instructional systems, and the results it produces, or the "alternative" approach I just described? I know my answer. And, I speculate that it is consistent with the views of the majority of people who are invested in our system of public education. So, what's wrong?

What's wrong? Again, bowing to Sir Ken Robinson, is this: "We have failed to adapt to the 21st century. We have cultivated a very narrow conception of intelligence, and while academic work is important in itself and rewarding for the people who enjoy it, it should not be seen as the sole measure of intelligence. We need to think differently. We need to look at the alternatives. The alternatives work. And the great challange now, I think, and the great hope of alternative education, is to take these alternatives from the fringe to the mainstream. And I think when we do that we will find that we don’t need alternatives to education because we will have implemented principles that actually work.”

My professional experience and the commentary in my book, The Education Kids Deserve, reinforce Sir Ken's assertion. "The alternatives work."

No longer can we we find comfort that the memorization of facts is sufficient to define a thorough education. No longer can we be satisfied with the outcomes of standardized tests as a measure of the effectiveness of our educational systems. No longer can we expect a conformist attitude among our students if we hope to propel them, and our national interests, to new levels of achievement. No longer should we find satisfaction that any number less than 100% of students realizing academic and personal success is sufficient as the result of their thirteen years in our public education system.

What all kids need, The Education Kids Deserve, is the thoughtful inclusion of relationships, relevant content and program personalization in their educational journey. That is the very premise of "alternative education", a concept that should, and must, be considered the norm rather than the exception to our public education experience.

Labels, and words in general, matter.

Again, Sir Robinson: "Quit making alternative education programs the 'alternative.' "

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