Top Three Objections to Democratic Schools -- And How To Respond (1 of 3)
1. This only works for privileged kids, so people who care about equality and social justice should focus on supporting public schools; anything else is elitist.
2. Colleges won’t accept students without diplomas from accredited schools.
3. This sounds like a nice idea, but kids need structure. Without required classes, children will just waste the time away and won’t learn important skills and content.
Most of us who believe in democratic education have someone in our lives -- a relative, a friend, a colleague -- who finds the idea threatening or who in some way misunderstands the purpose and practice of democratic schools. I'm fortunate that my family, including my retired schoolteacher mom, are fans of Sudbury schools. As a teacher myself, I hear from colleagues who want to debate the topic. While a healthy debate can be fun, I don’t expect to convince everybody, let alone those with a personal stake in rationalizing the need for standardized schooling. But, especially for those who are new to the concept, it can be disheartening when people respond to your excitement in a dismissive, skeptical tone. I’ve talked to plenty of critics, and have prepared this guide to help supporters respond to common, misguided objections to self-directed learning. Let's all get on the same page about why democratic learning is great. Instead of being defensive, you can respond to critics with confidence!
Part 1: “Sudbury schools might be nice for rich kids, but it doesn’t work in the ‘real world.’”
Many critics argue that public schools are the best and most fair way we have to provide a quality education to all children, but especially for poor children, who they argue would be left out by anything other than a free, public, standardized school system.
Others believe that they were personally smart and privileged enough to have been able to learn more independently, but that the poor kids they teach aren't so lucky. They are true believers in public education, and think democratic schools are elitist and/or misguided.
These kinds of access arguments all focus around the implied belief that schools have somehow operated as great levelers, institutions that rise above societal inequalities and become places of equal opportunity where anyone can succeed regardless of their background, a claim that is patently false. Schools have always closely mimicked larger cultural and social inequities and rich kids have always had huge advantages in a schooled culture. The scenario of well-funded and prospering schools in rich areas alongside nightmare schools with abysmal resources in poor neighborhoods is already the reality, as Jonathon Kozol has documented so clearly in Savage Inequalities.
Not only is there plenty of evidence to call into question the claim that standardized schooling reduces inequality, it is likely that it actually increases inequality. In Free to Learn, noted psychologist Peter Gray, of Boston College, describes several studies comparing the effects of evaluation on novices and experts. Perhaps it is not surprising that being judged makes those just learning a skill nervous. Formal evaluation tends to worsen their performance, while those who are already confident in their abilities tend to perform at the top of their game. Children with college educated parents, in homes full of books, exposed to intellectually stimulating conversation, museums, and world travel can be compared to the expert group. Meanwhile, kids from a poorer home environment tend to come to school as novices. The more the two groups are judged, pressured, and compared, the more their perceived academic abilities tend to diverge.
In contrast to a regimented, one-size-fits-all, age-segregated school where students are constantly judged and compared to their peers based on narrow measures of performance, a Sudbury school is more like the intellectually stimulating home described above. Children who may start with a relative disadvantage are not judged, and have time to soak up the intellectually stimulating atmosphere without becoming nervous. There is a greater variety of interests to pursue, and a greater chance to show expertise in some area sooner or later. Age mixing also gives children a chance to access their “zone of proximal development,” and learn from peers closer to, but just beyond, their level of expertise. We have plenty of educational theories to support the Sudbury model, and we also have a growing number of studies showing that graduates from all socioeconomic groups do better than average when it comes to college attendance, degree completion, and employment.
Founders of Sudbury schools like the Philly Free School work hard to provide this option on a sliding scale, or offer scholarships, and most democratic schools are significantly less expensive compared with other private schools. Staff at these schools regularly work for half of what public school teachers make, and while I don't believe this should be the norm, it is a fact that our detractors should keep in mind before they accuse us of elitism. I know from experience that many public school teachers work very hard, beyond what they're paid for, and do their best to engage the children they teach as individuals, with interesting, meaningful assignments. But we are restrained by the standards-based, control-oriented, age-segregated, bell-driven system of public education, and there are also plenty of teachers who are all too enthusiastic about trying to condition and control other people’s children. Sudbury schools provide a sorely needed alternative, and we should do everything we can to provide this option to more children.