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Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
September 1, 1994
Vol. 52
No. 1

Overview / Alternatives—Old and New

      Reformers continue to call for restructuring schools, but the number of schools that are markedly different from the norm remains very small. And most of those engaged in restructuring are not ordinary public schools; they are alternatives. This issue of Educational Leadership begins with a set of articles describing several such schools, which to me are powerfully inspiring. I wish all schools had such staff commitment, spirit of community, and sense of purpose.
      But what makes a school an “alternative,” and what is it alternative to? Mary Anne Raywid (p. 26) notes that the term originated in the '60s in rebellion against traditional authoritarian institutions. Of the three generic types of alternatives she identifies, those that seek to make education “challenging and fulfilling for all involved” are, she says, clearly superior.
      Most of the alternatives Raywid has studied were devised by local educators and established as part of the regular school system. Now, though, we are seeing new types of alternatives, most of them created outside the local system and governed in ways that modify traditional approaches to accountability.
      One such initiative is the Whittle Corporation's Edison Project, which began as a competitor to public education, but is now offered to local boards of education for contracting. The Edison design, as described by CEO Benno Schmidt (p. 61), is very impressive. Some of us who heard a presentation explaining it to leaders of ASCD affiliates last May were intrigued but skeptical that a profit-making firm could manage to provide such a program at a funding level no greater than the district per-pupil average. If the project succeeds, it could have a profound effect on public education.
      Another type of alternative is the fast-growing phenomenon of home schooling. Chris Jeub (p. 50) is one of the well-educated, articulate parents who have decided to teach their own children rather than send them to school. A public school teacher himself, Jeub observes that parents have a variety of reasons for educating their children at home, but that many of them—such as Joel Riemer (p. 53)—do it because of their conservative religious beliefs.
      As home schooling has grown, educators have begun to rethink their attitudes toward it. Traditionally, public educators have resented the idea as a repudiation of their professional values. Now, school systems such as Ames, Iowa (p. 57), conduct workshops, offer materials, and provide opportunites for home-schooled children to participate in sports and social activities.
      The newest alternative, and one that may in the long run have the greatest impact on the structure and functioning of public school systems, is charter schools, now an option in 11 states and sure to become available in others. Louann Bierlein and Lori Mulholland (p. 34) specify nine elements of the “ideal” charter school, noting that no state has yet incorporated all nine in its model. The idea has attracted support from reformers, both conservative and progressive, because it combines innovation, site-based decision making, and choice.
      It is unlikely that most schools could—or would wish to—become charter schools any time soon, but these and other alternatives have considerable appeal to policy-makers looking for a fresh approach to the seemingly intractable problems of improving education. Advocates such as Debbie Meier (p. 4), co-principal of respected Central Park East, point out that a distinctive characteristic of most such schools is their size. Those intent on creating better schools might well heed her advice: “Start small.”

      Education writer and consultant Ron Brandt is the former editor of Educational Leadership and other publications of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD).

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