Taking the well-schooled to school.

Oh, boy. Every so often, the media will wander over to Sudbury Valley School, and produce something like this, which flushes out people, even Catholics,  who write stuff like this.

The fundamental error in reasoning here is that a caricature of the Sudbury Model is held up for comparison to an idealized never existed in reality traditional classroom school. For over 40 years, critics have labeled Sudbury a ‘Lord of the Flies’ school, which is not only ignorant, but ironic – Lord of the Flies is about what happens when kids from a really “good” school – an elite English boarding school – are allowed, for once, to control their own behavior. Having only the examples of their teachers to follow – dominate, humiliate, control – they don’t do a good job.

In other words, people are attempting to mock Sudbury by reference to a work that is a satire on traditional English education and culture – rigid class structures, violence lurking just below the surface, the strong preying on the weak.  On the contrary, Sudbury in practice is the opposite of the English boarding school experience, and aims precisely to educate kids on how to behave when the choice is their own. 

Real traditional classroom schools, in the real world, are abject failures by any measure. Thought experiment: if you had only information on the family’s social and economic status and stability (e.g., 2 parents living at home or not, family income level, education level of parents) and had NO information of schooling at all – no grades, not even information on if they attended school at all – how well could you predict the future economic, social and academic achievements of the children?

I say: very, very well. Kids from stable families with a decent income level will – are you sitting down? – end up more often than not in stable relationships at a decent income. Kids from single-parent, impoverished homes will tend very strongly to end up impoverished with few stable relationships. Of course, there are exceptions, much beloved of teachers and made-for-TV-movie producers, but the rule remains: the nature of the family of origin is at least as good a predictor of future success as k-12 grades or school quality.

Academic ‘achievement’ K-12 is an effect, not a cause. This should be self-evident upon a moment’s reflection, but there’s proof – kids who go to Sudbury schools never take a test at school, never get a grade, never sit through a class they don’t want to take – and go on to college about 80% of the time (which, I’d bet, is pretty close to the % of their parents who have college degrees.)

So, if kids achieve at around the level of their parents regardless of what kind of schooling they get (see: all of recorded history), why, exactly, are we subjecting kids to 13 years of the tender ministrations of people who, statistically, are from the bottom 20% of college grads? Who are alleged to be the most likely to have cheated to get their degrees?

The second gross error in reasoning is accusing the Sudbury Model of not addressing issues that are never addressed in traditional schools anyway. For example, if a kid is really undisciplined, do you really think a classroom teacher is going to *make* them disciplined? If a kid is a criminal, is a classroom teacher going to straighten them out? If a kid has learned from his mom and a procession of live-in boyfriends that there is no such thing as a sacred or even stable relationship, is school going to make them loving and faithful? Please note that, even in the movies, it’s not run of the mill school that saves these kids – it’s radical and extreme intervention of real people in their lives. For a counter example – can you imagine a remedial algebra class, with the 30 seconds of personal attention per day a kid is likely to get, is going to straighten out some kid whose biological father is in jail and whose mother is on crack? 13 years of classes like that won’t help.

But Sudbury Schools get peppered with: but what about kids who don’t *have* any self control? What about kids who just want to sit on their behinds all day? What about kids who don’t know what they really want to learn?  Well, what about them? Do you really imagine a traditional classroom is doing anything for the (surprisingly small number of) kids with these problems? Really? Yet Sudbury Schools are to be excoriated for NOT doing for kids something that no school has EVER done for kids.

Anyway, with 15 years of experience now, I can say: kids from Sudbury schools do about as well as their parents. If their parents are screwed up, the kids are very likely to be screwed up. If the parents are calm and successful, the kids are very likely to be calm and successful. If the parents are economically prosperous, the kids will do OK. If the parents are impoverished, the kids will likely be impoverished. If the parents went to college, the kids are very likely to go to college. Sudbury Schools do a great job of allowing kids to learn how to be responsible, articulate, focused and happy, to be very comfortable in social situations with people of all ages, and to develop a small-d democratic aversion to being bossed around.  They can use these skills to be more free, happy and successful, if they so choose. But are we solving every interpersonal, economic and social problem? Nope, and neither are any other schools, no matter what they may claim.

Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s