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Is Alternative Education Really Progressive?


We started Kaspar in childcare for the first time this past fall, and, even at this early stage, I was struck by how strong my feelings were around wanting to delay—for as long as possible-- landing him in what I think of as a typical classroom environment; I essentially think of ‘school’ as a years-long lesson in learning by rote. (Gross). Yet I also didn’t want to just drop him in a completely unstructured daycare setting. We ended up going with a nearby Montessori preschool, and felt solidly aligned with the whole-person approach behind the Montessori educational model. Granted, most of America doesn’t have public nursery or preschools, so we were limited to private options, and chose the one that rang most true to us. But whether we’re opting for a Montessori classroom or choosing to eschew ‘school’ entirely, we’re now part of a growing wave of parents who, reflecting upon our own academic experiences and taking note of the skill sets required to thrive in today’s world (creativity, cooperation, and critical thinking, to name a few), are starting to question whether ‘school’ as we know it really serves our kids as well as it could. As you might have guessed, growing numbers of parents are, in answer to that question, coming up with ‘no’. And we’re making alternative educational choices as a result.

The experts agree-- although the numbers are tough to track-- that more parents than ever are opting out of regular school for their kids, and opting instead to custom-craft a range of educational experiences that are tailored to their own kids’ unique interests and needs. Like the family profiled in this article, too, many families are homeschooling, or even ‘unschooling’, as an extension of attachment parenting practices they adhered to while their children were babies and toddlers.

I never considered homeschooling Kaspar, personally; after juggling 100% of childcare ourselves for over a year, Aaron and I so appreciate the time that’s made available to us when Kaspar’s at ‘school’... we need that time so that we can work, for one thing, not to mention for thinking complete thoughts and having adult conversations. The attachment parents referenced in this first article frequently opted for homeschooling in order to keep that (24/7) attachment with their kids going past the toddler years; admissions of “this may sound selfish”, or one mom’s statement that it was hard to let her daughter go after breastfeeding past the age of four, make me wonder, however, whether the decision to homeschool is in fact for the kids’ benefit, or for the parents’. Although I can’t entirely relate to the latter possibility (I’m a better mom if I get some non-mom time each day), I do wanting options beyond the status-quo school day, and it seems that most families who homeschool make it work in the way that’s best for them. So while I can’t see our family pulling this off, my feelings toward homeschooling are ‘to each her own.’ If you want to homeschool, and your kids are into it, then by all means homeschool. Why not?

The article from, however, makes a strong argument against homeschooling, unschooling, and alternative (private etc.) schooling. The author suggests that while liberal, progressive families may be homeschooling at increasing rates-- and citing progressive reasons for doing so-- pulling their kids out of the public school system is not a progressive move; what it ends up doing is segregating the kids whose families can afford to commit to homeschooling, and are significantly invested in their childrens’ learning experiences, from the kids for whom these factors may not be at play. Studies show that kids with high learning aptitudes aren’t held back by kids who aren’t as academically strong. But those kids on the more challenged end of the spectrum do perform significantly better when sharing classrooms with high-performing peers. Given that huge (scary) percentages of kids in America aren’t read to by adults every day, and don’t have families with the resources or desires to complement (let alone completely overhaul) their educations at home, this presents a strong argument for schooling all of America’s children in the public sphere, thereby giving all kids the best shot possible at higher-level learning, and, presumably, better options later in life. Pulling our kids from the public school system creates an additional disadvantage for the kids who are left behind.

As the author also points out, a subtle message is communicated to kids through keeping them harnessed so closely to home; doing so suggests to them that public institutions aren’t of value, and that the public in general is not a good thing. The author also questions whether carefully assembling childrens’ communities fully prepares kids for real life in the real world, in which we all associate and interact with people from a variety of backgrounds. Lastly, the author posits that if parents are truly progressive, they’ll invest in their kids’ educations within the public schools, and push for more progressive, tailored teaching approaches in their kids’ public school classrooms (aptly pointing out that many public American classrooms are very much engaged with new approaches to learning that better meet kids’ needs... i.e. the ‘answer by rote’ game is in fact changing with the times).

While I think these points make a lot of sense, I also know that not all public schools are created equally. We don’t yet have a nationwide handle on the quality of our kids’ educations. Standardized testing aside, school funding, philosophies and student populations are heavily dependent upon location, and the enduring problem of poor school districts turning out dismal drop-out rates, and poor performance, persists. High-performing kids attending well-funded schools in wealthy school districts won’t exert a positive influence on their lower-performing peers in schools a few districts (or even neighborhoods) over that lack funds, materials, parent-community engagement and incentives for good teachers to stay. Public schools can totally work, and, when they do, more people utilize them-- I mean, isn’t the quality of local public schools a major factor in selling real-estate and the like? But the system is so variable that even if all of America’s kids did attend public school, we’d still have huge numbers of disadvantaged kids falling through the cracks.

Educational alternatives are unfortunately far more available to families who can afford them (we can barely afford our preschool of choice, let alone save for college)-- and do create unrealistic community bubbles for those families’ kids; I agree this is a downside. But their increasing popularity is actually evolving public school options, too. Public charter schools like Austin’s Discovery School, and public Montessori schools in California, reflect changing attitudes about what schools should provide for our kids, and, perhaps more signicantly, an effort on the part of parents and educators to bring more options to a broader student community.

Parents who want to extend attachment-parenting practices into the elementary years by homeschooling will surely continue to do so. It’s cool, too, that networks of these parents are teaming up to make that experience as rich as possible for their kids. But for parents like me-- who want our kids to benefit from progressive educational approaches, but don’t want to (or can’t) homeschool or un-school them-- hopefully alternative approaches will continue to be utilized within public school systems. If they are, our growing numbers will flow back into those systems, thereby leveling some of the downsides that removing our kids creates. There aren’t currently enough alternative public options to bring the majority of families who’ve opted out back into the system (as the author of the Slate article would like for us to do), but it seems clear to me that parents who value those options must continue to lobby for their availability in public education, whether or not our kids currently attend public schools.

Do you think homeschooling and unschooling are progressive or not? Do you think alternative and private education supports or delays progress in public school systems? Do your kids go to public school? Some kind of private alternative school? A public alternative school? Are you a homeschooling parent? What’s behind your educational choices for your kids? What do you love about your kids’ school? What would you want to change?

PS. I highly recommend this book for a fantastic overview of alterative educational options in America.

PPS. I’ve shared this link before and am sharing it again, just so we all continue to imagine great possibilities for public education.