Educational Philosophy & Practice

Exchanging A’s for Cash Money

I’m feeling a bit queasy after reading the story “Some D.C. Students to Be Paid for A’s” from 8/26/08. Here’s an excerpt:

Will middle school students hit the books, show up on time and be on their best behavior if they’re getting paid?

As Washington, D.C. students start back to school this week, that’s the thinking behind a new program just launched in the district. As early as October at 14 of 28 D.C. middle schools, students will get paid to perform as part of a pilot program that rewards kids for good grades, attendance, and behavior.

Kids could rake in up to $100 per month, getting paid every two weeks through the program.

Behind the program is D.C. schools Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who’s getting a lot of press for her new approaches to old problems. I’m all for new approaches, if they happen to be better than the old ones. Here’s the comment I posted on ABCnews:


Democratic Education in Public Schools: The Hope for a Hybrid

As you know, my heart is in democratic education (though I’d like to come up with a more inclusive term). After working closely with public schools for the last five years, the question for me has become, “How do we incorporate the values and practices of democratic schools into public schools?” Here are some of the reasons it’s much more of a challenge — though definitely not impossible:

  • Large classes. It’s nearly impossible for a teacher to customize the approach to the student when there are 20-30 kids in the class. I found it challenging to do so with 12 kids at a time at Spark. I often had to put the needs of the group over the needs of the individual.
  • Standardized curriculum and testing. The state and federal government requirements have become outrageously demanding under No Child Left Behind (I can’t even say those ironic words without wanting to vomit). In order for public schools to keep their doors open, they must continue to raise their test scores so that every child is deemed “proficient” in math and reading by 2014. Oh, the insanity. Future posts on this topic to come.
  • Lack of exposure. Most people haven’t heard about democratic education — I hadn’t myself until I’d almost graduated from college, even though I majored in Psychology. Information about successful alternatives in education and answers to frequently asked questions still haven’t hit the mainstream.
  • Lack of practical methods for incorporating student-centered learning into public schools. The reality is that most schools simply aren’t able to adopt a purely democratic model and may not know how to customize the approach and still meet their requirements. They need models for practices such as student-led parent conferences and after-school programs that give kids choice and voice in what they learn.

I want to assure teachers — especially at my own schools — that I understand the challenges they face, because I’ve worked in public education myself. This year, I hope to research programs and schools that have successfully applied democratic principles in traditional settings, and share what they’ve been able to do within their circumstances.

Recess all day?

Imagine a school where you could choose what you learn and how you learn it. Imagine having an equal vote, whether you’re age 5 or 17, on decisions like which teachers are hired, or what rules students and staff will follow. Imagine a school day where you could write a letter to the local newspaper, curl up and read your favorite novel, explore the woods, or create a computer program.

It wasn’t until my last year of college that I found out that schools like this exist. I came across the book Summerhill, now revised and published as Summerhill School: A New View of Childhood, about an English school that had been around since 1921. I mentioned the book in a class that I shared with Andrew Chen, and we began a friendship that drew us both — through a chain of events that now seems almost fated — into the world of democratic education.

Summerhill Students

Summerhill Students

If you’re not familiar with democratic education, it’s a philosophy and practice whose essence is “People of all ages have input into the decisions that affect them.” It seems like a common-sense idea, but most schools and families don’t operate this way. The adults make most of the decisions, and the kids have more input as they grow older. On the other hand, adults and kids at democratic schools (also called “non-coercive” or “free” schools) decide together how their schools operate, meeting regularly as a community and normally having a democratic system for decision making and conflict resolution. Students are in charge of how they use their time and direct their own education from a young age. If schools exist to prepare kids to participate in a democracy, this kind of education is crucial.