Four Diverse Educational Models Born from Reform Discontent
While many alternative schools have sprouted from discontent around efforts to reform public schools, some of these new schools feature entirely new models. Why keep trying the same failing pathway? Or so goes the rationale of four of the most pioneering of new schooling forms:
1. Virtual Schools
Instruction is delivered in virtual schools without the need for a physical space or infrastructure, because learning takes place primarily via technology. Virtual schools also offer everything available to students in physical schools, such as rules that must be followed, a teaching staff, organized field trips, and parent–teacher conferences. Although they didn’t surface until the 1990s, the popularity of virtual schools is evidenced by the fact that half of all states in America now offer some type of online learning program. Almost three quarters of a million students incorporate online learning into their education. In fact, due to the need of the current generation to possess online literacy, Michigan recently made it compulsory for students to include online learning as part of their education.
One of the most significant characteristics of virtual schools is their ability to offer specialized programs not offered at conventional high schools. Another unique feature of virtual schools is the 24/7 accessibility, a quality that has proven very attractive to students. There are no set times for class. Virtual classrooms not only tailor classes to students’ individual learning interests by offering specialized courses; they also make it easier for students from anywhere in the world to take part in offered classes and programs.
The initial rationale behind establishing virtual high schools was to supplement conventional high school programs. But the convenience and unique qualities possible with virtual learning formats resulted in the development of fully functioning high schools. From a personnel perspective, the virtual school is a solution to teacher shortages. Perhaps the greatest benefit of the virtual high school model is that it has opened up new possibilities for certain student groups, such as those with disabilities, those who are homeschooled, and even students who attend schools that lack the funding to provide specialized courses.
The virtual high school model has not been without its skeptics. Opponents suggest the virtual model alienates students. They maintain that schools teach social skills as well as academics and that social skills cannot be taught online.
2. The For-Profit Model
The for-profit model exists as a result of discontent by parents and other education stakeholders with the seemingly inability of traditional schools to address achievement and other educational needs of students. The model is based on the notion that a different approach to management of schools would lead to better educational outcomes. Education management organizations (EMOs) are for-profit companies that manage schools from a corporate model. They’re guided by the belief that they must deliver the “product” (i.e., student achievement) to clients (i.e., parents, students, and school boards) to stay in business. And because EMOs receive the same per-pupil funding from states as traditional schools, they must be able to use those funds more efficiently to make a profit. Some schools have been unable to raise achievement levels; EMOs believe they must do so in order to remain viable. EMOs primarily manage charter schools, but they also collaborate with school districts to manage traditional schools.
Edison Schools, Inc., is currently the largest EMO in the nation. EMOs like Edison contend that competition brought about by privatization of schooling would serve as motivation for improved schools that would subsequently lead to improved achievement among students. Given the choice, parents would send students to successful schools, causing organizations unable to run successful schools to go out of business. That’s not the case with government-run schools, EMOs would suggest, because some state- or district-run schools are allowed to operate year after year without improving student achievement.
Edison Schools manages 150 schools with 85,000 students across the United States. Their schools rely heavily on technology, and they often supply both teachers and students with computers. Edison Schools also have longer school days than traditional schools, with students normally attending schools for 8 hours a day. Teachers have more preparation time than is normally granted in regular public school settings. Researchers at Columbia University found that teachers at Edison Schools possessed higher morale than teachers in public schools and were passionate about teaching in Edison-run schools. But EMOs like Edison Schools are not without critics. Some education advocates believe that if schools were privatized, companies might focus more on profit than on the education and well-being of students.
Discontent with traditional schools is also the impetus for the popularity of homeschooling. This is an educational model on the increase, with approximately 1.5 million students being homeschooled across the United States in 2007. That’s an incredible increase when compared to a population of 13,000 homeschooled students 30 years ago. The advent of the Internet has been one of the leading drivers behind this popularity. Apart from discontent over the perceived lack of effectiveness in traditional schools, parents may choose to homeschool their children for other reasons, including perceptions that traditional schools are unsafe and/or a desire for religion to be a larger part of their children’s education than is possible in public schools.
Generally, research suggests that homeschooling is an effective way to educate children. Student performance tends to exceed that of students in traditional schools. Skeptics of homeschooling refer to the negative consequences of social alienation and other social benefits that only a conventional school can offer, such as mixing with children of different backgrounds. This criticism is unfounded, because homeschooling does not appear to have a negative impact on students’ socialization. Homeschooled students appear to be well prepared to continue education beyond their homeschool learning environment and also appear to be more autonomous.
4. School Vouchers
The voucher program, in which school education vouchers allow parents to use federal funds for private tuition, has been toyed with since the 1950s. Many agree with the use of vouchers in theory, but practical problems make it difficult to implement their use. It’s tricky to come up with an equal system when private schools and public schools may have widely varying costs per pupil. And no one has agreed on the requirements for eligibility for particular categories of students. Currently, students can fall into widely divergent categories, depending on the school system involved. Categories could range from students with autism, to students with disabilities, to students grouped by age, income, or residence.
The use of private vouchers, as it turns out, is less popular than the use of vouchers associated with public systems. In the private voucher systems, monies are typically collected from individual donors, such as religious organizations or corporations. The funds are then awarded through grants to low-income families.
A program very similar to the voucher system involves tax credits. Expenses for schooling are credited through the tax system with reimbursements. The voucher and tax credit programs may appear to be controlled by market forces, but that’s not the case in practice. Issues that arise during the administration of these types of programs include limits on particular students allowed to participate, the entanglement of bureaucracy, and financial limits.
There are pros and cons to alternative schooling, but the new systems at least are trying to solve new problems with innovative approaches. Are you up-to-date on the latest news in alternative schooling? How can you use information on its successes (and failures) to help guide your own teaching?