Mark Oppenheimer visits the (in)famous Sudbury Valley School — which doesn’t group children into grades, doesn’t give out grades, either, has no curriculum, gives the kids a vote on every issue, etc. — and finds it a dangerous place to visit:
It upends your views about what school is for, why it has to cost as much as it does, and whether our current model makes any sense at all. But what’s most amazing about the school, a claim the founders make which was backed up by my brief observations, my conversations with students, and the written recollections of alumni, is that the school has taken the angst out of education. Students like going there, and they like their teachers. Because they are never made to take a class they don’t like, they don’t rue learning. They don’t hate homework because they don’t have homework. School causes no fights with their parents.
He found himself scrutinizing even the smallest commitment to a canon of knowledge:
But the Sudbury advocates would also say that even if a given student never picks up on some bit of knowledge that we civilians deem essential, then so what? The tradeoff made at Sudbury is worth it: Every child will have some blind spots—and don’t children in most public schools, and even the best private schools, have blind spots?—but Sudbury children have a radical sense of empowerment and responsibility for their own education.
I find that answer pretty satisfying, in part because I don’t think that public or private education is good at teaching an academic canon of knowledge, anyway. A 2007 poll by the University of Connecticut found that about 20 percent of college students thought that Martin Luther King had something to do with ending slavery. On a personal note, an inspection of my own high school transcript—from a very rigorous, and expensive, high school—forced me to confess that everything that I remember is from classes in subjects I loved: history, English, French, and philosophy. I remember no geometry, trigonometry, or calculus, no chemistry or physics—none—and scant biology. If I had been at a Sudbury school, and spent those lab hours just reading history and novels instead, would I be worse off, or better off?
He thinks there are aspects of the Sudbury schools that even a public school without a lot of wiggle room could borrow:
For example, Sudbury Valley and its peer schools have rejected the overly regimented school day, where learning stops the moment the minute hand hits the right spot; the pointless segregation of students by age and year; and the anxiety that comes with grading. Couldn’t a public school do all that? Sudbury has also shown that students, enforcing community standards through representative committees, can keep order as well as the principal’s office. Yes, these schools have fewer students, all of them self-selected. Sudbury Valley, the largest Sudbury school, has never got larger than 200 students—we have no way to know at what size its sense of community would break down.
And of course the Sudbury staff and students will be the first to say that the model only works because everyone there chose it.