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Alternative education

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Alternative education

Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education or educational alternative, includes a number of approaches to teaching and learning separate from that offered by mainstream or traditional education. Educational alternatives are rooted in a number of philosophies differing from those of mainstream education. Although some alternatives have political, scholarly or philosophical orientations, others were begun by informal associations of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspects of mainstream education. Educational alternatives (which include charter, alternative and independent schools and home-based learning) vary, but usually emphasize small class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers and a sense of community.


  • Terminology 1
  • Origins 2
  • In the United States 3
    • School choice 3.1
    • Alternative school 3.2
      • Dropout prevention 3.2.1
    • Independent schools 3.3
    • Homeschooling 3.4
    • Self-education 3.5
  • In other countries 4
    • Canada 4.1
      • Origins 4.1.1
      • School Types 4.1.2
    • India 4.2
    • Japan 4.3
    • United Kingdom 4.4
    • The Netherlands 4.5
  • See also 5
  • References 6
  • Further reading 7
  • External links 8


Alternative education refers to education which does not conform to a conventional standard. In the United States the public-school system may set this standard, although public schools adopt an alternative approach as well. Synonyms for "alternative" in this context include "non-traditional," "non-conventional" and "non-standardized". Alternative educators use terms such as "authentic", "holistic" and "progressive".[1] The U.S. Department of Education describes an alternative school as “a public elementary/secondary school that: 1) addresses needs of students that typically cannot be met in a regular school; 2) pro- vides nontraditional education; 3) serves as an adjunct to a regular school; or 4) falls outside the categories of regular, special education, or vocational education”[2]


Alternative education presupposes a tradition to which the "alternative" is opposed. This limits the term to the last two or three centuries and the growth of standardized, compulsory primary and secondary education. Nineteenth-century educators, including Swiss humanitarian Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi; the American transcendentalists Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau; founders of progressive education John Dewey and Francis Parker, and educational pioneers such as Friedrich Fröbel, Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (founder of the Waldorf schools) believed that education should cultivate the moral, emotional, physical, psychological, and spiritual aspects of the developing child. Anarchists such as Leo Tolstoy and Francisco Ferrer Guardia emphasized education as a force for political liberation, secularism and the elimination of class distinctions. After World War II an alternative Reggio Emilia approach to early-childhood education was developed in Italy, introduced by Loris Malaguzzi.

individualist, anarchist, and libertarian perspectives. Other writers, from Paulo Freire to American educators Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol, have criticized mainstream Western education from the viewpoint of liberal and radical politics. The argument for an approach catering to the interests and learning style of an individual is supported by research suggesting that a learner-responsible model is more effective than a teacher-responsible one.[3] Ron Miller has identified five elements common to educational alternatives:[4]

  1. Respect for the person
  2. Balance
  3. Decentralization of authority
  4. Noninterference among the political, economic, and cultural spheres of society
  5. A holistic worldview

In the United States

A variety of educational alternatives exist at the elementary, secondary and tertiary level in four categories: school choice, alternative schools, independent schools and home-based education.

School choice

Public-school alternatives in the U.S. include separate schools, classes, programs and semi-autonomous "schools within schools". Public school-choice options are open to all students, although some have waiting lists. Among these are charter schools, combining private initiatives and state funding, and magnet schools, which attract students to a particular program (such as the performing arts).

Alternative school

"Alternative school" describes a number of educational approaches employing nontraditional philosophies, curricula and methods. Some alternative schools have a strong philosophical, political or practical orientations; others are ad hoc assemblies of teachers and students seeking to explore possibilities unavailable in traditional education.

Dropout prevention

Advocates of programs designed to prevent (or discourage) students from leaving secondary school before graduation believe that leaving school without a diploma negatively impacts an individual's professional and personal life and society at large. Individual schools have tried to address the problem; three programs have been used in the U.S.:

  • Check and Connect: A dropout-prevention model developed in Minnesota in a partnership with the University of Minnesota, local public schools and community service organizations and focusing in on students with learning, emotional and behavioral disabilities.[5] Students are paired with a mentor, who assesses attendance, academics and overall performance with discussions twice a month. This individual attention connects the student with school personnel and family- and community-service providers if intervention is needed.[6]
A 1998 study by Sinclair and colleagues shows overall positive effects on 94 high school students from Minneapolis public schools in the program. The study found that students enrolled in the program were somewhat less likely to drop out of school after the end of freshman year (nine percent, compared with 30 percent). The positive outcome remained after the final checkup at the end of senior year: 39 percent of students in the program dropped out of high school, compared to 58 percent of those not enrolled. Program students also earned more course credits in their ninth-grade year than non-program students.[6] According to the Dakota County schools in Minnesota, the cost of implementing the program was about $1,400 per student in 2001 and 2002.[6]
  • Career Academies: Targeting the most at-risk students, Career Academies are a school-within-a-school model with a career-themed approach to learning. About 2,500 academies are operated nationwide.[5] Found in larger high schools, it creates a smaller community by keeping students with the same teachers for three or four years. The program requires students to take career-related courses in subjects such as finance and technology, partnering with local employers to offer internships.[6]
A 2000 study by Kemple and Snipes shows overall positive effects for 1,700 high school students in nine Career Academies. The study found that the most at-risk students participating in the program produced fewer dropouts (21 percent, compared with 32 percent).[5] Forty percent of Academy students had earned enough credits by their senior year to graduate, compared with 25 percent of non-Academy students. According to the California Partnership Academies, Career Academies intervention cost $600 more per pupil than for a non-Academy student in 2004.[6]
  • Talent Development High School: Developed in 1994 by the Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk, the program was initiated at Patterson High School in Baltimore, Maryland. The TDHS approach is a wholistic intervention, with dropout prevention as one component. It divides a large high school into smaller learning communities (like Career Academies), with a more-extensive program.[5] There is a ninth-grade academy, a career academy for the upper grades and a "Twilight" after-school program for students with discipline and attendance problems. The program reforms students’ low expectations and schools’ poor academic preparation through a college-preparatory curriculum in ninth and tenth grades and increased emphasis on English and mathematics.[6]
A 2005 study by Kemple, Herlihy, and Smith, following 30 groups of participants for four years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, found that students in the program earned slightly more course credits over the first two years of high school than those not in the program (9.5 credits, compared with 8.6 credits), and were somewhat more likely to progress to tenth grade (68 percent, compared with 60 percent).[6] According to Johns Hopkins University 's Center for the Social Organization of Schools (CSOS) (developer of the initiative), average costs for a student participating in the Talent Development High School model are an additional $350 a year per student.[6]

On March 1, 2010, President Barack Obama called on the states to identify and focus on schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. Those districts may be eligible for federal aid, since his budget proposal included $900 million in "school turnaround grants" in addition to $3.5 billion in federal aid the administration committed to persistently low-performing schools. The president committed $50 million to the Graduation Promise Fund.[7]

Independent schools

Independent, or private, schools have flexibility in staff selection and educational approach. Many are Montessori and Waldorf schools (the latter also known as Steiner schools, after their founder Rudolf Steiner). Other independent schools include democratic or free schools, such as the Sudbury schools, open classroom schools, those based on experiential education and schools using an international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate and Round Square schools.


Families seeking alternatives for educational, philosophical or religious reasons, or if there is no nearby educational alternative may opt for home-based education. A minor branch is unschooling, an approach based on interest rather than a curriculum. Others enroll in umbrella schools which provide a curriculum. Some homeschool families form a cooperative, where parents with expertise in a subject may teach a children from a number of families while their children are taught by other parents.


Self-directed inquiry is recognized at all levels of education, from the "unschooling" of children to the autodidacticism of adults, and may occur separately from (or with) traditional forms of education.[8]

In other countries


To add a historical context, in Canada education falls under the jurisdiction of the provincial government. The term "alternative school" first became more familiar in educational vocabulary in the early 1970s with several small elementary and secondary schools being introduced into public school boards of education.


In Canada alternative education stems from two philosophical educational points of view, Progressive and Libertarian.[9] According to Levin, 2006 the term "alternative" was adopted partly to distinguish these schools from the independent, parent-student-teacher-run "free" schools that preceded them (and from which some of the schools actually evolved) and to emphasize the boards' commitment to options within the public school system. Progressive educational tradition places emphasis on both the need to incorporate curriculum and teaching to match the stages of child development and the gradual integration of the child into adult society through planned experiential learning. The sources of stimulus would be from the philosopher John Dewey in the United States, from post WW1 New Schools in Great Britain and the Steiner/Waldorf schools in Europe. The Libertarian tradition focuses on the rights of the parents and children to make their own educational and life choices. As noted by Levin “It is rooted in the belief to uphold the individual freedom and the innate goodness of the child against institutional and social conformity and the corrupting influences of modern society.”[9]

School Types

The 1980s saw a shift to special schools and/or programs for those students that excelled in academia, were artistically talented, or through programs linking schooling with the workplace in a co-operative venture. It might be considered as a natural evolution of education to offer options and not a regimented one size fits all approach. Most alternative high schools falling under public jurisdiction offered independent study programs, basic-skills programs, and were mini-high schools with a mixture of conventional and nonconventional courses, and schools with an arts focus. They also offered smaller classes, closer and more informal relations with teachers, and greater flexibility in course selection and timetabling. The most recent development within alternative education in Canada may be to follow the United States in their “Charter School” movement. In the US specific states have passed legislation permitting their departments of education or local school boards to issue "charters" directly to individual schools wishing to operate autonomously. Alberta is the first province that has already embraced this model.[9]


Since the early 20th century, educators have discussed and implemented alternative forms of education, such as Rabindranath Tagore's Visva-Bharati University, Sri Aurobindo's Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education, Krishnamurti schools and The Peepal Grove School.[10] Traditional learning in India involved students living in gurukulas, where they received free food, shelter and education from a guru ("teacher" in Sanskrit). Progress was based on tests given by the gurus, and the system aimed to nurture students' creativity and personality development. Although mainstream education in India is based on the system introduced by Lord Macaulay, a few projects aim to rejuvenate the earlier method. Some students in these (and similar) projects conduct research in Sanskrit studies, Vedic studies, Vedic science, yoga and ayurveda. Others, after completing their education in a gurukula, enter mainstream higher education.


Japanese education is a nationwide, standardized system under the Ministry of Education. The only alternative options have been accredited, private schools with more freedom of curricula (including textbook choice; public schools are limited to government-approved textbooks), teaching methods and hiring guidelines. Nearly all private schools require a competitive entrance examination and charge tuition, with few scholarships available. Interest in alternative education was sparked during the 1980s by student violence and bullying, school refusal, social anxiety disorder and, in the worst cases, suicide; the desire to enable young people to keep up with a globalized economy is an additional impetus.

"Free school" is a term used to describe a non-profit group (or independent school) which specializes in the care and education of children who refuse to attend standard schools. The first democratic school was founded in 1985 as a shelter for children avoiding the school environment, and a number of other such schools have been established. In 1987 the first of seven Waldorf schools in Japan was founded, and other alternatives include a growing homeschooling movement.

In 2003 Japan introduced Special Zones for Structural Reform (構造改革特別区域), based on China’s Special Economic Zone policy, which enable the opening of government-accredited schools providing alternative education. Two years later, the first such school was founded.

Despite the schools' high tuition, some parents send their children to International Baccalaureate program.

United Kingdom

In 2003, there were about 70 alternative schools in the United Kingdom. Summerhill School was established by A.S. Neill in 1921, as the first of a number of democratic schools; most have since closed, except for Summerhill, Sands School, Park School and Small Acres School. There are 34 Steiner-Waldorf schools in the UK, and homeschooling is another alternative. Though alternative schools were until recently all fee-paying, the introduction of state-funded Free Schools since 2011 has been changing the educational landscape. So far only one of the free schools funded has been an alternative (Steiner) school.

Confusingly the mainstream state-funded sector sometimes uses the term 'alternative education' to refer to pupil referral units and other provision for children who's behavioural issues mean they cannot continue in mainstream primary or secondary schools..

The Netherlands

The Intercultural Open University provides an alternative for person-centered graduate education. In keeping with the philosophy of alternative education, the university does not issue grades; instead, narrative evaluations are used for assessment. There are no academic departments or paid faculty and staff; its faculty and staff are volunteers. Students develop a self-directed, individualized curriculum under the guidance of a faculty advisor.

See also


  1. ^ Martin, Robin Ann (November 2000). "An Introduction to Educational Alternatives". Alternative Education Resource Organization. Paths of Learning. Retrieved 16 October 2014. 
  2. ^ U.S. Department of Education (2007b). "Appen- dix B: Glossary." Overview of public elemen- tary and secondary students, staff, schools, school districts, revenues, and expenditures: School year 2004-05 and fiscal year 2004". U.S. Department of Education. Retrieved 16 October 2014. 
  3. ^ J. Scott Armstrong (2012). "Natural Learning in Higher Education". Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. 
  4. ^ Ron Miller, Self-Organizing Revolution, Holistic Education Press, 2008
  5. ^ a b c d Tyler, J. and Lofstrom, M. (Spring 2009), Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery 
  6. ^ a b c d e f g h "Intervention: Check & Connect". U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. 1 September 2012. 
  7. ^ The White House (2010, March 1). President Obama Announces Steps to Reduce Dropout Rate and Prepare Students for College and Careers. Retrieved from the White House website:
  8. ^ Hayes, C. (1989), Self-University 
  9. ^ a b c Levin, Malcolm (February 2007). "Alternative Education". Retrieved October 2014. 
  10. ^ a list of some alternative schools in India

Further reading

  • Churchill, Christian J. and Gerald E. Levy. (2012) The Enigmatic Academy: Class, Bureaucracy, and Religion in American Education, Philadelphia, PA: Temple University Press.

External links

  • Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)
  • International Association for Learning Alternatives
  • Informal Education
  • Special Education in Alternative Education Programs (ERIC Digest E585)
  • National Coalition of Alternative Community Schools
  • National Association for the Legal Support of Alternative Schools
  • Reggio Children Foundation
  • Eklavya (Indian educational NGO)
  • Iowa Association of Alternative Education
  • Oklahoma Technical Assistance Center
  • Learning for a Cause (in Japanese)
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