Overview of Alternative Education Research Paper Starter

Overview of Alternative Education

Beginning in the mid-nineteenth century, public schooling became organized in the U.S. to prepare a workforce for a developing industrial society. Government control over curriculum, teacher certification and achievement standards are characteristics of public education. Alternatively, theories and methodologies of child-centered education focus on developing the innate potential believed to exist in each individual learner. Alternative educational approaches are implemented in a variety of private schools and also in publicly-funded charter and magnet schools. Publicly funded alternative programs especially are available for students considered at risk of dropping out of school. Multiple viewpoints on alternative education are held by advocates of learner-centered education and skeptics who desire more stringent evaluation data related to student academic outcomes.

Keywords Alternative Education; At-Risk Students; Charter Schools; Child-Centered Education; Common School; Continuation Schools; Learning Centers; Magnet Schools; Multi-Cultural Schools; No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 (NCLB); Non-Traditional Education; Private Schools; Progressive Education; Public Education; Social Efficiency


There have been various manifestations of alternative education dating back to the 1840's when public education began in the United States. Prior to then, many towns had schools, attendance was voluntary, and school subjects were confined to the "three Rs" -reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students in rural areas, living in a predominantly agrarian society, attended school for only a few months each year (Oslo, 1999; Tyack, 1999).

The U.S. public school system was established to support the needs of a developing industrial society that began after the American Revolution. The common school system, which has developed since 1837, was created to build loyal citizens and effective workers for the purpose of social efficiency (Miller, 2007). Under this model-that continues in current times-education is provided for children of the general public with control and funding coming from local, state and federal governments. Public education involves compulsory student attendance (until a certain age) and government direction over the curriculum, certification of teachers and testing standards.

During the early years of public education, Americans were adjusting to the new industrial society. Leaders looked for ways to find order for the collective as they knew it, and as they wanted it to remain. They were also concerned about the great number of immigrants whom they feared would challenge the American way. The public school system began to be seen as the place where children could be brought up in a way that would preserve traditional values and social institutions (Johanningmeier, 2006).

Alternative vs. Traditional Education

Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education, is based on philosophies, school structures, and teaching methodologies that focus on the development of an individual learner instead of on the economic needs and social norms of the public collective. Under this model, the individual is assumed to have abilities that-when cultivated through education-will allow the individual, regardless of gender or cultural, racial and economic background, to achieve personal fulfillment that includes becoming a contributing member of a broader collective.

Cuban and Tyack (1995, as cited in Emery, 2000) suggest that there are common threads to alternative education movements that have recurred over the decades and can be described as a pendulum that swings between two poles, traditional public education at one pole and alternative education at the other. They describe this pendulum as moving:

• From socializing students to be obedient, to teaching students to be critical thinkers;

• From passing on what is considered the best academic knowledge, to teaching practical knowledge and skills;

• From inculcating basic skills, to nurturing creativity and higher order thinking;

• From only providing the basics, to allowing for a range of choices;

• From fostering assimilation into a dominant culture, to affirming diversity;

• From affirming gender roles, to challenging gender roles; and

• From preserving the advantages of a favored class, to providing equal opportunity to achieve high status and profitable remuneration for all (Cuban & Tyack, 1995, as cited in Emery, 2000).

Progressive Education

The roots of the first alternative school movement come from three European philosopher-educators-Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, and Friedrich Froebel. Their emphasis on child-centered education and the belief in the innate potential of human nature was the philosophy that Francis Parker, who, with John Dewey, promoted the advancing education movement in the U.S. in the latter part of the 19th century.

During the progressive education movement, two European educational pioneers designed alternative teaching methods also based on the philosophies of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel. Maria Montessori was an Italian pediatrician who opened her first "children's home" in 1907 and Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian philosopher, applied a spiritual science in the first Waldorf School in 1919. Both of these methods are based on using schooling to develop the innate abilities of the learner and have influenced alternative education movements, especially in private schools, throughout U.S. education history.


The second alternative education movement that is noted by educational historians began in the 1960's and is called by various terms including free schools, humanistic education, or holistic education. Miller (2007) describes “the period between 1967 and 1972 as a time when racial justice, pacifism, feminism, and opposition to corporate capitalism exploded into public view and credits educators-including Paul Goodman, John Holt, Jonathan Kozol, Herbert Kohl, George Dennison, James Herndon and Ivan Illich-launched passionate attacks against the ‘one best system’ and its agenda of social efficiency” (Miller, 2007, ¶ 7). Open classrooms and magnet schools were introduced. The focus on child-centered education of Rousseau, Pestalozzi and Froebel began to seep back into educational circles by the late 1970's.

The Return of Traditional Education

Miller (2007) contends that during the last thirty years, traditional values have been reasserted in public education. His examples include the 1983 report, A Nation at Risk by the Reagan administration; America 2000, an agenda of the Bush administration; and Goals 2000 of the Clinton era. Each of these led to a number of legislative mandates directed at producing disciplined citizens and prepared workers for a competitive global economy. Tighter state and federal control over learning, politically mandated outcomes, and national standardized tests are characteristics of modern public education (Miller, 2007).

The No Child Left behind Act of 2001, commonly known as NCLB, is the latest federal legislation that directs U.S. public education based on the philosophy that higher...

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