Apparently I'm in a "type grand theories" mood this morning, and since I sent several leading questions on OKCupid last week, I've been devoting my brain power to answering the replies. For your edification, here's a rambling explanation of my educational history and theory.
I went to elementary school at University Hill Elementary in Boulder, which (until a year or so ago) was structured as an experiential education school. I don't know from a theoretical level what exactly that entails, but it translated into lots of field trips, deep studies of topics in science and nature (you could tell a kid from Uni Hill because he could talk for half an hour about wolves or owls or the water cycle with more knowledge about the subject than any adult in the room). The school had a number of important principles, like noncompetition (to the point that the science fair was controversial because only 15 projects could go to the district level), and nonviolent communication (getting sent to the office was not "detention," but "give some thought," with a formal process for writing or drawing what you did, who it hurt, why it was a problem, and what you can do next time). In addition to lots of kids of hippies, the school also had a bilingual program. In the end, the bilingual end of things ended up taking over since BVSD's all-bilingual school was closed due to budget cuts and the sudents all got transferred to Uni Hill. The preponderance of non-experiential bilingual kids shifted the school's focus and the experiential program didn't have enough interest to keep going. I wish there had been more interaction between the bilingual kids and the non-bilingual kids, but we tended not to hang out with people we weren't in class with.
I then spent two years in a regular middle school. I was involved in computer club, trivia bowl, etc. and was vice president of student council. But I was also annoyed at the "teacher to blackboard to student" educational style and rigid structure of homework and classwork (even though I got almost all As).
I then went to New Vista High School, which uses the term "non-traditional school." My freshman year was the second year the school was open, so there was a lot of things that were still being worked out (like what the schedule of the week was and what the best approach was to science). Like Uni Hill, students called teachers by their first name and sat at tables, not desks. As a high school, the students are a lot more aware of the theoretical educational approach of the school. The focus is on learning and understanding concepts, not memorizing facts. A lot of class sessions take a socratic seminar form, where everyone reads the text in advance and discusses the meaning together, the teacher serving as a guide to the conversation rather than as the holder of knowledge about the text. A lot of the classes are project-focused, with the approach that depth is more important (at least as a skill) than breadth. Even math classes are strucutred with projects -- a student may be assigned to a particular aspect of algebra and then gives a presentation to the rest of the class. That can be frustrating for folks who are already good at math and just want to be taught math, but it can be a wonderful approach for folks who struggle with traditionally taught math, who often find that they finally understand.
The most interesting thing about the school is the graduation process. About half of the credits required to graduate fall in "common learning" requirements: so many social studies, foreign language, interpersonal credits, etc. But a roughly equal number of credits must be earned in the "Path" category. Student dedication to learning is important, and one can only get a common learning credit if one got an A or B in the class. Grades come with narrative evaluations and teachers are not affraid of giving failing grades if students don't meet expectations. Many students take five years to graduate because it takes them a while to figure out (a) why they want to be in school and (b) how to succeed educationally.
The Path concept at New Vista is that each student needs to take ownership of his or her education and decide what they want to get out of high school. Some students' Path is to go to college, often with a specific focus they've identified much earlier than many college entrants. Other students Path is musical: they want to be a singer or lead a band. Some have even chosen being a professional snowboarder as their goal. Each student works with their advisor and other teachers on exploring and pursuing that path. Classes are one way to get path credits. For instance, only 4 science credits are required for graduation, but people who want to go to college for science and engineering will apply several more science credits to their path category. There are a lot of artistic and practical minded classes as well, like figure drawing and bike mechanics. Students can also get path credits through practical experience. I'm not sure what the time structure is now, but when I was there there weren't any classes scheduled on Wednesday afternoons. Instead, students were involved in "community experience," which are path-related activities with a mentor in the community. For instance, one student wanted to be a baker, so he worked in a bakery for his community experience. I and a few other students ran the computer lab, etc. Mentors provide narrative evaluations of student performance, which translates into an Acceptable/Unacceptable grade.
To graduate, New Vista students must complete a Culminating Project. This is a path-related project, done outside of class time, which must involve at least 120 hours of work. It is guided and evaluated by a committe consisting of the student, the student's advisor, a family member or other family-like friend (if the student is on bad terms with his parents), a community expert, another student in the culminating project process, and a freshman or sophomore student (who learns how the process works). Culminating projects have included recording a CD, learning how to fly an airplane, travelling alone in Europe and writing,
creating a short computer-animated film, organizing a backpacking trip in Utah, producing a fashion show, and all sorts of other amazing activities. I organized and taught a philosophy workshop, my brother developed a painting portfolio to use as an application to the College of Santa Fe.
I seem to be in a verbose mood today, so I'll summarize.
New Vista is a wonderful school. Its approach is that education works best when the student is learning because he or she wants to learn. Students typically want to learn when they are interested in the subject. This often can be accomplished by making students active participants in the process -- projects and seminars instead of short answer homework and blackboard lectures. More importantly, it's accomplished by letting the student determine the educational program which matches what she wants to do with her life. High school students (especially juniors and seniors) are more like adults than like kids, and are capable of making important decisions about their own lives. They make choices about nutrition, love, drugs, sex, driving, and friendship; they're certainly able to make decisions about education. Teachers are guides, helping students understand the concepts and asking critical questions when the student makes questionable decisions. But ultimately it's the student's responsibility to learn once they've left school, so school should provide an opportunity to learn how to take that responsibility seriously. It's bottom up, rather than top down, learning.
I think charters chools done well can be a good opportunity to address problems and unmet needs in traditional schools. But if the approach is just to shift control from centralized organizations to a smaller set of administrators, it's not really addressing the full issue. I say let's put students in (more) control of education.
I think one of the biggest problems facing schools right now is that they're being inappropriately measured. There's an enormous amount of weight riding on the ability of third graders to fill out the right bubbles when asked about analogies and simple math problems. The same standard is applied to all schools, regardless of structure or constituency. When I was at Uni Hill, for instance, we could have knocked the pants off most 3rd graders in Spanish reading comprehension, interpretive art, and creative writing, but the latter two can't be evaluated by scanatron machines, so they're not important in the in vogue evaluation of schools. I think a much more sensible approach would be for each school to set general goals and measurement techniques to cover everything from math skills to reading comprehension to critical thinking to social development to creativity. Each student should be evauated annually and the success of the school based on how well students improve over time.