Alternative education

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Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education or educational alternative, includes a number of approaches to teaching and learning separate from what is offered by mainstream or traditional education. Educational alternatives are often rooted in various philosophies that are fundamentally different from those of mainstream or traditional education. While some alternatives have strong political, scholarly, or philosophical orientations, others are started by informal associations of teachers and students dissatisfied with some aspects of mainstream or traditional education. Educational alternatives, which include charter schools, alternative schools, independent schools, and home-based learning vary widely, but often emphasize the values of small class sizes, close relationships between students and teachers and a strong sense of community.


Alternative education refers to any type of education which does not match the conventional standard. The public school system frequently sets this standard, although public schools use alternative approaches in some cases, as well. Other words used in place of "alternative" include "non-traditional," "non-conventional," or "non-standardized," although these terms are used less frequently and may have negative connotations or multiple meanings. Those involved in forms of education which differ in their educational philosophy (as opposed to their intended pupil base) often use words such as "authentic," "holistic," and "progressive." However, these words have different meanings which are either more specific or more ambiguous than the term "alternative."


"Alternative education" presupposes a kind of tradition to which the "alternative" is opposed. In general, this limits the term to the last two or three centuries, with the rise of standardized and, later, compulsory education at the primary and secondary levels. Many critics during this period suggested that the education of young people should be undertaken in radically different ways than the one in practice. In the 19th century, the Swiss humanitarian Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi; the American transcendentalists Amos Bronson Alcott, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau; the 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); among others, all insisted that education should be understood as the art of cultivating 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 elimination of class distinctions. After World War II alternative approaches to early childhood education were developed in Reggio Emilia, Italy; this is known as the Reggio Emilia approach.It was started by Loris Malaguzzi.

More recently, social critics such as John Caldwell Holt, Paul Goodman, Frederick Mayer, George Dennison and Ivan Illich have examined education from more individualist, anarchist, and libertarian perspectives, that is, critiques of the ways that they feel conventional education subverts democracy by molding young people's understandings.[citation needed] Other writers, from the revolutionary Paulo Freire to American educators like Herbert Kohl and Jonathan Kozol, have criticized mainstream Western education from the viewpoint of their varied left-liberal and radical politics. The argument for an approach that caters more to the personal interest and learning style of each individual is supported by recent research that suggest that learner-responsible models prove to be more effective than the traditional teacher-responsible models.[1] Ron Miller has identified five core elements common to many contemporary educational alternatives:[2]

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

Modern forms[edit]

A wide variety of educational alternatives exist at the elementary, secondary, and tertiary levels of education. These generally fall into four major categories: school choice, alternative school, independent school, and home-based education. These general categories can be further broken down into more specific practices and methodologies.

School choice[edit]

Public school alternatives include entirely separate schools in their own settings, as well as classes, programs, and even semi-autonomous "schools within schools." Public school choice options are open to all students in their communities, though some have waiting lists. Among these are charter schools, combining private initiatives and state funding; and magnet schools, which attract students to particular themes, such as performing arts.

Alternative school[edit]

The term alternative school is used to describe a wide variety of educational approaches employing nontraditional philosophies, curricula and/or methods. Some alternative schools have strong philosophical, political, or practical orientations, while others are more ad-hoc assemblies of teachers and students seeking to explore possibilities not available within mainstream or traditional education.

Alternative Education of At-Risk Students and Drop Out Prevention[edit]

Advocates of programs designed to prevent, or discourage, students from dropping out before they graduate (usually from high school) believe that leaving school without a diploma negatively impacts an individual's professional and personal life. Collectively, this negatively impacts society.

Drop Out Prevention Methods[edit]

Individual schools in the U.S. have tried to tackle the problem through their own program initiatives. Three that have been used and studied for success are: the Check & Connect program; the Career Academies initiative; and the Talent Development High School model. These programs are designed to work with high risk students before they drop out of school.

The Check & Connect Program This alternative is a dropout prevention model that was developed in Minnesota through a partnership with the University of Minnesota, the local public schools and community service organizations. It was used in the Minneapolis public schools, specifically focusing in on students with learning, emotional and behavioral disabilities.[3] The “Check” portion pairs each student with a mentor, deemed a “monitor”. This mentor figure assesses attendance, academics and overall performance with regular discussions about twice a month. The “Connect” aspect utilizes this individualized attention to connect this student with school personnel, family and community service providers that can intervene to keep the student on track.[4]

Effectiveness: A 1998 study conducted by Sinclair and colleagues shows overall positive effects on 94 high school students from Minneapolis public schools in the Check & Connect program. The study found that students enrolled in the program were significantly less likely to have dropped out of school after the end of freshman year (9% compared with 30%). This positive outcome remained after the final check-up at the end of senior year—39% of students enrolled dropped out of high school compared to 58% of those not enrolled. In addition to actually staying in school, the study also found the students’ progress in school to be positive as well; Check & Connect students earned more course credits in their ninth-grade year than non-intervention students.[4]

Cost Efficiency: According to the Dakota County schools in Minnesota, the cost of implementing the Check & Connect program is around $1,400 per student in 2001 and 2002.[4] This model is very cost-inefficient, and now in 2011, the total may even be costlier.[dubious ]

The Career Academies Initiative

This alternative intervenes to target the most at-risk students. The Career Academies is a school-within-a-school model with a career-themed approach to learning. Developed 35 years ago, this alternative has evolved and around 2,500 academies are operated nationwide.[3] It tends to be found in larger high schools and helps create a smaller community by keeping students with the same teachers for three or fours years of high school. The program requires students to take the career-related courses with the “Academy” in subjects such as finance or technology and even partners with local employers to offer internship opportunities.[4]

Effectiveness: A 2000 study conducted by Kemple and Snipes shows overall positive effects for 1,700 high school students in nine different Career Academies. The study found that the most at-risk students participating in the program produced significantly fewer dropouts (21% compared with 32%).[3] When assessing progress in school, the high-risk students earned more credits by their senior year and 40% had earned enough credits to graduate, as opposed to only 25% of non-intervention students, posting positive results for the program.

Cost Efficiency: According to the California Partnership Academies, average cost estimates for the Career Academies intervention are $600 more per pupil than the average cost for a non-Academy student in 2004.[4] This figure does not include additional costs of intensive services for high-risk students.

The Talent Development High School Model

This alternative was developed in 1994 by The Center for Research on the Education of Students Placed at Risk and initiated at Patterson High School in Baltimore, Maryland. The Talent Development High School (TDHS) approach is an entire reform intervention, with dropout prevention as one component. It includes breaking the larger high school into smaller learning communities, like Career Academies, but is more extensive.[3] There is a separate ninth grade academy, a career academy for the upper grades and an additional “Twilight School” after school program for those with chronic discipline and attendance issues. This model homes in on reforming students’ low expectations and schools’ poor academic preparation through a college-preparatory sequence in ninth and tenth grade as well as increased focus on English and Math courses.[4]

Effectiveness: A 2005 study conducted by Kemple, Herlihy, and Smith, which followed 30 cohorts of participants for four years in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, shows positive effects of the Talent Development High School (TDHS) model, primarily on academic progress. The study found that students using this model earned 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). These students were also more likely to move onto the tenth grade (68% compared with 60%).[4]

Cost Efficiency: According to Johns Hopkins University 's Center for the Social Organization of Schools (CSOS), the developer of the initiative, average costs for a student participating in the Talent Development High School model run an additional $350 a year per student. This estimate includes the cost of materials and ongoing technical assistance.[4]

These are just three of many possible alternative education models to help at-risk students.

The matter has also gained national attention. On March 1, 2010, President Barack Obama called on states to identify and focus on schools with graduation rates below 60 percent. Those districts could be eligible for federal aid as his budget proposal includes $900 million in "school turnaround grants" on top of $3.5 billion in federal dollars the administration has committed to persistently low-performing schools. With respect to keeping students engaged and on-track to graduation specifically, he committed $50 million to the Graduation Promise Fund.[5]

Popular education[edit]

Popular education was related in the 19th century to the workers' movement.[citation needed] Such experiences have been continued throughout the 20th century, such as the folk high schools in Scandinavian countries, or the "popular universities" in France.

Independent school[edit]

Independent, or private, schools have more flexibility in staff selection and educational approach. The most plentiful of these are Montessori schools and Waldorf schools (the latter are also called Steiner schools after their founder). Other independent schools include democratic, or free schools such as Sands School, Summerhill School, The Peepal Grove School and Sudbury Valley School, Krishnamurti schools, open classroom schools, those based on experiential education, as well as schools which teach using international curriculum such as the International Baccalaureate and Round Square schools. An increasing number of traditionally independent school forms now also exist within state-run, public education; this is especially true of the Waldorf and Montessori schools. The majority of independent schools offer at least partial scholarships.

Religious school[edit]

Religious schools are generally organised to support the beliefs, testimonies, scriptures, and practices of various religious groups and faith-based organisations. Prominent examples include schools run by the Roman Catholic church, schools run by the churches of various Protestant denominations such as Friends schools, Islamic schools, Hindu and Hare Krishna schools such as those run by ISKCON and the I-Foundation, and Jewish schools. These schools generally make allowances and special arrangements to accommodate religious restrictions, integrate religious teachings into the curriculum, or include classes on philosophical, theological, or scripture study, or general religious education. Some of these schools may utilise a more traditional model for education or recognised curriculum standards, while others embrace alternative curriculums and models of education.


Families who seek alternatives based on educational, philosophical, or religious reasons, (or if there appears to be no nearby educational alternative) can opt for home-based education. One very minor branch is termed unschooling, an approach based on interest rather than a set curriculum, which is often opposed by many more structured homeschool advocates. Others enroll in umbrella schools which provide a curriculum to follow. Many choose this alternative for religious-based reasons, but practitioners of home-based education are of all backgrounds and philosophies. Some homeschool families join homeschool co-ops where parents with given expertise (e.g., high levels of science, physics, mathematics, etc.) may teach a number of homeschool children from different families, in exchange for their children being taught by other parents.

Higher education[edit]

Alternative teaching methodologies in the realm of higher education may include various forms of on-line and computer-based education, various forms of classroom education other than the traditional lecture or discussion format, or alternative curricula (such as interdisciplinarity). Alternative forms of higher education are often employed by more traditional institutions alongside their regular curriculum, as the primary focus of an alternative educational institution, or as a means of self-education.


Self-directed inquiry as an educational process is recognized at all levels of education, from the unschooling of young children to the autodidacticism of adults, and may occur either separately from or concurrently with more traditional forms of education.[6]


There are also some interesting grey areas with defining alternative education. For instance, home-educators have combined to create resource centers where they meet as often as five or more days a week, but their members all consider themselves home-educated. In some states publicly run school districts have set up programs for homeschoolers whereby they are considered enrolled, and have access to school resources and facilities.[citation needed]

Also, many traditional schools have incorporated methods originally found only in alternative education into their general approach, so the line between alternative and mainstream education is continually becoming more blurred.[citation needed]

Alternative schooling in different countries[edit]


In India, from the early 20th century, some educational theorists discussed and implemented radically different forms of education. Rabindranath Tagore's Visva-Bharati University, and Sri Aurobindo's Sri Aurobindo International Centre of Education are prime examples. In recent years many new alternative schools have formed.[7]

The traditional system of learning in India was for students to stay in Gurukulas, where they received free food, shelter, and education from a "guru" ("teacher" in Sanskrit). Progress was not based on examinations and marks; tests were given by the gurus but not ranks. This system aimed to nurture the students' natural creativity and all-round personality development. While the mainstream education system in India is still based on that introduced by Lord Macaulay, a few projects aim to rejuvenate the early system, Some students in these and similar projects take up research work in the field of Sanskrit studies, Vedic studies, Vedic science, Yoga and Ayurveda. Others after completing their education in a Gurukula continue into regular mainstream education such as Bachelor degrees in Commerce, Science, Engineering etc.


Japanese education has been run as a nation-wide standardized system under the full control of the Ministry of Education. The only alternative option has been accredited private schools that have more freedom to offer different curriculum including the choice of textbooks (public schools can use only the government approved textbooks) and foreign languages, teaching methods, hiring guidelines. However, almost all of these private schools require competitive entrance examination and tuition with very few scholarships available.

An interest in alternative education was stimulated first by problems of student violence against people and property, since the 1980s by problems of bullying by peers, frequently leading to school refusal, acute social withdrawal and in the worst case, suicide. A desire to enable young people to keep in an increasingly globalized economy provided an independent impetus for alternative educational possibilities.

Ijime and Free Schools

Free school is the term used in Japan to describe a non-profit group or independent school which specialized in the care and education of children who refused to go to school. The first school based on democratic schools was founded in 1985, starting as a shelter for children who avoided the school environment; a number of other schools working on this basis, as well as other schools for school refusers, have since been established. In 1987, the first of what are now seven Waldorf schools in Japan was founded. 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. In 2005, the first school was founded under the new law.

Globalization and International schools

Increasingly, parents are interested in sending their children to International schools to acquire a fluent command of a foreign language, usually English. Although international schools are not legally certified by the Japanese government, many of them are approved by their native country such as the US, Canada, Germany, France, Korea and China, and some offer the International Baccalaureate program. For the past two decades, international schools, especially American or English-based schools, have been very popular in spite of their costly tuition. A new trend in the early 21st century has been attending Chinese schools.

United Kingdom[edit]

In 2003 there were approximately 70 alternative schools in the United Kingdom. Summerhill School was established by A.S. Neill in 1921 as the first of what are now a number of democratic schools. There are a number of Steiner-Waldorf schools in the UK. Homeschooling is also a popular alternative. Though alternative schools were until recently fee-paying, the introduction of state-funded Academies in the last year has been changing the educational landscape.

United States[edit]

There are many Montessori, Waldorf and Sudbury schools in the USA; some of these are fee-paying, while others are public or charter schools. There are also many home school programs.

There are many public and private educational provisions available in the USA for children with autism, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), Asperger's syndrome, obsessive-compulsive disorder, nonverbal learning disorder, etc.

At the level of higher education, several alternative practices have arisen, especially since the late 20th century. St. John's College, for example, is a Great Books school with a standard curriculum culminating in a singular degree for all students, primary source readings, and gently moderated classroom discussions. Other colleges use narrative evaluations rather than standardized grades for assessment or do not have traditional academic departments and are instead organized around interdisciplinary units.

The Netherlands[edit]

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

See also[edit]

General topics:

Pedagogies, pedagogues, & pedagogical movements:

Out of school:


  1. ^ J. Scott Armstrong (2012). "Natural Learning in Higher Education". Encyclopedia of the Sciences of Learning. 
  2. ^ Ron Miller, Self-Organizing Revolution, Holistic Education Press, 2008
  3. ^ a b c d Tyler, J. and Lofstrom, M. (Spring 2009), Finishing High School: Alternative Pathways and Dropout Recovery 
  4. ^ a b c d e f g h "Intervention: Check & Connect". U.S. Department of Education, Institute of Education Sciences. 1 September 2012. 
  5. ^ 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:
  6. ^ Hayes, C. (1989), Self-University 
  7. ^ a list of some alternative schools in India

Further reading[edit]

External links[edit]


Particular areas[edit]