One December morning, Ellie, my kindergartener, woke up and, on hearing that school was canceled because of imminent snowfall, decided to draw a picture for her teacher of a gingerbread man missing a toe, with an explanatory caption. “It’s my work today,” Ellie said. She then instructed me to deliver the page to her teacher’s house, which is five doors from our own. At about 7:15 a.m., when I went out to walk our two dogs, I did as Ellie had instructed, slipping the picture into the mail slot of her teacher’s house. At 7:53 a.m., an e-mail from the teacher arrived in my and my wife’s inboxes, with a photograph attached, showing the picture already stuck to her refrigerator.
We would love our daughters’ school even if it weren’t at the corner of our street, but we love it more because it is. Even though it's a magnet school, most of the students, some of the teachers, and even our recently retired principal all live in the neighborhood. When my daughters learn to write their letters or multiply numbers, they are learning from and with people who live near them, shout to them from windows, and keep them safe. School doesn’t have to be like that, but I have concluded that it should be.
Nevertheless, common sense tells me that with four daughters each doing 13 years of school on their way to college, I will someday have a child for whom the local public school is not working. Public school didn’t always work for me, or for my three siblings, and over the years we each advanced through a complicated hopscotch of public and private schools. And my wife and I have always said that if any of our children were really unhappy in school, and matters did not seem likely to get better, then we would look for something different. Private school? Perhaps, if we could afford it. Homeschooling? Maybe.
Two of my daughters are now in school, and that future unhappy child is beginning to seem more real, like a disliked relative who, although we know not when, will surely pay us a visit. I hope I’m wrong, but odds seem to favor some daughter, someday, wanting out. What would we do? I don’t know. But I look around and wonder what other schools, or non-schools, are like. So when I picked up a book that described Sudbury Valley School, which sounded different from all the rest, I decided that I had to visit. If what I read about Sudbury Valley was correct, then it was not just one alternative among many: It was the alternative to everything else.
The campus of the Sudbury Valley School, in Framingham, Massachusetts, includes a large house, a barn, and a pond, all situated on ten acres. The school was founded in 1968, and it currently has about 150 students, ages four to 19. The students aren’t grouped by grade level—there is no first grade, second grade, etc. There are also no grades in the sense of marks: A, B, C. There is no curriculum, and no required classes, although sometimes students organize to ask a staff member to give a class on a certain subject. Nobody is required to be anywhere at any given time. School opens at 8:30 in the morning and closes at 5:30 in the afternoon, and students are expected to be present for at least five hours during that time; they may stay longer if they wish. There are eight staff members (they aren’t called teachers), whom students may seek out with questions, for help, or just to chat. In the school meeting, where rules are made and discipline enforced, the staff get one vote each, the same as each student. The meeting also sets the budget and hires (and, on occasion, fires) the teachers. By and large, students respect the rules and their peers’ enforcement of them. Bullying is not a problem.
Tuition this year is $8,200 for the first child per family, less for additional children—very low by private-school standards, and less than most public schools spend on each pupil. There is no financial aid, although there is a fund to help enrolled students whose families encounter hardship. The school is open-admission, no tests or grades required. Students may enroll at the school until whatever age they like, at which point they may petition for a high school diploma. To get it, they have to explain, orally or in writing, how they are prepared for adulthood.
In a 2004 study of 119 alumni who had attended the school for at least three years, over 80 percent had gone to college or university. Others became entrepreneurs, chefs, carpenters, artists, etc. The school is filled with books, most students have laptops, there is Wi-Fi. But students can roam outside and play, or tinker on the piano, or draw. Everyone learns to read, eventually, although I met a couple of students who confessed that, while they could write by hand, they did not know cursive. They may do and study whatever they like. They may learn by building robots, or making up role-playing games with elaborate rules, or by serving on the budget committee, or by participating in the school administration, or in countless other ways. The current head of the school—the actual head of school, elected by the community—is an 18-year-old girl.
The Sudbury Valley School is a dangerous place to visit, as I did last month. 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.
In short, Sudbury Valley students relate to their work the same way that adults who love their jobs—many artists, writers, chefs; the very fortunate doctors and lawyers and teachers—relate to work: They chose it, so they like it. Perhaps that's because students at Sudbury are, in fact, treated as full adults. They have equal votes in making budget decisions, administering the school, making and enforcing discipline. There are currently about 35 Sudbury-model schools, in 15 states and six foreign countries, and one thing they have in common is their stance against age discrimination. They say that all ages are equal, and they mean it.
When I visited, I sat in on a meeting of the Judicial Committee, which comprises seven students and one staffer. It met in one of the downstairs rooms of the school, which, like most other rooms in the school, was book-lined and filled with sofas and chairs. Students held mugs of water or tea, and felt free to kick their shoes off. All community members can file complaints, and several complaints were adjudicated, including minor spats between younger children. Most were referred to “mediation,” basically meaning, “You guys work it out.”
But a young girl, perhaps age five, had to answer a complaint, filed by another student, that she had yanked some snow stakes from the edge of the long driveway leading to the school. A witness spoke. The girl, when questioned, confessed. Mimsy Sadofsky, a school founder still on staff, asked the girl if she knew why she wasn’t allowed to yank out the stakes. When the girl was unsure, Mimsy said, “Because they show the snow plow how to stay on the driveway, so the meadows don’t get plowed up.” The girl nodded. “Oh,” she said. She was fined two dollars.
I turned to Danny Greenberg, another school founder and current staffer, who is not on the committee right now but was sitting with me, and asked where she would get the two dollars. “I don’t know,” he said. “She’ll figure it out. Maybe she’ll ask her parents. Maybe she has allowance. It’s her responsibility.”
My visit and meetings with students, my subsequent weeks of reflecting on the Sudbury model, my chats with two founders still on staff, and reading several books that the school has published, including an absorbing collection of essays by alumni—all this has not yet made a full convert out of me. But it has reawakened a huge set of questions that I thought I had put comfortably to bed, like tenure, the importance of discipline, and even the permissibility of smoking on campus—which Sudbury Valley allows, although very few students partake. Above all I find myself scrutinizing even the smallest commitment to a canon of knowledge, some basic facts that I still would argue are valuable for citizenship.
During my visit to the school, I asked one student—a tall, refined, preppy lad, of about age 16—if he knew who Martin Luther King was.
“A politician?” he said.
“Sort of,” I answered. “Do you know if he was black or white?”
“Yes,” I said. “Do you know what decade he died?”
The boy paused. “No,” he said.
And I got the feeling that he didn’t even know close to what decade. I could have said the 1920s, and he would have believed me. Now, one could reply—and the Sudbury believers would—that he will figure out somewhere in his adulthood who Martin Luther King Jr. was, and will know as much about him as the rest of us do. That as soon as he enters the workforce and gets that day off, he’ll want to know what it’s all about. That the habits of citizenship learned at Sudbury practically ensure that he’ll want to relate to his fellow citizens with empathy and candor, so if he discovers that there’s a man who’s a hero to many fellow Americans, a man whom he knows little about, he’ll take it upon himself to learn.
One could also reply that a Sudbury student with a passion for literature or American history could graduate with a knowledge of civil rights, and the milieu of the 1960s, deeper than most college students have. One essay by an alumnus discusses his years at the school spent reading “Malcolm X, Dick Gregory, and Herman Hesse.” He also talks about his and his school friends’ love for Monopoly, Easy Rider, Led Zeppelin, and yoga.
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?
If one is to make an argument for traditional schooling, then, it begins not with academics but with an incident that happened near the end of lunch, which I took with Danny Greenberg and several students in the school kitchen. Greenberg had ordered a takeout pizza for us, and I had gotten a Coke. When I went to recycle the Coke can, a student said to me, “Eh, just throw it out. We don’t really recycle.” He sounded a bit sheepish, like he knew recycling was a good thing.
“You don’t recycle?” I asked.
“It’s expensive,” Danny interjected. “The school didn’t put it in the current budget. When we had students who wanted it, we did it. The community makes all the decisions.”
And that’s when it occurred to me what my daughters are getting at their public school. Like the Sudbury students, they too are getting the values of their community. And in this case their community is their neighborhood—or, more generally speaking, the kind of progressive, spirited neighborhood in which we live. What their public school offers is not so much Martin Luther King as Martin Luther King-plus-recycling, or what that adjacency represents: a complex of values and sensibilities, both canon and custom, that their parents, teachers, and town have concurred on: tolerance, environmentalism, don’t-litter, all people are created equal, and so on.
The Sudbury advocate would say, “But your daughters weren’t included in that decision. They didn’t get to decide for themselves that Martin Luther King and recycling mattered. They are told about democracy, but our students live democracy.” They would also point out that Sudbury students still have family, who will, and should, impart all sorts of values (like recycling). At school, they say, children should be empowered, and if they are, they will do us proud.
I don’t doubt that; in fact, I believe it. And while I don’t share the Sudbury disdain for public and more conventional private schools, I think that Sudbury has lessons for those of us committed to public education. Because of the tyranny of standardized tests, it would be difficult for my daughters' school to re-make itself along Sudbury lines. Many parents, persuaded that rigor and "high expectations" are what will move their children forward in life, would recoil at any effort to try. But I think 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. Only students committed to the philosophy can be expected to make it work, and that's an unusual subset of students. But there are such students, and there is no reason to ignore what they can teach us. For with little money, and little guidance, they are teaching themselves rather well indeed.
Mark Oppenheimer is the author of three books, including a memoir of high school debate and a travelogue about crashing bar mitzvahs, and the e-book “The Zen Predator of the Upper East Side.” He writes a religion column for The New York Times and is on Twitter @markopp1.