IamA student at a school with no grades, classes, tests, or curriculum. All kids, from ages 4-19 have a vote in every decision at the school, including hiring and firing staff. AMA!
Apr 12th 2014 by Sudburykid • 39 Questions • 458 Points
I've been a student at The Clearwater School in Washington for over 11 years. There are no grades (neither letter grades nor age-separating grades), curriculum, or tests. There are very few classes, and all of the classes have to be requested by students. There is a weekly meeting where everybody, students and staff, has an equal vote, and where all decisions are made.
Our school has been around for 18 years, but the school we're based on, Sudbury Valley School has been around for 46, and they've published two studies on their alumni.
For proof, I can offer my student ID. If anybody has any ideas about other proof I could easily offer from my home, please ask.
Ask me anything!
Note: I am doing this AMA as an individual who goes to a Sudbury school; I was not asked by the school to post this. I don't represent the school or speak for other staff members or students of TCS.
EDIT: I've got to get to a performance now. I'll be back in about 5 hours for a little more question-answering before finishing up for good. Thanks for all the intelligent questions, and feel free to keep 'em coming!
EDIT 2: I'm back! Got a couple more hours to answer questions before I go to sleep.
EDIT 3: Alright guys, I need to go to sleep. It's been fun. I'm not sure what the etiquette is on ceasing to answer questions, and this was really all the time I had planned to answer questions for, but if there are more questions in the morning I'll certainly answer them before I head off to another performance. I can continue answering questions as long as they keep coming, or if people want to take the discussion to private messages I'll gladly answer them there as well. I didn't really expect this kind of response. I hope I've changed some people's views on education, at least a little bit. My views have certainly changed some. Thanks everybody!
Why haven't you organized the four- and five-year olds into a voting bloc yet? You could get quite a lot done if you turn them into screaming vote-monsters.
It would be pretty hard to organize a bunch of four and five-year olds to do anything. The expression should really be "Like herding toddlers".
That sort of setup sounds as though it could work well for kids that are of a higher ability or intelligence level, but I can't imagine it would be good for lower ability students. From your experience, is it the case that the students who need more help do not do well, or does the setup work well for everyone?
I wouldn't go so far as to say the setup works well for everyone. I do think it works very well for more students than most people would expect. It's certainly true that people who are of a higher ability or intelligence level will devote themselves more fully to what people might see as traditional learning, but that doesn't mean what the other students are doing isn't valuable.
Also, a lot of students that "need more help" in a traditional school turn out to not need as much help in a Sudbury school. I've seen a lot of kids really come into their own and start directing their own learning after coming to school. Recently, there was a student who enrolled at school, and for the first 2 months or so, he didn't talk to anyone. He would sit on a couch with his laptop, or a book, or take a nap on it, and would only talk to someone if you came over to check on how he was doing, to which he would only reply with one or two words. After a couple of months, he's a lot more interactive and vocal, and he's starting to really take an interest in the school. Sometimes it just takes time for people to get used to being responsible for themselves.
Seems like he'd be better prepared than many - the self control and handling relative freedom uni students have to deal with is something he'll already have in spades.
This is one benefit, in my opinion.
How many students attend your school? Since there are no grades, how do students from your school handle college applications?
We currently have about 65 students. To get into college, students have to take the SAT, and then, in place of a normal transcript, they have to write what's called a narrative transcript. It's basically on essay on your activities over the course of your school career.
In the study published by Sudbury Valley of their alumni, they found that about 80% of their graduates went to college.
Has there been anything voted on that has turned out to be a disaster?
There's been nothing I would define as a disaster at my school. Rules have been passed that were quickly overturned because of general outrage, but nothing that was hugely damaging to the school or anybody attending it.
Colorado College has a similar student-run judicial process. In this case, they tend to see a lot of academic dishonesty issues. A curious and disturbing phenomena developed where the the student-judges cared more if you acknowledged that you “done wrong” and apologize to the court than the severity of your crime. This created a weird catch-22 where students who believed they were innocent and tried to defend themselves were hardly punished, but very guilty students who just apologized and got off with a slap on their wrists. The student-judges focused too much on “the authority of the court”, rather than determining innocence/guilt and determining appropriate punishments. I have a friend who was (in my opinion) found wrongly guilty of academic dishonesty and this had a severe consequences for her post-college life— all because she defended her innocence.
Do you seem similar dynamics in the Judicial Court at Sudbury, basically power corrupting?
p.s. The background of my friend’s story: She had written a paper several months previous, and she asked a student who was on the judicial board whether her citations were correct. The student acted helpful, but then turned her into the student judicial board. In no way was she copy-pasting stuff. My friend defended her innocence and even the professor wrote in defend her, but it didn’t work. Her “guilty verdict” stopped her from getting into post-graduate programs. It's been a whilte, so some of the details are fuzzy.
Not so much. It's funny you should bring it up though, actually, because at the most recent School Meeting we actually did have a long discussion about how your actions are perceived depending on the tone you take when apologizing/admitting to them with a student who was up for suspension. JC certainly isn't blind to emotions and people being swayed by the way someone puts their arguments, and when you're not talking about a legal court but rather a community, I wouldn't argue that they should be.
That said, I think JC does a pretty good job of referring to the rules and trying to determine who is guilty and who isn't.
This sounds like terrible schooling imo.
How does this system benefit the students?
There are a few main benefits, in my opinion. The first one I would mention is one that I think a lot of people disregard (and probably will disregard, even after me writing this), which is that it's simply a lot more pleasant for the students. Traditional schools force students to learn subjects they're uninterested in, some of which may have no use to them in their adult life, as well as the amount of homework, which can interfere with other outside of school activities.
Secondly, it benefits people who are very passionate about a specific subject, and allows them to spend as much time as they want truly mastering it. In a traditional school, if you want to learn Calculus at age 10, that's not going to be available. At a Sudbury school, you can invest as much time as you want into learning math, or art, or programming.
Thirdly, I think the social scene, at least at my school, is vastly superior to traditional schools. The age mixing is very beneficial to students, both younger and older, in terms of what they can learn from one another. Bullying is very rare, and when it does occur, it is handled by a system called Judicial Committee, which is made up of several students who hear the case and decide which parties are guilty, and what sentence they should receive. Plus there's just a lot more time for hanging out with your friends, instead of just a couple hours a day.
Do you have any highly educated alumni with this sort of educational background? Honestly, I believe as a child I didn't know what I wanted to learn, and due to my "traditional" educational background it has enabled me to reach my educational goals (current med student). But, during my education I would never say that the other classes non-related to science were a waste at all.. Actually over the past few years I discovererd I love learning Chinese reading and speaking, but I fear in your current educational environment, the students may never realize what they have a passion to learn is. Ultimately, this could possibly lead to major slackers that never know how to prep and have no idea of their individual educational progress. In real jobs they will not ask your permission to hire colleagues or ask what you want to do or how much they should pay you... I seriously don't believe minors with no formal education should have 100% say so. I believe you guys should be listened to, but not be responsible for all classes that will be taught and staff changes. Tests are to help you assess yourself, they aren't some evil way stress out kids or segregate based on intelligence.
Honestly, I can't say I totally disagree with you about being 100% responsible. Unfortunately, I think it would be very very difficult to create a school where the students are 90% responsible for their own learning (which might be a better percentage) because that 90% could very easily become 75%, and then 50%, and so on. My school hasn't really been around long enough to have really highly educated alums, but Sudbury Valley School has, and they have many.
My daughter is 4 in a couple of months. The idea of her having a say in anything more important than which cereal she is having for breakfast or what colour scrunchy she is going to wear really scares me. She is a maniac. How exactly do four year olds exercise a vote at Sudbury?
Well, most four year olds don't exercise their vote. The weekly school meeting is optional, not mandatory, and most of the younger students choose not to come. However, when they do come, I've found that they usually understand quite well what is being voted on (they usually don't come to, say, parts of the meeting where we vote on budget), and when they don't, they'll ask, or just not vote.
So far we've had no problems with younger students voting for absurd things, and AFAIK, neither has Sudbury Valley.
I've read up on the Sudbury Valley School and love the concept - even though I myself was educated in public traditional schools all the way through and did very well in that model.
What is your parents' involvement in your education? Have they talked about why they selected the Sudbury model for you?
My mom chose this school for me when I was 4, at the same time as my aunt chose it for my 5-year old cousin. They've talked a lot about their experiences in traditional school, and wanting more freedom for myself and my cousin. Honestly, I don't think either of them thought we would stay there for our entire school careers at that point, but it became clear pretty quickly how much we loved the school and how valuable it is.
My eldest daughter went to a similar school for 6-12th grade. However, they were tested and had assigned classes.
They were under no obligation to actually attend the classes but when your test scores started dropping, you were advised that you were about to fail and would be sent to a normal school.
That testing and counseling went a long way toward keeping students on track.
H.B. Woodlawn in Arlington, if anybody is interested.
I have at least one co-worker that went to the same school about 10 years prior to my daughter and she turned out great. You are given the latitude to succeed or fail on your own. But, the 'fail' part of that was ever-present.
It doesn't seem like you can fail at this Clearwater school.
Do you guys generate a lot of ditch-diggers and McDonald's clerks?
My school doesn't have a lot of graduates, due to having a low number of students and not being around for very long. However, as far as I know, we have no students who have ever been ditch-diggers, and while we have had people who worked in jobs similar to (although I don't think actually including) McDonald's clerks, they often go on to something else.
For example, we had one student who left school without graduating, lived with his parents, and started working at Safeway. It was pretty depressing, but we stayed in touch with him and he would come to visit occasionally. One time, after about a year, he came back and mentioned that he was quitting his job and going to college. When people assumed his parents were going to help pay for it, he said, no, he had actually saved up around 30 thousand dollars to pay for it, and was planning on putting himself through college.
We've had graduates who went on to become a professional artist, a professional chef, a graphic designer, an Alaskan crab fisherman, and others who are going through college to become a biologist, an engineer, a programmer, and more.
Are the students prepared for college and university. What percentage f graduates go on to post secondary?
I don't have a statistic for you from my school, due to low sample size, but Sudbury Valley has published two studies on their alumni, and found that 80% of graduates went on to further education.
How do universities feel about accepting these students? Also could a student simply show up and do no actual classes or do a bunch of art for an example and not really participate, getting a free diploma?
I mean, not being a university myself, I can't really say how they feel about accepting them. They do get accepted though, so universities must not feel too bad about it. See my other replies for more on how exactly that works.
As for your second question, this is sort of a two-fold question. One: Yes, absolutely, a kid could come and take no formal classes and still get a diploma. Two: If a kid came, didn't participate in the school, and didn't seem to be ready for adult life, they would not receive a diploma. This actually bring up an interesting part of the school I haven't had a chance to discuss yet, which is our diploma process.
Each student, if they wish to graduate, must write a paper on their school life, what they've learned, and how that prepares them for adult life. They present it to the whole school (well, all that want to come), and then answer questions and defend their paper. Then the students vote on whether or not they receive a diploma. If they don't feel the graduate is ready for adult life, they vote No.
Do you have dress codes, and what are some of the school's rules?
There is no dress code. The school's rules basically all boil down to "Respect the school, respect other people, respect property, be safe." Most rules are there just to keep people safe and resolve disputes.
My friend goes to a highschool with $50,110 tuition. He's rich.
Not that I'm entirely disagreeing with you here, but that's very low for private school tuition. In addition, we have a generous tuition assistance policy, and many students go for $2000 a year. We've had students in the past on full scholarship, as well.
I seem to be one of the only people here who needs neither explanation nor convincing of the validity of the Sudbury model! I went to “regular” schools K-12, and while I always did well by the school’s measures, never had difficulty with schoolwork, and was fortunate to have parents who never pushed me and gave me full rein to pursue my own interests outside school, I always chafed at the boredom and disempowerment of school. While I always had a hunch that something wasn’t right about the school system, I had not the slightest inkling that there was any other approach until stumbling upon the Sudbury school websites halfway through undergraduate college in 2002. It was enormously impressive that there were over 20 Sudbury-based schools successfully running at the time, and it seemed that the momentum from 1 school to 20 had a chance of continuing to 200, then 2,000, and so forth. Yet since then, despite Sudbury's solid track record, it has not made a dent in mainstream education, which has become even more relentlessly top-down and whose entire spectrum of “reform” seems to involve either intensifying its worst aspects or tinkering with trivial side issues. How do those of us who “get” Sudbury get everyone else on board?
Well, that's what I'm trying to do right now!
In general, I try to participate in discussions, online or otherwise, about schooling, alternative schooling, and children's rights. I'm also very involved in my school's recruitment efforts. In my opinion, just keep doing what you're doing and keep talking about Sudbury!
For kids who are doing poorly, do they get kicked out or does someone help direct them?
Depends on what you mean as doing poorly. If a student is repeatedly verbally harassing or violent, they might get kicked out. Otherwise, no, there's no formal direction. I might try and urge someone to do something if I'm their friend, or a staff member might do the same, but it would be coming from the position of advice from a friend, not mandates from an authority.
Do you guys ever sit standardized tests? (e.g. SAT) Or are you restricted to colleges that are willing to waive the SAT requirements?
The school does not require students to sit the SAT, but if you want to get into a college that requires a SAT score, you will have to sit the SAT outside of school.