Interview by Tracy Stevens on “A Better Education” blog. See http://abettereducation.blogspot.com/2009/05/finding-or-starting-alternative-schools.html
There are so many choices for alternative schools and it can be difficult to understand the goals and philosophies of each one. The Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO) is a tool for finding alternative schools in your area, learning more about each of the alternative schools under its umbrella, or starting your own alternative school. I recently spoke with Jerry Mintz, who heads up this organization.
What is the mission of Alternative Education Resource Organization (AERO)?
I had been starting or running alternative schools for 25 years and then 20 years ago I founded Alternative Education Resource Organization. The mission is to help people find learner-centered education and to empower learners to control their education. We work with alternative schools, homeschools, etc.
What change would you like to see as the result of your work?
It is important for students and parents to know that they have choices, sometimes that is not always apparent to them. There are lots of alternatives around, including 12,000 schools in our database. If you don’t have any in your community, we help you start one. We help people start homeschool resource centers.
You have several kinds of schools that belong to AERO that share some common ideals, like Waldorf, Montessori, Democratic/Free Schools, Reggio Emilia, etc. What do these schools have in common?
They are all learner-centered in their approach. It includes some magnet and charter schools too. We set up a directory called “Handbook of Alternative Education” as well as an “Almanac of Education Choices” to help people navigate all of the options out there.
What is the ideal learning environment?
It has to be learner-centered wherever you are. It is not the physical environment that is so important; it is the psychological environment that matters most. Giving kids real freedom is the most important thing. Freedom does not mean do anything you want. It is taking responsibility for your own life and being aware of other people’s freedom and their limits. It is an interactive process to find out what freedom is.
How does AERO answer the question of balance in the lives of students?
In two ways: the emotional/physical/academic balance is built right in to alternative education by its very nature. The student takes time to nurture each of those needs as he or she sees fit. The other aspect of balance is that alternative schools are not elitist. Unlike many private schools there are sliding scales at the schools. We have kids with a wide variety of backgrounds.
How does AERO help students find their element or passion and their own sense of motivation?
If you grew up in schools where you had to make decisions all the time you have an idea of what you want and how to do it and you are already doing it. It’s quite different when you go to other schools where other people are telling you what to do all the time. Those people are far less prepared to handle independence and far less likely to know what they want, what they are interested in, and how to pursue it.
Standardized education comes from the industrial era where each widget had to be exactly the same. Is it necessary that we are all educated in exactly the same way, at the same time?
There are two paradigms. The basis of one was (and is) that kids are naturally lazy and need to be forced to learn. On that basis they are given homework, competition for grades and all sorts of pressure because we don’t trust them. Modern brain research shows that that is wrong. Kids are natural learners – that is the second, more accurate paradigm. If you really believe that (not just say it) everything has to be entirely different. Other things flow from it. You wouldn’t want to have kids required follow someone else’s rule and lead. The teacher is there to help kids find the things they are interested in pursuing.
What if Johnny doesn’t WANT to read or can’t do math?
That question comes from the first paradigm. The hardest thing for people to do is to trust that kids will learn. They need to remain open and confident in themselves as learners. No one should have to learn certain things at certain times. One example I can share is about this kid who was homeschooled and working as intern at AERO starting at 14. He was a very accomplished learner, including speaking fluent Russian and becoming a very talented guitar player. At 16 he was taking college courses and he discovered that in order to go community college, he needed to pass an algebra test. He had never studied it before, but he decided to study it to pass the test and he spent a week on that effort, even teaching others. He aced the test. This gives us a time ratio of something like 52:1 comparing the time spent at traditional public schools compulsorily studying algebra to the time it takes to learn it if you are motivated to know it.
How can teachers take on more of a role of facilitator in the educating of students?
They can do this first by being part of an alternative school. It looks nothing like the standard teacher lecturing. In a lot of schools the staff wander around as their help is needed. It varies. Lots of it is spontaneous.
How has your work progressed so far? What is in the works for this group?
Our mission is the education revolution, but we are far from it. We would like to see these ideas spread far and wide. AERO is a small non-profit, so it is hard to get the resources to do this effectively, though we are getting better and better at it. We’ve started 35 schools that we know of, have on-line school starters, and a list serve for school starters. You will find a list of our schools and these tools on http://www.educationfinder.net. We have our 20th Anniversary conference coming up June 25-28 in Albany, New York. It is a very unique conference that includes students, teachers and parents with roles for all of them, including some students as keynote speakers. Patch Adams will be there, Debbie Meier, who started alternative schools in Boston, a man named Four Arrows will talk about indigenous education, homeschooling, and Pat Montgomery who started alternative education.
For more information on the conference and alternative schools visit the AERO website at http://www.educationrevolution.org/
Posted by Jerry Mintz
In my blog post last week I wrote the story about my trip to Washington D.C. for the Education Writer’s Association meeting so I could get the chance to let Education Secretary Arne Duncan know about our position that they get rid of No Child Left Behind (NCLB). In the story I mentioned that I asked him, from the audience microphone, if he would scrap NCLB.
In a subsequent AP article , despite the hundreds of mainstream reporters in attendance, they only quoted my question, without attribution. They wrote:
President Barack Obama has pledged to rewrite the law, but he has been vague about how far he would go, or whether he would scrap it altogether.
“I don’t know if ‘scrap’ is the word,” Duncan told reporters last week. “Where things make sense, we’re going to keep them. Where things didn’t make sense, we’re going to change them.”
They didn’t quote what he said after that, which was more revealing.
On the Education Week website someone wrote:
“Great Duncan! It sounds like the only thing that will really be changed is the name. A nearly exact same bill will be proposed under a different name and passed for that reason.”
I responded on the site saying:
“Actually, I was the reporter who posed the question, and he actually said , ‘I don’t know. But the name No Child Left Behind is toxic. We will at least change the name!’ This was not reported in the story! So there’s your answer. You can see the whole report on our blog, https://educationrevolution.wordpress.com”
Nearly one thousand (1,000) people then went to our blog.
Bulletin! This is interesting! The AP has now completely deleted the quote above by Duncan in the original article but Education Week still left the comments below it! Wow! Luckily we still have the original version and it is still posted on other sites like MSNBC. To find the original article, simply highlight and search the original quote.
Education Week’s Latest Version of the Article:
We have received many letters this week about this.
Some were just cheers:
“Bravo brother! Thank you for being a doer and a front-man for all of us!”
“Congratulations! It might make no difference, but there may be an opening, at least, for you to make the case in a follow-up. Good Luck.”
“Good job Jerry. One exposure at a time, gradually, you are becoming recognized. There’s no other way: gradual engagement is it. “
“That’s awesome that you went right to the top…”
“We want it scrapped.” YES!!!!!!!”
Some were more specific:
“I wanted to add my voice of thanks for standing up and confronting someone in power with a direct question about the terrible federal policy guiding education reform right now.
Duncan made a last-minute appearance at the NCTM national conference in D.C. last Saturday, and promptly took the prime-time address slot from “America’s Educator” (yeah, look him up) to speak to the conference at its closure. I simply chose not to attend in protest, but now regret not going and confronting him after reading your account. “
“How exciting! Several years back when Obama was a new IL senator, I attended a talk he gave at a very small local venue. I handed his aide a letter in which education reform was the focus. In that letter I strongly urged him to find ways to spend dollars in RD (research & development) in trying to find new and better ways to educate our kids – and not keep throwing good money after bad in the current system. I mentioned AERO and Jerry Mintz as being a leader in this quest, and a source to turn to.
Maybe he read it and maybe he didn’t.
But, anyway- keep knocking at that door Mr. Mintz!!!
Arne Duncan was actually at a news conference a while back, when he headed the ED dept. in my home town and was getting teary eyed with frustration over some of the crippling aspects of No Child Left Behind. But, NCLB is only a tiny fraction of what’s wrong with our current public education system. We need to keep our focus on the bigger picture.
Duncan is known to be able to ‘think outside the box’, so I have confidence that he’ll do good things. He’s already investigating some creative options such as cyber school for HS, and other great ideas. I DO believe change is coming, but the pressures (from both right and left) to keep in step with the established status quo are great. We all need to keep pushing back on the other side in this tug of war.
keep up the good work!””
“Now that you have contact info for Arne Duncan’s office, I would encourage you to send him a copy of Ron Miller’s latest book (“The Self-Organizing Revolution“) with a note attached suggesting that it provides an excellent summary of alternative education efforts and, more importantly, points out a truly different path forward from the one that usually surfaces (and fizzles) from those holding on to the conventional school paradigm.
I also think that it would be great for them to receive a book a week from those who are implementing the new paradigm, as a way to show them that we are so much stronger than merely an “alternative”–which to many people is code for “second choice”–and are, in our opinions, truly the way out. Imagine if they read Dumbing Us Down one week, How Children Fail the next, then Dennison’s The Lives of Children–a mix of philosophy and practical examples, to show that what idealists dream about actually exists, and has existed for a long long time! Sort of a personal Book Of The Month Club for the Sec’y of Education, with titles selected by people representing the new paradigm. I would bet that someone in his office would actually take many of these home and read them and then bring up the key points in their discussions. Or maybe they’d even bring in some of the authors to speak to them–who knows?
Lastly, how about offering them a free spot in the Conference this summer? Again, some junior member might just come, get really enthused, and start the ball rolling back home in D.C. You just never know…and it won’t cost you a thing.”
“Jerry: I have been meaning to write to you for quite a while, but your blog about Arne Duncan did the trick! What a revealing exchange! On the one hand, if anyone still thought that Duncan was going to make sweeping changes on his own, they have been disabused of that notion. On the other it makes it all the more clear that he is a political creature who is affected by public opinion–we do have a place to work from. Bravo for stating the position that so many of us hold, and reminding him you have a considerable constituency.
I wrote a letter to Duncan shortly after he was confirmed. It was a letter that gave him the benefit of the doubt. I praised statements he had made in the course of a Merrow interview that could be interpreted positively by progressive educators. Then I told him how our successful public open classroom was being labeled as failing according to NCLB dictates because the parents opt their children out of standardized testing. I wrote: “As you visit schools across the nation, I hope you have the opportunity to visit some of the thriving “alternative” public schools that exist in every part of the country. I sincerely hope your administration will not punish successful schools if they decide to gauge their students’ learning without high stakes testing as part of the mix.” I also sent him the 45 minute sampler we had put together last November from the footage we are working with.
I got a slightly personalized letter back from Assistant Secretary Joseph Conaty. After acknowledging what I had written, he said that “the Department supports innovative programs that help all students achieve” and suggested our school apply for “Invest In What Works” funds. I have just written Conaty back telling him that if achievement is based on standardized tests we will not qualify. I wrote in more detail about what authentic assessments might look like.
This time I directed him to a 7 minute introduction to our video project. I’d also love to have you take a look at what we are up to. It can be viewed on my husband’s video production website: www.tomvalens.com. When you get there click on August To June or on one of the pictures of children. When we screened the 45 minute sampler this winter, we got very helpful feedback from Alfie Kohn, Ron Miller, Deb Meier, Brenda Engel, Bruce Kanze, Arnie Langberg and many other educators and people outside the field. Recently I posted the 7 minute video on Lynn Stoddard’s site. He also responded positively, and has told me of another film being made based on his principles. I am buoyed by all the energy that people are putting towards influencing positive change in the public schools!
We are now editing a rough cut–hopefully will have that ready by early October. When it is ready, would you be willing to give us feedback? We are also looking for finishing funds and distribution sources. Of course we hope you will carry us in your online store, but if you felt able to write a letter of support at some point, we are realizing how important those letters are as we approach possible donors.
Thanks for all you do!!”
Tags: AERO, Arne Duncan, Jerry Mintz, John Merrow, NCLB
I am in Washington, DC, at the Education Writers Conference. I decided to come down here on the chance that I could somehow communicate to Arne Duncan, Obama’s new Secretary of Education something about the need to get rid of No Child Left Behind. He talked for about 25 minutes to the large audience of education writers from all over the country. I stood in the line at the audience microphone but almost got stopped. The secretary of the organization came over to tell me that the line was just for reporters. Obviously she knew who I was and thought I might be a loose cannon. I told her that I was a reporter, for Education Revolution Magazine! She backed off, reluctantly.
Duncan seems to be an affable man, confident in himself but not too arrogant. He’s tall, and, in an answer to one question, sometimes plays basketball with Obama. For a while he talked about when he felt he had accomplished in Chicago, but a lot of it sounded to me like it was supporting No Child Left Behind.
Finally it was my turn. I said, “I’m Jerry Mintz from Education Revolution Magazine. Our audience is public and private alternative schools. We have a database of over 12,000 of them. In your talk you said that President Obama supports innovative charter schools. But those schools and others in our network find that No Child Left Behind makes innovation and change very difficult. We don’t feel that it measures the things we feel are most important. We want it scrapped. Will your administration do that?”
He replied that there were some things he didn’t like in the law and some things he liked, that he would have to look at it in detail.
I repeated, “We want it scrapped. Will it be scrapped?”
He replied,”I don’t know. But the name No Child Left Behind is toxic. We will at least change the name!” Afterward I said to John Merrow who does the Merrow documentaries on PBS. “So he will keep it but change its name?” He nodded knowingly.
I gave our latest Education Revolution Magazine and a copy of my book to Dunncan’s nearby PR man who was pointed out by Merrow, and the PR man gave me an e mail address through which I could contact him to follow up. I then came up and shook Duncan’s hand, reiterating our position. He acknowledged it. Surprisingly, I had accomplished what I set out to do when I got on the train this morning at Penn Station in New York. I hope it helped a little.