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Why Alternative Education Needs to Go Mainstream

Dropouts in alternative programs get a personalized learning experience. Maybe if they had that in the first place they wouldn't leave school.

Research shows that alternative education—small learning communities, individualized, personalized instruction, a low student-teacher ratio, and support for pregnant or parenting students—works to get dropouts back on track. But ironically, notes creativity expert Sir Ken Robinson, current education reform efforts like the federal No Child Left Behind Act are "rooted in standardization" even though we know that a quality education should "be about personalization."


Robinson, whose lecture on how schools kill creativity is the most watched TEDTalk of all time, was part of a forum on dropout prevention hosted last week by the HeART Project, a Los Angeles-based arts education nonprofit. If what we now call "alternative education" methods became mainstream, said Robinson, "we wouldn't be discussing the dropout rate." He also debunked the myth that students who drop out are reacting to the system as a whole: "For any student, the classroom they sit in is the education system and that's what they're dropping out of." But the kids who get into quality alternative programs fall in love with learning because they're getting an individualized experience—and the support they need to address particular life challenges, like being a teen mom or being homeless.

So how do we make the alternative mainstream? Robinson and the rest of the forum's attendees, a who's who of alternative-thinking L.A. education influencers, say that change begins at the classroom level. Every teacher has the ability to take the time to build relationships with students, make her classroom an engaging environment, and connect students with "real world opportunities in local creative industries and higher education." School-wide solutions, like ending 40-minute block scheduling or team-teaching subjects like math and art, depend on having a school principal with a strong vision and a willingness to ditch current school customs.

But, Robinson cautioned, we shouldn't expect to reform the entire system in one or two years. Instead, a ten-year plan that's well thought-out and truly student-centered is what's needed to change the alternative into the mainstream.

photo via cdis.missouri.edu

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