mapping the field of alternative education

The US scholar Aron (2003, 2006; Aron & Zweig, 2003) has argued that developing a typology of alternative education provision  is not reflective of what actually happens. She suggested that in reality the practice in alternative education programmes and schools has always showed blurred and overlapping elements. Together with Zweig (2003) she analysed ways of categorising alternative education and concluded that there were a variety of approaches to understanding the field, via:

  • historical, legal and operational definitions
  • defining purposes compared to mainstream schools
  • describing schools, programmes, and approaches
  • by population and psychological social needs
  • by operational setting
  • by content, qualifications and/or intended outcomes
  • using Raywid’s three types or variations on her typology of effectiveness
  • by educational needs
  • by funding/governance

Aron ( 2006, p 6) opted for a definition of alternative education as

… schools or programmes that are set up by states, school districts or other entities to serve people who are not succeeding in traditional public environments. Alternative education programs offer students who are failing academically or may have learning disabilities, behavioural problems, or poor attendance an opportunity to achieve in a different setting and use different and innovative learning models. While there are many different kinds of alternative schools and programs, they are often characterised by their flexible schedules, smaller teacher-student ratios, and modified curricula.

This definition eliminates students who are coping or even doing well in mainstream schools and who might choose an alternative school or programme simply on the grounds that it is different. It does however begin to delineate something of the pedagogies characteristic of alternative education. Aron’s framework (below) allowed for the individual characteristics of programmes to be mapped.

Category Includes
General type of alternative education
  • Separate school
  • Separate program
  • Perspective/strategy with a regular K-12 school
Target Population
  • women/girls
  • pregnant/parenting teens
  • suspended/expelled students
  • recovered drop-outs
  • delinquent teens
  • low-achievers
  • all at risk youth
Focus/purpose (and mix):
  • Academic completion/credential
  • Career preparation/credential
  • Disciplinary
  • Transitional (e.g., out of treatment or detention, or back to K-12)

Operational setting-proximity to K-12:

  • resource rooms
  • pull-out programs
  • schools-within-a-school
  • separate self-contained alternative school
Operational setting-location of activity
  • regular school during school hours
  • school building during non-school hours
  • community or recreation center
  • former school building
  • juvenile justice corrections or detention center
  • store-front neighborhood organization
  • public housing project
  • homeless shelter (emergency and transitional)
  • medical or mental health facility
  • community college or other post-secondary campus
Educational focus
  • short-term bridge back to schools for students who are off track
  • students prematurely transitioning to adulthood
  • accelerated program for students needing a few credits to move on
  • students who are very far behind educationally
Sponsor or administrative entity
  • non-profit and community-based organization (CBOs)
  • state or local education agency
  • charter school
  • adult education division or agency
  • juvenile justice agency
  • K-12 public or private school
  • health or mental health agency or institution
  • federally-funded program and contractors (e.g., for Job Corps)
Credentials offered
  • Regular high school diploma
  • General Educational Development (GED) diploma
  • Occupational and skills certification
  • No credentialing
Funding sources (and mix)
  • Federal funds
  • State funds
  • Local funds
  • Private funds

One can imagine that this framework might also lend itself to a ‘scorecard’ on which providers would be able to tick the point in each category which applied to them.


Aron, L. Y. (2003). Towards a typology of alternative education programs: a compilation of elements from the literature. Washington DC: The Urban Institute.

Aron, L. Y. (2006). An overview of alternative education. Washington DC: The Urban Institute.

Aron, L. Y., & Zweig, J. M. (2003). Educational alternatives for vulnerable youth: students’ needs, program types, and research directions. Washington DC: The Urban Institute.


One comment

  1. […] mapping approach has also been proposed by Australian scholar Te Riele (2007). Unlike Aron’s more pragmatic stance, she argues that the question of purpose cannot be ignored. In the […]

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