‘Best practices’ in alternative education

A national survey conducted by the US Department of Education (Carver, Lewis, & Tice, 2010) produced a list of ‘findings’ about the best alternative education on offer to American young people :

Personal Issues

–      Finding One – Students want respect and acceptance for who they are and what their abilities are.

–      Finding Two – High school students have not outgrown the need to be cared for.

–      Finding Three – Students have a life outside of high school. This must be taken into account.

–      Finding Four – Students will have a life after high school. They need guidance in figuring out what they want to do, what they can do, and how they are going to do it.

Academic Issues

–      Finding Five – Students learn at different rates and in different ways. They need staff who are patient with their learning and will persevere with the student until learning has occurred.

–      Finding Six – If high expectations are given to students, they will meet them, given necessary and appropriate support.

–      Finding Seven – High expectations translate into high goals

School Issues

–      Finding Eight – Success in the school creates school spirit and a pride of place.

These eight ‘findings’ can be matched to research on best practices which always include most of the following:

(1)   young people experience and value relationships with staff who: listen; are patient, prepared to have fun and are less formal; are fair, kind, and firm about rules; are prepared to negotiate; have clear, high and achievable expectations; see them as ‘teachable’ rather than as deficient in some way.

(2)   the curriculum is: relevant and connected to young people’s experiences, needs, aspirations and interests; has clear goals tailored to each individual; combines experiential learning with opportunities to catch up and accelerate learning; builds knowledge, skills and habits of mind; offers challenging tasks with real world applications; and uses feedback and authentic forms of assessment to build belief in the capacity to learn. There is flexibility, choice and routine; adult learning principles are used rather than didactic instructional methods. Students’ learning is carefully monitored and progress is celebrated.

(3)   agency and independence are built through the offer to be become someone different. All young people are able to have a say in their own learning, and about the overall programme and its operations.

(4)   while the focus is always on learning, health and welfare services support those young people who might benefit from them. There is a family atmosphere in which young people are encouraged to discuss problems and issues, to resolve conflicts and build resources to deal with potential and actual life challenges.

(5)   the alternative education on offer is smaller and more human than most traditional schools. There are smaller class sizes and lower teacher-student ratios. The facilities are generally good; ICTs are used to facilitate learning, not substitute for teaching, mentoring and coaching. Families/parents/carers are encouraged to become involved where feasible.

(6)   staff are committed and highly skilled. They are well trained and engage in ongoing professional development. They have a positive orientation to behaviour and to participatory processes, are concerned that young people feel safe and secure and are well versed in wholistic learning and teaching. [1]

These kinds of ‘best practices’ can be expressed as procedural principles such as those developed by KPMG for the Victorian Department for Education:

Good practice principles:

  • Inclusive
  • Developmentally responsive
  • Comprehensive, wrap around approach
  • Flexible
  • Timely and accessible
  • Mentoring relationships
  • Engage families and support networks

Approaches to education provision:

  • personalized learning
  • targeted supports
  • flexible learning options

Much of the work on best practice has been generated from case studies and surveys of providers, young people and associated stake-holders in schools and school districts/LAs. While there is little that might meet the test of an RCT, the consistency across time and place does suggest some trustworthiness in the findings. However, the key issue is that there is very little research evidence which ties these practices to outcomes for students. This is because there is relatively little research on outcomes per se; this is discussed further in the next section.


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One comment

  1. […] deal of case study research across alternative education programmes – this largely focuses on best practices. There is also research which evaluates individual programmes, and a little of this is longitudinal […]

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