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Leadership and Activism, Learning at its Best

Free Schools Revisited: Revolution vs. Transformation

The public school exists to turn out manageable workers, obedient consumers, manipulable voters, and if need be willing killers” -Jonathan Kozol author of Free Schools

The most notable and recent movement for alternative education occurred in 1960’s to the early 1970’s, and was known as the “free school” movement. The free school movement was an effort to build small alternative schools where students participated equally in governance as well as enjoyed complete control over curriculum. Free school theorist Ron Miller estimates between 400 to 800 such schools opened between 1967 and the late 1970s.The free school movement arose in the midst of an entire cultural, social, and political climate of revolution and change. During this time period, there was what many activists called a “revolution of consciousness.” A spirit of rapid social change with movements such as civil rights, anti-war, women’s liberation, and free speech were in full swing. Most activists who participated in these movements were battling what they called a “technocratic” society.

Technocracy is “a social order that maintains stability and control by fitting human ‘resources’ into appropriate, predefined institutional niches.” Technocracy was considered to be a major contributor to the “social machine.” In many ways, the free school movement was meant to be a black-lash against technocracy. Radical theorists, considered a technocratic society to be a heartless society; a world in which citizens were merely mechanical parts to the overall social machine. During the 1960’s and 1970’s, America was recovering from, and lashing out against  materialism and conformity. Moreover, America was recovering from the age of McCarthyism; a time in which political institutions widely persecuted people and ideas that expressed originality or dissent in any way. All of this led to a massive backlash against consumer culture. The culture of conformity and materialism had also seeped into the education system. The free school movement was a response to an overtly unyielding “factory-like” system of educating American children.

Free school ideology aimed to completely break from the public education system. Participants in the movement were in no way concerned with working within the educational structure to improve it; rather they were looking to tear down the system completely and start anew. Free school intellectuals asserted that there was no saving the current system. Free schools were solely concerned about the education of the heart rather than the mind. There were no textbooks, individual subjects, or concrete lesson plans.” Additionally, teachers were not regarded as authority figures, but as friends and mentors. Free school ideology encouraged a strong focus on feelings. It sought to counter a society that intensely encouraged rationalism as the highest good. There was immense attention given to interpersonal relationships and communal experiences. Hierarchy was discouraged in the school structure. Although the free school movement arose from a huge amount of educational dissent, the movement declined very quickly. Most schools were only open for one or two years.

Free schools ultimately failed for a two reasons. First, there was a major lack of funding. There was no public funding to continuously support free schools. Most free schools lacked adequate supplies and resources to maintain their services. Many free schools quickly closed due to financial strife. Another major difficulty in the movement existed in conflicting ideologies amongst educational leaders and theorists. Due to the ambiguity of the free school philosophy along with the resistance to any order or leadership in the movement, there were many organizational problems. There were many disagreements amongst the parents, teachers and administrators and no effective means of solving them. Researcher Terrence E.Deal expressed that, “The counterculture ideology abhors organization, routinization, and bureaucracy, and as a result decision making in the alternative schools was participatory, consensual, cumbersome, burdensome, and ineffective.” As a result, free schools arose from a surge of idealism, yet lacked a realistic approach to support these ideas.

There are many lessons to be learned from the free school movement. First and foremost, although it simply takes an idea to spark a revolution; careful planning, meticulous organizing, and strong compassionate leadership is required to create systemic change. The free school movement marked a definitive moment in educational policy. For the first time in American history, policymakers and administrators were left to seriously consider issues of school choice and to re-consider the “one size fits all” public school system. Shortly after the decline of the free school movement, alternative schools and home schooling were endorsed. However, free school educators failed to create a new education system. There was too much of a focus on feelings and emotions and not enough of a focus on systemic change. Although the idea was great, there was no concrete plan to sustain the movement.

During the 1960’s and 1970’s “revolution” was the key word. The definition of revolution is, “a radical and pervasive change in society and the social structure, especially one made suddenly.” ( In the 21st century, revolution is an incomplete process. “Revolution” will only take an idea so far. Revolution is a very temporary state, a place in which sensationalism may arise, but practical steps will be severely lacking. There must be a call for transformation in the American education system.  The definition of transformation is, “changing in condition, nature or character; convert; to change into another substance or transmute.” ( Transformation will take more than just a group of passionate, well-intentioned people. It will require an extensive evaluation of facts and data, but much more importantly, human potential. Transformation will require a connection of the head and the heart.

Since the rise and fall of the free school movement, the U.S. has become much more open minded to forms of alternative education. The charter school movement is on the rise, which leaves an open door to more creative forms of learning.(Sometimes…) Public funding can be provided to a school with the principles described above and it will only take the success of one school. The success of one school that utilizes the principles of a new education paradigm will light the fire for the creation of other schools. At such an important time in history, we must dare to experiment. It is the least we can do.

About daretheschool

I like to keep an eye on our shifting world and the way it is shaping our education system.


7 thoughts on “Free Schools Revisited: Revolution vs. Transformation

  1. Great introduction to the history and struggles of free schooling, Heather – thank you!

    So, at the risk of sounding materialistic (for give me, for I am reading Class Warfare this week), how do we get a handful of billionaires behind this to influence a system or two to leap into free and democratic schooling? Is it completely wrongheaded to wish for a Mike-Bloomberg-and-Joel-Klein-of-free-education to execute some of the systemic changes necessary to implement free schooling on the scale of KIPP?


    Posted by Chad Sansing | August 19, 2011, 9:00 am
  2. Agreed, this is a great historical overview of the free school movement.

    I went to a community meeting about the Philadelphia Free School, which will be opening this September and got to watch a video that showed a couple of free schools in action. It was pretty awesome to watch. I don’t think the style of school is for everyone, as some kids desire more structure or need it. I often wonder how I would have fared in one—I often felt (at least in middle/high school) that few teachers offered me anything that I couldn’t have learned on my own.

    After the meeting, I was inspired to write this post, which alludes to Chad’s point about expanding the model based around the idea of providing true school choice for students and their families. “What is School Choice, Really?”

    Posted by marybethhertz | August 19, 2011, 9:51 am
  3. “Many students, especially those who are poor, intuitively know what the schools do for them…The pupil is…schooled to confuse teaching with learning, grade advancement with education, a diploma with competence, and fluency with the ability to say something new. His imagination is schooled to accept service in place of value. …This process of degradation is accelerated…[in conventional school].”

    -Ivan Illich, Deschooling Society, 1970, p. 1

    Posted by Kirsten Olson | August 19, 2011, 10:34 am
  4. Union of intellect and emotions are definitely important, especially when the wounds of those involved run deep, and the system in question is extremely complex. When I started learning about the free school movement, I felt the same way (that this is the model everyone should want and have, because it isn’t cold and “technocratic,” but lately I am seeing that changing education for society involves more than one model, and as you pointed out, the free school movement was a good launching point for other forms of progressive education, but not an end-all-be-all. Revolution has always been an empowering, but not satisfying concept, and I agree that it isn’t as mindful or realistic as transformation.

    As for C, I have been thinking about the issue of support a bit before, and especially since reading and responding to Kirsten’s “We’re not Getting Paid” post. I think a starting point could come in the form of an “open letter” to the “big three” education foundations and reposted in emails and blogs. It doesn’t even have to be from scratch, because much of the writing done here and at IDEA is of the persuasive and argumentative variety. Many bloggers have called out the DOE, the Big Three, and other education policy issues in their writing that can be put together has a letter, or series of letters.

    This post was pretty comprehensive.

    Posted by teganor | August 21, 2011, 2:41 pm


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