Are All Schools The Same?

Posted on December 4, 2013


I’ve been studying various educational models for a few years now and I’ve spoken with adults that came through these varying models. There’s only one consistent observation I can make:

There is very little difference between adults, regardless of the educational model they were exposed to.

I would bet that you could not, just from observing them, accurately guess whether an adult went to a public school, a private school, a charter school, Montessori, Reggio Emilia, Sudbury Valley,  or was home-schooled.

That’s not to say there aren’t significant differences between all of these different models, it’s just to say that humans are incredibly resilient and dynamic creatures. We will adjust to a new environment very quickly, and that environment will change, to a certain extent, our personality, our decision making process, our perception of the world around us, etc.

I just have not been able to find that one educational model produces and significantly different outcomes for students than the other educational models. I’m sure that there are some differences, but the differences are nuanced to the point that I don’t think they are easily observable.

Right now I worry about the daily stress and constant judgement that I see in many public schools. I think grades (especially on a transcript) are a relatively poor mechanism when it comes to quality learning. I don’t want my daughter to be micro-managed for 8 hours a day and then have 3-4 hours of homework each night, essentially leaving her no time to explore on her own volition, and I don’t want her to be bombarded by messages such as “you’re smart”, “you’re dumb”, “you’re cool”, “you’re pretty”, “you can’t do X”, etc.

That said, I think she’ll survive. In fact she’ll probably come out in roughly the same spot as she would if she were exposed to the many different, in my opinion more healthy, educational environments. There’s just no evidence that I have ever seen that shows one model has significantly different outcomes. If you take a large enough sample size of adults that have gone through any given environment you see roughly the same outcomes on average.

It’s certainly possible that there are aspects of adult life that are hard to observe and hard to quantify. I’m sure people are affected in some ways in the long-term by their education. It’s just very difficult to ignore the lack of obvious differences in adults that have gone through one model vs. another model.

The biggest piece of anecdotal evidence I’ve seen so far is the somewhat common idea that someone is “bad at X (usually math)” that seems to derive from environments with grading and easy social comparison (I’m better or worse than most of my peers). That’s a reasonably big deal, but I’m not sure whether people would be living different adult lives had they developed that fixed mindset.

Unfortunately there is also the extreme case of teenage suicide. This seems to stem from public schools, but I don’t know if you can say for sure whether these cases would exist in other educational models if enough students attended them. It’s certainly reasonable to hypothesize that the constant judgement in many public schools can lead to more bullying, which can lead to suicide in rare cases, but it’s difficult to say for sure whether the public school environment accounts for 100% of the problem. I would bet that the vast majority of people who go through high school do not wrestle with suicidal thoughts more than the general population.

Both of these examples, though, may not be affecting the adult outcomes that much (suicide obviously does, but it is very rare). I still think on average adults from these different models are roughly the same.If you disagree and have evidence to support the idea that significantly better adult outcomes derive from one specific educational model I’d love to hear it.  I’d really love to hear any evidence that is available, one way or another…