Alternative education can help students, but only in the right circumstances.
An FKD Feature exclusive

A controversial component of the American education system, alternative education programs can at once be seen as part of the solution, and as part of the problem.

Alternative education placement can be extremely beneficial when applied correctly to students who need it, but using that placement as a discipline method for disruptive students may be helping the schools more than the students.

What is alternative education?

Alternative education refers to educational programs that separate students struggling with academics or discipline into smaller groups that utilize a variety of different learning techniques. The goal of placing a student into alternative education is to provide them with alternative tools that ultimately see them as successful as other students.

Alternative education today

Now, alternative education is most commonly used for students who disrupt their learning environment for others, and/or show signs that often lead to failure.

Though it can be difficult to compare student success rates in alternative programs to those in traditional schooling, several research projects have attempted to analyze the effectiveness of alternative programs by measuring improvements in students’ perception of schooling and impression of personal growth.

The Study of Effective Alternative Education Programs was a research project in 2007 that analyzed three of the best alternative programs in the country. Criteria included: scholarly opinion and educational research demonstrating improvements in attendance, parent involvement and graduation rates.

Through surveys, the study found that the majority of students in alternative programs cared about their grades and liked their classes. Through interviews, the study found many personal accounts of struggling in traditional classes and finding ability to grow in nontraditional programs.

The research proved that high-quality alternative programs that correctly identify students who would benefit from them can make a difference in kids’ lives. However, the study explained that the effectiveness of the alternative programs was dependent on several things, one being that the students feel included in the decision-making process.

So, sending kids to these programs if they don’t want to go can be risky and not actually improve their educational environment.

Why are kids being sent to alternative education?

Some organizations have praised the effectiveness of alternative programs by showing that placing more children in these programs has been shown to decrease the amount of misbehavior at school. However, alternative program placement is supposed to help students, and relying on it too heavily as a punishment for misbehavior can do more harm than good to those who will not benefit.

" ... many school administrations are using alternative education as a way to push out 'troublemakers.'"

Numerous studies have been released in the past decade, including two separate studies of alternative programs in Texas and California, as well as a national analysis, that concluded many school administrations are using alternative education as a way to push out “troublemakers.”

Any punishment that removes a child from their typical educational environment, which includes placement in an alternative program, can be harmful to them by disrupting their learning and causing them to fall behind. So placement in an alternative program needs to be weighed just as carefully as the decision to suspend or expel a student.

Who is being sent to alternative education?

The reasons a child ends up in alternative education are pretty important. And, unfortunately, studies have shown that student placement in those programs is most often linked things like: low-income backgrounds, learning disorders and unstable family environments.

Another significant point is the disproportionate rate that students from minority communities are assigned to alternative educational programs. Studies have connected the national disparity between discipline of these students with enrollment in alternative programs.

What can happen after alternative education?

Research has found that once a student has been placed in an alternative program and then put back into a regular classroom, it is highly likely for them to be placed again in the alternative program. The study concluded that alternative programs often fail to adequately transition students back into traditional classrooms.

And last, researchers have found a significant connection between placement in an alternative program and juvenile detention, indicating that these programs are either causing students to be more likely to end up in the system or failing to prevent at-risk students them from it.

Our take

While there are still large gaps in our knowledge about the effectiveness of alternative programs, research so far indicates that they can be both very effective and very ineffective, depending on how they are used and how well they meet individual student needs.

Identifying struggling students who would benefit from non-traditional classroom techniques gives them different learning opportunities and more freedom to be involved in their future. Targeting misbehaving students and punishing them by placing them in alternative programs does not take into account what they actually need and puts them at risk for dropping out.

Alternative education is here to help students, not punish them. These programs need to be applied in the right way by offering students more chances to succeed.


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Posted 09.28.2016 - 02:47 pm EST

Filed under

alternative education discipline Education education policy

Written by

Caitlin Curley