Fred Bramante barely graduated from high school and was rejected by every college he applied to. But as a 1960s rock-and-roller, he figured out how to buy and sell guitars, and ended up owning a chain of 20 musical instrument stores in the Northeast U.S.
"I know what that felt like to feel bored in school and be made to feel I wasn't very bright," Bramante said. "If anybody had told me I could do my school and rock and roll, I would have been a star in school."
Today, Bramante is an education innovator speaking all over the country after he led his home state of New Hampshire to remake its educational philosophy. He recently spoke in Anchorage to a group started by former Mayor Dan Sullivan seeking to improve Alaska's education system.
Sullivan is a conservative Republican and Bramante ran for governor of New Hampshire as a Republican, unsuccessfully. The participants who gathered Nov. 9 for a day-long session organized by Sullivan's Education Matters Inc. included many business people and Republican politicians as well as educators.
But the philosophy Bramante was selling, and that the group enthusiastically bought, is a model of progressive education practiced for decades by alternative and open optional schools such as Steller Secondary, Polaris K-12 and several other programs in Anchorage.
Philosopher John Dewey pioneered the ideas in the first half of the 20th century, calling for personalized instruction, self-paced learning, getting rid of structure in schooling and following students' own interests to motivate them. Many such schools started in the liberal 1970s, including Chugach Optional Elementary and Steller in Anchorage (my mother was a leader in that work and I and my children attended both programs).
As times changed and the cultural pendulum swung back, many progressive schools died out or became more traditional. President George W. Bush's No Child Left Behind law, with its emphasis on minimum achievement levels and standardized testing, pushed teachers toward scripted instruction and rote memorization.
But now many school reformers think back to basics isn't good enough. Students need basics, but the business leaders at the Education Matters conference emphasized the "21st Century Skills" of the session's title, including problem solving, critical thinking, creativity and flexible intelligence to handle changing technology and abundant information.
Bramante's solution, which he said came to him in an epiphany, was to stop thinking about education in terms of classrooms and class periods. As president of New Hampshire's State Board of Education, he ended regulations for advancing students based on their time spent at desks, instead giving credit when they demonstrate skills, whether that learning happens in the school, in the community or while playing rock and roll.
When we talked later, Bramante agreed the concept resembles Dewey's utopian school, imagined as having no building while supporting students learning from talented community elders.
"That's a lot of what we're talking about here. So if Dewey were here, he would be smiling," Bramante said.
Cheryl Frasca, executive director of Education Matters (which she called a part-time part-time job), said she had no idea Bramante's idea fell in line with progressive education, either when she invited him or after hearing him speak. Her background is in political science and management, not education. She retired from a career as a well-respected Office of Management and Budget director for various Republican mayors and governors.
Frasca said she got involved in Education Matters as OMB director for Sullivan. When he wanted to work on education, she suggested pulling in leaders from outside politics or education to collaborate, sharing ideas in small groups after hearing invited speakers. Since she came up with the idea, he put her in charge.
She was surprised when I told her the group's new direction is traditionally liberal, but it didn't bother her.
"It's about how students can best succeed and that's not Republican or Democrat," Frasca said.
The University of Alaska's Steve Atwater said this new direction is part of a national trend happening in mainstream schools, not only schools of choice. He is vice president for K-12 outreach and interim dean of the University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Education.
"There are numerous examples of high schools in the Lower 48 where students are not tied to the seven-period bell schedule but are working independently and meeting with teachers for remediation or enrichment," Atwater said in an email. That change, he added, reflects a new philosophy about the role of teachers: "To no longer be the keepers of the knowledge and to instead monitor learning and then guide it as needed."
Alaska's State Board of Education, although still led by appointees of former Republican Gov. Sean Parnell, adopted similar themes for a strategic plan. It calls for devolving control to local school boards and giving students personalized instruction and flexibility.
I'm delighted to hear all this. Progressive schools work. I'm still doing what I learned to do at Steller, writing about topics that interest me. A friend who built a boat in the hallway is still a boat builder. Another who organized student elections is now chairman of the Alaska Republican Party.
But I'm also cautious.
I've seen good intentions fail through a lifetime involved in these issues. At a parent meeting at Chugach Optional, I was called "Yoda" for my ridiculous longevity at the school and constant emphasis on living up to its founding philosophy.
The problem is that giving students power over their own education means taking that power away from parents, teachers, administrators and politicians. Under liberal or conservative leadership, power usually flows in the other direction, to those making the rules.
Every mandate begins as someone's great idea about what someone else should do. But as requirements accumulate, teachers and students lose control. Today, student-centered schools like Steller are more traditional than they've ever been because they have to meet so many federal, state and local laws and regulations.
Ultimately, it comes down to parents and their ability to let go of the reins. Are you ready to let your kid study rock and roll?
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