Lost Over the Summer

Summer vacation is over and on the way to school I make my now predictable joke. “Did you complete your assigned summer reading? How about that social studies diorama for Danny?” My kids smile and roll their eyes. My mind drifts back to when my kids were in public school, and summer reading lists were real things. The lists would be accompanied by references; “Summer Learning Loss” research. Wikipedia has a good summary of this literature. The literature shows that kids in traditional schools perform worse on standard math tests at the end of the summer than they did at the start of the summer. The loss is estimated to be equal to almost 3 months of schooling. Reading scores are a little different, with kids in low income families showing a loss of 2 months, while kids from wealthy families have actually shown a small gain in reading scores over the summer. This research has been part of the justification for summer reading as well as for calls for a longer school year.

Naturally, I find myself wondering what lessons learned by my SVS children have been “lost” over the summer?  Maybe they have forgotten the exact list of ingredients for gingerbread. Perhaps they forgot what time JC meets? Perhaps they have forgotten the price of their favorite snack at concession?  But these are all simple facts that can be easily re-accessed when the need for them arises. In the research on Math skill loss there is discussion about how the kids lose knowledge on how to carry out mathematical procedures.  This I can imagine. Once in my adult life, I was surprised to find myself needing to solve a quadratic equation. The only part I could remember was something about “4ac.” This was before the Internet, or at least before I knew how to use the Internet, so I found an old notebook that had common math equations on the inside front and back pages, and there it was! It took me much longer to solve my one problem as an adult than I could have done it in high school. But does that really represent an important “loss?”  If I forced myself to 15 or 20 of them, I bet I could rapidly regain my high school proficiency level, but for what purpose?

I experienced a similar problem more recently, when my daughter asked for help doing a long division problem. Much to my surprise, I had actually forgotten the mechanics of doing long division by hand. Quite embarrassed, I spent a few minutes on the Internet looking at examples, before I could help my daughter.

Especially in our Internet-driven information age, the important lessons are no longer the mechanics of doing something, but rather that a known method exists for solving problems of a certain nature. It is useful to know that there is a thing called division, best performed with a calculator, but possible to do by hand when in a jam. It is helpful to know that algebra problems in the format of ax2+bx+c=0 can be solved using an equation that can easily be found on the Internet.

Living in fear of the “Summer learning loss,” presents an image that society at large might degenerate into some sort of Stone Age society if kids have too much free time.  By the logic of summer learning loss, how do we dare to allow school to end at 12th grade? Adults, once they leave school, must devolve into some imbecilic state after a few years!

I think that the education system in our country has confused the ability to recall and rapidly execute a memorized procedure with learning life skills. The former are easily forgotten over the summer, while life skills are like learning to ride a bicycle, once learned you never forget. Each year I see my children learning important life skills at SVS such as:

  • navigating complex social relations
  • working in mixed age groups
  • using democratic institutions to protect their rights
  • balancing their own desires with the rights of others
  • mastering physical challenges, such as four square, rip-sticking and tree climbing
  • planning and organizing activities, such as parties, school trips, concerts, and plays

Though no reading list was assigned, both my daughters enjoy reading. They read multiple books over the summer. They choose the books by following their own curiosity and interaction with their friends.  As for the diorama? Well Danny will be disappointed this year!

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A Sudbury Valley School Glossary

When talking about the school, we all find others confused about what we believe, and about what we do. As with most confusion, much of the confusion can be reduced to language.

People casually use certain terms loosely and interchangeably as a shorthand way to say “this is a good thing.” Educators, in particular, use certain terms loosely, because their aim in speaking is to send an emotive signal that they “believe in good things,” rather than as an actual expression of their organizational philosophy. Consider, for example, the huge number of schools around the globe labeled “democratic” in which not one vote is ever taken on any matter of substance.

At Sudbury Valley we try to use language very precisely. And sometimes it is hard for a visitor to understand that we mean what we say. For example, it can take visitors to the school weeks to understand that when we say “freedom” we mean that the students own their time, rather than meaning that they get to choose among a set of choices that the adults lay out for them.

Here is a short glossary of terms that have meaning in a Sudbury context, but which tend to be misunderstood and ignored in other schools. It is not presented in alphabetical order, but in the sequence that seems best for the presentation of the discrete ideas:

Freedom. Freedom is the environment in which people are responsible for themselves. Period. No gently guiding hands. No protecting people from themselves.

Cooperation. Cooperation is the act of working together. Dividing the work, so that A does what A is best at, and B does what B is best at, and they are able to trade and work together, each becoming wealthier, happier, and safer. Freedom is the environment which – despite what its detractors say – maximally encourages cooperation. Free cooperation is the only cooperation; compelled cooperation, as with all slavery, is done grudgingly, angrily, and without full attention and careful thought. Cooperation freely entered into leads to one actually caring about those one is cooperating with just as one cares about oneself.

Equality. Equality is a funny term. We talk about it as an absolute, and in one sense it is: Equality by definition means that each being that we understand as equal is absolutely equal, in terms of deserving the presumption of equal ability to be responsible for themselves. But we do not start with a presumption that, say, chairs or tea-kettles, are equal to humans. Very few of us start with a presumption that a cat or a dog is equal to a human. Very few of us start with the presumption that any person capable of language (and thus capable of organizing her/his thoughts) is equal to any other human capable of language – and that is the presumption that our school starts with, that lead us to embrace four-year-olds fourteen-year-olds forty-year-olds and eighty-year-olds as equal members of our community.

Pluralism. Pluralism goes hand-in-hand with Freedom and Equality. If one holds to freedom and equality, one holds to pluralism. If you are free, and others are your equal, then you endeavor to create an environment in which the differences between those individuals are accepted.

Democracy. Democracy on its own isn’t a value. It is a tool for resolving conflicts. If one believes in equality and pluralism, it is impossible to justify a King or Oligarchy of any sort. A respectful pluralistic society uses democracy to resolve sovereign fights between individuals. As Churchill put it, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Some democracies are not egalitarian (consider the Athenian democracy), but all egalitarian societies will find it awkward to govern by any method besides democracy. The saving grace, which rescues egalitarian societies from the excesses of democracy, is the concept of Rights.

Rights. A respectful pluralistic society does not believe that its democracy has authority over everything. A right is an understanding about what the limits of government (including democratic government) are. Rights define those areas that others may only touch with the individual’s consent.

Sovereignty. Sovereignty is the question about where control resides. Freedom comes from the idea that sovereignty resides in and with each individual, and that those individuals, sometimes, loan some of their sovereignty to groups of individuals, generally as part of an understanding that the same sovereignty has likewise been lent to one’s co-equal citizens. Sovereignty is the area of muddiest thinking in many quarters. Consider the oft-repeated question “whose life is it anyway?” Rights are those areas in which personal sovereignty is understood to be total, where they cannot and have not been loaned to any other sovereign body.

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The Cutting Edge

In many ways, it is nothing short of miraculous that Sudbury Valley has reached the 50th year of its operation. For all the talk of reform in the world of education, those parents who feel comfortable allowing their small and large children autonomy are always an infinitesimally tiny minority. They are hard for any Sudbury school to find, and they must work hard to keep their aims clear when they conflict with society’s norms for how children should be treated. The fact that their children become strong and amazing people does help, but here we are: still on that cutting edge, swordfish wondering why we can’t seem to turn into . . . . cuddly cod yet!

One of my personal favorite things, now that we have had so many years of graduates, is that when we have a visit from an “elderly” alum – say 45, 50 – who went to school here long ago in the far away, they say three things: “wow, it looks so good here, now!” (it does; the campus and building improvements have been immense); “everything is exactly the same” (yes, the way people treat each other, and feel about being here, which defines the atmosphere of the school, is precisely the same); and often, “oh, I remembered it being so much bigger!”

So, this is what I want to say about us on our fiftieth anniversary: an idea that stays, unwaveringly, on the cutting edge for 50 years is an impressive thing. That is because the idea was right! Respect and all those nice “r” words work. When we look at our former students we see people who are successful at many things, not the least of which is understanding themselves and how they want to lead their lives. The alumni who come back are physically beautiful too. Sometimes – as happened last year with one of the students who was about 9 or 10 when the school started, graduated at 18, and lives in a very distant part of the country – the ex-student walks in looking radiant. What they got here “took”. It lasted. They got that feeling of being able to control as much of life as is possible to control, to make changes, to move forward.

Fifty more years? I hope they will not all be on the cutting edge! In my mind in another 50 years we will be the norm. We will be supported some way that does not double-tax parents, but hopefully is not part of the horrid heavy expensive bureaucracy that is the present public school system.

That is what I thought in 1968 too, and it didn’t happen yet, but one thing I am sure of: our staff, and staff in similar schools, will keep up the push as long as necessary. Being in the avant garde is, at the very least, something that makes your back and shoulders straight. It keeps your vision clear. Parents who have bitten the bullet, students and former students, and staff in Sudbury schools everywhere: we can all be justifiably proud of keeping a very beautiful way of treating children right on track!


This bouquet was a 50th Anniversary present for our Opening Day,

from the Jersey Shore Free School.

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