Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Education Reform? It Started in Fairhope

President Obama is committed to a deep reform of the educational system. I hope while investigating options his experts will take a look at what they call in Fairhope the Organic School.

Founded in 1907 by visionary educator Marietta Johnson, the Organic School was based on the same kind of reform that Fairhope itself was, and it fit in the little village like a glove. It was to work hand-in-hand with the Single Tax Corporation for its first years of existence, and the two institutions shared many of the same benefactors and local support.

The principles of Organic education remain radical. The basic premise is that education is natural to life (Mrs. Johnson used to say that education is life), and that children's curiosity and love of learning is to be incorporated in the process of teaching. She wrote two books on the subject which are incorporated into a slim volume called Teaching Without Failure now for sale at the Marietta Johnson Museum.

That's a daunting title. Perhaps the most difficult aspect of her system was that Mrs. Johnson believed that no child should be allowed to "fail" at education. The concept of failure was turned on its head; if the student didn't grasp the subject, it was failure of the school rather than the child. She solved this dilemma by simply eliminating measurements from the equation.

How, then, said the education Establishment, are we to know what a child is learning? The answer is that "we" don't. Any child can cram facts and pass a test, but has he really learned? Only the student in question is capable of knowing how much he has learned. In today's obsession with test scores, this is the most difficult aspect of Organic education to sell to the public.

Today, many of Mrs. Johnson's tenets have been softened at the school. It was essential to her system that students begin at the earliest year possible and remain in the school through high school. If an unfortunate child had to transfer, he had a big adjustment to make to adapt to the atmosphere of adversity in a traditional school, but soon emerged victorious, having been imbued with a basic love of the learning process. Now it is seldom that a student remains in a school from kindergarten through high school. The Organic School itself goes only through the eighth grade at this point.

But there is much to be learned from the school, which Mrs. Johnson considered a demonstration of the direction for all education. When traveling in Progressive Education circles, she was often challenged about her idea of education. "It sounds lovely," she was told, "But it could never work."

"Come to Fairhope and see," was what she answered. Many did, and many took away ideas which have become part of the schools of today.

There is a lot written about this unique approach to education reform. Read my books about it, which are at Page and Palette Bookstore in Fairhope or at or Barnes and, or drop by the Marietta Johnson Museum on the Faulkner campus for information about Mrs. Johnson and the school, or go to the campus on Pecan Ave. east of Section Street.

Or look it all up on the Internet!