No Grades No Homework No Tests

The 63 students at Clearwater School in Bothell learn what and when they want. Critics question whether the kids will learn the things they need, but parents and supporters believe that they will.

The music room sits empty on a recent gray morning at Clearwater School in Bothell. Four girls play cards in the “play” room nearby, and a half-dozen teenagers hang out in the “quiet” room across the way.

The crowd is in the computer room, where 20 students — about a third of this small, private school — are engrossed in strategy and shoot-’em-up video games.

That makes some of their parents uncomfortable, but it shows Clearwater is serious about giving students freedom to choose how to spend their time.

Just as children learn to talk without formal instruction, Clearwater students learn to read and write and solve math problems the same way. There are no tests at Clearwater. No assignments. No classes unless students organize them.

The school’s campus is just a short way off busy Bothell-Everett Highway with its mini marts and office parks, but educationally speaking, Clearwater is about as far from the mainstream as one can get.

At a time when the federal and state governments say the nation’s future depends on improving schools with high standards and tests, Clearwater students don’t have to study anything they don’t want to, and if they choose to shoot cyberspace bad guys all day, that’s just fine.

“Free” schools

Clearwater is one of about 30 schools that follow the philosophy of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachusetts. Such schools are sometimes called “free” and “democratic” schools, where students are responsible for their own learning and have a significant role in governing the school. They also have many parallels with “unschooling,” a movement embraced by some homeschooling families who don’t follow a set curriculum.

There used to be thousands of “free” schools back in the 1960s and 1970s, according to Jerry Mintz of the Alternative Education Resource Organization. The number has waned since, although Mintz says many of their ideas are used in public alternative schools and by some homeschooling families.

By Mintz’s count, there are about 200 “democratic” schools around the world, including the Sudbury schools, with more in the works. There are four “democratic” schools in Washington, including a new Sudbury school called Trillium, which opened last fall in Indianola on the Kitsap Peninsula.

Clearwater opened about 11 years ago with about two dozen students in the Seattle home of one of its founders, Stephanie Sarantos. Enrollment jumped about five years ago to about 60. This year, there are 63 students who range in age from 4 to 19.

It moved last year from a building near Nathan Hale High School in northeast Seattle to Bothell, where its campus is a collection of classrooms linked by wooden ramps on land with a big field and stream out back. Tuition is $5,550 a year and will rise closer to $6,000 next fall. Some students are on full or partial scholarship.

Parents include several with Ph.Ds. There’s a high-school teacher, a chocolatier, a science professor, an architect, an artist, a house cleaner.

Critics question whether students at Sudbury schools truly learn what they need, and whether they are exposed to enough to figure out which subjects they might love. Even Alfie Kohn, a well-known author and harsh critic of public education, says Sudbury Valley is too radical for his taste. He prefers the Sudbury approach over what he considers public schools’ “enormously counterproductive practices like grades and standardized tests.” But he doesn’t think students learn best left entirely on their own.

“There’s a role for teachers to initiate possible avenues of inquiry, to spark interests that kids might not have had before. To coach and guide and observe,” he said. “I don’t take the view that the kids have to take the lead all the time. I think we miss a lot that way.”

Many say the Sudbury model is not — and shouldn’t be — for everyone. “It’s a great model for some students — but I would say that for every kind of education,” said Bob Howard, an associate professor of education at University of Washington, Tacoma.

The Sudbury approach appeals to those who reject what they see as “coerced” instruction that occurs when adults set the agenda. Supporters instead trust that children will choose to learn what they need to become successful adults.

“Parents are really brave to be interested in this school,” Sarantos said. It’s not easy, she said, to let go of all the usual measures like test scores and grades, and enroll children in a school that hardly acts like a school at all.

Unstructured day

The day at Clearwater begins when the first child shows up, and continues, with ebbs and flows, until cleanup time at 5 p.m. In between, it’s hard to see what academic learning takes place.

The computer room stays busy all day. Many younger students run around outside. The teenagers spend much of their day in the “quiet” room, which doubles as the school’s office. They play a board game called Apples to Apples. They talk. They draw. In the afternoon, a few walk down to the nearby gas station to buy snacks.

They have some resources available when they want them. The music room has a drum set, a keyboard, electric guitars. The quiet room has shelves filled with books. The computers have access to the Internet. There are games and art supplies and adults available to help students find answers to their questions. But staff (mainly adults who have children at the school) don’t offer help unless asked.

What students learn often isn’t evident until after it’s happened, staff members say. So it can appear to occur overnight, like a child who wasn’t reading seen curled up with a book.

They don’t dispute that reading and writing and math are important; they just think they’re learned best — and fastest — when a child chooses to learn them.

When staff members do observe a learning moment, they don’t try to direct it. One 4-year-old, for example, recently studied a sign on a table that says “No standing. No climbing.” Shawna Lee, one of the school’s founders and staff members, heard him say that the first two letters of each phrase were the same, but the third was different.

Lee realized the boy was starting to learn to read, but said she refrained from saying what a teacher might, such as “Do you know what that letter is called? It’s an ‘n.’ “

“He’s already started to figure it out,’ she said, “and I didn’t want to interrupt that process.”

“Deceptively hard”

When asked what they like best about their school, Clearwater students say the freedom to do what they want, when they want. Even if that means they might not learn everything students at other schools do.

“I won’t say I’m amazingly good at advanced calculus,” said Josh Pidcock, 19, who’s been at Clearwater since he was 12. “I’m not the most studied reader either. I’m OK with that. I figure I can learn that in a college atmosphere much better.”

Attending Clearwater isn’t always as easy as it might look, they say.

“It’s deceptively hard,” says Ian Freeman-Lee, 15, a quiet, thoughtful student who has never attended another school. He says he’s gone through times when he’s bored all day. One such stretch — he thinks he was about 10 — lasted months, maybe close to a year.

But the school sees that as part of the growing process, too.

Students at Clearwater “are a lot more mature because a lot more responsibility is placed on you,” says Corey Campbell, 18, one of Sarantos’ sons. Some students have left Clearwater, he said, because they couldn’t handle setting their own learning path.

Tiffany Denchfield, who transferred from a public high school last spring, said she started out doing nothing, too, but Clearwater “teaches you how to get up … and do something.”

Denchfield’s mother, Pamela, says her daughter is finally happy after years of misery at public schools, where she found the homework boring, and the social scene challenging. The move was easy for her daughter, she said, but harder for her.

“I’ve had to revisit a lot of assumptions that I had about childhood in the United States, about what a child has to go through … what my child had to go through because I went through it.”

Measuring success

Most of the students at Clearwater started when they were young, so only a handful have reached graduation age. So far, five have graduated by writing a paper explaining why they’re ready to become responsible adults. That’s the school’s one learning requirement, and it must be approved at a school meeting.

Two of the graduates are now attending community college, and one is enrolled at Earlham College in Indiana. Two others are working. One student left without graduating, Sarantos said, and is in a job-training program.

Three more are set to graduate this year. So far, Campbell has been accepted at The Evergreen State College in Olympia. Before he applied, he organized a math class at school to prepare for the SAT and studied on his own.

But Clearwater doesn’t measure success by college acceptances. Sarantos says she fully expects students to do well academically because she’s confident they can learn the skills and knowledge they need. To her, education is about taking responsibility for your life, and learning to live in a democracy. At Clearwater, students start doing that from the day they arrive.

Everyone has a vote

The one planned activity on this Clearwater day takes place after lunch. It’s the weekly school meeting to discuss policy and rules of behavior, and requests for privileges.

Before the meeting starts, Sean Carney, 16, the school meeting leader, writes the agenda in pencil on the back of the envelope. Whoever shows up participates, and today the group includes most of the staff, many of the teenagers, and several younger students who have requests on the agenda. Everyone gets one vote, so students are in the majority.

Over the next hour, the group considers a ban on popping microwave popcorn in the “quiet” room — the objection is the smell, especially when it burns — and a new “touched-it-last” rule, which would mean whoever last touched a piece of trash, even if tricked into holding it, must throw it out. That one goes down by a large margin.

Mostly, however, the group weighs requests by students of various ages for increased privileges. Younger ones want permission to go to the field or the creek beyond the fenced part of the yard. Staff members question them closely about whether they know the rules, such as not getting wet. Some requests are approved, but the boy who can’t remember the rules is told to return next week once he’s learned them.

On the last request, a small girl in a pink leotard who’s been playing around the fringes of the meeting raises her hand to vote “yes,” then again to vote “no.” Since Clearwater is a democracy, and all students have rights no matter how old they are, both votes are counted.

Linda Shaw: 206-464-2359 or

More than 40 schools in New York City home to the largest school district in the country, with 1.1 million students have adopted the program. But what makes that unusual is that schools using the method are doing so voluntarily, as part of a grass-roots movement. In communities where the shift was mandated — high schools in and around Portland, Me., for example — the method faced considerable resistance from parents and teachers annoyed that the time-consuming, and sometimes confusing, change has come from top-tier school administrators. Some contend that giving students an unlimited amount of time to master every classroom lesson is unrealistic and inefficient.

New York City Department of Education officials have taken a contrasting position. The city has a growing program called the Mastery Collaborative, which helps mastery-based schools share their methods around the city, even as they adopt different styles. To date, there are eight lab schools, whose practices are being tested, honed and highlighted for transitioning schools. M.S. 442 is one of them. Some struggling schools hope the shift will raise test scores. But the method is also growing in popularity among high-performing, progressive schools, as well as those catering to gifted and talented students and newly arriving immigrants.

This fall, the Education Department plans to spread the method further, by inviting schools to see how the Mastery Collaborative works, even if they aren’t yet considering making the switch. They will be encouraged to attend workshops and tour schools, with the hope, one D.O.E. official said, that they will find elements that they can use in their own classrooms.

Several factors are driving this. The rise of online learning has accelerated the shift, and school technology providers have been fierce advocates. It’s no surprise that schools adopting the method are often the same to have invested heavily in education software; computers are often ubiquitous inside their classrooms.

Mastery-based learning can be traced to the 1960s, when Benjamin Bloom, a professor at the University of Chicago and an education psychologist, challenged conventional classroom practices. He imagined a more holistic system that required students to demonstrate learning before moving ahead. But the strategy was not widely used because it was so labor intensive for teachers. Now, with computer-assisted teaching allowing for tailored exercises and online lessons, it is making a resurgence.

Government policy has also contributed to its adoption. Under the federal education bill passed in 2015, states are permitted to forgo single end-of-year subject tests for nuanced measures. In the mastery-based learning world, this is largely seen as a positive move.

Joy Nolan, one of the directors of New York’s Mastery Collaborative, said the method gives students more agency and allows them to gain traction, no matter their level. “The mastery approach really puts the focus on you and your growth,” she said.

Some of the schools she assists — like the North Queens Community High School — came to mastery-based learning as a way to help disillusioned and at-risk students.

“It’s the narrative we want to change,” said Winston McCarthy, the school’s principal. “We want to change the conversation from ‘I’m not successful at this’ to ‘This is where you are on the ladder of growth.’”

Mastery-based learning, of course, has its critics. Amy Slaton, a professor at Drexel University in Philadelphia who studies the history of science and engineering in education, worries that the method is frequently adopted to save costs. (When paired with computers, it can lead to larger classrooms and fewer teachers.)

Jane Robbins, a lawyer and senior fellow at the American Principles Project who has written critically about mastery-based education, said she finds the checklist nature of the system anti-intellectual. While it may work to improve math skills, it is unlikely to help students advance in the humanities, she said.

Others question the method’s efficacy. Elliot Soloway, a professor at the University of Michigan School of Education, contends that students learn by slowly building on knowledge and frequently returning to it. He rejects the notion that students have learned something simply because they can pass a series of assessments. He suspects that shortly after passing those tests, students forget the material.

“Mastery folks don’t understand the fundamentals of what learning is about,” Mr. Soloway said.

In any event, advocates argue, the current education system is not working. Too many students leave high school ill prepared for college and careers, even though traditional grading systems label many top performers. Last year, only 61 percent of students who took the ACT high school achievement test were deemed college-ready in English. In math, only 41 percent were deemed college-ready.

Even proponents say the system has its problems. Switching to mastery-based learning requires a great deal of coordination. “It’s not an overnight thing,” said Lisa Genduso, the math coach for M.S. 442. It can also meet with resistance from faculty members who aren’t keen on experimentation. The year M.S. 442 moved away from the traditional system, it lost seven teachers.

But Moheeb defended his school’s approach. It encourages students to “work on what they’re struggling with,” he said.

“It’s different for different kids,” Moheeb said with a shrug.

In New York, where students speak more than 200 languages and arrive in classrooms with varying degrees of proficiency, some schools adopted the method out of necessity.

At Flushing International High School, whose student body is dominated by recent immigrants, mastery-based learning lets students concentrate on learning English. This gets them speaking, reading and writing as quickly as possible, while also rewarding them for picking up academic skills and knowledge. In a biology classroom, for example, lab reports are evaluated on the student’s understanding of concepts as well as on a command of scientific vocabulary.

The Young Women’s Leadership School of Astoria educates girls who may become the first in their families to go to college. In addition to fulfilling Common Core requirements, assignments are designed to help students learn critical thinking and workplace skills. Students engaged in a group history project, for example, may need to demonstrate that they have learned to collaborate and investigate. For a solo science assignment, they may be asked to demonstrate that they can innovate.

At Moheeb’s middle school, the approach has been transformative. In the 2013-14 school year, 7 percent of its students read at grade level, and 5 percent met the state’s math standards. Two years later, 29 percent were proficient in English, and 26 percent proficient in math, pulling the school close to the city average.

This year, all the eighth graders at the school who took the algebra Regents exam and 85 percent who took the earth science exam were marked proficient. The scores signified a high point for M.S. 442, teachers said.

To make the system work, teachers used New York State curriculum guidelines and Common Core standards to develop a rubric of every skill students needed before they could move to the next grade. In Moheeb’s sixth-grade class, there were 37 skills designated in math and 37 in English. They included the ability to add and subtract decimals; identify, understand and describe unit rate; recognize story elements; and discern what is important in a text.

In lieu of grades, students are assessed on a color-coded scale: Red means not yet meeting the standard; yellow, approaching it; green, meeting a standard; and blue, exceeding it. The scale is designed to be visually appealing and to encourage students to think of learning as a process. To meet grade level for each skill, students need to prove three times that they have acquired it. They may explain to a teacher their process for working through problems as a way to show they understand the material. Or they may perform well on an online test or a quiz.

Progress throughout the year is cumulative, meaning that even if students don’t grasp something early on, if they learn it by the end of the year, they will get a “good” grade. The school also has an online point system for behavior.

Ms. Genduso, of M.S. 442, said the approach was introduced at a challenging time for the school. A third of the students at the school require special-education assistance and attend classes that include a number of high-performing students. Even with two teachers (one trained for special education), it was difficult to engage everyone.

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