Learning Co-Operatives and Corner Schools


Erik Kain

Erik writes about video games at Forbes and politics at Mother Jones. He's the contributor of The League though he hasn't written much here lately. He can be found occasionally composing 140 character cultural analysis on Twitter.

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42 Responses

  1. Avatar gregiank says:

    We have school like that here. Its actually part of “the system” (ominous music plays, clouds form in the distance). All the parents have to spend a certain amount of time at the school each month. The parents love it and it is a hard school to get into (its takes a lottery). Obviously that kind of school caters to those parents where only one works or have good enough jobs they can get , and afford, time off.

    I think there are actually plenty of options and experiments out there. Its just that they are scattered about and not universally implemented. Of course our ed. system is not suited to rapidly changing or scaling up successful ideas.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      Yes, we have one too. A lot of the earliest charter schools actually work this way, contrary to what seems to be a widespread perception. Its very popular, but our school district is generally very well-provided for and the neighborhood is pretty wealthy. I’m not sure how you change this model to make it work in another city that isn’t so lucky.

      I should also point out that in spite of the success and popularity of the school, the school district still try to undermine that success and alienate the charter school administration every time they get a chance.Report

  2. Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

    We do a scaled-back version of this with a group of our friends. All the kids attend various schools, but the parents do a co-op supplemental program that we’ve built up ourselves.

    We tried to get everyone to blog about it, but not all the parents are into that sort of gig. Some posts from last year are up here:


    We’re going to start next year’s batch *very* late this year. Volunteerism is on overload for most of the participants.Report

  3. My wife and I are members of one coop. It works reasonably well because the members have some measure of financial depth, and the arrangement makes money for all involved.

    Outside of that one instance, I’ve had much better luck paying union rates, and reaping the rewards or failure as may be. (At present we are trying the co-op delayed gratification co-op approach one more time, a fund-raiser screening for The Center in NYC. No doubt like my other attempts at getting people to work for free for some uncertain future reward, this will fail. But nothing ventured, nothing gained, right?)

    At any rate, the school you’re describing is (more or less) the school our daughters attend, slightly larger. The school district is the school and the school is the school district. Classrooms seldom number over 12 students. Teachers and staff are devoted and parents are highly involved. The physical assets of the school are used to support other community events. (For example, community members and their pick-up descend on the school when the 250-odd folding chairs the school owns are needed over at the community center.)

    But like the other successful co-op we’re a part of, the school fueled (at least to some degree) by money. Teacher salaries are high, sometimes well in excess of $100K, and the school is lavishly provisioned with resources (the upper grades even field a football team.)No doubt all of this goes a long way to maintaining moral.Report

  4. Avatar Trumwill says:

    As I said to EG, I can get on board with this idea as a supplement to public schools. And, preferably, as a supplement to larger systems run by professional educators who have to demonstrate the value they provide before I enroll my kids in their school.

    The RSA video has a lot of interesting ideas, but where it comes up short is where these ideas work in practice. Okay, the system as it exists has its problems (heaven knows I am a critic). But the system he describes, if improperly implemented, could be disastrous. Those sorts of ideas are often great in theory, and indeed can work out very well in closed environments with enthusiastic parents and administrators, but the immeasurability of progress combined with the assumption that young people truly want to learn and will continue to do so without prodding (indeed, that prodding drums the desire to learn out of young people) is problematic. It rests on the human tendency to assume that most people are more like them (they being educated and intellectually curious individuals) than they are.

    I would be very interested in any school looking to implement the sorts of changes described. But I would demand the ability to pull my kid out and put them in a factory school if I determined that it was not working (without paying thousands and thousands of dollars for the privilege).Report

    • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

      As far as kids wanting to learn, I’m with you Simon, I don’t think they do. Delayed gratification is not most people’s strong suit, especially at the cognitive development level.

      I’m real cynical, and the larger part of me says, get rid of all yahoos who don’t want to be there but make it a pain for everyone else. Let them fail. Our incentive system hasn’t been working. And as a liberal I should probably suggest some sort of highly complex internship program where troubled (read: non-academic) kids are able to intern with working professionals, from sports medicine to welding, etc. Let them do real work, and get the real and immediate benefits that come from that.

      But the tired part of me says drop’em. Let them do it on their own. At least they’ll be out of the way of kids who are willing to sit there and try to learn.

      I’m not sure which is more prudent.Report

      • Avatar Simon K says:

        Robert Pirsig suggested in “Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance” that we could solve the whole problem by just dropping grades and certifications and compulsory attendance completely. It made a big impression on me, no doubt partly because I was avoiding studying when I read it, but I still think its the ideal. Society has a big interest in measuring students, but it actually corrupts the goal of really teaching them anything to see this as the output of education.Report

        • Avatar Trumwill says:

          I actually agree that it is ideal. But I don’t think it’s realistic outside of relatively small and close-knit groups. Pirsig’s experience at Montana State was successful, but I don’t think it would be successful for Montana State University as a whole to adopt it. Or the country. But for self-selecting schools, I think it’s something that should be considered. I would sign on to it for my own (future, God willing) children, but only if I had a great deal of trust both in the school’s administration and population.Report

      • Avatar Trumwill says:

        I go back and forth on the students that don’t want to learn. Part of me thinks that they should be able to just drop out. Ideologically, I absolutely feel that way. But practically speaking, I have my doubts as to whether or not that’s good policy. I think it’s often the case that you do have to prod kids along until they reach the point where their future starts to matter (or rather, they realize that it does).

        Maybe you can sidestep this with good returning-to-school programs for kids that learn the error of their ways. My current state is notoriously lax when it comes to attendance requirements and it really does not seem to be a beneficial policy. Perhaps because of a lack of RTS programs. I’m not sure. But my friend, a thrice-successful entrepreneur, has expressed frustration with the lack of educated people around with which to start a business.

        Compare this to one state over, which has more rigorous attendance requirements, where you have people with masters degrees in computer science taking jobs that pay under $10/hr (this is not an exaggeration, I was a part of the hiring committee) and people well-enough educated that customer support companies across the country set up huts there because they can get articulate, moderately knowledgeable people to work for $7/hr. We can scoff at the rates (which I did when I was there), but at least the jobs there exist (as compared to here).

        So this all has me somewhat reconsidering my previous stance.

        The school district that I grew up in (suburban south) had a pretty good way of handling this, setting up “alternative” schools for the disruptive students, starting at about high school. The difference in classroom atmosphere between junior high (where these altschools did not exist) and high school are difficult to overstate.

        (Sorry that I can’t name the states. Privacy issues. We’re talking about two non-urban states, moderately to heavily Republican, west of the Mississippi.)Report

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          As a matter of interest, did the alternative schools do anything help the disruptive kids specifically, or did they just help everyone else by keeping them out of the way?Report

          • Avatar Trumwill says:

            I’m really not sure. I only knew three attendees. My guess is that they ended up right where they would have if they’d continued to go to regular school. I had a friend that got shipped off there for reasons unknown (he wouldn’t say). He said it actually wasn’t terrible. Due to the nature of the people there, they really cracked down on the sort of student freedoms that gives kids room to cause trouble. He liked the structure. He never made anything of himself after high school, but I’m not sure he would have anyway. Bright kid, but a sort of (immediately apparent) mental problem (a twitch, speech that would run very fast followed by multi-second pauses mid-sentence, sweating that wouldn’t stop) that made people (including future employers, I suspect) not want to be around him.

            I knew another kid that got shipped off after he busted another kid’s head open with a tire iron. He was a sophomore when I was a Freshman. Three years later, he was a sophomore when I was a freshman. I doubt he graduated. I doubt getting shipped out made a difference one way or the other. Made my life a lot easier, though.

            The last person I knew who left that I made contact with later was transferred when she got pregnant. She was a poor student before and after and I doubt the school changed much. The alternative school had daycare, though, so I guess it helped as far as that goes.

            I doubt either of the last two graduated.Report

  5. Avatar Jaybird says:

    The fundamental strength of such programs is that the children who are most likely to be enrolled in such programs have parents who are so invested in success that the kids would end up with mastery of (at least!) the three Rs no matter which school in the country they went to.Report

    • Avatar Trumwill says:

      It’s precisely because I plan to be an involved parent that I find these sorts of plans to be intriguing for me. However, if I simply didn’t have the time or if I was a struggling single parent, I would want something more structured with higher degrees of measurability.Report

    • Avatar tom van dyke says:

      Exactamundo. And oodles of boodle doesn’t hurt either, but even boodle is optional.Report

    • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

      In other words, the mechanism is itself populated by likely high performers.

      Yeah, you draw off the “motivated” students and put them in a pool, they’re probably going to perform better than average.Report

      • Avatar Jaybird says:

        Not exactly.

        The parents are motivated. The students are likely to be from all over the spectrum… except, of course, with parents who are more likely to have followed “THE PREGNANCY DIET! EAT THIS THE FIRST TRIMESTER, THIS THE SECOND, AND THIS THE THIRD!” diet books (which, hey, might work… sure) and spent more time making sure the baby was held or crap like that and any influence on intelligence that has.

        But other than the stuff we probably think at least doesn’t hurt, the parents are the thing that all have something in common. The students?

        Well, this turns into a discussion of the amount of influence parents have on children and as a proud cat owner I don’t know that I can do much more than make puerile comparisons between the two.Report

        • Avatar tom van dyke says:

          Mr. Bird—Jay—I believe Mr. Cahalan [not Callahan, mind you] is in agreement.

          It’s in tribute to the high level of discussion hereabouts that all seem to be aware that involved parents are highly correlated with academic success.

          Hence, the current crisis—students with uninvolved parents. I was going to try to make a simple point that would require a lot of words: basically that any “self-selecting” group of parents goes a long way toward achieving a successful school, regardless of what criteria they use to self-select.

          That they bother to self-select atall—in contradistinction to parents who leave it up to the “system” to sort out their children’s academic fate—is perhaps sufficient.

          Something. Anything. Anything but indifference.Report

          • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

            Yeah, this.

            Admittedly, it’s just a correlation, but it’s a significant one. You can have layabouts who have active parents. You can have active parents that are also creepy pedophiles, for that matter. But generally, active parents (even helicopter parents like Jaybird describes, where undoubtedly their degree of activity isn’t sanely designed to produce real optimum outputs) produce more academic success.

            Note: academic success also tracks really poorly with success in the workforce, or even with success at higher levels of education, for that matter. But if you’re measuring academic success, involved parenting does help.

            Parenting tracks a lot more closely to dog ownership than cat ownership. Both are pretty poor analogies, but dogs would be closer 🙂Report

  6. Avatar trizzlor says:

    Kids who were a problem would be allowed to continue attendance at the discretion of other neighborhood parents. The environment would be safe and offer a real sense of community, all the while offering parents and teachers involved the greatest latitude in how they decide to run things.

    Our local math/science charter school was nearly torn apart by ambitious parents dictating school policy: teachers fired for giving low grades; really vicious insinuations that special ed. students bring down the school rankings; and, vice versa, parents of special ed. students demanding their child be placed in the mainline classes and accommodated. Until the principal/founder resigned and brought in a former superintendent with, I kid you not, Navy experience, the future of the school was on very thin ice.

    This was grades 6-12, but you already start to see jostling for college app credentials even in the lower grades and that can make intelligent and involved parents vicious.Report

  7. Avatar trizzlor says:

    By the way, the NYC music scene has a pretty awesome DIY co-operative community that shares practice space, recording equipment, and even expensive performance hardware like generators and amps (see ToddP, for example, who has even organized a college credit intern program). I have a huge respect for that kind of endeavor.Report

  8. Avatar Kitty Cahalan says:

    Pat’s wife here. Pat didn’t mention it, but our daughter goes to (and our son went to) a co-op preschool, so we had experience with the model before we launched our own mini version of it.

    I serve on the board of the preschool and, in our 4 years there, I’ve learned that the flavor of the school is highly dependent on the parents who happen to be there at the time. You do tend to have highly involved parents most of the time, but how they deal with each other and the staff, politically speaking, can make the school a great or a very unpleasant place to be. Probably the most important thing a co-op needs to stay consistent from year to year is a principal/director/leader who isn’t a current parent and who runs the staff and works with a parent board of directors. It’s not easy to find someone who can operate for a long time being sandwiched between an ever-changing group of parents and the needs of a school with a demanding curriculum. You need to make sure that both your director and your board are selected extremely carefully, because, like Trizzlor, I’ve seen situations where just a few parents who think they know best can run the school up on the rocks pretty quickly.Report

  9. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    I’m embarrassed to say it, but I think the rule of 150 is crucial here (embarrassed only in that I first learned of it through a Malcolm Gladwell book; him being considered the “fast food” of intellectual thought and all).

    None the less, I’d be curious to hear back from all of you who have posted your personal run-ins with programs like these, about how many people were involved. Students, teachers, parents and all. Was it under 150? Under 200?

    What I had mentioned in E.D.’s “War on the Poor” post was that a lot of this is predicated on money being allocated based on child attendance. Assuming much more progressive funding (rather than those damned property taxes), each child would be marked by a local, state, and federal grant. work out the ratios between these three however you like, but those amounts would then be paid to the organization given some procedure for roughly determining the child’s enrollment, etc.

    Simon K mentioned that Sweden, the ever sounding El Dorado of the policy world, does something to this effect. Either way, the important part seems to be dissolving whatever intrinsic aspect of larger organizations leads to the alienation of students/parents from teachers/admin. The problem of “us” and “them” at such a local level is fundamental. I’m not sure what all the causes are, but it must be solved.Report

    • Avatar Simon K says:

      Say what you like about Malcom Gladwell – I always learn something from reading his books, and I’m not ashamed to admit it. Its not always something very big, but its always something, which is more than I can say for much more SERIOUS people.

      The rule of 150 is one thing, but I think the even bigger challenge is making it the right 150. Much smaller groups can have irreconcilable internal divisions even if they have a common goal. You want parents and teachers and kids to see education as a common enterprise. If that fails, then you’re screwed.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        You right, I shouldn’t have tried to run away from my love affair with Gladwell. It’s true, just hearing him talk (I go the audio book route) always stimulates some new thought or a new angle on things, even if it’s not a point he was making.

        But I’m curious about this picking “the right 150.” On the one hand, yea, it makes perfect sense, we would want the best people involved we could get. But on the other, doesn’t that defeat the whole point of a community?

        A divide within the libertarian movement, it seems to me, is between those who want so much freedom/independence, that you go where you please, join who you will. And part of says, yes, that’s great, that’s exactly what I want. But you don’t choose your family, and you don’t choose your community, at least not traditionally and not till a certain age and means. How do you foster a sense of, “we’re in this together, sink or swim,” if you aren’t really in it together and any member can up and leave at any moment, and join the much cooler charter a few towns over.

        I guess a thought experiment would be, what if every person were given a chance to chose exactly where to live and who to live with, would people chose to live with others like themselves, in places they knew and understood? And would that be better?Report

        • Avatar Simon K says:

          Well we seem to be moving towards a world where cities are pretty strongly segregated on “community” lines. If you go to any large suburban sprawl, you can find cities full of young families, cities full of older families, cities that are predominantly retirees, cities that are blue collar or white collar, and cities that are largely Asian, Hispanic or white. I worry about the consequences of this, but people are obviously more comfortable with people who are like them, so when they have the choice, those are the people they tend to end up living near. The ethnic divisions are probably getting weaker, but the others are getting stronger.

          That’s kind of what I was getting at with the right 150 thing – all communities have people who are committed to the success of their kids, and those people can generally do a lot to help the others who aren’t so committed or don’t have the resources, or whatever. But its much, much harder if you end up lumping together groups with very different interests. I live in a very successful school district, and one reason its successful is that its sorted itself into being full of young families, mostly with very similar outlooks. But just down the road there’s a very specific ethnic enclave with particular needs that’s ended up lumped into the same school district as a bunch of very wealthy, mostly older families – oddly enough, there’s some conflict over that school district’s resources.Report

      • Avatar Pat Cahalan says:

        > The rule of 150 is one thing, but I think the even bigger challenge is
        > making it the right 150.

        Actually, I’d argue that the biggest challenge is *keeping* it the right 150. As Kitty pointed out above, smaller ad-hoc/volunteer/bottom-up organizations are going to have higher turnover, by their very nature.

        Another example is our neighborhood association. It’s all-volunteer. The board is largely comprised by people who have been on the board in one position or another for years. Some of the jobs on the board are more time consuming than others (the big one is running the home tour, which is a gigantic task).

        It’s hard to have someone willing to take on that job every year. Once someone gets tired of doing that job, willingness to do that job will get you on the board, even if your goals are very different from everyone else on the board. This is how ad-hoc organizations splinter.Report

  10. Avatar AMW says:

    Oddly enough, I was mulling over a similar idea to E.C.’s just a week or so ago. In my day dream, like-minded families in poor, urban districts all moved into an apartment complex with a floor or two converted into a small school. Education was partially the responsibility of parents with free time, partially the responsibility of a handful of hired professionals, whose main pay would be free housing in the apartment building. My thinking was that even if the education wasn’t top-notch, at least the kids wouldn’t be dodging bullets and drug dealers on going to and from school, and they wouldn’t have to join a gang to keep from getting roughed up in school. That’s got to be a leg up in some of the worst districts.Report

    • Avatar James Hanley says:

      Good going, AMW–you just revealed the communist core of libertarianism. You’ll now have your RTL (Real True Libertarian) membership revoked.

      Seriously, though, while I haven’t had that specific daydream, I’ve had others quite similar. There is, at least among some of us libertarian-leaning folks, a hint of communism, or if we prefer (to avoid confusion) communalism. Rather than the extreme atomistic individualism some espouse, and that non-libertarians believe wholly characterizes libertarianism, the voluntary community allows for as much communalism as the members of the community wish, so long as there is free exit from the community.Report

    • Avatar Sam M says:

      “at least the kids wouldn’t be dodging bullets and drug dealers on going to and from school.”

      Wouldn’t they? As I understand it, most of the drug dealing and gun shooting that goes on in these neighborhoods is done by young males. So if you disperse this criminal class and send them all to different buildings, i don’t think they are magically going to gain an appreciation for algebra. They will just terrorize a different group of people.

      I know everyone is terrified that their kids will fall in with the bad crowd. But… somebody’s kid IS the bad crowd. And that will be the case whether he’s at PS 246 or up on the third floor of that apartment building.

      So what happens to the family with the incorrigible kid? Do people vote them out of the building or something? Then where do they live? Beyond that, what does it mean to be “like minded”? How much leeway would society give them? What if they are all of one mind about refusing to teach girls math? Capital punishment with a

      Localism is awesome. And horrifying.Report

      • Avatar E.C. Gach says:

        I’m not sure about voting them out of a building where they live. But like any organization, if the majority of people decide you have to meet certain guidelines to stay, and you decide not to meet them. Then yea, you get kicked out. The whole idea being that one, a troubled kid *might* be more responsive to his/her friend’s parent or neighbor, and if they aren’t then why would they hang around anyway?

        One of the most ludicrous incentive systems in place right now has got to be paying schools to go out and snatch up the kids who don’t want to be there and are cutting. Like, seriously?Report

        • Avatar Kitty Cahalan says:

          A building co-op would be a great idea if you could get enough families in those areas to commit to it and make it work. One problem we see is that often you get very intelligent or motivated kids who spring out of families who just don’t care about their kids’ education. I see this at our son’s school, which is a regular neighborhood public school with a lot of kids with middle class, college-educated parents and a lot more kids who are from low-income families. A depressing number of these are from families that really don’t seem to think that education is going to make a difference in their kids lives. Their kids may perform and want to do well, but when they make Student of the Month, do their parents come to the ceremony? They do not. They don’t come to parent-teacher conferences or interact with the school at all. These are kids who’d benefit so much from the great adult-to-child ratios of a well-run co-op, but because their own parents are losers, they’d never make it in in the first place, or they’d get tossed right out, and their kids, who could be great with other influences besides them, lose out.Report

  11. Avatar Troy Camplin says:

    I suspect such a school would work best if one eliminated barriers to entry, and that such a community would arise naturally if you eliminated zoning laws, something which I talked about here:


    • That was an excellent article by the way, but I think there may be a better solution, which is simply to not enforce zoning laws where it is impractical or have them be really gray. Japan has this sort of common-sense approach, and I think the country comes as close as possible to ideal in terms of infrastructure (at least among the places I’ve lived). It’s traditional here to live on the second floor and run a business from the first. It gets a bit annoying when people visiting shops park on the sidewalks of otherwise firmly residential areas, but it’s a small price to pay I think. A significant number of small business owners I know here operate in residential areas, and you’re totally right that bigger businesses don’t want to.Report

      • Avatar Troy Camplin says:

        It is always problematic to have laws that one does not enforce. That introduces azrbitrariness, which can lead to tyrranical enforcement. Better to not have the laws. It would be nice to have shops in my residential area. It would make taking care of the kids during the day much, much easier.Report

        • Agreed on the whole unenforceable laws being bad for society thing, but from a practical standpoint, it’s a lot easier to just say, okay we’re not going to enforce this particular blue law, then to go through the whole process of repealing it. In Massachusetts, sodomy is still illegal I think, and you’re also not allowed to have a gorilla in the back of a moving vehicle (those may just be urban legends). I’m absolutely scared to death at the prospect that the government could simply chose to enforce any of the inumerable nonsensical blue laws still on the books that I and everyone around me are no doubt violating, but why not just add another to that list? In fact, why not add several?Report

  12. Avatar Sam M says:

    When I think about plans like this, I get excited. Then I think a bit more and shiver at the reality of my own preferences.

    To wit, I think I would love to send my kids to a school like this. But then I think more, and realize that’s because I have always lived in neighborhoods with a high percentage of educated people, professionals, etc. Even the stay-at-home moms usually have a college degree, if not a masters, coupled with Act 34 clearance for one reason or another. Presto! Junior becomes a genius.

    But then I think, wait. What if I were magically transferred to a poor neighborhood, be it in the inner city or in Appalachia, populated mostly my single moms who smoke Kools and Newports and feed their kids Arbys on most days. Some of them might even wear acid-washed jeans! Nary a Baby Einstein thingamajig to be found at the local toy cooperative. Wait… there’s not even a toy cooperative! Instead, they have garage sales and toys for tots!

    I am intentionally painting my views in a negative light here… but reality is reality. If I lived in a neighborhood like that, I would use whatever financial and cultural resources I could bring to bear to send my kid to a charter school or a private school or… anything other than a school run by those parents.

    Generally, people like me (and I presume you) are almost DEFINED by a desire to keep our kids away from poor people. Especially in an educational setting. We like to offer some sholarships and such to make ourselves feel better. You know, to give Junior access to some diversity. But the fact that we are sequestering ourselves from the masses is largely a feature, not a glitch.

    This usually manifests itself as a preference for localism because we tend to not to want to LIVE next to poor people, either.

    I might be wrong. But I strongly suspect that very, very few of us would send our kids to a school like this if we lived in the poor part of, say, Compton, or Huntington, WV. But most of us will never live in those places.Report

  13. Avatar E.C. Gach says:

    Bottom line, I think this opens up the availability of how communities organize themselves, which is inherently predicated on how they educated their children, by letting them educated their children in whatever way they want. Even if it means not educating them.

    As far as group dynamics go, yea, I don’t get along with at least 50% of people. Working with other people is tough. Families are tough. Communities are tough. Even marriages are tough and you get to choose that person!

    If anyone hasn’t seen the documentary The Garden it gives a good inside look into how groups/communities function. Not everyone get’s along, and some are ultimately ousted or left behind.Report