Alternative education, also known as non-traditional education or educational alternative, includes a number of approaches to teaching and learning other than mainstream or traditional education. Educational alternatives are often rooted in various philosophies that are fundamentally different from those of mainstream or traditional education.
For those subscribing to the formal definition, an alternative is any school (or administrative unit) within a system of differentiated schools or units that are available on a choice basis. To qualify as an alternative under this definition, a candidate must: 1. be an administrative unit with its own personnel and program: a school or a school-within-a-school, but not just a course or a course sequence; 2. be open to all within the district on an optional, not assignment, basis; 3. be a unit deliberately differentiated from others in order to accommodate learner needs, interests, or parental preferences.
It was not unusual in the 1950s and 1960s for school districts to have an alternative school; however, the schools in that timeframe were mostly designed to serve students who had already dropped out of the regular school. These schools and programs were the primary "dropout prevention programs" of four decades ago. Educational leaders soon found out that the strategy had little effect on the dropout rate and that type of alternative school tended to be discontinued as district budgets began to shrink in the 1970s.
Raywid (1999) classifies alternative education under three types according to the object of reform: (1) students are reformed; (2) schools are reformed; and (3) education systems are reformed. Type (1) places value on student individuality and aims to provide education to enhance students' abilities or to reform problem children or other such students so they can be rehabilitated into society; type (2) schools have innovative curricula, teaching methods, and management models; type (3) schools aim for systematic reform of the kind that produces 'schools-within-schools' or small-scale schools.
According to a 2001 report by the National Center for Educational Statistics, there are approximately 10,900 public alternative programs and schools and many more private options. Characteristics of alternative education programs and schools typically include smaller teacher to student ratios and a comfortable, supportive learning environment, but can also include individualized education plans, internship experience in the community, remedial instruction, one-on-one tutoring, peer mentoring, parenting preparedness workshops for teenage expecting parents, more flexible school times for students that need to work, and behavioral, social, or emotional counseling. Many programs aim to serve students that are not being well served in a traditional program – this can include special education students, English as a Second Language (ESL) students, students that are high risk for dropout, students that need to work many hours outside of school, expecting teenage parents, or students that just simply do not thrive in a traditional learning environment.
The alternative education programs appear to serve large portions of youth with disabilities, predominantly youth with emotional and behavior disorders. Other disabilities such as learning disabilities, mild mental impairment, and attention deficit disorders with and without hyperactivity appear to comprise smaller portions of the student population. National data suggest approximately 12% of the student population in alternative schools are students with disabilities.
A broad spectrum of American political and intellectual leaders have concluded that the nation's public education system is no longer doing an adequate job of educating its pupils. The sources of this discontent are manifold: disappointing trends in SAT scores, poor performance by American students in international comparisons, low educational achievement by minority groups, slow national productivity growth, widening income differences between rich and poor, and ever-increasing per-pupil expenditures.
Introducing high standards into alternative education programs, although presenting some unique implementation issues, would allow students and these programs to demonstrate their ability to achieve at the same levels as their counterparts in traditional academic programs and would provide added worth to an alternative educational credential by promoting uniform accountability. The dilemma for policymakers is how to introduce high academic standards in alternative education systems without sacrificing the elements that make alternative programs successful and without compromising the integrity of the high standards.
Dropout prevention and recovery programs emphasize multiple pathways to graduation. Over the last decade, at least 31 states have expanded alternative education possibilities for students at-risk of dropping out, including those with many absences or who are significantly over age for their grade
There are still a whole slew of alternative schools and programs that serve students with other needs, not just behavioral problems. These are known as alternative schools of “choice," and students (or someone on their behalf) have to apply to get in to the school. In the Columbus area, the term alternative most often refers to schools for unusually gifted students, not troubled ones.
Even the term "alternative" is ambiguous; for some people (especially in many U.S. states), it implies schools for "at risk" youth only, rather than being for the education of all children and often for adults as well. So sometimes it is useful to distinguish "philosophical alternatives" from the "at-risk alternatives." These alternatives include educational options for the developmental needs and learning styles of all children