The Measure of Success

As I proselytize the gospel of learner-centered education, I have come across the same concern over and over. I shouldn’t be too surprised, it would be a concern of mine, if I were still thinking from a traditional paradigm. The question is, “After democratic school (or unschooling), what do kids do? How many of them go to college? What kinds of jobs do they get?”  This isn’t necessarily the same concern as, “How would an unschooler get into college?” or “How would an unschooler be able to take college courses after never being in a classroom?” It’s a pure question of outcomes. What they are asking for is success rates.

There are a couple of problems with trying to answer this question. First, the numbers, as far as I can find, aren’t really out there. Yes, I have read some statistics here and there. For example, Daniel Greenberg of Sudbury Valley School, has said on more than one occasion that 100% of SVS students who want to go to college get in, and usually to their first choice. There was also an offhanded statement about the fact that 80% of SVS students do go to college. So, perhaps we can find spotty stats for individual schools.  Certainly, I can find nothing for unschoolers or free schoolers as a whole. (If you know about something like this, please share!)

The second problem is, to me, more important. Those of us in the unschooling/free schooling community do not see college attendance or career choice and subsequent salary as a measure of success. A.S. Neill was known to say, and I think I’ve quoted it here before, that he would rather Summerhill produce a happy street sweeper than a neurotic prime minister.  So, the measure of success, from my view would be how happy and fulfilled the graduate is in his or her life. As such, many free schools resist collating or providing statistics. They do not want to perpetuate the belief that college attendance is the be all and end all.

But there has to be a middle ground here. We need to be able to convince people of the efficacy of child-led learning, and many parents are concerned about college attendance. I wonder, and I’m just musing here, if there is a way to measure happiness. My husband, a dabbler in metrics, assures me that there is.  Yes, we could provide basic information on what students do after they graduate, but could we delve deeper? How about if we see how many life-learners become innovators in their field? And then compare that number to the general public? Wouldn’t that indicate that they are following their passions? Of course, we could always just interview as many as possible and ask them if they are interested in their work, but it would be hard to know who was giving us the answers we want.

There are also existing polls that measure anxiety or fulfillment. I would theorize that unschooling and free schooling grads would measure better on these types of polls than the rest of the country. But, at this point, we don’t know. To be honest, I want to do this work.  Having some hard and fast proof, there in black and white, could go a long way toward legitimizing this philosophy, and perhaps even creating stronger footholds in our culture and educational system.

What are your thoughts? Can you measure happiness? Would these types of statistics be helpful or harmful to the leaner-centered movement? Is anything like this out there already?

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5 Comments on "The Measure of Success"

  1. Sam Rhodes
    26/04/2012 at 8:41 am Permalink

    Enjoyed your comments here. I am basically pulling my hair out while trying to figure out how to teach – Sustainable Agriculture, Literature, and ESOL classes – at a democratic school called Horizons in Atlanta, Georgia. While the school seems to adhere to the democratic method of education, it still tries to appease students and parents alike with an A,B, or NC grading system. What generally happens is the student willingly takes an NC, full well knowing that they can write a report or do something similarly simple to have that NC changed to a B six to seven months down the road. The democratic process does not actually appear all that democratic either, as the voice of students is not as loud and strong as that of administration and teachers. It almost seems that they are trying to ride the fence between traditional and democratic, and the fence is not working. For three straight years now, enrollment has declined by about 10-15% each year. Do you have any insight or suggestions?


    Sam Rhodes

  2. Cassi
    26/04/2012 at 11:55 pm Permalink


    I can understand your frustration! I took a quick look at the school’s site and saw that it’s been around for 30 years. I wonder if they started off as a real free school and slowly evolved into what it is now? I wonder what the original founders would say about the school’s current iteration. Daniel Greenberg, one of the founders of Sudbury Valley, has said that he believes schools that give some freedom are worse than those strict traditional schools that give none. The reason is that students are told “This is freedom” or “this is democracy” when it really isn’t. So, they are being manipulated under the guise of freedom, and that opens them up to manipulation for the rest of their lives.

    Anyway, as far as suggestions, all I can say is to keep talking about this. Talk to students and staff about your concerns. Perhaps you can orchestrate a visit to another free school that is adhering more to the principles of the philosophy. Also, you note that the attendance is dropping. I’d assume that the rest of the community would be concerned about this also. It seems to me that in trying to please everyone, they are really pleasing no one. The grading system just seems completely counter to the free schooling philosophy. Yes, some parents may want this, but if they are sending their child to this type of school, they expect it to be vastly different. Grading kids sends the absolute wrong message about learning.

    Sudbury Valley school has a Google group that you can join with people all over the country talking about problems and solutions in democratic schools. Visit their website at to find out how to join it. Then you can ask more in depth questions and get input and advice from people who have been in these types of schools for many years.

    Good luck. I’d love to hear how it goes.


  3. The Greatful Mom
    06/08/2012 at 11:32 am Permalink

    To be quite frank, although there are no statistics (besides those from the democratic school, which IS actually a school and not the same as unschooling at home), I still feel like this question needs to be answered. Yes, you have said that college is not necessarily a measure of success or happiness, and that it’s better to be a happy street sweeper than an unhappy prime minister. Be that as it may, an unschooled child may WANT to be a prime minister. They may NOT be happy being a street sweeper. They may want a professional career in which they cannot succeed or even gain entrance if they have no means to traditional training. Can unschooling provide that? Because regardless of of the ideals behind unschooling, the fact is that we are living in a society, and in this society therapists can’t practice without a PhD, nor can teachers teach, nor can architects design. Even police officers, fire fighters, and many other jobs that don’t require a formal education, are required to have graduated high school. . .so how can a child follow their passions without that piece of paper that society requires? Maybe what they are learning is technically useless (and I really don’t believe that it is), but it is NOT useless if it gains them entrance into the field in which they are interested.

    I mean, unless all unschooling children want to be artists (and also happen to have enough money that they can support themselves while pursuing this), there is precious little else that you can do independently without requiring an education. And frankly, most artists do end up receiving some kind of formal education.

    So I guess, instead of answering theoretically, could you just tell me, CAN an unschooled child (at home, not at a democratic school) attend college? And if so, how?

  4. Cassi
    07/08/2012 at 3:12 pm Permalink

    Thanks for your question about attending college as an unschooler. You are absolutely right that many paths lead to college, and unschooling advocates certainly have no problem with people going to college. The concern is about going to college just because you’re supposed to, not because the student actually wants or needs to. Also, the quote from A.S. Neill about the happy street sweeper is to put the emphasis on doing what you love, not what the world deems as “success.” So, a happy prime minister would be a wonderful outcome too.

    In short, yes, an unschooler can certainly go to college (and they do by droves). If you are asking about the acceptance process, it’s pretty straight forward. Any homeschooler has to apply to college slightly differently than a child who has a GPA and a class rank. It may include a portfolio, an interview, or some other way to describe their education up to that point. Colleges are very used to working with non-traditional students, so they all have their process. What’s interesting is that these kids tend to stick out to the admittance officers. They have piles and piles of applications full of high GPAs, valedictorians, Dean’s lists, top 5% of their class students. So an application full of stories and pictures, and obvious passion for a subject, is a breath of fresh air. This is something I have heard and read from top tier schools all over the country.

    If you’re asking about the ability for an unschooled child to succeed in college, then it would be hard to generalize. One aspect of NOT having sat in numerous classes listening to numerous lectures during childhood, is that it’s a new experience, and unschooled kids may find it more interesting than their schooled peers. On the other side, unschooled students can be difficult for professors because they may challenge them, which may ruffle feathers and could lead to lower grades (I know of a personal experience of this happening in a philosophy class). But, what is the measure of college success? A degree? A GPA? A great experience? Again, we find ourselves back to that question. If a student has a career goal that includes a college degree, they, as with any other student, must choose whether or not to jump through the necessary hoops to obtain that degree. It comes down to the individual.


  5. Satyanna Luken
    21/01/2014 at 2:39 am Permalink

    Hi Great site 🙂
    Thank you!

    Just heard about this measure of happiness :)))

    Gross national happiness in Bhutan: the big idea from a tiny state that could change the world
    Bhutan measures prosperity by gauging its citizens’ happiness levels, not the GDP. Now its ideas are attracting interest at the UN climate change conference in Doha
    Check out the whole story here:

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