Interview with Alan Shusterman, founder of School for Tomorrow

(This is the latest in a series of interviews I’ve conducted with educators and activists around the country who are on my radar as people who are doing their best to change policy and practice in their communities.)

Alan Shusterman, who lives in Chevy Chase, Maryland with his wife and three children, is the founder of School for Tomorrow (SFT), an independent nonprofit secondary school (grades 6-12) located in Rockville, Maryland which opened this Fall with 18 students, 3 full-time teachers and 6 part-time teachers. Its website describes the school as a “one-of-a-kind, cutting edge, student-centered education model designed in and fit for the 21st century.”

I was intrigued by that description, and by the fact that the school stated up front that research shows little value to homework, so I interviewed him to find out more about SFT and his inspiration for starting it.

Interview with Alan Shusterman
by Sara Bennett

Can you tell me a little bit about your background and why you decided to start a school?
I was a public school kid, always a good student but never particularly engaged in school. I was able to get As despite myself. Growing up I loved hanging out with kids younger than me, I set up school for my younger sister and taught her how to read, and I always had the teaching bug.

But because I was a good student, I ended up at the University of Pennsylvania, and becoming a teacher was never on the horizon. Back then, before Teach for America, it wasn’t culturally acceptable for someone graduating from an Ivy League school to go into teaching. So, instead, I went to Harvard Law School. As history would have it, Barack Obama was in my class at Harvard; as luck would have it, I didn’t befriend him.

Every little aspect of my life story has informed my philosophy of education, including having gone to Penn and Harvard and seeing firsthand what the best and brightest secondary school graduates are like and do. Of course this is an over-generalization, but, in general, the students who succeed in high school arrive to college narrow-minded, conformist, and supporters of the status quo. That President Obama, for one, has turned out to be a rather conventional politician, especially with respect to education, has not surprised me, given his educational pedigree.

With my law degree I got a well paying job in a big law firm – and ended up, at the age of 25, having what I describe as “a mid-life crisis.” I was miserable and unfulfilled. So, I made the “radical” decision – that is, radical to my peers – to leave my first law firm job in under a year. For years I regretted going to law school but,as it turned out, the variety of work experiences I had over the next decade – in the legal and business and for-profit and nonprofit worlds – were invaluable. And there’s no way I’d be sitting here today, the founder of a unique new school, without them.

The big turning point came 8 years ago, when I was trying to decide what to do next; one day my father began a conversation with, “Alan, you’ve always wanted to teach.” And then he and my mother offered me this incredible opportunity to make the transition into teaching, with financial support from them; without that, I’d never have been able to do it, for at that point my wife and I had three young kids to support.

I was fortunate to get a job at Sandy Spring Friends School in Montgomery County, Maryland, a well respected Quaker private school, teaching U.S. history to 7th and 8th graders. I had never taught a day in my life, and I had never taken an education class. But very quickly I figured out that I loved teaching, and that I had at last found my calling. Almost as quickly, however, I figured out that there’s something very wrong with secondary schools as they exist today.

Secondary schools are completely disconnected from the real world. It’s as if they are in a parallel universe. This results in outdated curriculum that doesn’t make sense for the world our high school graduates will be entering, and a learning environment that doesn’t take advantage of all that today’s world has to offer. For example, most schools today, whether public or private, will proudly show you their wonderful state-of-the-art computer labs, or mobile carts. Yet, in the real world, computers aren’t relegated to a special room or occasion, but are integrated into everyday life. And then there are the computer or technology classes where what is taught has already been learned by the students, on their own, years before.

Which leads me to the second, even more profound disconnect: that between schools, and many of the adults in schools, and students. Schools relate to and treat these complex, evolving individuals, the students, in unreal, artificial ways – expecting them to do things that simply don’t make sense, yet not expecting them to do other things they are fully capable of; and regularly placing them in restrictive, suffocating “boxes.”

So, I decided, within the first few months of teaching at Sandy Spring, that someday I would start my own school. I imagine that, had I gone straight into teaching from college, I’d have been one of those teachers who spends his career trying to buck the system, or who ends up burning out and leaving the profession. But, because I was 37 at the time, and had so much real world experience behind me, I could see everything with a fresh perspective – and, perhaps more importantly, I had the ability to envision and ultimately create a different type of school.

A few years later, I left teaching, I homeschooled my 4th grader for a year – because her 3rd grade year in school had been so debilitating – and I began full-fledged planning to get my own school started. And, after working full-time the next two years to get it off the ground, School for Tomorrow at last opened this past September.

What does the physical space of SFT look like?
This year we are subletting three very large carpeted, windowed classrooms in a former public school building, with additional classrooms available for us in future years. We have our own bathrooms and hallway, as well as an administrative office. We also have shared-use of a large multi-purpose room, library, and other parts of the building. And outside, there are a great soccer field, a full basketball court, two playgrounds, and nice open space.

Our classrooms are designed to be multi-purpose, with lots of different workspaces and configurations possible. All of our classrooms contain a lot of IKEA furniture, assembled by both staff and students, as well as desktop computers and wireless internet; all of our students have laptops. One of our classrooms has a nice home theatre set-up, another has most of our growing book collection, and another is where we do most of our art and science and other messy activities. Like everything else at SFT, we are continually transforming and improving our physical space.

Tell me about School for Tomorrow. What makes it unique?
Everything we do here at SFT can be traced back to two core questions. First, what does a high school graduate need to know and be able to do in order to thrive in college, the work place, and life in the decades ahead? Second, what are the most effective and efficient ways for students in general, and each student in particular, to master the learning outcomes resulting from the answer to the first question?

I’ve yet to find any other school that seriously addresses these fundamental questions. Quite simply, asking these questions is what makes SFT unique – and what results in a school that is relevant to today’s world and makes sense for today’s students. And the good news is that the answers are already out there – in work done by others within the education world and outside the education world. For instance, over the past decade at least three or four well funded, compelling studies have been completed that address the first question. Most schools, however, completely ignore or pay lip service to them. But, unlike 20 years ago when they’d be sitting on a shelf somewhere growing dusty, now they’re sitting on the Web, available for someone like me to utilize.

Do you have a curriculum?

Yes, there are three main areas of curriculum, in the sense of required learning outcomes, that result from asking our first core question.

* First, reading, writing, and arithmetic still matter. Or, put another way, all students must master what we call the transferable academic skills of learning – that is, how to ask the right questions, problem solve, find information and understand it in whatever form they find it, analyze information, use it, and be able to communicate in writing, orally, and with the assistance of multi-media tools. In addition, the research shows that there’s a certain level of quantitative reasoning and mathematics that is beneficial for all students to master.

* Second, we have a core knowledge component. That’s the basic foundational knowledge that someone needs so they can then apply their generic learning skills if they want or need to learn more about a given subject. For example, at SFT our U.S. history requirement isn’t a one year course that covers all you can cram into a textbook and 150 45-minute class periods. Instead, it’s a pared down mix of key concepts, storylines, and facts that might take a student, say, 20 hours to learn. Through this core knowledge approach, we enable our students to more effectively understand and retain important background information and concepts, while covering many more subjects, than in regular schools.

* Third is what we refer to as our right brain curriculum – that is, at SFT drama, music, art, emotional intelligence, character, collaboration, conflict resolution, physical fitness, and mind-body work are treated as seriously as traditional academic subjects. In the 21st century, from a purely economic, earning potential point of view, let alone other reasons, all students must be given the opportunity to develop their right brain, as well as their left brain, skills and abilities.

And, on top of this well-rounded education, every SFT student will have time to pursue the area she’s most passionate about to the nth degree. For example, we will arrange internships for our students, and we will bring real world experts into the school. Kids are capable of doing amazing things before they’re 18, if given the opportunity. We will break through the ceiling that holds kids down in other schools.

Do you have any “bottom-line” requirements?
Our students will have to meet specific graduate requirements that fall under each of the three main areas of curriculum; where student choice and individualization come into play is with respect to learning means. For instance, all SFT student are required to master Algebra and Geometry; but how they do it, and when they do, will naturally vary greatly among them.

How does this work?
First and foremost, we recognize that every student is different, and that the same student is different depending on the week, the month, and the year. So, every single student must have his own individualized learning path that allows him to learn at the pace that makes sense for him in the ways that make sense for him. And, given all the resources and knowledge that we have to assist learning in today’s world, this absolutely can be done.

Second, more often than not, you’ll see interdisciplinary learning at SFT, which is much more meaningful and efficient than the automatic division of the school experience into artificial subject matter pods. Also, you’ll see multi-age groupings of students. For instance, if we have a 14, a 12, and a 10 year old who are each ready to learn calculus, then there’s no reason they can’t learn it together; on the other hand, if they haven’t yet mastered pre-algebra, then we don’t push them into algebra until they’re ready. Moreover, multi-age groupings help to facilitate something we continually promote at SFT — kids teaching and learning from each other. Kids tend to accept help from each other more readily than from adults and, perhaps more significantly, teaching others is the best way to consolidate your own learning.

Which brings me to the role of the adult teachers at SFT, which is very different than at other schools. Traditional teachers basically play 3 roles – first, subject matter expert; second, behavior monitor (or classroom manager, as we refer to it in the business); and third, judge (Who is smart? Who is stupid?) Of course, great teachers transcend those three roles. But, unfortunately, truly great teachers are few and far between.

At SFT – and this is how it should be in every school – teachers are first and foremost facilitators of learning. What matters is whether we help the students progress in their learning, and not what our supervisors or colleagues or selves think about our “performance.” In doing so, our default position – which is the opposite of the traditional micromanagement teaching approach – is that we want our students to be as independent as possible; at the same time, we’re there to provide direction and support when it’s needed.

The second main role that SFT teachers play is that of modeling what it’s like to be a respectful, caring, contributing member of a community and a true lifelong learner. Our teachers model that it’s okay not to know something, that it’s okay to make mistakes, that, in fact, the most meaningful, significant learning takes place through making mistakes. To the contrary, most students at other schools are programmed to spend the day trying to avoid making mistakes or revealing what they don’t know. At SFT, however, we’re creating the opposite culture, one which leads to a challenging but safe learning environment.

How else are you different from most schools?
Well, as you’ve probably figured out already, I can go on and on and on. But I know our time is limited. So, for now, I’ll mention just a few more differences.

Research shows, and anyone with common sense knows, that kids learn best when they’ve had a decent night’s sleep and are well fed and well hydrated. So, SFT starts at 9:30, we have healthy snacks available throughout the day so our students can eat when they’re hungry, and we have water coolers in our classrooms so they can get drink when they’re thirsty. And our students are allowed to get up to stretch, to move around, to go outside when they get antsy.

The general rule at SFT is we don’t care what your learning looks like – for example, you can be chew gum in class or listen to an iPod when working independently – as long as you’re making sufficient progress in your work and you’re not disturbing anyone else.

What’s your homework policy
We have what we refer to as “a sensible homework policy.” The only mandatory homework is ½ hour reading a night – reading of the student’s own choosing. Beyond that, there is no built-in daily homework at SFT. To be clear, our students will, on occasion, do school-related work at home. But the rule is that, before doing any school-related work at home, you should know why you’re doing it and what you’re supposed to be doing; if you don’t, then you should stop, not waste your time and energy, and check with a teacher the next day.

13 Comments on “Interview with Alan Shusterman, founder of School for Tomorrow”

  1. Darleen Saunders says:

    What a delightful school! You have created a wonderful learning environment. And I am convinced that children learn best when they are self directed than when forced to do so. We all learn to walk and talk and million other tasks with great enthusiasm. Then we go to school and learning is now so regimented, regulated and controlled.

    But you will have detractors who will say children can’t learn this way, too much freedom, how will they ever learn everything they need to know. You can’t let them have any freedom, nothing will get done! It was good enough for me.

    Nothing can be further than the truth. Children are born with an innate natural ability to learn. They love learning–until they get to regular school. School drones that natural instinct out of them.

    Our outdated factory model approach of one education system for all is done. It’s all over except the funeral. We all know it and it’s time to move on to a more humane and individualized way to work beside our students, not stand in front of them. When we do this we really teach, by example, as you said.

    It works. I know. I am the parent of an autodidact. And really all children are.

    January 29th, 2010 at 9:53 pm
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  2. AG says:

    Thanks so much for posting this interview. I had heard a few things about this school. It is great to hear it straight from the school’s founder.

    This past Sept I withdrew my incredibly curious, creative, energetic kids from MCPS, where I felt they were withering in the early elementary years, doomed to hate school even though they loved learning and were eager to find out about the real world. The insanely small amount of recess and the insanely large amount of test prep was a nightmare. And don’t even get me started on the lack of science and social studies, the two subjects most kids crave. My kids were coming home saying things like, we really learn more at home than school. They were right.

    Everything this man describes is real and true. Now, if I could only afford his school when we get to middle school!

    I would love to see this school really succeed. This kind of school is desperately needed, but unfortunately many of us in the lower middle income bracket can’t afford private education if it is more than a few thousand dollars a year. That leaves us with only a few options in Mont Co. Go the Catholic route (which is really a conflict if you aren’t Catholic) or homeschool. All of the other schools are just too darned expensive.

    Sadly, many of us who are not rich but not poor either cannot afford the kind of education we want for our kids. We don’t qualify for scholarships, we don’t make a ton of money. We just want a positive, active environment for our kids and their education. There are a lot of us who are sick and tired of MCPS and have no real options. We all paid way too much for our houses in this God-awful economy.

    I don’t give a damn about expensive facilities, sports teams or anything else fancy at a school. Ikea furniture sounds great to me. It is what we have at home anyway. What I want is for my kids to love to learn and be supported in that venture by intelligent teachers!

    Alan, please work to make this option more affordable for those of us who work for charities, non-profits, and the government… which is a lot of people in DC. We can’t afford high tuition, yet we are the ones most open to the way you run your school. We were not cookie cutter students ourselves, and we are the ones who crave what your school provides for our children.

    February 2nd, 2010 at 9:48 am
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  3. PsychMom says:

    AG…I love your post because I’m in much the same boat as you here in Canada….I’m drowning in debt to keep my child in the school she’s in and every year it gets harder and harder. I only have one child..I can’t imagine what I would do if I had two and were faced with schooling for them that was unstimulating and test based. It’s such a trap.

    February 2nd, 2010 at 10:03 am
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  4. Outside the Box says:

    AG,
    You sound exactly like me. We also pulled our children out of MCPS for many of the reasons you cited above: mind-numbing test prep, very little recess, and a lack of science and social studies. Our school used bribes and punishments to get kids to complete massive amounts of homework and test-prep packets. Don’t even get me started on those reading logs! When our otherwise happy and curious kids started to become anxious and depressed about school we knew we had to do something and made the difficult decision to go the private school route.

    I have been watching the progress of the School for Tomorrow and really hope it succeeds as an option for us in the future. I agree with everything Alan Shusterman has to say about the problems with traditional schools. He has obviously done an incredible amount of research to put together such an innovative school. (really, I have found that most schools that call themselves innovative are just more of the same with some extra curriculum thrown in).

    Unfortunately, living in this expensive county, those of us with moderate incomes are unable to afford most private schools but make too much to be eligible for financial aid. It would be a dream come true if a School for Tomorrow could become more affordable!

    February 2nd, 2010 at 1:24 pm
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  5. HomeworkBlues says:

    AG, I absolutely loved your post. Previously, I read about School for Tomorrow in the Washington Post. I was ready to pull my daughter and send her over there too but alas, her current grade is higher than what Alan offers right now.

    SwitchedOnMom who runs themorechild is one of the few sane people out there who simultaneously advocates for gifted education while completely understanding our children are, well, children. Children who need to play, explore, read and be fascinated about the world around them. Instead we burn them out before they’ve even reached first grade!

    Where I live, gifted has come to mean, let’s start the rat race at age four and wring every last bit of achievement out of the kids. Play is seen as frivolous and gifted means high achievement rather than how these kids think. By the time you reach high school, the homework overload is completely out of control.

    Themorechild currently is running a blog on a letter an MCPS principal sent home to the parents, telling them to expect a half hour of test prep a day for the next eleven weeks. She made the case that gifted children will be prepped too in the spirit of “equity.” Whether they need it or not. Hey, who needs science when you can get this much test prep? Is this a great country, or what???

    February 2nd, 2010 at 6:40 pm
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  6. HomeworkBlues says:

    AG and Outside, if you build it, they will come. That’s what I intend to do. We need more schools like this.

    February 2nd, 2010 at 6:42 pm
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  7. jessie gutierrez says:

    Dear Mr. Shusterman:

    Every kid in the USA and the world owe You, Ms. Bennett, Ms. Kalish a straight from the heart thank you. Your SFT will indeed create a better day for the leaders of tomorrow to restore the passion lost for education due to homework.

    Would it be so much to ask if you know of some research/resource links I can go to regarding the Pro/Con of Homework? I need primarily the Con. This Friday I am having a meeting with the Principal and staff of my son’s school regarding excessive home work and sleep deprivation. This will be the argument I am going to present. My son’s school is one of the top academic parochial college preps in Chicago and state of Illinois.

    I know this is a short notice whatever late minute assistance will be gratefully accepted.
    Thanks and continue contributing to grant the gift of passion in education to our kids.

    From a dad and son who are going through a tormenting nightmare experience because of excessive homework.

    Best regards,

    Jessie Gutierrez

    February 3rd, 2010 at 3:25 pm
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  8. AJ Favin says:

    I am proud to say that my 8th grader son was the first formally enrolled student at SFT. He is extremely bright, creative, and interested in the world,and yet prior to SFT,he found school to be boring, stressful and a waste of his time.

    I could write volumes about the wonderful experiences he has already had at SFT, and how his knowledge and confidence have soared. But I will limit my remarks to two important points.

    SFT is the first school my son has attended at which the teachers and staff truly respect the students, and treat them as able young adults. I have watched my son begin to trust his own judgment as he never had before, and I believe it is because the adults he spends his days with do respect his judgment.

    In previous schools, students were constantly told to respect their teachers, and admonished for not doing so. But I never saw the teachers respect their students; indeed, it seemed as though they bullied the children so so to instill fear in them. The environment was such that fear, and only fear, ruled the students.

    After a few months at SFT, I asked my son how it felt to be in an environment where children were not constantly told to be quiet and threatened with punishment. He answered, “Well, of course, the teachers have to tell us to be quiet sometimes. We are kids, after all. The difference is that they tell us nicely, and that makes a huge difference in the feeling of the school.”

    On the subject of homework, my son used to come home from school every day with a backpack so heavy with books and notebooks that he could hardly lift it. Worse was the weight on his mind of all of the work he was required to complete for the next day. If he ever missed a few days of school due to a cold, for instance, the homework would accumulate to levels so absurd that we both suffered pangs of anxiety over it.

    WIthout the constant, daily grind of hours of paperwork and projects every night, our family life has become just that — a family life! We watch Jeopardy and play games together after dinner every night without worrying about assignments. We have visited friends and family, and attended concerts and other cultural events – on weeknights! – without a hint of stress over homework.

    When my son does have an occasional assignment to complete for school, he does it happily because it is special, and does not feel like a grind. He has always been a voracious reader, so the nightly reading assignment doesn’t feel like “homework” to him; instead he feels privileged to be able to indulge in reading without worrying about paperwork.

    To conclude, my husband and I are grateful beyond words to Alan Shusterman for creating a happy and productive learning environment for our son. Instead of dreading the rest of his secondary education, our son looks forward to every new day at SFT. Thank you, Alan!

    March 25th, 2010 at 3:27 am
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  9. PsychMom says:

    In response to AJ Favin:
    It’s wonderful to hear more about this school and the experiences your family has had. That’s what an education should be all about. I just wish it was accessible for more parents.
    My only concern is your comment about how your child and his peers are treated ” as able young adults”. They are not. A young adult is someone who is 18 years old …
    Teenagers under 18 are not young adults….and the same as kindergarteners are treated as if they were 10 years old and expected to sit still and listen, and do homework, 14 and 15 year olds are somehow seen as more acceptable and better adjusted when they behave like “young adults”. Why can’t children just be respected? Why are only adults to be respected?

    I understood what you meant…it’s just that it slips off the tongue so easily these days, that adolescents are behaving properly if they are behaving like young adults…

    March 25th, 2010 at 6:56 am
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  10. AJ Favin says:

    In response to PsychMom:

    Thank you for pointing out my misstatement, and giving me a chance to correct myself!

    My 13-year-old surely isn’t expected to be adult-like at SFT. In fact, what you present as the best scenario is the situation there: he is respected for being just who is he is, as he never has in any other school setting.

    And I see this acceptance and respect outside of our home (as well as inside, of course) to be the key for a future in which he trusts and respects himself, once becoming an adult.

    SFT intends to prepare its students for the future, as its name implies, and I can see it working from not only the curriculum, but also the daily atmosphere in which my son spends his days.

    April 1st, 2010 at 7:12 am
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  11. UPenn Mom says:

    This is all resonating so profoundly. We pulled our girls from Howard County Public Schools when it became clear that NCLB was, indeed, leaving most of them behind. And the description above of “gifted” as starting them at 4 and wringing every ounce of inquisitive joy from them was SPOT ON. In response, I started an art enrichment company to try to provide a way for kids at least to have WAY more time for innovative and creative thinking in their days. We also began to drive our 2 girls an hour each way to the Waldorf School of Baltimore, mainly for the reverence for play and integrated learning we saw there. Waldorf’s attitude towards homework in the early years was also refreshing: “we want them to go home and build forts, climb trees, and learn how to get along with friends.” This was all a vast improvement over our public school option, but as our girls got older, Waldorf’s strict, “one size fits all” pedagogy didn’t provide what each daughter’s learning style seemed to need (one is truly gifted, and one is very smart, with ADHD). My work with my new company made the commute a stretch and we began to seeking a great alternative nearby. Finding none (except quitting and homeschooling), we decided to focus on class size and chose a local independent school where at least we knew our girls (and their interests, strengths, learning styles and needs) would be known by their teachers. This has been great in many respects, and bitterly disappointing in others; we have run across many teachers who do NOT begin to transcend the three roles described in the interview, and at our school, the culture seems to be one where folks are paying so much, they assume their children are getting the best of the best, so there’s not much in the way of critiquing what’s going on in the classrooms — status quo rules. And status quo isn’t good enough. Not for any of our children, at any price. In a nation like ours, the status quo should be cutting edge education for every child — for FREE. THANK YOU, Mr. Shusterman,, for your work. I hope this work, the stophomework.com efforts, and the work of others in the “movement” can continue to “shout it from the rooftops,” with voices building along the way.

    May 19th, 2010 at 7:57 am
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  12. ms.hoovers says:

    i like your name and u look like a nice teacher

    August 26th, 2010 at 4:47 pm
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  13. Elaine says:

    I think you are the first person that I’ve ever read who knew Obama when he was in school: … As history would have it, Barack Obama was in my class at Harvard …

    July 14th, 2015 at 3:22 pm
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