The Paideia Story

Queens Paideia School

From CCBS Trustee Francis Mechner

Thank you, Hank and Rob, for this opportunity to tell the largely untold story of the Paideia demonstration project. In the 1960s and 1970s, many of Professor Fred S. Keller’s students were inspired by his “Personalized System of Instruction.” We were impressed by a system in which students could progress at their own best pace, working independently, with systematically prepared instructional materials, in a learning environment created and overseen by “Learning Managers.”

I wanted to follow Keller’s roadmap to its logical conclusion—a school for children of all ages, operated by Learning Managers versed in the behavioral sciences. From 1968 to 1973, four of us created a novel type of learning environment for just over 20 children (including my own children and nieces) in Armonk, New York—the K-12th grade Paideia School. It was an amalgam of the contributions of Keller, John Dewey, Jerome Bruner, B.F. Skinner, Lev Vigotsky, and Peter Drucker. Many years later, in 2009, that school served as the pilot project for the K-8th grade Queens Paideia School (QPS), which Karyn Slutsky (my partner/spouse) and I founded. Eleven years later, my children and grandchildren are QPS alumni, and three of my grandchildren are currently enrolled in it.

In mid-March 2020, when Covid-19 struck, QPS immediately transitioned to remote learning. We maintained the school’s curriculum, staffing, and philosophy, even in our virtual classrooms. Our close-knit team of four Learning Managers, each of whom is specialized in one of the core subjects (science, math, ELA, social studies), and their three Learning Aides, continued to manage the education of our 35 students in the K-8th grade range.

It is this extremely low student-staff ratio that enabled QPS to maintain its curriculum priorities: fluency in the foundational verbal and math skills; thinking skills like inquiry, analysis, problem solving, and logic; executive functioning; effective communication; and collaboration. Although it is significantly harder to observe and respond to the details of every student’s behavior in Zoom rooms, instruction remains highly personalized and interactive. As for the social aspects, while Zoom room relationships can never match physical togetherness, QPS’s school culture continues to encourage the development of friendships in real time amid plenty of joy and laughter.

One unexpected benefit of the remote mode are the more frequent interactions we have with parents regarding their children’s behavior. These interactions supplement the detailed written evaluations and progress reports we send them. Furthermore, parents can observe more directly how QPS staff members relate with students and assume ownership of every student’s education. The virtual classroom provides parents with modeling of ways to engage with their children and support their educational development.

When we are asked how QPS measures the educational effectiveness of its system, I don my scientist’s cap. I explain that it would be easy but dishonest to point to our students’ fine scores on standardized tests and their other accomplishments. These could be attributable to the type of family that selects QPS in the first place—a significant confounding variable. But even absent this variable, I would still not point to such facile measures as evidence of the superiority of the QPS education. Doing so would trivialize what it accomplishes. The important behavioral impact is on the students’ non-academic behavior: competencies in communication, collaboration, ability to manage relationships, and self-management (“maturity”); and their self-confidence, motivation, reflectiveness, curiosity, and social awareness. Those are the behavioral attributes that ultimately matter most.

QPS’s reaction to Covid-19 has been informed only by authoritative guidance from serious epidemiologists. The school’s independence—a consequence of its funding being provided by my charitable foundation and contributions from our parent body—enables it to resist other pressures. Based on such guidance we have determined that for now, indoor schooling (and any indoor congregation) is too risky, even with precautions.

We plan to maintain our remote program until credible scientists and health experts assure us that resumption of indoor schooling is safe, regardless of when that might happen. Even though remote schooling can never be as good as on-site schooling, QPS’s program, with the high degree of personalization and interaction made possible by its low student-staff ratio, may well be the best that can be done as we await the passing of Covid-19.

Note to readers: As of September 7, 2020, QPS’s remote program has 6 open slots. We would be pleased to fill these with children of behavior analysts who may resonate with our approach. If interested, e-mail fmechner@panix.com