I always feel a certain irony when I hear proposals for “school choice.” Many of the people advocating for school choice, after all, are the same people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act, which was designed to coerce school districts into adopting policies that they otherwise would not choose to adopt. Not exactly a choice-friendly concept.
Under No Child Left Behind, my local public schools -- and all public schools in America, in fact -- now must pursue the policy of raising standardized test scores at all costs. School officials who don’t raise standardized test scores can end up losing their jobs. But if they turn out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who’ve never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to them.
When I complain about the effects of that policy -- for example, about the fact that my kids’ lunch periods have been cut back to fifteen minutes or less, in the name of maximizing instructional time -- I can count on local school officials to sympathize with me, and then to patiently explain that they are just responding to No Child Left Behind’s pressure to raise test scores. If I’m concerned about what’s happening in my kids’ elementary school, I should write to President Obama. Not exactly empowering.
Yet many so-called school choice advocates are fine with all that. In fact, their “choice” proposals require you to choose a school that operates on No Child Left Behind’s premises. They remind me of Henry Ford’s policy about the Model T: You can choose any color you want, as long as it’s black.
Take charter schools. The government gives charter schools an exemption from many of the laws and regulations governing other public schools -- but only in exchange for a commitment to be accountable for student performance, as measured by the same standardized testing criteria that other public schools must meet. For a parent who objects to the whole idea of letting standardized test scores drive educational policy, charter schools offer no choice at all. “We want to give you lots of choices,” charter school advocates seem to say, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with our imposition of a uniform concept of education on the entire country.”
Here’s the school choice experiment I’d like to see tried. Let our school district require every parent to make an initial choice between two options. If the parents want to put their kids in a classroom governed by policies dictated by the federal government, they could choose the Federal Option. If the parents would prefer classrooms that are governed by policies chosen by the local community, they could choose the Local Option.
For the kids in the Federal Option, school would look a lot like it does now. No Child Left Behind would be in full force, and the district and its school personnel would have to meet NCLB’s standardized testing benchmarks or face the statutory penalties. In these classrooms, the district would do whatever it takes to raise math and reading test scores, regardless of the other values that might have to be sacrificed. Subjects with no direct bearing on standardized test results, such as art and music, would be cut back as necessary. Recess and lunch would be minimized. Untestable qualities such as curiosity, skepticism, creativity, and initiative would not be pursued. Whether the kids actually enjoy learning would be a secondary concern, at best. To keep the kids from squirming during their lengthy test prep sessions -- er, I mean, lessons -- the teachers would instruct them on the importance of unquestioning compliance with rules, and would single out the quiet and obedient students for special praise and rewards.
Down the hall, though, would be the Local Option classrooms. What would they be like? That would be entirely up to the people of our district. Maybe they would decide that there is more to being well-educated than what is measured by standardized tests. Maybe they’d give the teachers more autonomy over what and how to teach. Maybe they’d put more emphasis on developing the kids’ intrinsic motivation and pleasure in learning, and less emphasis on external rewards. Maybe they’d challenge the kids to think critically about the world around them. Maybe they’d recognize that kids need downtime, physical activity, and a decent lunch to learn well and to develop social skills. Maybe they’d treat the kids more like kids and less like employees. Maybe they’d take a few lessons from Finland. Or maybe they’d do none of those things, and come up with their own ideas. Who knows what our community might choose. It’s been so long since anyone asked.
I suppose there could be some awkward moments, when the kids in the Federal Option classrooms, with their ongoing math and reading drills and their nightly worksheets and their behavior charts and their abbreviated recesses and quiet fifteen-minute lunches, saw their friends down the hall having what would likely be a more meaningful -- not to mention enjoyable -- educational experience. Since the Federal Option classrooms would, by definition, be less likely to reflect the parents’ preferences, it might be hard for parents to choose those classrooms for their kids. But as things stand now, we all choose them every day. We’re just not constantly reminded that there could be another way.
Right now, of course, this experiment is impossible. My district could set up Local Option classrooms, but it couldn’t use tax money to pay for them. Why? Because the people who brought us charter schools don’t really believe that communities should be allowed to run their own schools.
What do these people have against choice?