A Matter of Choice

choice man

What if I told you the answer to all that ails public education is choice? Not dollars.  Not standardization. Not test scores. Choice…surprisingly effective in its simplicity.

The current education equation is not simple by any stretch of the imagination…and it doesn’t reference choice nor children:

  • Education is a public enterprise funded by taxpayers
  • Government reports to taxpayers on its performance
  • Elected officials craft policy and practice in the name of accountability

This equation shows how far we have strayed from public education’s original focus: to prepare children to be responsible, contributing citizens to our democracy. Instead of modeling democratic principles, our schools have become authoritarian, prescribing standards and outcomes with one small range of right answers and one summary definition of success. We are literally training our next generation to think and lead by principles that are antithetical to the intellectual, emotional and social skills and values essential to our democracy. If students do not embrace diversity, equity and respect for differences, they will not be prepared to meet the challenges of our country’s future.

Yet right now as we are observe the sixtieth anniversary of Brown v. The Board of Education, our schools are becoming resegregated. The haves continue to account for their own, and the have-nots continue to subsist on their own without access to the same resources and opportunities. We are so embedded in the current culture of accountability, we cannot get out of our own way to address the true value proposition of education:

Children receiving equal access to the resources and opportunities that help them realize their full potential and become responsible, contributing citizens to our democratic society: college, career and citizenship ready.

The current culture of accountability completely politicizes public education. Administrators and teachers work in a climate of fear. Students are under incredible pressure to pass do-or-die assessments. And politicians keep banging the drum. Why wouldn’t they? Continually calling for educational outcomes measured by business metrics is cunning. This no-win comparison of apples and oranges creates false expectations that cannot be attained. Calling for education reform because apples don’t give us oranges has the feel of a cynical political ploy. As a collective citizenry, we must be smarter than to fall for this. The future oapples and orangesf our democracy depends on us. Because students who learn in an authoritarian education system become adults who practice authoritarian politics.

At the conclusion of ASCD’s Whole Child Symposium Live Event, Karen Pittman of the Forum for Youth Investment, Yong Zhao of the University of Oregon, Charles Haynes of the First Amendment Center, David Osher of the Health and Social Development Program at the American Institutes for Research, and ASCD CEO Dr. Gene Carter were asked to summarize their discussion on the challenges facing public education. The solution? Instead of holding schools accountable, hold the communities in which they exist accountable. Expect citizens to take responsibility for the performance of their schools at the local level, instead of blaming politicians and bureaucrats. Everyone is pointing fingers and passing the buck, when in reality, government officials have no power except that which we give them. Communities must exercise their will to provide equitable education to all students, and the support to local schools to make it happen. In one word, Carter, Haynes, Osher, Pittman and Zhao agree: the key is choice.

Student choice according to their abilities and interests.

Teacher choice according to each child’s learning needs.

School choice according to the values of the community.

Community choice according to its will.

It’s time to return to the democratic ideals upon which our nation is based. American public education was the envy of the world in the last century, until it was hijacked and redefined as a business enterprise that needs to produce numbers to justify its value.  The American public needs to reclaim its schools and take responsibility for their success.

As educators, we know the future of public education: personalized learning that engages students around their needs, abilities and interests. Technology is already paving the way for this to happen, transforming society in ways that provide the individualization of every aspect of our daily lives. Choice is the driver, for the future of society and for the future of education. Whatever your role as a stakeholder, I encourage you to work for choice.


“Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education.”  -Franklin Delano Roosevelt


This blog post has been cross-posted on the Whole Child Blog: http://www.wholechildeducation.org/blog/a-matter-of-choice

11 thoughts on “A Matter of Choice

  1. Walter, well thought out and written, this is a conversation that we must have, or children will continue to vote with their feet and drop out, or demonstrate that all we have taught them is to memorize. We want critical thinkers… then we must educate them to be critical thinkers, as well as problem solvers. The WC symposium was great, I attended two webcasts… Well done ASCD….


    • Mike knowing the important work you do with schools, I am really pleased that you liked the post, and of course, ASCD’s leadership in discussing the future we choose. This conversation definitely needs to happen locally across the country.


  2. Interesting thinking processes going on here. I’m particularly interested in the sudval.org project. I’ve considered as a class project to show a few very different models and then have my students create a proposal for their ideal school. I just wonder what they’d come up with? It would definitely depend on which class I asked!


  3. Walter, check out the school web site and post your questions on the Google group, discuss-sudbury-model. It’s a much better medium than Twitter for substantive discussion. And, of course, there is more than me to respond; you’ll get some perspective there. Mike

    Liked by 1 person

  4. How about putting democracy into the school itself with kids participating in the operational decision making and kids choosing how to use their time in school? Sudbury Valley School (www.sudval.org) and schools like it have been doing this since 1968 with remarkable results.

    Liked by 1 person

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