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Original photo by George Lesnansky edited by Alexander Khost, both images licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 License.

The School Choice Debate Misses the Point
Arguing over test scores and other statistical outcomes takes the focus away from deeper questions about freedom and human flourishing.

The debate on school choice focuses on whether parents should have a right to choose what school their children attend and if the public education funds should follow the child. Both sides spar over the efficiency and effectiveness of the public school system and if parents should have the right to opt out of it in order to pursue other options for their children.

However, this debate fails to question the conventional structure of school and only operates within the narrow framework of controlled learning, standardized tests, and measuring and ranking human potential rather than how to best develop it. Consequently, it ignores more important questions like:

Should children control their own education?

Do standardized tests prepare students for real world challenges and develop critical thinking skills?

Why should children be forced to learn subjects against their will, especially subjects that have little relevance to today’s economy?

Does expanding school choice strengthen or weaken the relationship between parents and children?

Should we use statistics to justify freedom of choice?

Should the school day be shorter or at least start later to prevent children from experiencing sleep deprivation?

Should children have more time for free play without supervision?

Is the education business doing more harm to students than good?

Are educational freedom and the separation of school and state the ultimate goals of school choice proponents?

Who should control a child’s education?

Defenders of school choice purport to promote more parental involvement in their children’s education, but ironically the vouchers they promote can create incentives for parents to actually spend less time with their children. As author, venture capitalist, and film producer Ted Dintersmith notes in his recent book What School Could Be, “But as I saw in Milwaukee, it’s not that simple. Many families choose a school, not because they think it’s better but because it’s far away. If their child spends more time on the bus each day, the parent can work longer hours without worry about childcare.”

As this example demonstrates, voucher experiments can have unintended consequences. Rather than blame parents for responding to incentives, let’s examine the incentives. Not all voucher programs include transportation, and those that do have more value for parents who wish to send their kids to the best schools that aren’t close to home. And yet, this “benefit” winds up weakening the family and the influence that parents have on their children by giving more power to the state.

Granted, in a world where schooling is completely separated from the state, parents may still value convenience over learning when choosing the means of their children’s education. However, without a department of education dictating a rigid, standardized curriculum, entrepreneurs would be more free to develop innovative schools and learning centers, which are less likely to accept or be eligible to receive vouchers. Consequently, parents would be more likely to have more educational choices focused on self-directed learning. At the very least, true school choice proponents should not support exclusively subsidizing the least innovative private schools and artificially incentivizing parents to value convenience over learning if they really value what they say they do. Educational savings accounts represent a more flexible option, but only five states currently offer this option.

Standardized Tests and Real Learning

Public schools still primarily focus on teachers as the disseminators of information for students to memorize in order to pass standardized tests, which have nothing to do with the skills needed to survive in today’s dynamic innovation economy. We all know this truth, and therefore it comes as no surprise that the most popular TED Talk of all time is titled: Do Schools Kill Creativity? It now has over 60 million views.

While private schools can use different standardized tests, and some don’t use standardized tests at all, Ted Dintersmith and Tony Wagner note in their book Most Likely to Succeed how innovative learning has been slow to develop even in one of the best private schools,

The Lawrenceville School is consistently rated as one of the very best of U.S. elite private schools. A decade ago, it ran a fascinating experiment with students taking core science courses. When students returned after summer vacation, they were asked to retake the final exam they had completed three months earlier. Actually, it was a simplified version of the final, as the faculty eliminated any detailed questions that students shouldn’t be expected to remember a few months later. The results were stunning. When students took the final in June, the average grade was a B+ (87%); when the simplified test was taken in September, the average grade was an F (58%). Not one student retained mastery of all important concepts covered by the course. Following this experiment, Lawrenceville completely rethought the way courses were taught, eliminating almost half the content to emphasize deeper learning. When it repeated the experiment in subsequent years, the results were far more satisfactory.

And although exceptions exist like High Tech High (featured in Dintersmith’s documentary, also called Most Likely to Succeed), charter schools do not consistently create the kind of meaningful student learning that one would expect from removing the shackles of unions. As Dintersmith and Wagner also note,

The most recent report from Stanford’s Center for Research on Educational Outcomes shows that as many charters (31%) underperform public school comparables in math as outperform (29%). The numbers were slightly better for literacy scores, but the bottom line is that the majority of charter schools are no better or worse than their public school counterparts. We aren’t big believers in this study’s measure of performance – standardized test scores – but experienced observers of charter schools characterize charter schools as a mixed bag at best. Deborah Stipek, dean of Stanford’s School of Education, notes that ‘charter schools provide the space for innovation, but because their success is measured entirely by traditional achievement tests, they feel pressed to focus almost exclusively on the basic skills that the tests assess. As a result, they are no more likely than noncharter public schools to engage students in meaningful learning that whets their intellectual appetites.

While school choice proponents cite positive studies on educational outcomes related to test scores and other criteria and occasionally advocate for the separation of school and state, they do not question the foundation of the current system whose very existence depends upon standardized testing, measuring and ranking students, segregating students by age, standardizing their curriculum, and producing a predictable and obedient population. The myopic debate on outcomes also dismisses concerns over the student anxiety epidemic brought upon by the pressure to get good grades, excel on standardized tests, and get into a good college.

The film Race to Nowhere features “heartbreaking stories of students across the country who have been pushed to the brink by over-scheduling, over-testing and the relentless pressure to achieve” and “reveals an education system in which cheating has become commonplace; students have become disengaged; stress-related illness, depression and burnout are rampant; and young people arrive at college and the workplace unprepared and uninspired.” Peter Gray echoes these sentiments from a different perspective by emphasizing the decline in play, an activity vital for children to develop into healthy and productive human beings. He notes how a lack of play prevents children from developing necessary cooperation skills and leaves them socially and emotionally crippled.

What good do these short-sighted “success” measures that activists on both sides argue about do if achieving them actually does more harm than good? And since this harm brought about by longer school days, a lack of free time, and excessive and unnecessary standardized tests which have caused significantly increased anxiety leading to inordinate rates of depression and suicide is not unique to traditional public schools, isn’t everyone forgetting to consider if their solution will actually turn children into happy and well functioning adults?

Rethinking Goals

Milton Friedman, the architect of school vouchers, had this to say when addressing criticism of vouchers by Jacob G. Hornberger, founder and president of The Future of Freedom Foundation,

But am I a statist, as I have been labeled by a number of libertarians, because some thirty years ago I suggested the use of educational vouchers as a way of easing the transition? Is that, and I quote Hornberger again, “simply a futile attempt to make socialism work more efficiently”? I don’t believe it. I don’t believe that you can simply say what the ideal is. This is what I mean by the utopian strand in libertarianism. You can-not simply describe the utopian solution, and leave it to somebody else how we get from here to there. That’s not only a practical problem. It’s a problem of the responsibilities that we have.

Has this transition worked as Friedman and defenders of vouchers hoped? Given that the U.S. Census Bureau recently reported that spending per pupil increased for the fifth consecutive year, and the National Center for Education Statistics reported that private school enrollment has remained flat from 1999 to 2016, it clearly has not. So why do defenders of free markets continue to argue for school choice without considering the ultimate goal of separating school and state?

It seems they have settled for creating more freedom from within the public school system rather than trying to break free from it. Some defenders even argue for school choice subject to state control as an end goal rather than the transition that Friedman sought. When defenders of free markets have the goal of making public education more like Obamacare in order to stimulate competition, it may be time to rethink their priorities.

This is why we need not to lose sight of ultimately trying to separate school from the state. Not only does school choice not move us closer to this goal, but it perpetuates an increasingly high stakes environment that purports to help students improve their lives while in reality making them more neurotic and less prepared for life.

Reimagining Education

As author and educator John Holt eloquently stated,

What children need is not new and better curricula, but access to more and more of the real world, plenty of time and space to think over their experiences, and to use fantasy and play to make meaning out of them, and advice, road maps, guidebooks to make it easier for them to get where they want to go (not where we think they ought to go), and to find out what they want to find out.

More school choice as school choice is defined does not necessarily help children nurture curiosity, stimulate creativity, develop writing and communication skills such as engaging in constructive debate and asking thoughtful questions, provide space to discover their passion and purpose, build resilience and tenacity, or perhaps most importantly, develop a soul. Rather than each side debating the correct statistical measurements of children’s success, why don’t we take a step back and ask why we need to create precise measurements and what education truly means? If we did that, we might realize that no child is the precise average of anything, and that assessing success based on average and meaningless statistics prevents us from viewing children as nuanced and self-directed human beings.

Real choice exists in an environment that reduces barriers for entrepreneurs to create opportunities for learning and prepares children for the fast-changing innovation economy. Vouchers, on the contrary, are more likely to support the least innovative and efficient schools, as the more successful schools won’t need them, and the more innovative and independent schools and homeschooling programs will have a harder time securing government money – and may not want it as they likely don’t want to risk compromising their autonomy and mission in order to keep the tax dollars flowing. Some of the more innovative environments that truly focus on student-centered self-directed learning with no teachers (only facilitators) are Sudbury Schools, Liberated Learning Centers, and Agile Learning Centers. Rather than teach to the test, these environments truly focus on allowing students to best prepare themselves for life – and that may not mean getting into a good college. In fact, sociology and education professors Josipa Roska and Richard Arum note in their book Academically Adrift: Limiting Learning on College Campuses the inadequacy of colleges’ attempts to help students develop skills that employers need. These findings should come as no surprise as the vast majority of schools – both public and private – continue to serve the interests of the testing companies at the expense of children and parents.

While there exist public schools that support Self-Directed Education, this story of two entrepreneurs’ failure to secure public approval for their innovative public school after nearly seven years of effort demonstrates the extreme difficulty of consistently and successfully seeking out quasi-free market alternatives within a centrally managed system. While immediately calling for abolishing public education will be a nonstarter, a better start to the conversation might be debating the effectiveness of standardized tests and self-directed vs. progressive education, the amount of time children should spend in school, the importance of letting children play, the value of homework, school start times, the length of the school day, and how much sleep children need. Since there’s no money in children sleeping and playing more and all children are equally capable of engaging in these activities regardless of race or economic background, defenders of the status quo won’t be able to accuse proponents of real school choice of only trying to benefit the rich and privileged.

Changing an outdated system with so many powerful players financially benefiting from it will not be easy, but small changes can happen by injecting thoughtful and reasonable ideas into the public discourse. We just have to be careful to promote changes that move us closer to true educational freedom, not farther way. As the Sugata Mitra experiment with poor kids and a computer in an Indian slum shows, children have far more ability to learn from each other and without teachers than many of us realize.