Is Your Child a Potato? (draft #1)

Is Your Child a Potato?

The question is sloppy. I should have asked: Is your child’s future a potato? I’m wondering if you support more choice in where you get your potatoes than your child’s education.

I have a brilliant idea! Let’s create a system of government-run grocery stores. We’ll run them according to government-approved philosophies of food and its production. Everyone will have to accept what the government decides is best practice in food, because that’s how democracy works. We’ll subsidize these government-run grocery stores to lower the cost of public nutrition.

Non-government, unsubsidized grocery stores generally won’t be able to compete on price, but there are always niches. Health-food co-ops and splashy gourmet destinations could cater to hippy weirdos or the wealthy. However, no government “vouchers” should be useable at non-government grocery stores, because that steals dollars from public nutrition.

Oh wait, my brilliant idea is really dumb.

Yet, the description does apply to a real case of how the public meets a fundamental need. Substitute “schools” and “education” in the proper spots above, and you have our system of public education.


Choice matters when many possibilities exist. Here’s a sampling of some reasonable, yet very different, possibilities in education:

• Benchmark-free education
• Assessment-heavy vs. assessment-light
• High student choice
• Lots of group-work and cooperative learning
• Minimal group work (because there are no group transcripts)
• More philosophy, less literature and social studies (a study by the British Education Endowment Foundation finds that teaching philosophy in elementary school improves language and math scores).
• Subjects emphasized according to economic value, i.e. math, science, reading
• Less emphasis on subjects: described variously as phenomenon-based, interdisciplinary and holistic; aimed at understanding events and phenomena. (Finland has done this for years, and regularly tops international test scores while providing more vacation, more play, and less testing.)
• Subject specialization: arts, performing arts, science, engineering, language-immersion, etc.
• More–much more–music and language in early childhood, because children learn those subjects best. (The German Socio-Economic Panel finds: “Music improves cognitive and non-cognitive skills more than twice as much as sports, theater or dance….[kids who learn an instrument]…have better cognitive skills and school grades and are more conscientious, open and ambitious.”)
• Hands-on vs. abstract
• Skills vs. creativity
• Responsible for the whole child vs. responsible for academics
• Lots of recess and play (recent Harvard study officially discovered the obvious: “Play is one of the most important ways in which children learn.”)
• Really strict
• Single-sex
• Multi-age classrooms
• Traditional humanities (emphasizes innovation, but also political power and heroes– “dead white males”).
• So-called “socialist” humanities (lives of women, marginalized groups, and the working class; might use A People’s History of the United States or Lies My Teacher Told Me as a textbook.)
• Direct instruction vs. inquiry-based on constructivist instruction

Some specific examples:

• Montessori
• Playworks
• Waldorf
• Kipp
• Other cultures

There’s no justification for financially penalizing a family choosing one of these educational philosophies, or a non-government provider of them.

Objections to school choice are rhetorical and narrow.

Typical propaganda is that more freedom to choose a school, especially in a free-market approach, would steal money from public education. That rhetoric equates “public education” with the government institution. Without propaganda, “public education” is just the education of the public. That’s what matters. A child doesn’t cease to count as a member of the public because she goes to private school; private schools provide public education.

Another common criticism is of particular implementations of school choice, rather than underlying principles. It may be true that many implementations are corrupted by politics. But, that’s like arguing socialist principles have been disproven, because, you know, Stalin. Showing that Betsy Devos is wrong is not the same as showing that school choice is wrong (not that I’m comparing the Trump administration to Stalin, or anything).


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