Whole Child Symposium

A Matter of Choice

Post written by Walter McKenzie

Perfect Choice Logo CircuitWhat 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 observe the 60th 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.

apple-no-equal-orangeThe 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 of 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 and Executive Director Dr. Gene R. 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

Walter McKenzie is a lifelong learner, teacher, leader, and connector. A director of Constituent Services for ASCD, he served 25 years in public education as a classroom teacher, instructional technology coordinator, director of technology, and assistant superintendent for information services. He is internationally known for his work on multiple intelligences and technology and has published various books and articles on the subject. Connect with McKenzie on the ASCD EDge® social network or by e-mail at wmckenzie@ascd.org.

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