Whole Child Symposium

Choice Versus Policy?

What are we currently doing in our schools that will affect—negatively or positively—the future?

The ASCD Whole Child Symposium addressed what the "schools of the future" will look like and how the decisions we make today will shape what and how students learn tomorrow. Over the course of three events, we asked thought leaders, authors, practitioners, and students what they think currently works in education, what we need in the future to be successful, and how this can be accomplished.


Choice was central to the discussion at the Whole Child Symposium Town Hall and Live events. The town hall talked about ways to promote and advance student voice and choice and the live event discussion evolved to ask whether policy impedes or assures choice. No one was clearer on this point than University of Oregon professor and author of Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization Yong Zhao who believes that any choice weighed down by mandatory policy isn't true choice:

"By imposing upon our students, our parents, our school leaders, a different way of accountability, we are also confining our people's possibility to choose. So there's nothing for you to choose—basically this is like a Hobson's Choice, right: you can pick any horse as long as it's the one I give you."

This point of view suggests that if you impose standardized policy across the system, you will by that very act restrict choice and ownership and curtail creativity.

Charles Haynes, director of the Religious Freedom Education Project at the Newseum and senior scholar at the First Amendment Center, took the notion of choice and broadened it to include "freedom." He asked how we expect people to know how to exercise and utilize the skills of freedom if they have not practiced them at school:

"We don't want freedom for the future; that's not the tomorrow I want—to have freedom. I want freedom that's done well. I want speech that's used well. I want people to follow their conscience and have their conscience shaped in a way that makes them make the right choices. And that takes a lot of work. So to think that after 12 years of being in a prison-like system, they're suddenly going to go out be free, democratic, and engaged ... it is a false hope."

True choice and true ownership come without constraints and restrictions. On the other hand, don't we live with rules, regulations, and (some) restrictions all the time? Isn't there a role for "policy done right" just as Charles Haynes asked for "freedom done right?"


So, what role does or should policy play? While there was enough skepticism at the symposium about the effect that poor policy can have on education there was also an understanding that policy plays a role in ensuring access to effective education and has a role in determining what our systems become. As was mentioned by American Institutes for Research vice president David Osher, to leave everything up to chance and to hope for the best may not provide adequate opportunities for each child in each school or in each community:

"This is a country that is very inegalitarian ... We have issues that haven’t fully resolved ... I think that while on the one hand it's really important that bad choices are not done on people, it also has to be informed by the fact that if we just say 'let things flow,' given the distribution of resources, given the distribution of dispositions, things may actually get worse than better."

For whatever reason we have decided not to tackle this issue through policy reform or system development. As stated by ASCD CEO and Executive Director Dr. Gene R. Carter:

"We continue to be faced with the challenge of how you take what you see in those isolated pockets [of excellence] and make it systemic. That is something that we have not chosen to address head on ... we still as a nation are not serving all of our kids well. We have the resources to do so, but have chosen not to take on that challenge."

Policy plays a role in determining adequate resource allocation, whether it be financial, infrastructure, or human—not just today, but also tomorrow.

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