Still the same school for the many different children

The thoughts below occurred to me after reading Aaron Smith, director of knowledge management for YES Prep Charter Schools in Houston, Texas. He writes in the von Mises Blog: “What our system of education needs is simple: a recognition that children, parents, and educators are diverse and should be treated as individuals.”

It has occurred to many, of whom I’ve read many, that we have organized our educational system much as the Russian communists organized Soviet society in the first decades of the 20th.c., allowing little or no place for the individual to choose how he would live.

It was best, it was thought then, to sacrifice the individual to what was seen as a greater good, the structure of a society as a whole, and of which the individual was only a tiny part. People’s choices were not theirs to make but were to be made for them, just as now students in our schools are pretty much told what and how they should learn.

This is a kind of socialism. Capitalism of course is not organized in this manner. In a free market society important choices, regarding place of residence, work, family, as well as purchases and acquisitions of all manner of material and spiritual goods and services are for the most part left up to the decisions of individual citizens.

However in our mostly capitalistic society education took a different route, and the market economies of the West in regard to education went the way of the communist countries of the East, deciding no less than they that young people were just not able to make the best choices for themselves in regard to their education. So the choices are made for them, resulting too often on their part, in a loss of interest in schooling and education.

Our system of public schooling has to a considerable degree simply failed to educate large numbers of children. For in our system little or no place is given to the great differences among children, differences no less great than those among adults.

School, instead of having been made a rich and vast opportunity to develop one’s own particular interests and talents, has become for many, and in particular for those most in need of something else, a closed room with little opportunity other than to follow instructions, to take what is given them (or else!).

As it could have been expected there were some children who responded well even to this, “closed shop,” as it were. These were the so-called “good students,” those who helped to make even this inadequate system survive, if not work.

Some others, the so-called gifted and talented, being able to do what was expected of them, what they were told to do, with little or no effort, would often on their own initiative do much more on their own, well outside the school program, thereby developing by their own efforts their own exceptional talents.

Most in the closed room, however, were not “good students,” were not exceptionally talented. And of these many failed and many rebelled, with many of the latter dropping out entirely as they approached driving, voting, and military service ages.

The educators have always known that their own system was not working to everyone’s benefit, or have known it was in need of reform, almost from the beginning.

The result has been an endless series of reforms, begun as long ago as Horace Mann’s first common now public school in the mid 19th. c. and continuing right up until the present time with the No Child Left Behind Law of Teddy Kennedy and George Bush (neither one of whom, by the way, knew much about schooling or education, his own or the country’s).

The reforms of course have utterly failed to improve our educational system in any substantial way or manner. What is remarkable is that in spite of the continued failures of their reforms the professional educators have never ceased to think that the system could be reformed. Long experience ought to have taught them differently.

Within hardly more than a single generation’s experience of their “new world” the Russian communists realized that a state owned and managed economy would not satisfy their people’s needs and wishes. Whereas our educators have still not, after some six generations of trying, realized that a publicly owned and managed educational system will continue to fail to educate the majority of the children.

What is to be done? Nobel Prize winning economist Milton Friedman argued for the modern concept of vouchers in the 1950s, stating that competition would improve schools and cost efficiency. For in fact education is no less a good, a service than anything else, and is best distributed, like any good or service, by a pricing system that responds to the buyer’s own wants, not to what some “authority” figure might want for him.

It’s not hard to see that the excellence of, say, our electrical appliances, our technology, our cars and now fast trains, comes entirely from consumers making their own particular wants and demands known to the producers. Why don’t the educators see that quality education will result from students and parents being able to choose themselves the nature of that education?

The market makes available countless products among which consumers may freely choose. In regard to educational goods and services there is nothing comparable. Why not? There are many different private and excellent educational resources, but because of the cost these are not available to most.

For most, for those without the ability to pay for a private education, there is only the public school and its standardized curriculum, pretty much the same today as it was over 100 years ago. Is it any wonder that few kids in this system love and that many hate school? It’s a wonder, rather, that so few of them have rebelled.

Perhaps this failure to rebel and demand what is theirs comes in good part because of the mystery surrounding the word education. Too many people, and that feeling is caught by the children, feel they are ill-equipped to choose how their children should learn. Whereas in regard to motor vehicles, electrical appliances, the latest technological device, and a myriad other products they wouldn’t think of having someone make choices for them.

People are generally submissive of their own abilities to make good choices for their children, and they too readily yield to the opinions and choices of the experts. For example they are told that math is all important, that two years of algebra, a year of geometry, and a year of pre-calculus are necessary if they would have their child go on to college.

But is this so? Should four years of math in high school be the lot of everyone? The parents don’t, as a rule, question this determination, in spite of what they have seen of their child’s long struggle with, long dislike for the subject.

The market for educational goods and services ought to be no less extensive than the market for all other goods. A simple step, like giving to parents vouchers as recommended by Friedman, vouchers at least as large as the per student cost of public schooling, would cause thousands of new educational opportunities to suddenly appear, responding to and reflecting the huge differences there are among the hundreds of thousands of children now attending our monolithic public school.

There are those who are worried that children and parents, if left on their own, would make the wrong choices, that they wouldn’t by their own free choices of what and how to learn acquire “our” values.

But do they now, in our schools, acquire our values, or at least any single set of values that we would want for them? Of course not. Virtue can’t be taught and we should get out of the business of trying to do so and instead teach those skills and knowledge that the students themselves want to possess. For these are the only ones they will learn anyway.

As much as there are many who want to think so, it is never from our schools that our young people get their beliefs, other perhaps than a belief that school itself is a bummer.

In fact, who has ever been turned into a responsible, and contributing member of the community by attending a public school? Like virtue democratic values can not be taught, and certainly not in the closed classroom. In fact, democratic values may result much more from one’s having the freedom to choose how and what one learns than not.

If, for example, someone wants to spend a year learning to play the guitar (or fish as at the Sudbury Valley School) shouldn’t he be allowed and helped to do so, not told that reading, writing and mathematics come first, with guitar (and fishing) being relegated to free time.

But this kid who so wants to play the guitar knows well from his own experience that adults themselves give much more time to music than to history and literature. Why shouldn’t he do the same, and thereby ready himself for a life of music, much more likely than one of history or algebra?

What probably accounts most for the long survival of our public school system is that kids in spite of the system spend most of their time outside, and even inside school, doing their own things, making their own choices, certainly not doing what they’re told to do.

Therefore, why don’t we make it the business of our schools to help them to do their own thing, instead of as now making them do our thing? Isn’t it obvious by now, after nearly 200 years, that this system hasn’t worked to most children’s benefit?

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