The public educational monopoly, can it be broken?

Zachary Garris in  an article, The Internet Is Maximizing Educational Choice in the Freeman of Sunday, August 21, says yes, that the public school educational monopoly can be broken. And this he says would come about because of the Internet, that modern electronic marvel that in fact Maximizes Educational Choice, unseating compulsion while putting choice in its place.

Can that ever happen, even with the internet available to all? It seems to me it couldn’t, and in fact it’s not happening. As hard as it is to believe the public schools today are pretty much as they were when I was a student, nearly 80 years ago.

The internet, while universally present is not replacing compulsion with choice. Rather the Internet is comfortably ensconced in its own place (often its own room behind its own walls) with its own role to play, being all the time sure not to disturb the powers that be, the forces that keep kids in their required places.

For there are just far too many entrenched interests with the power  to keep things as they are. Much the same reason why no government however reformist it might be would ever dislodge Medicare, Medicaid, Social Security, not to mention the US military, from their established places. Everyone agrees that reforms are “necessary” throughout these institutions but no one in a position of leadership has of yet found a way to bring real reforms about.

To reform, let alone break just the system of public school education, subject as it has been to an endless series of failed reforms since it’s 19th. century beginnings,  would require for one that a majority of the students no longer accept to be a captive audience for the teachers and school authorities and leave the schools. Not about to happen, of course.

I do have some little experience with what might take place when students were helped to do this by being given the choice to stay or leave. Of course at the time I didn’t understand what I was doing by giving them a choice, my being a new teacher and not yet dominated by the sheer power of the public school establishment. And it was certainly not my intention to bring down the schools in doing what I did, but In miniature I sort of made this happen, at least in regard to one English class, my own.

I was a high school English teacher and  following successive failures on my part to interest nearly 30 hormone active teens in the great books and ideas that I would have them read and discuss in class, I decided to give them a choice to attend my class  or not. Being a department Head at the time I was able to do this sort of thing, at least until the school Principal heard about it and asked for an explanation. I didn’t have one.

Well what happened? Given a choice but three of 30 students showed up for my next class. I’m sure it wouldn’t have been much different if it had been a math of physics class, or even Spanish or French, both of which I used to teach.

Now just imagine if teachers and schools everywhere throughout the country had followed my lead, and given their charges a choice. Would that have been more than enough to “bring down the system.”

Perhaps, although only temporarily because the school authorities, teachers and administrators, working this time together along with the parents, would have immediately installed whatever safeguards were needed to prevent this sort of thing from ever happening again. In my particular case I was soon out, the students back in, having at most missed a day or two of my classes. And in our little school things were back to normal. Choice was out. I was gone, had resigned, and on my wife’s suggestion was thinking about starting our own school, which subsequently we did.

There are of course any number of things that make a mass exodus from the schools highly unlikely. Garris in his article mentions a few of these, that public schools have the allegiance of many citizens stemming from tradition, they have political allies, they have teacher unions hell-bent on holding onto their jobs, and they have tax monies. To overcome these and other obstacles would require that there be an alternative educational option far superior to the programs and offerings of the public schools.

Is there one? Garris would like to believe so. Garris says that such a viable alternative to the status quo appears to have arisen in online education. For, as he says, the “Internet is making excellent educational content available at a low-cost, making it particularly suitable for homeschooling and home school groups.  And the growing market demand for home school curricula is being met with the development of new online educational content every year. Websites like Khan Academy offer affordable education through online videos and forums not to mention that they often provide world-class teachers that students would not have access to in a traditional school setting.”

I too would like to believe this, that the Internet is revolutionizing education, that it is maximizing educational “choice” through the free market in a way that no public school ever could. But the only way this would happen in a substantial manner would be to restore the freedom of choice to the students, which even the Internet is not about to do.

Could it have happened where I taught? Perhaps if the entire school and school community had gone along with me and removed the compulsion from education and put the students’ own interests and readiness for learning in its place.

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