The next education frontier: Classroom choice

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Little birds are flying around everywhere these days, tweeting “school choice” as the last hope for education reform.  We find it praised on the editorial pages of Education Next, in a book by DC-based self-styled education policy expert Chester Finn, and by Donald J. Trump, the next president of the United States.

“Choice” was the slogan for a question on the November ballot in Massachusetts asking voters to loosen the cap on charter schools in the state. (It went down in flames).  But “school choice” fails to address the type of choice most parents today might desire: classroom choice—a choice of classroom type, not choice of school management.

In one sense, the current embrace of school choice is not surprising.  It is one solution to negative parent and teacher opinion about the Common Core project—the most “successful failure” in education reform this country has ever seen.  (“Successful” in the sense that no state that adopted Common Core or its own version of the Gates Foundation-funded and -promoted skills-based standards has been able to disentangle itself from the Gates Foundation’s and U.S. Department of Education’s tentacles; “failure” in the sense that Common Core’s standards and tests have shown no credible evidence anywhere, in any state, of making all students ready for authentic college coursework and closing “gaps.”) 

On the other hand, the kind of school choice being promoted by policy makers and “reform” governors like Charlie Baker in Massachusetts is not available to most schoolchildren.

The question on the ballot to lift the charter cap in Massachusetts failed on November 5 in part because the cap would have been lifted only in big cities, most of whose mayors didn’t want more charter schools.  Despite billions in assistance from wealthy individuals and foundations that think this form of choice strengthens public education (Bill and Melinda Gates, Eli Broad, and the Walton family), school choice is available today chiefly to only a small proportion of the nation’s students (about 10%) and chiefly to the most disadvantaged children. 

Charter schools didn’t start off that way.  Many of the early ones—as well as a few of the newer ones—had distinctive programs of study (e.g., a classical curriculum or Chinese Immersion) that appealed to specific groups of parents. Only school choice in the form of Educational Savings Accounts has been of interest to a broad range of parents, although not very many in all because in many states that allow ESAs, parents must withdraw their children from a public school in order to set up a ESA.

The kind of choice that may attract a large number of parents with a wide range of income levels is classroom choice—a choice between wired-up, plugged-in high-tech classrooms with access to the Internet and without textbooks or chalkboards (classrooms in which students read and write using an electronic device) and traditional classrooms with textbooks to handle and chalkboards for teachers to write on. The tech-free schools that parents are attracted to can be found in Arkansas, in Silicon Valley and in Washington DC.

A real choice of public school classroom might retain children whose parents home school them rather than let them be given unremitting exposure in school to the high tech they may be limited in using in their homes. Recent studies point to lower or unimproved educational outcomes for students experiencing a steady dose of high tech teaching and learning. An OECD (Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development) study declares that “Investing heavily in school computers and classroom technology does not improve pupils’ performance.” A widely reported study published by MIT found higher grades in a course at the post-secondary level when students were not allowed to use high-tech devices in the classroom.

While research is not yet clear on whether high-tech teaching and learning damages students, Nicholas Kardaras, an author of a recently published book on the topic, commented in a recent Time magazine article that “students who have been raised on a high-tech diet not only appear to struggle more with attention and focus, but also seem to suffer from an adolescent malaise that appears to be a direct byproduct of their digital immersion. Indeed, over two hundred peer-reviewed studies point to screen time correlating to increased ADHD, screen addiction, increased aggression, depression, anxiety and even psychosis.”

There is actually a precedent for offering parents a choice of classrooms.  It has been happening for over two decades in schools offering “single-sex” classrooms.  So long as parents have a choice of a “co-ed” classroom or a single-sex classroom, they are lawful, especially in schools that give both parents and teachers the opportunity to choose the type of classroom they want (e.g., in Siloam Springs, Arkansas). That kind of choice is the deeper meaning of equity.  But education policy makers don’t seem to like parents’ ideas on choice and equity—only their own.