School Choice

School Choice Isn't About Fighting for Resources, It's About Choosing How To Learn


On a family vacati

Empty classroom
© Valentin Armianu |

on a few weeks ago, my older nephew's unhappiness with school was a major topic of conversation. His fifth grade teacher, it turns out, required all of the kids in class to read assigned books at the same rate—sprinting ahead was strictly forbidden. For a kid who just tested at the reading level of a high school senior, this was a pointlessly morale-killing rule that contributed to a very smart boy's growing discontent with school. Sixth grade is now underway, and so are parental negotiations for a more flexible approach toward education, or else a healthier venue, including home. It's with this experience in mind that I read research psychologist Peter Gray's all too accurate piece in Salon comparing modern schools to prisons—horrible, curiosity-crushing institutions that teach all the wrong lessons. His points are excellent in themselves, and provide a major insight into why the school choice debate is often so off-base.

Gray, a professor at Boston College, writes:

School is a place where children are compelled to be, and where their freedom is greatly restricted — far more restricted than most adults would tolerate in their workplaces. In recent decades, we have been compelling our children to spend ever more time in this kind of setting, and there is strong evidence (summarized in my recent book) that this is causing serious psychological damage to many of them. Moreover, the more scientists have learned about how children naturally learn, the more we have come to realize that children learn most deeply and fully, and with greatest enthusiasm, in conditions that are almost opposite to those of school.

Gray traces the history of modern schooling to "the Protestant Reformation, when schools were created to teach children to read the Bible, to believe scripture without questioning it, and to obey authority figures without questioning them." Former New York State teacher of the year John Taylor Gatto has also traced the history of schools as we know them, and blames the rigid, hierachical shape of traditional schools on Prussian models adopted by American progressives to shape immigrants into good, obedient worker bees. The two explanation are far from contradictory, and it's easy to see the resulting model, with set periods, age-separated classes and teaching to the lowest-common denominator as an exercise in control that is very much not designed to let individuals excel.

As Gray writes, "It's no wonder that many of the world's greatest entrepreneurs and innovators either left school early (like Thomas Edison), or said they hated school and learned despite it, not because of it (like Albert Einstein)."

Gray delves into alternative models of education common in cultures that have not adopted the rigid school structure as we know it. He also talks about encouraging experiments, including an interesting project in India.

Another researcher who has documented the power of self-directed learning is Sugata Mitra. He set up outdoor computers in very poor neighborhoods in India, where most children did not go to school and many were illiterate. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it. Those who could not read began to do so through interacting with the computer and with other children around it. The computers gave the children access to the whole world's knowledge — in one remote village, children who previously knew nothing about microorganisms learned about bacteria and viruses through their interactions with the computer and began to use this new knowledge appropriately in conversations.

Fortunately, we live in an era when the old, rigid school design is being challenged by alternatives. Homeschooling is booming (about four percent of kids nationally, and growing). So are charter schools, some (though not all) of which use different models of education, including increased flexibility and self-direction. Private school have long experimented with different approaches. Virtual schooling, public or private, can be used as a substitute for traditional a school or as part of an education experience pieced together from components that work for a given child.

To his credit, Gray doesn't suggest any one model as the "right" alternative to what most schools do now. Some kids—my other nephew, for example—seem to do well in some version of the structured environments of default-style schooling, others do well with self-directed programs, and some children need something else entirely. My son is thriving in a charter that gives a lot of individual attention and also encourages kids to explore their interests and push their limits. "Of course, not everyone is going to learn the same things, in the same way, or at the same time," he writes. "But that's a good thing. Our society thrives on diversity. Our culture needs people with many different kinds of skills, interests and personalities."

Diversity has always been at the root of the movement for school choice—not a battle for resources as so many educrats and school union officials would have it. No matter what money you pour into a traditional school model, it's still a model that doesn't work for a huge number of children. Kids need to learn in the way that works for them. And parents need an opportunity to experiment, pick, choose and find what the right way is for their kids.

NEXT: Leads Cast for 50 Shades of Gray Adaptation

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  1. Every now and then, Salon forgets that their a mouthpiece of the democratic machine and publishes an interesting article. This was one of the better one is recent memory.

  2. A major hallmark of public education is not letting kids get ahead of the prescribed curriculum. That’s incredibly frustrating for advanced kids. Frankly, I think we need to let those advanced kids excel at their pace a whole lot more than we need to force kids who don’t give a shit to sit in class. Naturally, the government does something important in the worst way.

    1. I’ve mentioned this before, but I think that my junior high and high schools may have spent more energy preventing me from learning more than they did trying to get one of the worse students to learn more.

      1. I had the same experience. Very damaging, and I think a lot of kids never really recover from it. Yes, let’s kill the child-like love of learning new things for. . .why do they do that again? Is it some Procrustean bed thingee?

        1. I found it got a lot better in high school, but by then you’ve already bored the shit out of the advanced kids and they’re lost until college.

        2. 6 weeks into my 10th grade year, my math teacher told my parents I shouldnt bother with pre-cal my junior year, that I should just go ahead and take Calculus.

          Nearly 30 years later, I dont think I have thanked her enough for that. Possibly not at all.

        3. Well, I know that they did it when you were in school because so little was known then that they ran out of things to teach after kindergarten. I don’t know why they still do it in modern times.

        4. Yes, let’s kill the child-like love of learning new things for. . .why do they do that again?

          They don’t want to hurt the self-esteem of the not-so-fast kids. I’d bet it’s the same reason for having all those group-work projects.

          I was bored silly up until my senior year of high school, at which point all of us fast students ended up almost entirely in the same classes together. German and French classes were particularly bad in that matter.

          Hell, I decided to major in Russian once I got to college simply because I wanted the challenge of something I’d never studied before.

        5. One of the better teachers I remember having in elementary school realized that I was bored as shit with math, and let me finish the current curriculum ahead of schedule and move on to the next grade’s work.

          More of the exception that proves the rule, especially outside of the honors track.

      2. Yep. I was almost a grade ahead in math and English in 4th grade (along with my best friend) just from working ahead. They put the brakes on and we were done by 6th grade. No fair getting ahead of the others!

        Thanks for not letting me graduate from HS a year or two early, which I was clearly on a path to do, public school Nazis!

        I still basically liked school…but it was because of music, and the fact that my classmates and I ended up TEACHING the math classes while the teachers did…other stuff.

        1. I’ve several times considered how much nicer it would be if I’d had another year (or two) of working under my belt right now.

          Even if you assume the kid will only get a median salary, that’s still $50k you are preventing this kid from earning in his life by making him take an extra year to get into the workforce.

          1. Honestly, even now, with what I know….I could give a FUCK about the money. It’s the boredom and trouble I’d have saved. I became a bit of a JD because…bored smart kid. Go figure 🙂

            It all turned out fine, but I vowed never to do that to my kids – and we didn’t.

            1. I suspect you will find a strong percentage of JDs are sharp kids who got bored.

          2. Next you’re going to tell me that children (26 as defined by the ACA) should be working! AD, I knew you were a terrible person, but child labor!? This is when they should be experiencing life to its fullest and as funded by parents.

            1. Then it’s a good thing that I’m on Reason right now instead of working…

    2. not letting kids get ahead of the prescribed curriculum

      Wasn’t that a complaint that some teacher’s union mouthpiece made about the Khan Academy?

      It’s a great tool for teaching math but we don’t want some kids to get ahead or they’ll be hard to control in class!




          1. I’ll do far worse than kill you. I’ve flunked you. And I wish to go on… flunking you.

            1. Hey, now, this is a PG movie!

            2. Auric…Auric, you’ve got Calculus, but you don’t have me. You were going to flunk me, Auric. You’re going to have to come down here. You’re going to have to come down here!

              1. I’ve waited a hundred years for this, Episiarch. I give your quotation the worst grade imaginable: an A minus minus!

                1. I’m sorry, but penmanship counts.

                2. an A minus minus!

                  Does that mean an A plus?

      2. My teachers encouraged me to skip ahead in 6th grade math. This was a public school in 1980. And my high school was very similar. What’s changed??

        1. I think it’s worse now than it was then. At least there was the possibility of being encouraged to leapfrog back then. I got some of that, but there were plenty of times the reverse happened. Now, I think they’re told to sit down and shut up. And color your notebooks for extra points during your junior year.

    3. but… but… if we let kids get ahead, then others will fall behind.

      NO CHILD LEFT BEHIND! Zero sum! All or nothing!

  3. “required all of the kids in class to read assigned books at the same rate?sprinting ahead was strictly forbidden”


    1. well if someone were to get ahead of the others, the others might feel bad. That is the cardinal sin in government education. Anyone being made to feel bad. Except of course, those whom the teachers and administrator decide deserve it.

  4. “required all of the kids in class to read assigned books at the same rate?sprinting ahead was strictly forbidden”


    1. You never experienced that?

      I was yelled at, at least once per year every year, for “reading ahead”.

      1. No. Not that I recall anyway.

        1. I remember having to do it sort-of in secret. See, because the teacher didn’t let you take the copies of the books out of the classroom. Yeah, ponder that on the Tree of Derp.

      2. It’s no surprise to me either. But I don’t considering it “morale-killing”. You could rationalize it as part of “keeping the talking points fresh”. I don’t know why this causes such an issue. Treat it as an assignment and read another book. Or read it, finish it, and STFU.

        Who listens to what their teacher’s say anyhow? Seriously. BFD.

        1. Why would you want to discourage someone from being engrossed by the assigned material?

          1. You can make a reasonable argument that you want the assigned material to be fresh in their minds so that the discussion in more focused. When they read ahead, they’ll be disinterested in the classroom review because they already know the story and are mentally ready to move on to a new topic.

            So I don’t believe it’s a matter of conformity as much as it’s a matter of maintaining focus and interest in the daily lecture.

            Hey, I was bored shitless in school too. We started 8th grade doing addition. I couldn’t fucking believe it. And that was … well… a long fucking time ago. There’s things you simply have to adapt to.

            1. Hey, I was bored shitless in school too. We started 8th grade doing addition. I couldn’t fucking believe it. And that was … well… a long fucking time ago. There’s things you simply have to adapt to.

              So your argument against changing the way kids learn is…tough, kidd-o, get used to it?


              1. The Salon article describes MP well:

                As a society, we tend to shrug off such findings. We’re not surprised that learning is unpleasant. We think of it as bad-tasting medicine, tough to swallow but good for children in the long run. Some people even think that the very unpleasantness of school is good for children, so they will learn to tolerate unpleasantness, because life after school is unpleasant.

              2. I’m arguing that the LCD issue of education is not some new thing. And furthermore, there’s some rational basis for it. And finally, I’m arguing that getting all uppity about a “Don’t read ahead rule” doesn’t really make a case against that rule being useful from a educators standpoint.

                1. I’m arguing that the LCD issue of education is not some new thing.

                  So? Argument from Tradition?

                  And furthermore, there’s some rational basis for it.

                  Barely. And given the level of discourse required when you mix advanced students and the dim ones, I doubt the advanced kid is benefiting from the discussion all that much. Meanwhile, you are sending a message that “getting ahead” of the others is *bad*.

                  1. Argument from Tradition?

                    No. I’m simply arguing that this is a non-trivial issue with no clear solution path. And various institutions, public or private, attempt to solve this in different ways. But you’ll still end up with LCD as the vast majority of teaching syllabi due to cost control.

                    Meanwhile, you are sending a message that “getting ahead” of the others is *bad*.

                    It’s not morally wrong. It’s just not conducive to the learning environment the educator is constructing.

                    1. I am reasonably sure that if a kid is sharp enough to read ahead, he/she is also sharp enough to participate in whatever is involved with something read one or two books ago.

                    2. he/she is also sharp enough to participate in whatever is involved with something read one or two books ago

                      My kid is a very fast reader. But she is very weak when it comes to revisiting/explaining the material. She can only talk about it at an extremely high level, until you really drag it out of her.

                      So I can very well sympathize with an educator who is working to keep kids focused on the material specific to the upcoming lecture.

                    3. And this is the problem in a nutshell. The teacher is teaching all the kids as if they all learned in the way your kid learns.

                      All kids don’t learn in the same way. So, if the teacher was teaching in a way that made your daughter miserable, but a few other kids happy, you’d understand completely if those kids’ parents said it’s not really a problem.

                    4. Of course there’s a clear solution path. You let kids learn what they want, when they want, in the way that they want.

                      But adults always know better, so they’ll continue to force kids to spend long chunks of their childhood doing things they hate which won’t serve them at all in adulthood.

                      And the “learning” environment the teacher is constructing is only that for some of the students. The rest are considered “acceptable losses.”


                2. School is supposed to be for the kids, not for the educators.


        2. Who listens to what their teacher’s say anyhow? Seriously. BFD.

          I was a “good kid”, and getting admonished by adults was high on my “anxiety” list. You saying that seven-year-olds have the ability and desire to disregard what an authority figure says is, how do I put this, a fucking joke.

          1. First of all, it’s fifth grade. So he’s not seven. If you haven’t learned to read the system by fifth grade…well…there’s always sixth grade.

            Second, it’s still a function of how the parents react. If the parent’s are buying into this tripe, then it’s an issue. But that’s not really a fixable issue.

            1. How is it not a “fixable issue?” There are, actually, lots of flexible teachers out there, but you won’t find out unless you ask?

              Why is a kid who is unhappy with his education “tripe?” Do you really believe kids should just give in to people forcing them to experience “education” in ways that don’t really educate them?

          2. “You saying that seven-year-olds have the ability and desire to disregard what an authority figure says is, how do I put this, a fucking joke.”

            For collectivist shit stains like you. Late in my youth I discovered that I had been a libertarian since about three years old, and always able to point out problems with the logic used by “authority figures”.

      3. Never experienced that myself. Then again, you would have needed a shock collar to stop me from reading, and even then it probably wouldn’t have stopped me.

        1. Thats why you read other stuff instead.

          1. But the point here is that holding a kid back from reading ahead is senseless.

            1. I agree. Im just saying what happens.

              One of the brightest people I went to school with was just marking time until she turned 16. She read whatever she wanted to read during class and ignored the teachers. And the assigned reading material.

          2. I think the material that Epi reads while wearing a shock collar is not appropriate for schoolkids.

            1. I wasn’t appropriate for schoolkids, even when I was one of them.

        2. I was fortunate that my mom was a school librarian who took her job seriously. So books – i always had lots of good ones. And hand-me-downs from my (much) older sister, who turned me on to The Hobbit, the C.S. Lewis stuff, and “My Body, My Self”.

          No, wait…

        3. It happened to me, but I ignored it. Besides, sometimes I’d read whatever it was they were telling me to slow down on before I’d even enrolled in the silly class.

          1. I read so much my parents would take my book away and order me to do my homework. Now, that seemed stupid to me because homework is dumb and I would just do it five minutes before the teacher asked for it anyway, so I would just go get another of the 3-5 books I was reading concurrently at the time from under my bed and start reading again.

            My parents stopped bugging me about homework very early on.

            1. My homework routine all throughout high school was to show up about 20 minutes before classes started, and do everything that was due that day in the library before the first class started. I ended up as the valedictorian.

              1. And also my parents got annoyed that I read my books so quickly. They didn’t like when they would buy me a new one and I’d have it done the next day.

                1. That’s why my parents told me to buy my own damn books. I also used the library a lot, and I was lucky that my town’s little library’s librarian was extremely cool, was a scifi fan, and would order books he knew I would like.

                  1. I never got an allowance or anything, so they didn’t expect me to buy any myself.

                    I was not nearly so lucky with the “local” library. When I could get a ride the 10 miles to it, I was more likely to donate one of my used books to them than find anything new.

            2. Ye gods, I had similar life experiences to Epi…

              I’m going to go have a crisis. I’ll be back for PM links, maybe.

              1. jesse,

                It does seem like the commenters here have a type.

                1. I’m everybody’s type, Auric.

                  (winks suggestively)

                  1. See Epi, here’s the thing… I think my girlfriend might be getting too old for me… And she just turned 25 last month.

            3. I read so much my parents would take my book away and order me to do my homework.

              Same. I realized very early in elementary school that my grades would have no bearing on the rest of my life since I could enroll in gifted classes in Middle School regardless of what my grades looked like in 4th grade. I then stopped doing homework and would read instead. My parents freaked out, but it unquestionably had a positive impact on my life since I was leaps and bounds ahead of my classmates in middle school based entirely on stuff I read on my own time.

            4. As I said in another thread a day or two ago, I was often bored enough as a child that I read the encyclopedia (those wonderful World Book Encyclopedias, no less!), or else the back issues of National Geographic and Readers’ Digest that my parents got from my grandparents.

    2. In 7th grade, I remember starting the year off in math class by reviewing…place value. As in the difference in value of the digits of a number. Yeah…FTS. There was homework to do and I didn’t want to do it at home, so at the beginning of every class I would just ask for that day’s homework and do it while the teacher droned on. One day she got pissed and yelled at me when I asked her for that day’s pointless shit. I looked her in the eye and asked again and that fat bitch gave me that day’s list of questions to do. I was rather satisfied with myself.

      I think it’s better here in Canada. I skipped Math 12 and did calculus in grade 12. Great decision. Great teacher.

  5. School Choice Isn’t About Fighting for Resources, It’s About Choosing How To Learn

    I wouldn’t have a problem with this formulation IF “school choice” wasn’t ALWAYS about “taking from the rich and giving to the poor”, which it always is *right now*.

  6. Wherever he placed such a computer, dozens of children would gather around and, with no help from adults, figure out how to use it.

    Reason covered the story about the solar powered laptops that were left in the African village and within months the kids were hacking them, right?

    1. “We left the boxes in the village. Closed. Taped shut. No instruction, no human being. I thought, the kids will play with the boxes! Within four minutes, one kid not only opened the box, but found the on/off switch. He’d never seen an on/off switch. He powered it up. Within five days, they were using 47 apps per child per day. Within two weeks, they were singing ABC songs [in English] in the village. And within five months, they had hacked Android. Some idiot in our organization or in the Media Lab had disabled the camera! And they figured out it had a camera, and they hacked Android.”…..n_kids.php

      1. Five weeks later, they had created a global empire built on email solicitations.

      2. That is so fucking awesome.

        I love kids!

        1. I mean, “I love kids working in my diamond and gold mines, and polishing my monocles and keeping my top hats in tip-top shape.”

          1. That’s just silly. When you have orphans that l33t you promote them to Bitcoin mining and pay them in Mountain Dew and Funions.

            Why are you under-utilizing your resources?


              NOW – GEE OW MY YARD!

          2. Then you have to support public education. Because the only way kids won’t learn enough to not be enslaved in your diamond mind, is to get a few years of public education.

            1. I pay my school taxes. Support given…

              1. Diamond mind, I must have went to public school. Actually I did, and I never met a teacher that I didn’t believe that I was smarter than.

    2. There was an article way back when I was still in college (the 80’s) that talked about teaching grade school kids to program with Turtle Graphics. They had split the kids into an older group and a younger group and were giving them age-appropriate assignments. When the adults weren’t watching, the younger kids figured out they could write secret codes and move the turtle around the screen. They made a great effort to keep the grown-ups from noticing that they were hacking the system.

  7. Everyone knows that if you are not herded into a packed classroom and indoctrinated in all sorts of progressive bullshit, by a teacher with a lifetime tenure on the public dole, then you are doomed to never learning anything. And you would miss out on getting sex education in Kindergarten, and that is really important if you are going to get into some panties in 1st grade, so that you can then get on the list of sex offenders by the time you are in 2nd grade.

    1. get into some panties in 1st grade,

      not sure which way to read that.

      1. I decided to pretend I DIDN’T read that…


        1. /sarcasm

          I was expressing my disgust for the POTUS support of mandatory sex education for Kindergartners in a way I thought Reasonoids would understand it.

    2. At least getting on the list of sex offenders gets you out of school.

  8. Diversity has always been at the root of the movement for school choice

    Exactly why proglodytes hate it. Diversity of thought is anathema to them.

  9. The evidence for all this as it applies to little children lies before the eyes of anyone who has watched a child grow from birth up to school age. Through their own efforts, children learn to walk, run, jump and climb. They learn from scratch their native language, and with that, they learn to assert their will, argue, amuse, annoy, befriend, charm and ask questions. Through questioning and exploring, they acquire an enormous amount of knowledge about the physical and social world around them, and in their play, they practice skills that promote their physical, intellectual, social and emotional development. They do all this before anyone, in any systematic way, tries to teach them anything

    And then we crush them!

    1. “He has learned to ride a bike. It is time…we must crush his dreams.


    2. The sheeple can be indoctrinated and dumbed down best, at an early age.

  10. School Choice Isn’t About Fighting for Resources, It’s About Choosing How To Learn

    Actually, one of the best parts of school choice is competition for resources. It is the lack of competition for resources that has allowed the modern school system to become nothing but a sounding board for entrenched interests and a means of political propaganda. They not only have a monopoly, they have a monopoly backed up by government force in which every American has to pay for their product, even if we don’t have children or our children don’t attend public school.

    This lack of competition means that public schools can essentially do whatever the fuck they want from overpaying teachers to having an unnecessarily large and expensive administration to allowing their teachers to turn their classrooms into new left propaganda seminars. Teachers can teach political ideas wholly at odds with the parents of the children and get away with it, a fact which means we’re basically paying teachers to express views we hate. I come from a Republican/Libertarian family and had a teacher flat out teach us out of that nonsensical bundle of Communist horseshit that we call A People’s History of the United States. My parents paid to have a crazed leftist express views that they would have found abhorrent and had no ability to change that.

    Competition for resources allows us to force public schools to stop this nonsense. It’s the best part of school choice.

    1. Choice might allow the peasants to make the wrong choices. All your choices is belong to us!


    2. The problem is where those resources come from.

      If they come directly from the consumer, then I am 100% in favor of school choice.

      If school “choice”, on the other hand, means take from the rich to give to the poor, then I have a problem with school “choice”.

  11. fifth grade; The two explanation [sic]; one remote village; four percent of kids; any one model; huge number


  12. I’d like to pause a moment and thank my public school for conscientiously dumbing down the smart kids so I didn’t feel so very stupid and could, therefore, concentrate on my own special interests which were boys, beer, and cars – typically combined together.

    1. and that, friends and neighbors, is a female libertarian.

      1. Shh, don’t spook her.

    2. boys, beer, and cars

      This quote could only come from a female libertarian, which is more rare than libertarian congress critters.

  13. The first year of college is spent repairing the damage done by public education in this country.

    Often, I was asked “are you going to be a teacher?” while I was in college. My response was always “I do not want to contribute to the failing education system in this country.” It is not because I wouldn’t want to make a difference. But those who strive for excellence from their students will be run out of their schools by both parents and teachers. Parents won’t like that little Johnny’s homework is too hard. And other teachers would not want to look bad because they are incompetent or lazy.

    I certainly would not teach history out of standard text books. Forget that white-washed history, meant to indoctrine and not educate. And again, I’d probably say shit that would piss parents off because I would not teach how great and wonderful the “good ol’ days” were, and definitely not that America has never done wrong.

    1. They still teach history?

  14. A while ago I saw a piece on Cato that warned Charter schools were actually not good because they were just pushing out private schools. Thoughts?

  15. It seems to me that the Prussian model in almost any society is really fashionable, but it only ever seems to work for Germans. The Italians tried to adopt the Prussian model in their military, and it clashed so bad with their character that their army was a joke for years. I just don’t get the fascination with Prussianism.

  16. 100% for applying radical and innovative changes to how education is delivered. But let’s not do to education what privatization has done to prisons. Education must be a public good, period. (So should criminal justice for that matter.)

    1. No fuck you there’s no such thing as a ‘public good’. It’s either owned by individuals, the government, or nobody. We’re taking it back for ourselves.

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