At a moment when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio is rubbing his constituents the wrong way with an attack on the education options represented by charter schools, let's take a break and examine a vision of the future of education that embraces all sorts of alternatives. Where de Blasio seems to use your average 1970s-era Department of Motor Vehicles as the starting point for his policy preferences, a recent report authored by Goldwater Institute Education Director Jonathan Butcher looks at the increasingly dynamic and diverse world around us as a model for helping children learn. Butcher takes it as a given that children have different needs and should be able to learn in the variety of ways that suit them, rather than being plugged into one-size-fits-all institutions.
In A Vision for Education and the Future of Learning [PDF], Butcher writes:
[I]magine sitting with your child at the dinner table and preparing for the new school year. But instead of reading a letter telling you what school your child is assigned to, you have a menu of schools, classes, tutors, and extracurricular activities to choose from, some located nearby and others online. This educational directory lists such options as virtual classes, schools that focus on the liberal arts, classes in computer programming, and even lessons taught in another language.
You select math, English, and art classes offered by a local charter school, where your child will sit with friends she's had all of her life. In the afternoon, she'll study Spanish and music online and prepare for the SAT in an evening class at a nearby private school. She swims on the swim team at the neighborhood traditional school twice a week.
New technology and bold legislative advances in educational choice are bringing us closer to the day when this hypothetical dinner-table exercise becomes a reality for every family. However, this vision for the future is a sharp contrast to the factory model of education we have come to accept. We have grown accustomed to the routine of parents sending their children to an assigned public school, and these schools employ administrators, teachers, and other staff who receive their pay regardless of how many children learn to read or drop out of high school. The question for parents and their students in the next generation must change from "Where do we go to school?" to "How do we want to learn?"
Butcher makes the point that children should acquire marketable skills as they learn—something that equips them to function in a world that increasingly requires some knowledge of science and math.
Whatever skills are acquired, and for whatever purpose, he also suggests using technology to allow children to self-pace their own learning, so that they're neither bored nor overwhelmed. That would involve a significant break from the increasingly rigid model currently in vogue.
Butcher gets specific about the policy tools that can be used to achieve these ends, including education savings accounts, online classes, charter schools, and funding that follows kids rather than schools. But the specific tools are less important than a vision of education that recognizes that children aren't widgets. You can't shoehorn them into identical settings, treat them as objects of cookie-cutter teaching plans, and expect good results.
There's no one right way to teach children, because there's no one type of kid. We recognize the need for options everywhere else in life, from eateries to clothing stores to places where we live. There's no good reason to think that a world that offers hot dog carts and five-star restaurants, thrift stores and Brooks Brothers, yurts and mini-mansions, should settle for a single model of institutionalized education. Nor should we pretend that we're well-served by letting the de Blasios of the world choke off our choices.