Wednesday, June 15, 2005

School Choice and Liberation of the Spirit

I am enthusiastic about the current expansion of charter schools and charter school laws as well as tax credit and voucher plans that allow for more freedom in education. I am most distressed by Bush's "No Child Left Behind" law (NCLB) because it exercises federal control over education, including charter schools. This is a very dangerous and constraining precedent. Among other things, NCLB requires licensed teachers, possibly the single worst problem in K-12 education.

The existing K-12 education system, public and private, acts like a dominant operating system that prevents new entries. People often complain about the dominance of the Microsoft operating system, and how difficult it is for Macintosh, Linux, or others to win market share against this monolith. But the K-12 system of curriculum, textbooks, standardized tests, teacher training, transferability of credits and transcripts, and parent expectations has a much larger "market share" than does Microsoft OS and, worse yet, it is enforced legislatively and funded coercively. Imagine how outraged we would feel if Microsoft had the opportunity to force us to use their software and we all got it "free" because the government taxed us in order to pay for it?

All of the schools that I have loved are outside the dominant operating system. I want to have the freedom to create schools at which students become excited by reading, thinking, and talking about ideas; schools at which students can become passionate about programming, or fiction writing, or organic gardening, or anything else, and then pursue those passions; schools at which young people can pair up with amazing singers, carpenters, judges, massage therapists, and others; and so forth. Life is endlessly fascinating; school is not. But in order to allow us to create schools at which students can learn to love life, and to live engaged, alive, spirited, existences, we can't be forced to teach "5th grade social studies" and "7th grade English." The fascinations in life don't exist in those boxes.

Yes, we can expose students to little tiny bits and pieces of them. But compare:

1. Student A who, at the age of 13 spends two years studying with a Zen master.

2. Student B who, at the age of 13, reads a small side-bar in her world history textbook that provides a shallow and inaccurate description of Zen which she barely has time to wonder about while preparing for her multiple choice test on which she will spit back information that she will forget the next day.

There is simply no comparison between the two experiences. And yet our education system, the dominant operating system, is 100% designed to encourage and facilitate the experiences of student B, while making it virtually illegal and impossible for students to have the experiences of student A.

And we wonder why our society is prone to shallow, compulsive appetites and addictions to drugs, alcohol, casual and manipulative sex, materialism, status symbols, and so forth?

Sunday, June 12, 2005

"If It Can't Be Abused, It's Not Freedom" Alan McConnell

I would like to see a sufficiently open voucher plan such that just about anyone (say, as long as they weren't a child molestor) could receive educational vouchers if a parent chose that person as their child's "Educator." At $10,000 a pop (per student, per year), there would be millions of "educational entrepreneurs" inviting a couple of teenagers to hang out with them every day.

In the inner cities, these "educational entrepreneurs," some of whom would be preachers, some coaches, some ne'er do wells, would all begin to compete with schools for those $10,000 vouchers. Some of them would go on to create schools. Some of those "schools" might involve little or no academic activity, but they might encourage a sense of teamwork, leadership, self-discipline, pride, ambition, and community. If no credentials were required at all to set up a "school," there would be ex-gang members and former drug addicts who would provide brilliant leadership for the young in the very worst neighborhoods. These leaders would be more effective at turning around inner city culture than most "credentialed" teachers could ever be. And, at the same time, a few of them might do drugs with their "students" or they might even be current gang leaders who found "educational vouchers" to be a terrific racket: get the whole gang to put in their $10K education vouchers as start-up capital for the gang's business enterprises.

This kind of open-ended approach, which would result in tens of thousands of horror stories about kids not learning anything, would also be the fastest and most effective way for us to reduce the scandalous percentage of young black males who become incarcerated. These extraordinarily spirited and intelligent people don't need "schools" at which they are humiliated everyday - a daily humiliation which leads them to long for a social role outside of schools in which they can be strong, brave, and proud. They need mentors who can, one-by-one, lead them into positive, constructive life roles in which their intelligence and spirit can be rewarded by entrepreneurial success.

I don't expect very many people to take this sort of open-ended, radically free education, no-required-credentials-at-all approach very seriously. For the time being, take it as a thought experiment. At present our society is too attached to the pernicious belief that credentials have some mystical relationship to qualification and expertise to understand the profound potential benefits of allowing just anyone to educate our young. But then again, very few literate people take seriously just how humiliating school is for many of the best young males in our inner cities. We who did not suffer a soul-searing humiliation day after day can afford to believe the superstition that educational credentials have a positive value.

I passionately love fiery, independent, proud, spirited young people. These young people, especially the young men, may be highly intelligent but may not have good academic skills or work habits. When they get to be adolescents, and their hormones develop them into powerful leaders, it is painful for them to go to a classroom every day and be bored out of their minds, while being treated as children, as prisoners, as slaves, and as idiots. In many situations they are forced to submit to a tedious, callow, frightened, bland, rule-following adult towards whom every fiber in their being feels disgust. I have spent time liberating some of these young men; my heart burns when I see how painfully hateful school is to them day after day after day. I'm amazed they stay in school as long as they do. More exhortation from the chattering classes about "the importance of education" is impotent in the face of their daily agony.

At some point in the next twenty years we will come to regard mandatory K-12 government schooling with the same revulsion we now regard 19th century child factory labor.

How can any decent society allow this to happen?