(Guest post by Patrick Wolf)
Schools of the 21st Century need to do lots and lots of things. That is the message from local experts impaneled by the teacher education sorority here at the University of Arkansas. Summarizing the guidance from the panel, the Northwest Arkansas Times writes:
Students today need stronger foundations in foreign languages, physical education and the arts to participate and compete in a global economy, several panelists said Tuesday.
At the same time, schools need to be more responsive and tolerant to diversity, focus on higher educational standards and to be more effective in the use of data to better understand student learning, said Springdale School Superintendent Jim Rollins.
Schools also need a stronger foundation in multiculturalism because by 2030, research indicates more than half of all students will be non-white, Rollins said.
Later in the article, a professor is quoted as saying that our elementary and secondary students need a strong foundation in physical education, since they may end up working in a foreign country where people have to walk a lot.
I support foreign languages (though I speak none fluently), physical fitness (though I am a bit hefty), the arts (though I can’t draw to save my life), diversity (though I am a straight white male), high education standards (though I have a Ph.D. from Harvard), and data-based decision making (though I don’t always follow the projections when setting my fantasy football lineup). These are all desirable things for students. But are they all equally desirable? Don’t we need to prioritize and make tradeoffs? After all, children are only in school an average of 6.5 hours out of each school day. If everything is important, isn’t nothing important?
The laundry list of supposedly required 21st Century skills articulated by the panel reminded me of the “Mountain of a Man” in Monty Python’s The Meaning of Life. Upon entering a fancy restaurant, he refuses the offer of a menu, instead ordering plate after plate of everything. What does the 21st Century diner need in a meal? He needs steak, chicken, salmon, pork chops, tofu, arugula, tomatoes, yams, French fries, paella, gumbo, wienerschnitzel, lutefisk, roast turkey, pumpkin pie, carrot cake, and some more steak and salmon for good measure. He also needs a larger restaurant staff to prepare all of these foods and serve them to him during his meal. Can you say, “administrative bloat?”
The result of lacking discipline in selecting foods to eat is obesity and, in the movie, the Mountain of a Man explodes after a waiter insists that he cap off his bacchanal meal with “a wafer-thin mint.” The clear message is that we have to make good choices and set priorities. We can’t have everything. As John Chubb and Terry Moe originally argued in Politics, Markets, and America’s Schools, a problem with education policy set by local experts through political bodies like school boards is that everyone has their own educational hobby-horse. Each contributor to policy making will insist that their pet program get adopted. The result is a curriculum like the Mountain of a Man — massive, bloated, and utterly lacking in discernment. Eventually something has to give.
How do we set educational priorities if lots of things are worth learning? One solution to the curricular and administrative bloat that comes from local experts and officials designing education is to allow the educational programs of schools to develop organically based on feedback from the choices of parents. As parents we want our students to develop many skills and master many subjects, but we also realize that the opportunities are not limitless and children need to focus on what is important for them. Parents who strongly value the arts would gravitate towards schools that emphasize the arts. Parents who instead think that science and math are the most important subjects would be attracted to ESTEM schools. Parents who feel that physical education is the most important skill for the 21st Century would send their children to ancient Sparta.
Schools would adapt to the choices of parents, offering more programs in areas of excessive demand and fewer programs in areas of lesser demand. Although education experts might warn us that curricula driven by parental choices might be intolerant of diversity and devoid of rigor in areas such as reading, writing, math, and science, I have seen no evidence that such worries are valid. The research on school choice and tolerance actually indicates that tolerance and a variety of other civic values tend to increase when parents are allowed to choose schools. I’ve spoken to many low-income parents in focus groups and all of them want their children to develop mastery of core competencies. Many, but not all of them, also express a desire for their child to learn a foreign language or develop as an artist or musician.
The point is that parents have views of what educational programs are best for their children that differ from each other and from many of the experts, but those views tend to gravitate towards rigor in traditional and important academic areas. If we let parents choose schools, thereby pressuring schools to provide programs that are responsive to those preferences, we can’t be certain what we would get but it probably would be quite reasonable. Our children wouldn’t get everything on the menu, but what they would receive from a 21st Century education driven by parental choice would likely be both nutritious and delicious. Plus, nobody would have to explode.