School choice is finally having its moment in the national conversation, to the joy of those interested in school reform. While some states have adopted various school choice initiatives in small doses, most have not. This may change after President Donald Trump publicly brought up school choice in his recent State of the Union address, and Republican lawmakers have introduced a series of bills that would increase federal funding for vouchers.
If school choice were adopted nationwide on the proposed scale, public education would change significantly, mostly for the better. Using a government-issued voucher, parents would finally have greater freedom in choosing whether to send their children to public school, private school, or a charter school. So many public schools that currently enjoy a monopoly would no longer benefit from automatic funding that comes regardless of their performance; they would have to compete with other schools for students.
With public schools no longer the only option for parents who can’t afford anything else, these schools would need to maximize their performance, efficiency, and attractiveness. Above all, however, schools would need to ensure their teachers use high-quality curriculum.
School Choice Counteracts Woke Curriculum
Currently, it can be difficult for parents to know what is in the curriculum of a typical public school. After all, there is little reason to be transparent when funding is assured. As Matt Beienburg writes in National Review, this situation has led to schools adopting questionable content that seems to promote an ideological agenda over serious learning. In particular, he mentions the nationwide adoption of the New York Times’ “1619 Project” for history class, along with Seattle’s math ethnic studies framework.
Although these represent the more extreme curriculum offerings, most public schools in both red and blue states routinely use left-leaning or “woke” materials while quietly doing away with older materials that encourage American patriotism, Western civilization, and Judeo-Christian values. In English class, this means replacing “Hamlet” and “The Scarlet Letter” with “The Hate U Give,” a novel based on themes from the Black Lives Matter movement, and “Symptoms of Being Human,” a novel about a gender-fluid punk rocker who blogs about his insecurities.
In social studies, this means incorporating Howard Zinn’s anti-American interpretations of history. In science, this means teaching Darwinism as an unquestionable fact and sexual differences as subjective opinion. In math, this means conscientiously applying social justice values in word problems and learning goals.
To make matters worse, many public schools never bother to tell anyone about these changes. Because of this, Beienburg argues for school choice as a remedy to this secret propaganda effort. If schools had to compete, they would be more open and less partisan in what they teach their students.
Educators Must Change How They Teach
Nevertheless, while school choice will indeed rein in some of the objectionable practices of public schools, it is important to understand why these practices occur in the first place, to treat the disease and not only the symptoms. The leftist propaganda taught in schools is no accident. It is the logical conclusion of the prevalent educational philosophy that favors skills over content and engagement over rigor. The choice of a novel or textbook often comes down to how well it aligns with this philosophy. Therefore, unless educators change how they teach, it really won’t matter what they teach.
The first step in the proliferation of woke materials has been the explicit deemphasis of content altogether. In a collective effort to combat rote learning and encourage critical thinking, the writers of Common Core and other leftist educational reformers made a point to first separate content from skills and solely focus on skills. The idea was that students who were memorizing things such as Shakespeare’s soliloquies, state capitals, and multiplication tables were not truly thinking about these things and what they meant. These reformers believed this commitment to traditional content was preventing analysis and creativity.
Rather, they thought, skills should drive content, not the other way around. In practical terms, this meant teachers should find texts and activities that were more relevant and easier to do. If students learned the same skill of discussing a literary theme with Maya Angelou’s short story “New Directions” as they would with Charles Dickens’s classic novel “Great Expectations,” the teacher should give them the former instead of the latter. If someone learned the reasoning behind balancing equations when she used a calculator versus doing the work on paper, then she should use a calculator. It’s all about the skills; content is largely irrelevant.
It turns out this thinking led to skills being irrelevant too. By trying to divorce skills from content — when content is what defines these skills in the first place — these leftist reformers ended up misunderstanding both. Instead of reflecting actual processes that the mind would perform when processing complex information, “skills” really meant jargon-laden scripts that students would recite at the right times. For example, if a student used the right terminology and illustrations when interpreting a text or solving a math problem, then he was doing critical thinking, even if that student really had no clue what the text or math problem was actually about.
This is why many district curriculum documents and textbooks expound upon the use of “academic vocabulary,” “metacognition,” and “analytical processes,” and why many curriculum creators push for technology in the classroom. All of it seems to indicate deeper thinking, even when no such deeper thinking is actually happening.
School Choice Enables Parents to Pick Good Educators
But if content is irrelevant, and anything can be viewed as teaching a skill, why does it necessarily have to be leftist? To understand this, one must understand the other strand of modern education philosophy: student engagement. According to education experts, students learn more when they are engaged and less when they are bored. Combined with skill-driven curriculum, this means teachers must find the most engaging content that somehow teaches academic skills.
It just so happens that the most engaging content that appears to teach academic skills is the woke stuff. The texts and materials all look high-level and mature, but they’re actually fairly simple, short, and easy to consume. They are heavy on identity and empowerment, making students — and teachers —feel good, and light on actual rigor and imagination, making students feel even better.
Students are thus theoretically far more engaged in English with a book like “All-American Boys,” another popular novel discussing Black Lives Matter themes, than they are with “The Great Gatsby.” They are also more engaged in history when they learn how the Founding Fathers and founding documents — which they now don’t need to read — are racist and how slavery was the cause of every social development for the past four centuries.
For this reason, educators who insist on teaching the classics and avoiding leftist agendas put themselves at an extreme disadvantage. The students simply won’t like it. Learning the truth in all its complexity requires more work, more thinking, and more humility. And if all the experts agreed that content was irrelevant, then the teacher must be choosing non-leftist materials for nefarious reasons. It will never occur to anyone that he or she picked these books because they are the most educationally effective.
Unfortunately, when bad pedagogy hijacks the methods of teaching, which is too often the case today, content will inevitably degenerate into pandering drivel. Fortunately, school choice can reverse this by letting parents reward those educators who resist these trends and uphold the tried-and-true. Parents just need to be careful when picking the right school and rewarding the right kind of learning.
If the school prides itself on “student engagement,” “21st-century skills,” and “innovative teaching,” parents may want to look elsewhere. If the school focuses on learning the great texts, cultivating virtue, and allowing the teacher to be a sage on the stage instead of a guide on the side, parents will have found the right school.