Most conservatives have settled on school choice as the solution to most, if not all, of today’s education problems. It makes sense. In most of the country, public schools have a monopoly on K-12 education and therefore have little incentive to deliver quality instruction to students. They will receive funding whether or not students actually learn anything. In states with teachers unions, schools are even less accountable—to the point that teachers can refuse to work for all kinds of flimsy pretexts.
While school choice would definitely help break up the public school monopoly and power of teachers unions—which is why unions absolutely revile school choice advocates like Betsy DeVos—this alone would not immediately reform education. As fellow public school teacher Ryan Hooper notes in a recent column, content-based instruction and building character are also pressing issues, if not more pressing: “if the Right wants to keep winning and improving education in the future, it must need to shift its focus from school choice exclusively to other areas — primarily content and character.”
On one level, Hooper is right. What most upsets parents about public school right now is mediocre teaching based on bad pedagogy along with leftist indoctrination that results in young adults who are unprepared for life after school and lack any capacity to think for themselves. Instituting school vouchers and allowing money to follow students will not mean much if charter and private schools end up offering more of the same thing.
Moreover, if choice alone is the one thing pushed by conservatives, and if by some miracle it happens, it is entirely possible to have charter and private schools that do little besides functioning as glorified test prep centers where uncertified teachers do drill-and-kill from 8 to 4 every day. Without any care for how instruction works or cultivating well-rounded adults, this is what school can become, as seen in many lower performing charter schools.
On a deeper level though, Hooper’s argument doesn’t go far enough, nor does it acknowledge the barriers that exist. To begin, changing to an emphasis on content would require a complete reversal of the reigning pedagogical theory (best represented by Common Core) that stresses skills over content. This means taking on nearly every entity involved in creating curriculum and instructional materials.
It also means explaining what is meant by content-centered learning. As Hooper suggests, it has to do with materials that will “provide students with strong background knowledge.” As opposed to curriculum that isolates skills and often bypasses lower-order thinking (memorization and literal comprehension) in favor of higher-order thinking (evaluation and analysis), content-centered curriculum works on building up a base of knowledge and puts more emphasis on lower-order thinking.
Wherever it has been tried, content-centered curriculum has proven more effective since, as I explain in another essay, “higher-order thinking requires lower-order thinking.” Evaluation and analysis become possible when the mind sufficiently grasps the basic details of a classic text that lends itself to deeper probing. Hence, even on tests designed to assess skills, students with a deeper background knowledge that comes from a content-centered curriculum will usually do better.
Even so, no one should discount the pushback of entrenched educrats and specialists who resist any change. Additionally, one must know that merely discussing content could threaten the leftist narratives that have emerged with more “engaging,” diverse, skills-based curricula. Facts would start mattering much more in subjects like science and history, English teachers would have to consider readopting the rejected Western canon, and math teachers would have to start asking students to do math without a calculator.
Concerning character training, Hooper and others need to clarify what they mean by this. Is this instituting a culture of excellence and charity that fosters virtue in students? Or is it just implementing therapy sessions on emotional wellness and building relationships?
If it’s the latter—and his link to the Positivity Project suggest that it is—many public schools already include such things, and it doesn’t improve matters much. In the wake of recent school shootings, many districts now include periodic advisory sessions meant to promote watchfulness and inclusivity while offering strategies to curb depression and suicidal and homicidal behavior. Students will usually watch videos, have discussions, and fill out surveys to prove they have participated in the lesson.
Despite the good intentions, these character lessons do little to build character (which means much more than positive thinking), nor does anyone really take them seriously. Teaching character and kindness in isolation is like teaching most subjects in isolation—it is rarely applied in real situations and is quickly forgotten.
It would be better to define character building in terms of actual virtue, not self-esteem. This is effected by rigor (academic, moral, and physical) and personal discipline. When so many schools adopt policies that water down instruction and enable cheating, they also produce thin-skinned, dishonest students who never develop a work ethic. (This has been made all the worse with virtual learning.)
By contrast, full accountability and challenging work forces students to develop study habits, deal with failure, and take real ownership of their learning. In her book “The Smartest Kids in the World,” Amanda Ripley notes how the rigor in Finnish classrooms is worlds apart from that of most American classrooms and how this difference accounts for the Finnish system being the best in the world despite receiving far less funding.
As with attempting to change the focus of curriculum, pushing rigor would meet the same resistance from the same people. They would counter that pushing a culture of excellence and achievement would hurt student self-esteem, make classes less engaging, and strain teachers, who would endure much pushback from parents whose children have never earned any grade but A. True, what currently prevails disenfranchises students and may actually contribute to student depression, but the alternative is frankly unfathomable to most educators.
So, to amend what Hooper’s argument somewhat, true reform will require an enactment of all three issues in the proper sequence: first, allow school choice, then use this opportunity to introduce a different educational model that employs content-based curriculum and builds character through rigor. As it stands, there are aspects of this in the top prep schools, but systematic change at the state and district levels could make such campuses mainstream.
Without school choice, conversations about content and character tend to go nowhere. Decades of mediocrity demonstrate that without the freedom and incentive to reform, there will be no reform. That said, Americans (of all political backgrounds) who have an interest in improving education through school choice should follow Hooper’s lead and start considering exactly how to define improvement. It’s not just about taking down education cartels, but about lifting up today’s youth and making their dreams possible.