Closing the Choice Gap In US Education

We hear a lot about education achievement gaps, learning gaps and opportunity gaps between different groups of students, typically based on socioeconomic status, race or ethnicity. Generally speaking, the achievement gap describes persistent differences in academic proficiency. The learning gap reveals discrepancies between what children are expected to know at a certain stage and what they actually know. And the opportunity gap explains how differences in resources, backgrounds, and circumstances can lead to different outcomes, such as college attainment rates. These are all important gaps to consider and strive to close, but one glaring gap is missing: the choice gap.

The Choice Gap

The reality is that many families have limited choices about where and how to educate their children. They may not like their assigned district school, but homeschooling may be undesirable or unrealistic and private school is often too expensive or unavailable. In some states, lower-and middle-income families may be able to take advantage of emerging education choice mechanisms, such as education savings accounts and tax-credit scholarship programs, that give them access to funds to use for private education options, but for many lower- and middle-income families, private alternatives are out of reach.

The choice gap is particularly clear and concerning when surveys show that selecting private options is the preferred choice for many parents. According to EdChoice’s 2019 Schooling in America Survey:

More than four out of five students attend a public district school, but less than half of public school teachers and less than a third of current school parents would prefer to send their children to a district school.

For Shaylanna Hendricks Graham, the lack of private options for her two children, ages seven and five, is frustrating. I wrote about Graham in my book Unschooled where she described why she and her husband made the decision not to enroll their children in school and to homeschool them instead. “There is a clear disadvantage for children of color and it can be damaging emotionally and psychologically for many children of color,” Graham explained.

We wanted to shelter our children from having that experience in school. We also wanted to make sure that they learned the true history and origin of our ancestors and the great impact that our African ancestors had in the history of the world.

She added:

Schools systematically treat our brown children as if they are less-than and less deserving than the rest and it is our intention that our brown children have a much more positive life experience.

I recently checked in with Graham, who lives in Boston. She said that homeschooling has become challenging, particularly as she tries to meet her children’s varying needs and give them enough social and academic enrichment, while also running a small consulting business. This reflects a wider trend among homeschooling families. The recent EdChoice survey mentioned above found overall satisfaction with homeschooling decreased by 10 percent since last year. After looking into local private school options with price-tags of over $35,000 a year, the couple realized that was more than they could pay, especially for two children.

Entrepreneurs Creating New Alternatives

Ideally, says Graham, she would prefer a more affordable, private hybrid homeschool program or micro-school that would allow her to continue the homeschooling lifestyle that she and her husband cherish, while also offering consistent, high-quality opportunities for her children to play and learn outside the home.

A model that allows for drop-off, offers enriching classes or opportunities for development in areas, as well as the freedom for the children to choose how they want to spend their day, would be a dream come true,

Graham says. “We would be happy to pay $7,000 for a program like this,” she adds.

Low-cost micro-schools, hybrid homeschooling programs and other affordable private options would help to close the choice gap. Tuition that is a fraction of the cost of a traditional private school in a given location would expand choices for many parents and kids. Entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling.Education choice programs and similar public policy efforts can also help to narrow the choice gap for lower- and middle-income families, but entrepreneurs are showing that they can accelerate the process.

Acton Academy has been expanding its low-cost private education model nationwide, with classes occurring in homes and other intimate settings to simulate the multi-age, “one-room schoolhouse” atmosphere. Prenda is a rapidly-growing network of micro-schools in Arizona that also runs on a hybrid model and costs families about $5,000 per year.

While policymakers may continue to make headway with education choice programs, entrepreneurs will be the ones to successfully create and scale affordable alternatives to conventional K-12 schooling, closing the choice gap and perhaps the others as well.

If you are interested in learning more about a large-scale entrepreneurial project I am currently working on to fill this choice gap, please reach out.

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Rose Wilder Lane: Pioneer of Educational Freedom

My eight-year-old daughter Abby recently started reading Little House in the Big Woods by Laura Ingalls Wilder. It was prompted, in part, by watching the Little House on the Prairie television episodes with her great-aunt. Coincidentally, I have been reading more lately about some of the key women in history who promoted the ideals of individual freedom, limited government, non-coercion, and voluntary cooperation through trade. Rose Wilder Lane is one of these women. She was born on this day in 1886.

Liberty Should Always Trump Coercion

The daughter of Laura Ingalls Wilder and Almanzo Wilder, baby Rose is the child many of us remember from the ninth Little House book, The First Four Years. Perhaps those years of growing up on the prairie instilled in Lane a sense of rugged individualism and self-reliance that ultimately found their way into her writings throughout the 20th century. By the late 1920s, she was said to be one of the highest-paid women writers in the US. She became an outspoken critic of Roosevelt’s New Deal, Social Security, and other government programs she felt disempowered individuals and gave greater authority to the state.

In her 1943 book The Discovery of Freedom, Lane makes a compelling case for individual freedom and limited government power. She traces the roots of compulsion in many areas of life, including education, and explains why liberty should always trump coercion. She writes:

American schooling is now compulsory, enforced by the police and controlled by the State (that is, by the politicians in office) and paid for by compulsory taxes. The inevitable result is to postpone a child’s growing-up. He passes from the authority of his parents to the authority of the police. He has no control of his time and no responsibility for its use until he is sixteen years old. His actual situation does not require him to develop self-reliance, self-discipline and responsibility; that is, he has no actual experience of freedom in his youth. (pp. 259-60).

Lane goes on to say that this type of American education, imported from Prussia by 19th-century education reformers, “is ideal for the German state, whose subjects are not expected ever to know freedom,” but it is “not the best preparation for inheriting the leadership of the World Revolution for freedom” (p. 260). She laments the “substitution of compulsory State education for the former American free education,” saying that formerly “American children went to school because they wanted to go, or because their parents sent them,” not because it was mandated of parents under a legal threat of force (p. 258).

As Abby digs into the Little House series (which Lane was instrumental in helping to create to catalog the experiences of her parents), I learn alongside my daughter, fascinated by the life and works of baby Rose, who would grow up to become a pioneer of liberty.

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Find Out How To Put Your Money Where Your Mouth Is

It’s a dangerous thing to have too many convictions and too few actions to support those convictions.

It’s dangerous for all the obvious reasons: you tend to become a hypocrite, you tend not to actually help, etc. But it’s also dangerous for your ability to form new convictions. I’ve noticed it in myself: a growing feeling of being jaded at the problems I hear about in the news.

I could certainly be “aware” or “raise awareness” about the new issues of the day in community relations, environment, education, government, etc. But what would I really be adding? There are millions of people who make “awareness” their job.

And so I’ve tended in the past few years to focus my efforts on a few localized initiatives (church and community) and a handful of bigger ones (clean water, monetary freedom, education alternatives) while ignoring most of the “hot issues.”

But then there are things like the protests in Hong Kong.

From when I first heard about the large-scale resistance happening there in reaction against overreaching Chinese surveillance, it had been on the edge of my mind. I was opposed to the Chinese state, I was supportive of the cause of a free Hong Kong, but I was afraid to form much of an opinion partly for fear of becoming another “awareness raiser.” How could I really help that situation? The feeling of helplessness made me feel less like learning about the plight of the city, and I admit I buried my head in the sand about it.

Then I realized it was actually fairly easy to start putting my money where my heart was. There have been multiple GoFundMe’s started to fund supplies for the protestors (many of whom are just teenagers). Someone on Reddit put together a whole list of ways to support the city and its protestors.

I’ve started with just a small donation to the Hong Kong Free Press. I mean to do more. It will be small, but it will be something. And because I know how to help now, I expect I’ll be following these developments with a clearer eye now.

Aligning action with convictions has that clarifying effect. And the actions don’t have to be great.

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Controlled Choice Isn’t School Choice

I recently heard the term “libertarian paternalism.” It was presented in an article about health care, specifically doctor-patient relationships, as a strategy for helping patients choose among the various best options the doctor recommends. There were many good points in this article about personalizing medicine, but that term made me cringe. Taken literally, “libertarian paternalism” means the free will to select among the choices that some authority figure determines is in your best interest. I don’t like this term, mainly because it’s an oxymoron. The dictionary definition of “libertarian” is a person who believes in the doctrine of free will. To add a caveat that limits free will to options chosen by some allegedly omniscient actor rubs me the wrong way. And yet, we see this contradictory and demeaning idea enacted in many areas of life, especially education.

The comparable term in education is “controlled choice,” or the idea that someone will pre-select among the best options and then allow an end-user (e.g., a student or a family) to choose from among those established options. At the student level, controlled choice might look like a teacher announcing a unit on US presidents and then letting the learner pick which one to research. Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will.Or it could look like a lesson on mammals in which a teacher allows the child to pick the elephant group, the bat group, or the whale group. In this environment, the teacher (or curriculum developer) decides what the child will learn but allows the child some discretion. It’s a lot like reading a choose-your-own-ending book: It can make the story more enjoyable, but only if you are interested in the overall theme. We can contrast controlled choice at the learner level with self-directed education in which the child is fully in control of what, how, when, and with whom she learns.

At the macro level, controlled choice manifests in policies that allow families some degree of choice over their assigned district school, as long as it meets a district’s overall enrollment distribution goals. My city, Cambridge, Massachusetts, was one of the first to enact this type of controlled choice program in 1981 as a way to let families choose among the city’s various public elementary schools through a ranking system, as long as each school met its preferred socioeconomic distribution quota. The goal was economic integration and improved academic performance, particularly for disadvantaged students, while retaining some choice beyond a zipcode school assignment.

Controlled Choice Programs Results

But new research reveals that controlled choice programs in many urban districts have not achieved their intended goals of socioeconomic integration or the narrowing of achievement gaps between high- and low-income students. An in-depth analysis by David Armor of the Cato Institute finds that not only were intended goals not reached but also that unintended consequences, including “white flight,” were widespread in controlled choice districts. Armor concludes:

Most larger school districts that have implemented controlled-choice plans have experienced (or are experiencing) demographic changes like those experienced during race-based busing, meaning the loss (or “flight”) of white and middle-class families. Moreover, there is ample evidence that economic diversity is not producing academic benefits for poor children in these districts. In other words, controlled choice can bring much pain and controversy for little or no educational gains, at least as measured by test scores.

Central planning, even when seemingly well-thought-out and with good intentions, ultimately restricts free will. Concerned that when given real freedom individuals will make the wrong choice, those with power often seek to limit—or control—choice. It is true that freedom means the freedom to make bad choices, but that isn’t a compelling reason to curb one’s freedom to choose. It’s also important to note that what constitutes a “bad choice” is subjective. Individual freedom means toleration of individual choices. As the Nobel prize-winning economist F.A. Hayek wrote in The Constitution of Liberty:

What is im­portant is not what freedom I per­sonally would like to exercise but what freedom some person may need in order to do things bene­ficial to society. This freedom we can assure to the unknown person only by giving it to all.

Hayek goes on to say that the essence of real freedom is humility. He wrote:

All political theories assume, of course, that most individuals are very ignorant. Those who plead for liberty differ from the rest in that they include among the ignorant themselves as well as the wisest.

Controlled choice, libertarian paternalism, or any number of similarly discrepant terms suggest that appointed wise ones should have the power and influence to coerce others through policy or decree. Those of us who truly believe in the doctrine of free will should recoil at attempts to add qualifiers to its promise.

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John Holt: The Right to Control One’s Learning (14m)

This episode features an audio essay written by education reformer John Holt in 1974, which comprises Chapter 19 of Everything Voluntary: From Politics to Parenting, edited by Skyler J. Collins and published in 2012. He talks about the rights and prerogative of children to control their own education. Purchase books by John Holt on Amazon here.

Listen To This Episode (14m, mp3, 64kbps)

Subscribe via RSS here, or in any podcast app by searching for “voluntaryist voices”. Support the podcast at Patreon.com/evc or PayPal.me/everythingvoluntary.

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The Artists Who Are Challenging The Education Status Quo

On a recent weekday morning, the first floor of Tiffany Pierce’s home in Queens, New York, was abuzz with activity. Six children, ranging in age from five to 12, were making art, learning about mathematical asymmetry and digging deep into topics ranging from geography to science. Pierce runs an art-inspired, micro-learning homeschool co-op, bringing together local families who want a more personalized approach to education for their children. Together, the families hired a teacher four days a week to craft an inviting and intellectually-engaging learning environment, while Pierce volunteers her space and support.

Challenging the Status Quo

An artist with a master’s degree in teaching and prior classroom experience, Pierce was thoughtful about her son, Liam’s, education. He went to a small, private preschool nearby,Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. but when Pierce sent Liam to a public school for kindergarten, she realized it wasn’t a good fit for him. “It was a high-performing school,” Pierce recalls, “but when I visited I saw his back turned and him just looking out the window. His affect was so low, his confidence was shot, he didn’t want to play. I knew it wasn’t just kindergarten blues. This wasn’t his fit. Then he said: ‘Mommy, will you teach me at home?’”

The timing was right, as Pierce happened to be between jobs and she and Liam’s dad thought they would give homeschooling a try. “We like the freedom of choices and options,” says Pierce. “We like to have a say in how our child operates. This person is so precious to us.” In the beginning, says Pierce, she simply replicated school at home and it became a power struggle between getting her son to do things and him resisting. She was also busy running art classes and doing graphic design work for various clients.

Pierce knew she needed a different model and began posting to neighborhood Facebook groups about launching a co-op out of her home. The response was positive, with many parents expressing interest in alternative learning options for their children. Today, eight-year-old Liam learns with other children in the co-op, along with his mother and their teacher, Mary-Lynn Galindo, who provide structure while emphasizing self-directed learning and ample outside time. According to Pierce:

Homeschooling, micro-learning and co-teaching as a small neighborhood-based co-op allows for us to be fully involved with our kids’ learning experience and we weave it through our neighborhood, community, borough and city.

Pierce sees hybrid homeschooling models and the larger micro-school movement as a harbinger of education innovation: “I see us moving towards education that is self-directed,” she says. “Education does not have to be seen as coming from four walls in a conventional, traditional way.” To that end, she launched a mobile arts studio and is working on purchasing an art bus, to help others to view art and education differently. Inspired by the Harlem Renaissance, and in particular the Harlem Community Arts Center that sprouted from it and nurtured African American artistic talent during the late-1930s and early 1940s, Pierce envisions her mobile studio as a modern off-shoot of the center.

It is my mission for the mobile arts studio to serve as a 21st century version of a neighborhood-based arts studio where art is mobile and meets children and adults where they are to create, express and connect,

she says. In art, education and the intersection of the two, Pierce is looking to challenge longstanding conventional settings and practices and design something new.

An Art Apprenticeship Model

Designing something new is also what drives Gabriel Valles, a professional artist and entrepreneur in Austin, Texas who runs an art apprenticeship studio. Like Pierce, Valles homeschools his children and works closely with other local homeschoolers, while building an innovative art education model. He also began his homeschooling journey by trying to replicate school-at-home and witnessing how coercion had a detrimental effect on his children’s learning and their family relationships. By granting his children more autonomy and opportunity for self-direction, their learning flourished. His older son, now 15, has a passion for stop motion animation and has a successful YouTube channel with over 50,000 subscribers and almost 32 million views.

As Valles observed how his children’s creativity and competence grew when they were allowed to drive their own learning while being supported by adults, he decided to launch an art studio, MentorWings, that would run on a self-directed apprenticeship model for aspiring young artists. “Our program is principle-based and self-directed,” says Valles.

Students come in with their particular interest, such as superheroes, anime, fantasy art or cartooning, and we meet them where they are. There is no curriculum. Instead we focus on building upon foundational art principles, such as shape, form, design and color.

Valles sees how young people quickly build their skills, and become highly competent, doing college or professional-level work as teenagers. “We need to give kids more credit than we’re giving them and acknowledge that they can be doing real-world work before or instead of college,” says Valles. He says that art school is too expensive and often doesn’t lead to the kind of career in-roads that can result in fulfilling work.

This work is increasingly in-demand, says Valles, as digital content development and marketing become ubiquitous and new mediums emerge. “I am trying to make it less expensive to attain professional-level competence and also build bridges into the industry,” says Valles. He has established an endorsement system for young artists based on their portfolios that can provide an alternative signaling mechanism for employers.

That endorsement versus a general degree really means a lot. It doesn’t guarantee a job, but it shows confidence in a particular student and becomes a much more powerful signal to the people who are hiring,

he says.

Artists have historically played a crucial role in challenging dominant systems and inspiring change. It’s not surprising that today some of them are building unconventional education models and imagining new possibilities for learning. As Valles says:

My passion is experimenting and inventing things. Art is just the medium that I do that through. Creating educational structures that are a little more just for kids is the problem I am really trying to address.

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