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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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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Messaging as Manslaughter: Massachusetts Modernizes the Salem Witch Trials

In July of 2014, 18-year-old Conrad Roy killed himself in Fairhaven, Massachusetts by pumping carbon monoxide into the cab of his truck. In a bench trial, a judge convicted Roy’s 17-year-old girlfriend, Michelle Carter, of involuntary manslaughter and sentenced her to 2 1/2 years in prison.

In May of 2019, 22-year-old Alexander Urtula killed himself in Boston, Massachusetts by jumping from the top of a parking garage. His 21-year-old girlfriend, Inyoung You, has likewise been charged with involuntary manslaughter.

In both cases, the charges hinge on the content of text messages in which the women encouraged, even “ordered,” the men to commit suicide.

You is a South Korean national who has since returned home. The treaty governing extradition between the US and South Korea requires that the charge involved “be recognized as a crime in both jurisdictions,” so unless text messaging is illegal in South Korea, You may avoid playing her part in yet another re-enactment of the Salem witch trials of 1692 and 1693.

Text messaging isn’t manslaughter, any more than it’s rape, robbery, or driving 60 miles per hour in a 50 mile per hour zone. Nor is possession of a doll or a mole or birthmark “witchcraft” as fantasized in 17th century Puritan New England.

Hanging 19 men and women for witchcraft, and crushing another man to death for refusing to plead to charges of witchcraft, didn’t bring an end to imagined “molestations from the invisible world.” It merely sated an outbreak of mass hysteria.

Imprisoning Michelle Carter or Inyoung You for sending text messages may sate the desire of a few families for retribution. It may advance the political careers of a few grandstanding prosecutors.

It won’t  bring back Conrad Roy or Alexander Urtula, nor will it erase the irrefutable truth: These two adults knowingly and intentionally took their own lives.

Are Michelle Carter and Inyoung You “bad people?” Maybe they are.

Are they (or at least were they) controlling and psychologically abusive? It seems likely, and their relationships with Roy and Urtula were obviously mentally and emotionally unhealthy on both sides.

Not everyone who’s broken can be fixed before something awful occurs. Sometimes horrible things happen, and we’re left looking for answers as to why, and for ways to prevent the next such tragedy.

Imprisoning people for text messaging is not one of the right answers. It merely compounds tragedy with error, with evil, and with comforting lies, at the expense of additional victims.

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Complexity Resists Control – So Become More Complex

Have you ever tried to use finely instrumented computer? Fly a plane? Manage the sound mix of 20 microphones at a live concert?

What about hitting a nail with a hammer?

All of these activities involve the use of tools, but the first three are far more complex than driving home a nail.

Complexity makes control more difficult. This is true with physical tools, and it is also true with humans.

The first three tools I mentioned are so complicated because they involve many, many parts, while a hammer can very easily be broken down into its components. Like simple tools such as hammers or levers, “simple” people are people who are one-dimensional. Sadly, they are prone to manipulation by people who are good at taking advantage of their patterns.

If you wish to not be controlled, you should aim to become as complex, as complicated, as nuanced, and as difficult to categorize and understand as possible.

Your sources, resources, inspirations, ideas, influences, and origins should boggle the minds of every would-be manipulator and authoritarian in the world.

How can you do this?

Speak more than one language. Adopt more than one culture. Heed the words of multiple wisdom traditions and religions. Read lots of books (some from obscure authors). Soak yourself in histories of yesterday and long ago.

Don’t limit yourself to one career (or source of income). Don’t stay in one place for too long – or, if you do, don’t maintain just shallow relationships. Don’t associate with just one kind of person or viewpoint.

Don’t take the same paths. Grow. Expand. Try new things. Evolve faster than them.

As the poet Wendell Barry wrote:

“Be like the fox
who makes more tracks than necessary,
some in the wrong direction.”

– Manifesto: The Mad Farmer Liberation Front

Or as Carl Jung once said:

“Resistance to the organized mass can be affected only by the man who is as well organized in his individuality as the mass itself.”

– The Undiscovered Self

Originally published at JamesWalpole.com.

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Doubly-Damned Lies

Nobody asked but …

Here is what Wikipedia has to say about lies, damned lies , and statistics:

Mark Twain popularized the saying in Chapters from My Autobiography, published in the North American Review in 1907. “Figures often beguile me,” he wrote, “particularly when I have the arranging of them myself; in which case the remark attributed to Disraeli would often apply with justice and force: ‘There are three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.'”[2]

Alternative attributions include, among many others (for example Walter Bagehot and Arthur James Balfour) the radical English journalist and politician Henry Du Pré Labouchère (1831–1912), Jervoise Athelstane Baines,[3] and British politician and man of letters Leonard H. Courtney, who used the phrase in 1895 and two years later became president of the Royal Statistical Society. Courtney is quoted by Baines (1896) as attributing the phrase to a “wise statesman”,[4] but he may have been referring to a future statesman rather than a past one.[5] The phrase has also been attributed to Arthur Wellesley, 1st Duke of Wellington.[6][7]

Edward Tufte, a master statistician, said, “It is straightforward for me to be ethical, responsible, and kind-hearted because I have the resources to support that.”  But it takes more, because too often, too many people with resources choose exploitation, irresponsibility, and mean-spiritedness to gain more resources, pointedly those of power.

I have begun to get the impression that the actual cost of living is not accurately reflected in government-produced statistical indices.  I have spent hours perusing the federal presentation of statistics.  The amount of data is stupendous, but I can’t tell you where it begins and ends.  The amount of information that you get from that data is unknowable.  Part of the problem is that there is no verifiable central repository, and even if there were, the configuration would evolve from moment to moment.  There is no reliable standard for answering the questions about who, what, when, where, why, and how (process, how much, how many, etc.)  There are no conceptual handles for grasping the associations and relationships among the data.  It is a miasma.  It is a sargasso sea of loose ends.  I now understand how the Pentagon could lose trillions, or why we will never know how much particular programs cost, or why boondoggles are endless.  If the government does accounting like it does everything else, why are we keeping score?

— Kilgore Forelle

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Teachers Who Quit to Create Schooling Alternatives

It’s not uncommon for public school teachers to experience burnout or feel demoralized by the weight of their work. Many leave the classroom and the education profession behind to pursue other careers. In fact, U.S. Labor Department data reveal that public school educators are quitting their jobs at record-breaking rates.

But some public school teachers wonder if conventional schooling may be the root of their discontent, not education itself. They are frustrated by standardized curriculum expectations, more testing, an emphasis on classroom compliance and the antagonistic relationships between teachers and students that a rigid schooling environment can cultivate. Rather than abandoning their passion for education, some of these teachers are building alternatives to school outside of the dominant system that nurture authentic teaching and learning relationships.

Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional

One of the pioneers of schooling alternatives is Kenneth Danford, a former public middle school social studies teacher who left the classroom in 1996 to launch a completely new learning model. Along with a teacher colleague, Danford opened North Star, a self-directed learning center in western Massachusetts. They sought to create a space for young people, ages 11 and up, that prioritized learner freedom and autonomy, while rejecting the coercion and control they witnessed in the conventional classroom. This involved building the learning center as a resource for peer interaction, optional classes, workshops, and adult mentoring while providing teenagers with the opportunity to come and go whenever they chose.

Using homeschooling as the legal mechanism to provide this educational freedom and flexibility, North Star members attend when they want, frequently using the center to supplement community college classes, extracurricular activities and apprenticeships. Full-time, annual membership up to four days per week is $8,200, but no family has ever been turned away for an inability to pay these fees. Some families choose part-time enrollment options that start at $3,250 per year for one day a week at North Star.

In his new book, Learning Is Natural, School Is Optional, Danford reflects on his more than 20 years of running North Star and the hundreds of young people who have gone through his program, often gaining admission to selective colleges or pursuing work in fulfilling careers. He told me in a recent interview:

I feel like I’m making an important difference in teens’ lives, perhaps the most important difference. And all this loveliness has social implications and can be shared.

Liberated Learners

Sharing this model with others was the next step for Danford. After receiving many calls and emails from educators across the country and around the world who wanted to launch centers similar to North Star, in 2013 Danford helped to establish Liberated Learners, an organization that supports entrepreneurial educators in opening their own alternatives to school.

One of the centers that sprouted from Liberated Learners is BigFish Learning Community in Dover, New Hampshire. Founded by Diane Murphy, a public school teacher for 30 years, BigFish allows young people to be in charge of their own learning. Murphy opened the center in January 2018 with five students; today, she has over 30. Full-time tuition at the center (up to four days a week) is $9,000 per year, with part-time options also available.

An English teacher, she never expected to be the founder of a schooling alternative. “I loved my job,” she says, but she quit to create something better. “The main reason I left is because the kids began showing up more and more miserable,” Murphy continues.

In my last few years, I was meeting dozens of students who were depressed, anxious and burned out at just 13 years old. More and more rules, more tests, and more competition had sucked the fun out of learning and truly broken many kids.

Granted more freedom and less coercion, young people at BigFish thrive—and so do the teachers. “Real teachers understand that our role is to support and lead young people to discover and uncover their talents, most especially to find their passions and their voice,” says Murphy. Working outside of the conventional school system may be a way forward for more teachers who want to help young people to drive their own education, in pursuit of their own passions and potential.

Entrepreneurial Teachers

According to Kevin Currie-Knight, an education professor at East Carolina University, it’s rare for teachers to recognize that their dissatisfaction as an educator may be a schooling problem, not a personal one. Currie-Knight, who studies self-directed education and alternative learning models, says that the tendency is for teachers to internalize the problems they encounter in the classroom. If children aren’t engaged or are acting out, teachers typically assume that it must be their poor teaching and that they must not be cut out for the job, rather than seeing it as a problem with coercive schooling more broadly.

“School isn’t challengeable,” says Currie-Knight of its entrenched position in our culture.

The teachers who leave to create alternatives have a really amazing ability to separate learning from schooling. It takes a higher level of thought and an amazing ability to detach.

Currie-Knight explains that most teachers go into education either because they really like a certain subject area or they really like kids, or both. “In the conventional environment,” he says,

teachers are going to be in rooms where the vast majority of students just really don’t care about that subject at that point.

Many of these teachers conclude that it’s their teaching that is the problem, rather than the underlying dynamics of conventional schooling that compel young people to learn certain content, in certain ways and at certain times.

Teachers who leave the classroom to create schooling alternatives can be an inspiration to other teachers who may feel frustrated or powerless. Rather than blaming themselves, entrepreneurial teachers are the ones who imagine, design, and implement new models of education. As BigFish’s Murphy proposes:

We need to flip schools to become community learning centers filled with mentors, classes, programs and materials, and we need to trust young people and let them lead.

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