Who will choose your child’s education?

In 1976, as a high school newspaper reporter, Robert Maranto asked retiring Baltimore County schools Superintendent Joshua Wheeler why students weren’t required to pass a proficiency test to graduate. “The purpose of public education is not to educate students,” Wheeler answered. “The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it.”

Someone will choose your child’s education, so why not you?, writes Maranto, now an University of Arkansas education professor, in the Baltimore Sun.

In college, he asked an education professor how to become a social studies teacher.

He explained that I would need 12 education classes but only four in the social sciences. I had no need to understand the subject I taught, since “the curriculum people will tell you what to teach.” In fact, it would be dangerous to have teachers who loved their subjects, since they might not “relate” to students who didn’t. (I couldn’t help but wonder whether schools would hire football coaches who didn’t love football, and whether such coaches could win any games.)

He gave up on teaching high school.

Who decides which kids get taught and which kids get warehoused? Who decides which schools get AP programs and which don’t? Who pays a price if the school bureaucracy in Towson decides that disadvantaged kids in Woodlawn don’t want to learn, and thus need not be taught?

It struck me that the best way to have schools serve children, rather than just hold them in place, is to give parents their choice of schools.

If parents choose mediocrity — easy classes, little homework, sports and socializing — at least it would be their choice, Maranto writes.

About Joanne


  1. Somehow in all this stum und drang over the so-called “1%”, we have overlooked that the ability of the rich to choose a good school for their children is one of the biggest factors in perpetuating income inequality through generations. The near-monopoly that traditional public schools have and the fact that access to those schools is based on the ability to afford housing within the zone condemns those families with low-to-moderate incomes to mediocre schools.

  2. The student accountability factor is one component of the American system that is far too lacking in reform movements. One of the reasons a student ends up unsuccessful is because of his choices.

    However, schools in communities where students lack the role models and confidence to pursue academic success have a greater responsibility to intervene in student’s choices.

  3. wahoofive says:

    As for the number of classes required in the subject matter to be taught, that might vary by discipline. If you want to teach math, for example, there’s not much point in taking a dozen classes on multivariable calculus, abstract algebra, and topology.

    Even in social studies, it doesn’t strike me that taking college-level courses on Babylonian civilization or schizophrenia or zero-lower-bound macroeconomics is going to prepare you to be a better teacher.

    Effective teaching isn’t about knowing your subject in enormous detail; it’s about being able to communicate its basics effectively. Whether “education” courses actually help is, of course, a separate question.

    • Eric Jablow says:

      Unfortunately, the courses teachers take in their academic subjects do not give them understanding, and if a teacher does not understand his subject, he cannot answer questions about it.

      I suffered through the end of the “New Math” era; once our math teacher spent a class talking about “one-to-one correspondences”. No, a 6th grade student doesn’t need to know about those. She demonstrated that there is a one-to-one correspondence between the integers and the even integers, and between the integers and the odd integers. Then, she brought up prime numbers, and stated that there was no one-to-one correspondence between the integers and the primes. I objected, and tried to describe Euclid’s proof. “But they get rarer and rarer.” Had i been a little older than 11, I would have described the concept of density and of the prime number theorem. Had the teacher known those, she could have given an interesting lecture that might have inspired somebody.

      A teacher should know enough that he can work with a student who knows a lot about that subject. Taking courses on Babylonian civilization or macroeconomics won’t help anyone teach in high school. Taking courses on Western political science will. But where’s the fun in that?

      • Michael E. Lopez says:

        You seriously had a teacher claim that there were a finite number of primes?


        I’m never complaining about my Algebra II teacher again.

        • Eric Jablow says:

          It was a case of cognitive dissonance. She accepted that there were infinitely-many primes, but she denied the existence of a one-to-one correspondence between them and the integers (because they get rarer and rarer).

          Let’s say that my disappearance from the NYC public school system after that grade was well-appreciated by all.

          • Sean Mays says:

            It’s been a while, but as I recall an infinity which is indenumerable has a higher cardinality than one which is denumerable; hence it is “bigger”, though both are infinite. Primes are a subset of integers (which are denumerable), so they are themselves denumerable; so in this case, it could be shown that there’s 1:1 correspondence. You can’t show 1:1 if there not the same type (cardinality) as I recall; but I can see where that kind of question might catch you flat footed 🙂 I enjoyed students who asked questions like that, I’d try to point the way quick like and move on; asking them to come by after hours. Few did, but the door was always open.

        • Mark Roulo says:

          The teacher claimed that there was no 1:1 mapping between the primes and the integers. This is *not* the same thing as claiming that there are a finite number of primes. There is no 1:1 mapping between the reals and the integers, for example, even though there are infinitely many of both.

          This is also not a case of cognitive dissonance … the 6th grade teacher simply hadn’t internalized a very difficult mathematical concept … a concept that very few 6th graders will grow up to ever need.

          My experience is that *most* people with a solid (say, undergraduate level) mathematical background are pretty shaky on cardinalities. Which in practice just doesn’t matter because it almost never matters.

          I wouldn’t be optimizing my 6th grade teacher selection around “solid understanding of cardinalities and infinity.” I doubt that many other people would either.

          • Eric Jablow says:

            I wouldn’t choose a 6th grade teacher for that reason either. Face it–the “New Math” was a mess. I’ll admit that I was a very unusual student too.

            However, there is a lesson there; it isn’t necessary for a public school math teacher to be an expert at topology, abstract algebra, or multivariable calculus. However, anyone teaching a subject should know enough that he can go beyond simple cookbook teaching to the text. He should be able to go beyond the required syllabus, and should be able to inspire his students. A teacher who thinks he need not know the subjects he teaches does a disservice to his students and to his subject.

          • Michael E. Lopez says:

            The absolutely most important thing any teacher needs is the ability to say “I don’t know.”

            Clint Eastwood said it best: A man’s got to know his limitations.

  4. Rich parents send their children to good schools, so that must be why those students do well. Well, except for those that still fail at the goods schools and those that succeed despite the odds at bad schools. The main way that parents can ensure their childs success at school and life is doing their part to teach respect, basic skills, and a desire to succeed.

  5. crimson wife and supersub are on to something. the rich will get into better schools based largely on where they live. they typically receive a better education (due both to the school and to the fact that the parents value education). however, let’s take it a step further. the well off can also afford to send their kids to elite private schools while paying the taxes that keep an inefficient publich school system going (i.e. the Gores, Clintons, Bushes, and practically any other DC elite who send their kids to Sidwell and such private school ((with the exception of Carter who sent his duaghter to a DC public school)) ). If the rich can choose their schools, why should the rest of us not be allowed to do so? We can make choices about what to buy and how much to pay for it in practically any other endeavor in our free market system, yet K-12 education for our children is more or less a socialistic monopoly. How in the world did we decide that this was the best system?!?!

    • The Bush daughters attended public high school, Austin High School, in Texas, and then one attended a private university, and the other a public university, The University of Texas at Austin.

      As far as I know, the presidents and vice presidents do not own their residences in D.C. Thus, they aren’t paying local property taxes to support the public schools in D.C.

      • Cranberry,

        Yep, you are correct. I wasn’t thinking when i included the Bush daughters. My bad. In so far as whether or not the president pays DC property taxes, that wasn’t really my point. I really just included them as high profile examples. Perhaps not the best examples! The point still stands, however. : )

        • Cranberry says:

          Swede, it is a huge problem that the people who write the laws generally don’t send their kids to the public schools. Even if they do send their kids to the public schools, they choose to settle in good school districts. Everyone who owns property pays taxes which support the local government, which includes the schools. Many people opt out of the public school system–not only the rich. They choose to pay twice for education. 1.5 million students were homeschooled in 2007.(http://nces.ed.gov/pubs2009/2009030.pdf) About 10% of students attend private and parochial schools.

          The quality of the school system is the first criteria for middle-class families, when deciding which house to buy. That is also exercising choice. Realistically, there are huge areas of the country in which there is only one school within a reasonable distance.

          I actually agree with “The purpose of public education is not to educate students. The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it.” I would extend the point to any school. No school can educate a student who refuses to learn–no matter how much his parents want him to be educated, no matter how rich they may be, no matter how much effort his teachers exert, . In really mediocre schools, there are students who manage to cobble together an education. In the fanciest private schools, there are students who manage to learn very little.

          • Are you saying that motivated students who are stuck in lousy public schools wouldn’t get a better education in a good private or selective public school?

            As a homeschooling parent, I have been told that because my kids would likely do okay regardless of where they are educated, I have a noblesse oblige to enroll them in the underperforming school for which they are zoned. Sorry, not going to happen.

            I want the best education that I am able to get for my children; since our family budget precludes private school tuition or paying double the housing cost to gain access to a high-quality public school, that means homeschooling.

          • Cranberry says:

            There is a difference between mediocre and lousy.

            Are you saying that motivated students who are stuck in lousy public schools wouldn’t get a better education in a good private or selective public school?

            A motivated student can make the most of any available opportunities, with the guidance of an adult who understands the path to college. However, the mere fact that a school is private, or the public school’s district is affluent, doesn’t mean that the school is better than mediocre. See the recent “Education Next” article, “When the Best is Mediocre:” http://educationnext.org/when-the-best-is-mediocre/.

    • Bush’s daughters were already in college or beginning college when he went to DC – they were in public schools all the way – nice try though.

    • Actually, I was being slightly sarcastic in my endorsement of the idea that school choice is a primary cause of wealth inequality. I still think that parental influences are the major factor.

      • You don’t think the unequal access to high-quality public schools in this country helps to perpetuate generational poverty? The success of the KIPP schools and other “no excuses” charters show that there are plenty of disadvantaged kids who are underperforming their potential because of the poor quality of their prior schooling. How many more of these kids are out there who don’t get the lifeline of a slot in KIPP or similar school?

    • Anon this time says:

      The rich choose their schools and pay more for them. You are free to do so as well, just as you are free to shop at Whole Foods instead of Kroger.

      • No one is restricting access to Whole Foods based on whether I can afford to buy or rent in a certain neighborhood and telling me that instead I can only shop at one particular low-quality supermarket…

  6. For every sub-adult, some adult or committee of adults will decide how that sub-adult will spend the time between age 0 and age 18. Arguments for policies which shift control from the parents of individual children to remote bureaucracies contain evidentiary and logical gaps. Policies which give to individual parents the power to determine for their own children which institution (if any) shall receive the taxpayers’ age 6-18 education subsidy put control in the hands of the people who know individual children best and who are most reliably concerned for their welfare.

    The question that initiated this discussion: “why students weren’t required to pass a proficiency test to graduate” makes sense. The system answer: “”The purpose of public education is not to educate students.The purpose of public education is to provide an education for those few who want it” is chilling, Institutional schooling kills motivation. The answer is also a lie. The policy which compels attendance at school and which gives to the NEA/AFT/AFSCME cartel an exclusive position in receipt of the taxpayers’ age 6-18 education subsidy guarantees to the cartel a total nationwide revenue stream over $500 billion. That’s a lot of “purpose”.

    The system answer implies another, parallel, question: if the State-monopoly school system is really an education system, why cannot any student take, at any age and at any time of year, an exit exam (the GED will do) and apply the taxpayers’ age 6-18 education subsidy toward post-secondary tuition or toward a wage subsidy at any qualified private sector employer? After all, if it’s fraud for a mechanic to charge for the repair of a functional motor and if it’s fraud for a physician to charge for the treatment of a healthy patient, then it’s fraud for a teacher, school, school district, or government to bill taxpayers for the instruction of a student who does not need our help.

    It does not take 12 years at $12,000 to teach a normal child to read and compute. Most vocational training occurs more effectively on the job than in a classroom. State provision of History, Economics, and Civics instruction is a threat to democracy, just as State operation of newspapers and broadcast news media would be, and are in totalitarian countries like Cuba and North Korea.


  7. It’s very gratifying to see the usual suspects change the subject from parental choice to, well, anything.

    • And it’s always amusing to see you dismiss any attempt to acknowledge the complexity of learning and emergent systems as irrelevant. Or so goes the last refuge for having nothing substantial to add.

      • It must be hugely amusing then to have your “attempt to acknowledge” ignored by an increasingly large percentage of the electorate.

        An “attempt to acknowledge” would be ever so much more persuasaive were it accompanied by some evidence in support of the proposition. The substitute for evidence, however, is continous assertion butressed by outraged dismissal of skepticism of the assertion as evidence of moral defect.

        Sorry, that sort of barking was destined to fail at some point and without any bite to back it up we’re seeing the inevitable result which is the loss of public confidence.

        By the way, “emergent behavior”? Seriously?

  8. Yeah, i don’t know why we all of a sudden feel that parents can make wise and smart choices (generally speaking) in making choices for their kids in virtually everything else, but for education there can only be one solution. tell me how that makes sense.

    • Lightly Seasoned says:

      But they don’t make wise and smart choices in virtually everything else. I don’t think anybody believes that. If parents were making the best choices for their kids, we wouldn’t have the issues we do in the schools.

      Give parents choice and I bet it ends in a wash. I’m only mildly surprised at how gladly some of the parents in my area are sending their children to charters that perform substantially *below* the school district.

      • Overall, you bet parents make “wise and smart choices”. Otherwise the species probably would have gone extinct long before we developed the technology to have this discussion.

        I’ll take that bet if you can figure out how to make it happen.

        Parental choice harnesses the perfectly natural and evolutionarily enforced desire of parents to keep their kids safe and to make their future’s better then their parent’s present. That means that good schools are under pressure to maintain their lead over mediocre and mediocre are under pressure to survive, where parents have a choice.

        Every development – technological, organizational and pedagogical – is examined to help maintain or establish an advantage and for any organization that’s indifferent to competitive advantage the future consists of being referred to in the past tense.

  9. Ponderosa says:

    I would like to see choice in police forces –allow us to send vouchers to private security forces of our choice. And in the military. And with libraries and court systems. And with roads –we should have competing networks of roads, and patronize the roads that best meet our needs. We should also open all these services to private, for-profit contractors so they can lower the cost of labor. When the majority of Americans earn the wages of Chinese serfs, when labor unions, pensions, job security and the social safety net are finally abolished and long-forgotten, America will be far better off. When only brilliant, hustling, energetic, tech savvy twenty-somethings have decent jobs, and all the average, hard-working, tired and middle aged people are turned into serfs or kicked to the curb, all will be well!

    So, yes; introduce school choice. Let private schools take vouchers and pay their teachers peanuts. The ghetto kids will still get crappy educations; other non-rich kids will still get mediocre educations. But the rich will be richer, because they won’t have to pay the taxes to sustain a middle-class teaching force and they’ll profit from the private companies that run the sweatshop schools.

    • You mean those ghetto kids aren’t getting a crappy education now, in the district-based system?

      You should find them and tell them so. Mostly because far too few of them are sufficiently literate to read your feeble attempt to divert from the topic at hand.

      • So, tell us about your experiences with those kids and their education. Any insightful and thought-provoking anecdotes. Any compelling relationships and inspiring stories. Ever been within a limousine’s ride of the “ghetto”?

        Of course not. And, yes, I maintain my appeal to authority. If it worked for Socrates, Plato, and Aristotle, it seems like a reasonable position to take.

        Because we know from other blogs that you’ve been quite critical of people lacking the experience to be president.

        • So, no appetite for the subject at hand?

          Yeah, I can understand that since it’s becoming increasingly evident that the faith, and apathy, upon which the public education system as it’s currently constituted depends, is dissipating.

          Of course as an intellect on par with Socrates, Plato and Aristotle you can see what your inferiors – parents, me – can’t: that the current system is without blemish but for the inferior quality of the students. Oh, if only you had students that were a breeze to educate how effective you’d be.

          But in the sort of wonderful, if surprising, symmetry which the universe occasionally springs on the unwary, I can see what you can’t – that blaming everything you can think of to protect an institution which wouldn’t return the favor, isn’t working. The reason your excuse-generation isn’t working actually bears on your attempts to use an appeal to authority.

          You see, failure neutralizes the value of an appeal to authority. You can either explain, for decades, why you can’t do a good job and watch your authority depart on the prevailing winds or you can do a good job.

          Sorry, that’s the extent of your choices but not the extent of the choices available to those whom you’d like to impress with your authority. One of our options is to thrust you out of the way we’ve chosen to go and you prefer we didn’t.

    • So, your argument in favor of public schools is that it keeps certain people from making a profit while subsidizing the lifestyles of public school employees? Wow. That’s sound economic reasoning if I’ve ever heard it.

    • Roger Sweeny says:

      I wouldn’t like choice in police but I do like choice in phone, cable, and internet. At least for me, it has meant better service and lower cost.

    • Oh, PUH-LEEZE. We have choice in all sorts of things you mentioned. If I don’t like the lousy selection at the closest library, I am free to drive over to the adjoining more affluent town and patronize their library. If my town’s Park and Rec program does not offer a particular class I want for my kids, again I am free to enroll them in another town’s Park & Rec class. My town’s pool is only seasonal while our chi-chi neighboring town has an indoor one that again I can have access to if I desire.

      But if I want to enroll my kids in a school in that town that is funded in a large part by the sales and income taxes my family pays to the People’s Republic of California, I am denied. How is that fair?

  10. “(I couldn’t help but wonder whether schools would hire football coaches who didn’t love football, and whether such coaches could win any games.)”

    The assumed implication seems to be that if a teacher does not love the subject he/she teaches, then that teacher will not teach it well (i.e. if you look at the football analogy, it questions that a football coach can win games if that coach doesn’t love football). That would only be true if it meant that a teacher who doesn’t absolutely love a given subject also absolutely doesn’t care about teaching it well.

    Generally speaking, what do you need to know in order to teach a subject well? You need to know what must be taught and you must know how to teach (and thus, whether your students are learning). So long as a teacher at least cares about teaching a subject well, whether the teacher is absolutely in love with the subject doesn’t matter. Does it help? Probably, but it is not necessary.

  11. Chelsea Clinton attended public school all through her father’s political career in Arkansas. She asked not to attend public school in DC based in large part on the circus that attended Amy Carter’s experience being her daddy’s showcase.

    Teachers have to take content tests, so there’s no need to teach the subject in ed school. In all ed schools these days, they know the material before they start and have demonstrated it by passing the test. Ed schools should not be wasting students’ time and money teaching content.

    “A teacher should know enough that he can work with a student who knows a lot about that subject. ”

    Oh, nonsense. Not in elementary school–which is what you were in back then. Sorry, but your nerdy need to show off to your class is not a social policy priority.

    When will commenters realize that their oh-so-tragic personal experiences with bad teachers just make them look like bitter nerds with no life to speak of?