Breaking Free of Excessive Uniformity in K-12 Education

By William Mattox

Director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options, The James Madison Institute

Imagine, for a moment, what would happen if President Donald J. Trump were to awaken one morning and decide, in a fit of authoritarian excess, to issue an Executive Order declaring, “Henceforth, any and all decisions about the curricula taught in any K-12 school receiving public funds must be personally approved by the President of the United States.”

My guess is that many defenders of the current public school system would very quickly discover the importance of federalism – and the folly of one-size-fits-all “uniformity” in K-12 public education. Because no one wants to see important curricular decisions dictated by some high-ranking national official (even, or perhaps especially, one named Donald J. Trump). And all of us should want in K-12 schooling what commonly exists in higher education – a healthy measure of respect for the diversity of opinion that surrounds questions about the proper mix of courses and curricular emphases.

In higher education, no one finds it odd that one student attends Liberal Arts U; while another matriculates at Holy Jesuit College; and a third prepares for a career at Practical STEM Tech. It’s not that these different curricular emphases share nothing in common. (They all typically require a course in English composition, for example.) It’s just that they each give emphasis to a different aspect of education’s ultimate purpose – whether that’s introducing students to history’s greatest thinkers, leaders, and artists; inviting students to wrestle with life’s most important questions; or preparing students for financially-rewarding careers in the wider economy.

Recognizing the legitimacy of different curricular emphases is important not just in higher education, but in K-12 schooling as well. And while this certainly argues for expanding the schooling options that parents can choose for their children, it also argues for expanding the course and testing options that high school students can choose as they prepare for college and careers.

To that end, Florida policymakers ought to give serious consideration to adopting two relatively modest proposals – one which appeals especially to STEM proponents, the other which appeals especially to liberal arts classicists – so that Florida students can enjoy greater course and testing options during their high school years.

Let’s take a swift look at each of these modest proposals more closely.

Computer Coding in the Classroom

You, who are on the road, must have a code that you can live by.

When Crosby, Stills & Nash penned the opening line to their classic song, “Teach Your Children,” they weren’t thinking about how to prepare students for gainful employment in the Computer Age. But if the Florida Legislature adopts a forward-looking proposal now under consideration, Sunshine State students will soon enjoy the opportunity to learn a computer code that may help them earn a handsome living someday.

Championed by Sen. Jeff Brandes (R-Pinellas), this proposal would require Florida public high schools to offer computer science classes – and to allow these (online or in-person) courses to fulfill the foreign language requirement for an advanced diploma.

This last provision, allowing computer coding to count as a foreign language, has some traditionalists crying, “Oy vey.” But the Brandes proposal isn’t actually as radical as it may seem.

Indeed, both of Florida’s flagship universities allow students majoring in communications to substitute “business language” courses (such as economics, statistics, or computer science) for “modern languages” like German or Italian. And at both Florida State University and the University of Florida, liberal arts majors can fulfill their foreign language requirement by learning American Sign Language instead of Spanish, French, or some other tongue.

Traditionalists are correct to point out that being conversant in more than just English is important to many Floridians in our increasingly-global economy. And the hope should be that many of the students who opt to take computer coding courses will also pick up a foreign language like Hindi (so that they can one day provide computer tech support to people in India!).

But we aren’t just living in an increasingly-global economy; we’re also living in a technological age where computer coding skills are greatly prized. And we’re living at a time in which growing specialization in the labor market means that the language training that one student most needs isn’t necessarily the language training that would most benefit another student.

Put another way, we are living in an age where the educational zeitgeist calls for customizing instruction to the unique needs, interests, aptitudes, and learning styles of each and every student. And while this appreciation for diversity may sometimes challenge those who cut their educational teeth in an era of extreme uniformity, it’s important for us all to remember that schools exist for the benefit of students, not for the benefit of education officials.

This last point is the lesson we most need to learn today. Because many of our most-contentious education debates today pit the diverse needs and interests of individual students against an increasingly-sclerotic “uniform system” of education controlled by teachers unions, bureaucrats, and central planners.

In that sense, then, the debate over computer coding courses is emblematic. For it represents a clash between those who want to limit student opportunities versus those who want to expand learning options.

Hopefully, Florida’s leaders will come down on the side of those who want to make it possible for students to receive a “customized” education tailored to their unique needs, interests, and career plans. Because the best way to “teach our children well” in the 21st Century isn’t to insist that they all take courses that might help them become a diplomat instead of a software engineer. The best way to prepare Floridians for economic life in the 21st Century is to recognize that students aren’t all cut from the same cloth – and to that we should all say, “Vive la difference!”

The SAT and ACT Believe in Multiple Choice; Let’s Make Room for the CLT, Too

Several years ago, some enterprising classical educators decided they had had enough. Tired of seeing college placement exams ask students to regurgitate “disconnected facts” or to read sterile “values-neutral” passages of text, they set out to create a standardized test that would invite students to wrestle with the works of some of the “greatest minds in the history of Western thought.”

The result of their endeavor, the Classical Learning Test (CLT), is important for two reasons.

First, the CLT offers colleges and universities that give special emphasis to critical reasoning and ethical thought a more accurate assessment of a student’s capability and preparation for advanced study. Not surprisingly, dozens of liberal arts colleges – including highly-regarded institutions like Hillsdale, Erskine, and St. John’s – have begun accepting the CLT as an alternative to the SAT and ACT college placement exams. And as word spreads and the number of students taking the CLT grows, many more colleges and universities are likely to follow suit.

Second, and perhaps more importantly, the CLT legitimizes an approach to education that is more in keeping with classical education’s emphasis on the wholistic interplay between thought and character – between intellectual pursuit and living a life consistent with what one sees as “good, true, and beautiful.” This validation of classical education’s enduring relevance has implications for how some schools – perhaps especially some public charter schools – will choose to approach classroom instruction. After all, if it’s true that “what gets tested, gets taught,” then schools wanting to adopt a more classical approach to education will no longer fear that this curricular approach fails to align with any college placement exam accepted by leading universities.

Is the CLT for everyone? Of course not.

But it is certainly a valid option for college-bound students, perhaps especially those planning to go into the humanities or social sciences. And since the CLT’s scoring system has SAT and ACT equivalencies – for example, a 120 on the CLT translates into a 1600 on the SAT and a 36 on the ACT – it ought to be included among the mix of college placement test options that Florida universities accept in the admissions process. And it ought to be included among the mix of college placement test options that Florida policymakers accept in determining student eligibility for Bright Futures scholarships and teacher eligibility for Best & Brightest bonus pay.

One of the benefits of accepting the CLT as an alternative to the ACT and SAT is that competition helps spur improvement in standardized tests (and in the curricula influenced by such tests). And while the ACT and SAT have proved useful over the years, they are not without flaws – and have endured no small amount of criticism as a result. For example, the most recent controversy involving the College Board (the company responsible for both the SAT and the Advanced Placement tests) surrounds its U.S. History content, which many now perceive to be skewed heavily in a politically-correct direction, to the detriment of a more balanced presentation.

Whether or not one accepts these (or other) criticisms as valid, we all ought to welcome healthy competition in the standardized testing marketplace. Because the excessive concentration of power and control in shaping educational content is very dangerous.

This is something we all ought to recognize instinctively – without having President Donald J. Trump issue the hypothetical (and horrific!) Executive Order mentioned earlier.

The ACT and SAT believe in multiple choice. So, let’s make room for the CLT, too.

William Mattox is the director of the J. Stanley Marshall Center for Educational Options at The James Madison Institute.

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