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Can "educational pluralism" end the schooling wars?

In the December 2012 issue of First Things, Ashley Rogers Berner argues that the United States' government monopoly on education sets it apart from the most other liberal democracies, many of which practice what Berner calls "educational pluralism."  She makes a case that educational pluralism can not only lead to better educational outcomes and a stronger civil society, but might also bring an end to many of the bitter policy disputes that divide Americans over the role and purpose of public education.  You can read the full text of Berner's comments here.

Berner, who is co-director of the Moral Foundations of Education Project at the Institute for Advanced Studies in Culture (an outfit at the University of Virginia), defines educational pluralism as "government support for diverse institutions that reflect a wide variety of beliefs and commitments."  Given the examples she cites, it's fair to say educational pluralism is a kind of philosophical basis for various approaches to school choice, a mechanism by which public funding for education follows the student, through vouchers or other means (perhaps like charter schools).  Students may use this funding to attend a wide variety of schools, from traditional public schools run by local school districts, to private secular or religious schools.  The specifics would vary depending on how the enabling laws might be written, but the idea is that while education might be a public good, it doesn't necessarily follow that it may only be delivered by the government.

Educational pluralism of this sort is the norm in many modern democracies (Berner notes Switzerland, Ireland, and Hong Kong as examples).  And while Americans cherish the First Amendment disestablishment of religion as a core political value (there is no formal "separation of church and state" in the U.S. Constitution), the 2002 Supreme Court decision Zelman v. Simmons-Harris stressed that as long as a government policy is neutral toward religion, there is no fundamental barrier to a voucher program (for example) that allows students to attend a religiously-based school.  The government benefit in this case (educational funding) supports the child, not the religion (though, as Berner notes, numerous state constitutions are more restrictive in this regard).

Berner's goal in supporting educational pluralism is not to promote religious-based schools per se, but to foster and encourage a wide diversity of educational options for families.  Berner cites research indicating that non-state schools are just as capable of raising the achievement of poor and minority students as traditional public schools, and that graduates of non-state schools have equal or stronger levels of civil engagement, tolerance for others, and commitment to public service.

Berner devotes much of her article to chronicling the century-old struggle to define the goal and purpose of public education, and how the state monopoly over schools exacerbates these deep divisions in the public conscience.  To those who would argue that public schools provide a pedagogically and philosophically neutral approach to teaching and learning (as opposed to the sectarian and faith-based approaches of religious schools), Berner calls hogwash because modern public schooling is based on an explicitly secularist, humanist philosophy with very specific assumptions about the nature of humanity and human knowledge:

Secularists view the child primarily as an autonomous individual who must, therefore, be entirely uncoerced in decisions as personal as religious belief. Although an educational secularist may be religious himself, he fears the possibility of religious indoctrination and therefore believes the teacher’s role is to train the child’s emotions and intellect while remaining completely agnostic about religious faith. Religious people assert that children are spiritual as well as intellectual and emotional beings and that omitting questions of belief is itself indoctrination of another kind.

Progressive approaches have dominated colleges of education and school districts since the 1920s. The current debate over academic standards needs to be seen in this light: Today’s educators have often been trained in progressive pedagogies, but state legislatures are now asking them to teach a more prescribed curriculum and to participate in high-stakes academic assessments. This has caused a struggle in nearly every state.

Educational pluralism offers a way out of these conflicts—over what education is for, who the child is, and what role teachers and schools should play—since it refuses to privilege one view over another. Instead of progressive and traditionalist educators competing for ideological dominance, they can populate and influence schools that want their particular approach. Instead of pretending to be ideologically neutral, public schooling could offer parents a variety of choices that reflect their beliefs and their children’s pedagogical needs. In short, educational pluralism opens up this conversation in a way that purported neutrality and uniformity cannot.

I personally question the assertion that American schools are (or ever were) under the sway of Dewey and the progressives.  In my experience, schools seem structured for the century-old purpose of indoctrinating a largely passive industrial workforce and sorting and ranking the rest for univerity and careers (for more on this, see my previous posts on the work of John Taylor Gatto).  The emphasis in traditional public schools is, for the most part, on conformity and rote memorization of an incoherent, largely arbitrary curriculum.

The single biggest predictor of the philosophy at work in any classroom is the implicit pedagogical, political, and moral assumptions of the individual teacher for that class.  Whatever the operative philosophy in any given classroom, it is foolish to suggest that public schools operate with any kind of neutrality to religion, politics, or the nature of human beings. 

Acknowledging the diversity of worldviews that is already present in our schools actually proves Berner's point: educational pluralism already exists, but the processes of schooling are largely controlled by state-run institutions, with the problems that go with monopolies of all kinds.  Openly embracing the kind of structures of educational pluralism Berner advocates would help maintain the public financial commitment to education, but would go a long way toward solving some of these bitter policy debates by allowing each family to choose the school that best matches their own particular worldview. 

If this seems like encouraging people to further divide themselves into disparate philosophical enclaves, consider the reality of our present situation: we force children of wildly differing philosophical backgrounds into a one-size-fits-all government school which teaches them its own specific worldview, all the while insisting that it offers no worldview at all.  The idea of the public school as the meeting ground of all creeds and cultures is a myth that stands in the way of genuine innovation and progress in educational policy. (But again, see the research Berner cites on the level of civic engagement and tolerance of students educated in non-state schools as further evidence that you don't need a government-run school to create a society that values cultural and political differences).

Working all this out in practice, of course, would be far more complicated than some advocates of school choice may realize or acknowledge.  Berner notes, for example, that pluralism doesn't always mean a true diversity of pedagogies, as many non-state schools offer an approach to teaching and learning that largely mimics the industrial model of traditional public schools.  This is certainly my experience, having worked in private religious schools where the shared faith culture was a tremendous asset, but the actual quality of academic instruction and learning was probably no better (or different) than in a high-performing public school.

Moreover, Berner notes that other countries still struggle, as would the United States, over the common criteria that all schools receiving publicly-funded students must meet.  Battles over curriculum, testing, and reporting (all of which can reflect some of our deepest educational divides) would remain even in a school choice scenario, and might even intensify the level of acrimony in our public debates (see the recent flap in Louisiana over voucher schools that allegedly teach "creationism.")

Despite these serious limitations to educational pluralism, I agree with Berner's thesis wholeheartedly.  While school choice is no magic bullet that suddenly solves all of America's problems, it opens up a wider array of educational options and choices for families, including choices that reflect the great diversity of worldviews present in American society.  It also breaks the government's stranglehold on educational delivery, which may ultimately allow for innovations in schooling yet to be conceived, and which certainly can't be conceived under the present educational regime.

Berner's article provides a strong philosophical foundation for the school choice movement, and I hope it garners a wide audience.

UPDATE: Happy my thoughts here were picked up on the First Things blog.  Here Executive Editor David Mill's comments here.

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