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Why We Need School Choice


Are American schools trying to stamp out free thinkers? Elizabeth Weil raises this question in an excellent piece for The New Republic on the rise of “social and emotional learning” (or SEL), in which children are trained to avoid bad behavior and to keep an “internal monitor” on their own actions to keep their impulses in check.

The aim of SEL is simple: creating well-behaved, conformist students who won’t rock the boat or disrupt whatever is happening around them. There’s not much hard evidence that this sort of “self-regulation” does anything to improve student’s performance; nevertheless, the idea is quickly becoming the norm in American schools and was even formally implemented on a national scale in the UK (with disappointing results).

From a teacher’s perspective it’s easy to see the appeal of this strategy: a more tranquil classroom, presumably with less time spent on discipline overall. But a number of parents, Weil included, are beginning to worry that the focus on obedience and docility is stifling some of the more creative, talkative, or otherwise unusual kids:

This is when I began to realize we’d crossed some weird Foucaultian threshold into a world in which authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them. “Self-regulation,” “self- discipline,” and “emotional regulation” are big buzz words in schools right now. All are aimed at producing “appropriate” behavior, at bringing children’s personal styles in line with an implicit emotional orthodoxy. That orthodoxy is embodied by a composed, conforming kid who doesn’t externalize problems or talk too much or challenge the rules too frequently or move around excessively or complain about the curriculum or have passionate outbursts. He’s a master at decoding expectations. He has a keen inner minder to bring rogue impulses into line with them. […]

But at what cost? One mother I spoke to, a doctor in Seattle, has a son who has had trouble sitting cross-legged, as his classroom’s protocol demanded. The school sent home a note suggesting she might want to test him for “learning difference.” She did—“paid about two thousand dollars for testing,” she told me—and started the child in private tutoring. “After the third ride home across the city with him sobbing about how much he hated the sessions, we decided to screw it,” she said. She later learned every one of the boys in her son’s class had been referred out for testing. Another family, determined to resist such intervention, paid for an outside therapist to provide expert testimony to their son’s Oakland school stating that he did not have a mental health disorder. “We wanted them to hear from the therapist directly: He’s fine,” the mother said. “Being a very strong-willed individual—that’s a powerful gift that’s going to be unbelievably awesome someday.”

One particularly troubling aspect of this trend is the use of prescription drugs to keep restless children in line. This is particularly notable in the case of ADHD, which has become a catch-all diagnosis for any student who has trouble sitting still and keeping quiet. The Center for Disease Control reports that 12 percent of boys ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and Weir notes that the rate has risen by 42 percent over the past decade. One teacher even goes so far as to cite Ritalin as a key tool for keeping kids under control.

Trends like these are why we need more school choice. American schools are trying to stifle non-conformist kids, pressuring parents and students alike to push bland, obedient virtues on quirky kids. This is a huge mistake. Creating a nation of Stepford kids is not a step forward. Yet as long as big box, one-size-fits-all schools remain the norm, even parents who disagree with these tactics will have few alternatives.

We should strive to have as many schools with many different approaches to learning as possible. And more importantly, we need more pushback against the Nurse Ratcheds of the “helping professions” who are drugging non-conformist kids into passivity.

[Child pills image courtesy of Shutterstock]

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  • qet

    She had me at Hello, but lost me near Goodbye. It is distressing to see a left-liberal-minded person capable of perceiving the truth yet unable in the end to understand it except by reference to a tired, time-worn article of ideological faith. This problem she describes–and it IS a problem, for all of us–has nothing whatsoever to do with inadequate school funding. To the extent it has to do with a school system that is overtaxed, the overtaxing is a result of liberals cramming all of their myriad “good ideas” into the curriculum over the last 40 years. Weil complains at one point that our education system “has scant tolerance for independence of mind” (she is right) but then contradicts the significance of this observation by repeating (via quoted words of another) the tired liberal complaint about the right’s championing of the individual. Still, it is nice to see that the jagged edges of the ugly reality the Left has created in this country over the last 40 years are beginning to rend the veil they have been covering their eyes with.

  • Tom

    The problem isn’t necessarily that kids are being taught to keep a lid on their behavior–having been in public schools as a student, I can tell you that such can be necessary.
    The problem is when “keeping a lid on your behavior” shifts to “do everything we say, exactly how we say it, even if there is no detriment to learning whatsoever from your behavior.”

  • Corlyss

    “social and emotional learning”

    This has been where we were headed since the desegregation of the military, its follow-on desegregation of the schools a scant 5 years later, and the government’s discovery of forced social policy at the end of expensive lawsuits and bayonets. No knock on the intent of the initial effort but with the Left’s agenda of social causes it has embraced and their dominance of the Ed schools and the teaching profession from K-post grad, those causes were bound to be embraced and worked into the curricula with all the ruthlessness a state monopoly can bring to bear on the situation. Now with the loss of Catholic education by nuns and priests who aren’t so susceptible to the state’s brainwashing, we’ve almost past the point of no return into waters where monsters be.

    I’m sure ViaMeadia folks don’t read anything as conservative as PJ Media, but the instant article eerily echoes a post last night from Michael Ledeen on the sorry case of the Obama administration revoking asylum for the German family that sought to homeschool their children to keep them out of the hands of the state indoctrination and ordering their immediate deportation. Folks, take a good look at our future:

  • Boritz

    ***We should strive to have as many schools with many different approaches to learning as possible.***
    That would be diversity, that thing that teachers recommend so highly for others.

    • Bruno_Behrend

      Teachers are liars. They want “diversity of color” all thinking the exact same thought at the exact same time.

  • tamsin

    “…authority figures pathologize children instead of punishing them.”


    Pathologizing lasts forever with no cure, only control. It is therefore remunerative as it requires spending money for years on therapies and therapists for the child.

    Punishment has a beginning (paddle on the upswing) and an end (paddle on the downswing). Child is then free to go about his day. Nobody makes any money.

    • Corlyss

      The Left has been busy divorcing people from the consequences of their actions and their choices for 60 years now. Just look at all the behaviors that used to be stigmatized (enforcing community norms) and how now nothing is stigmatized (because community norms have been degraded and vilified as “racist” “bigoted” “racial profiling” “sexist” “homophobic” – you can probably think of a dozen more I didn’t mention) but everything has become either a nascent “disease” just waiting for research to confirm it or a fully fledged one. How can society punish people for “illnesses?” Answer: it can’t and retain any pretense to humanity and compassion. Just another domain where the left has captured the vocabulary and the terms of discussion.

  • wigwag

    “One particularly troubling aspect of this trend is the use of prescription drugs to keep restless children in line. This is particularly notable in the case of ADHD, which has become a catch-all diagnosis for any student who has trouble sitting still and keeping quiet. The Center for Disease Control reports that 12 percent of boys ages 3-17 have been diagnosed with ADHD, and Weir notes that the rate has risen by 42 percent over the past decade.” (Walter Russell Mead)

    Here we have yet another in a long line of shallow posts by Professor Mead and colleagues. Has the possibility occurred to Professor Mead that one reason that the diagnosis of ADHD has risen dramatically is because the incidence of ADHD has risen dramatically?

    Does Professor Mead believe that the fact that the diagnosis of asthma in children is up 40 percent in the past 15 years is also a sign of some kind of conspiracy? 10 percent of all children under the age of 18 have asthma; does the Professor want to blame this on a secret cabal of pulmonologists or on a nefarious conspiracy of allergists?

    Besides ADHD, other neurological disorders are increasing in prevalence, especially idiopathic cases of autism. Schizophrenia is also on the rise. Outside of brain related maladies some diseases are increasing rapidly in prevalence like lupus and some diseases are decreasing in prevalence like stomach cancer.

    Some of this may be attributable to better diagnosis and some may be attributable to biological factors that are not yet obvious. It’s complicated and we know that Professor Mead doesn’t do “complicated” very well.

    But dismissing ADHD as a politically motivated phenomenon, the increasing prevalence of which, in and of itself, justifies school choice is little more than a sign of idiocy.

    • Bruno_Behrend

      Even the health professionals who prescribe this stuff think it is over-diagnosed.

      Wanting school choice so as to avoid a system that views psychotropic drugs as an “education strategy” is hardly “idiocy.”

      Nowhere does the left appear more intellectually weak than in its defense of a corrupt, over-staffed, over-funded, and ineffective education complex.

      Whatever the reasoning or motivation behind the rapid increase in ADHD diagnosis, the fact remains that there is no intellectually sound reason to deny Americans a system where the money follows the child to a vast new array of independent schools and education providers.

      • wigwag

        “… the fact remains that there is no intellectually sound reason to deny Americans a system where the money follows the child to a vast new array of independent schools and education providers.” (Bruno Behrend)

        Wrong; there are many intellectually sound reasons to oppose the type of educational plan that you advocate. There are also numerous intellectually sound reasons to support the system that you advocate. This is the perfect example of a controversy where people of good will and sound mind can disagree.

        What is intellectually unsound is to do what Professor Mead does in this post; take an article that he read in the New York Times, embellish it despite the fact that he knows none of the salient details and use it as evidence to back up his thesis.

        In Mead’s world, his gut feeling about the way things should work comes first and he cherry picks and distorts evidence to prove his point. He doesn’t arrive at his point of view based on the evidence; he twists the evidence to fit his point of view.

        We all do this; you do it and I do it. But it’s hard to take the good Professor seriously when he is so blind to his own prejudices. It is also ironic that Mead feels perfectly comfortable criticizing “old media” when he reflexively behaves on his blog in precisely the way that old media sources do.

    • Fred

      Sorry wigwag, I call BS. Drugs like adderall and ritalin have been overprescribed for years, if not decades. They are being used by teachers and parents who are too lazy or afraid to discipline children as an easy way of rendering them docile.

  • wigwag

    Like a dog with a bone, Professor Mead perseverates on the idea that there is some kind of war on boys and that the rising diagnosis of ADHD is exhibit number one that proves his case. There may actually be a kernel of truth in Mead’s argument but his tendency to exaggerate is so overwhelming that one wonders if he could benefit from a dose or two of Ritalin himself.
    It’s not just ADHD, practically every developmental disorder is more prevalent in boys than girls. Autism is 4 times more common in boys, Dyslexia is twice as common, Asperger’s Syndrome is anywhere from four times as common to ten times as common in boys. Pervasive language delay also occurs far more frequently in males than females. It’s not just pathological neurological conditions that are more prevalent; absolute or perfect pitch occurs six times more frequently in males.
    One particular developmental disorder, Fragile X, suggests a possible reason for the preponderance of these conditions in males as opposed to females. Fragile X, the most common hereditary form of mental retardation occurs in approximately 1 in 5,000 live births. It results from a mutation to a gene called FMP which is located on the X chromosome. The mutation in question prevents the gene from producing a protein called FMRP which is critical for the efficient functioning of the synapse which is needed for learning. Girls can get the most severe form of Fragile X but the disorder is far more common and more severe in boys. The reason for this is clear; boys have only one X chromosome; if they inherit a mutated form of the gene, they can’t produce any protein and their learning is impaired. Girls have two x chromosomes; if they inherit a mutated gene on one of their X chromosomes, they have the gene on their second X chromosome to back them up. It is possible, but exceeding rare, for girls to inherit two chromosomes with the mutated gene.
    It is highly likely that several of these other neurological disorders, possible including ADHD, also have X linked mutations which is why they are more common in boys than girls. So if Professor Mead is right and there is a war on boys, it’s a war being waged on the part of nature or nature’s deity; not some nefarious government conspiracy.
    As for the rising prevalence of these disorders; it could be an artifact of improved surveillance but it is also possible that the increasing prevalence is a real phenomenon. Many of these developmental disorders require both a genetic predisposition and an environmental trigger(s). In the case of autism, one environmental trigger has already been identified; the age of the father. Epidemiological studies demonstrate a relatively clear relationship between the incidence of autism and paternal age at conception. One reason that autism is becoming more common is that fathers are inseminating their wives at an older age on average than they used to.
    It is entirely possible but not yet proven that increasing paternal age may be a risk factor of other developmental disorders, including ADHD.
    By the way, there are several other hypothesis about why the prevalence of these disorders are on the rise. None of these hypothesis have been proven but there is good preliminary evidence for some of them. One hypothesis is that environmental chemicals that act as endocrine disrupters increase the levels of testosterone that fetuses are exposed to in utero (yes, females do produce some testosterone); another is the declining levels of maternal vitamin D, which occur as fewer and fewer people work outdoors and are exposed to the sun, may play a role in the increasing prevalence of developmental disorders.
    It should be pointed out that the idiotic and reflexive dismissal of the increasing prevalence of ADHD on the right of the political spectrum is no more dimwitted than the same phenomenon that we see on the left.
    Several years ago, Larry Summers was drummed out of the Presidency of Harvard for daring to point out that there was some evidence that the fact that males performed better on average than females in mathematics and the sciences was biologically based. Women became enraged and Summers was dismissed. Guess what; there is substantial evidence that Summers was right. Numerous experimental studies have suggested that on average, the male brain is superior when it comes to math skills and the female brain is superior when it comes to language skills.
    There was another recent incident of this kind of political correctness run amok on the left. A few months back, the famous and exceeding wealthy hedge fund manager, Paul Tudor Jones was giving the commencement address at his alma mater, the University of Virginia. Jones had donated tens of millions of dollars to the school (believe me; UVA needed the money).
    During his commencement address Jones mentioned the obvious fact that the number of male securities traders was dramatically higher than the number of female securities traders and implied that males might have a biological leg up when it comes to this kind of work. The female faculty and students at UVA had a hissy fit; Jones has been apologizing non stop ever since. The reality is that there is considerable reason to believe that Jones is right; it is entirely possible that males trade securities more successfully than females(on average) because they are better than females at math (on average) and that this superiority is biologically mediated.
    Professor Mead and right wing nitwits argue that the increasing diagnosis of ADHD is evidence that the U.S. educational system is out of control. Of course, what’s really happening is that for ideological reasons they think the U.S. education system is out of control and they try to take any evidence that they can distort, including the increasing prevalence of ADHD to attempt to prove their point. Only the dimwitted will fall for this.
    The left does the same thing; its ideologically unacceptable for them to acknowledge that women may be poorer at math than men and so they excoriate people like Summers and Jones; the evidence be damned.
    As for Professor Mead, mindless bloviating about an article he read in the New York Times just makes him look ill-informed. For a pundit who loves to carp on the superiority of new media versus old media, this post of his proves the adage, new boss; same as the old boss.

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