Create a perfect world!
Go ahead! Don’t be shy!
What kind of government would you like? Republic, Monarchy, Dictatorship, Anarchy? Some combination or original system?
It’s all up to you.
How would you structure the economy? Capitalistic, Socialistic, Communistic? Something else?
What would a family look like in your perfect world? How would careers be prepared for and chosen? What level of technology would you choose?
All these and more must be answered when creating the ideal community for you and I to live in.
It’s what Sir Thomas Moore famously did in his 1516 novel “Utopia” about an impossible “best state” for civil society.
And it’s what I had my 7th grade students do last week in preparation for reading Lois Lowery’s contemporary science fiction novel, “The Giver.”
In small groups, my little ones clustered together at their tables and gave social planning a go.
It was stunning the variety of societies they created.
A group of kids with a history of confronting authority designed a nominal anarchy with an inherited monarchy controlling the military. Those with the highest grades decided all the decisions should be made by people like them in an oligarchy while the underachievers just played video games.
One of my favorites though was a group equally divided between boys and girls that decided to let women make all the rules except who could marry whom. That was decided only by the men, but women got to decide when to have kids and how many to have.
It was fascinating to see how their little minds worked. And even more so how their ideal societies reflected their wants and values.
But it was all a preview to Lowery’s novel of a futuristic society where utopia soon descends into its opposite – dystopia.
As it often does. In fact, the word coined by Moore literally means “nowhere.”
So it made me wonder about the most utopian thinking we find in modern life – education policy.
The economists, think tank partisans and lobbyists love to denigrate the public school system and pine for an alternative where corporate interests and business people make all the rules.
Sure they have literally billions of dollars behind them and a gallery of famous faces to give them legitimacy.
But they’re really just engaged in a more high stakes version of Moore’s novel or the assignment my kids did this week.
In each case, these world builders do the same as my middle schoolers – they build a system that would be perfect – from their own individual point of views and biases.
In his book, “Utopian Studies: A Guide,” Prof. Gregory Eck writes:
Because… utopia is rooted in theory, it will not always work. In fact, more is written about the failure and impossibility of utopia than of its success, probably because the ideal has never been reached.
And why is that ideal never reached? Margaret Atwood, the author of more than a few dystopian novels, has an answer.
“Every utopia,” she says, “…faces the same problem: What do you do with the people who don’t fit in?”
One person’s paradise is another person’s Hell.
So the idea of designing one system that fits all is essentially bound to fail.
But doesn’t that support the charter and voucher school ideal? They are marketed, after all, as “school choice.” They allegedly give parents and children a choice about which schools to attend.
Think about it.
Who gets to choose whether you attend one of these schools? Not you.
Certainly you have to apply, but it’s totally up to the charter or voucher school operators whether they want to accept you.
It is the public school system that gives you choice. You decide to live in a certain community – you get to go to that community’s schools. Period.
Certainly some communities are more accessible than others, and they are more accessible for some people – whether that be for economic, social, racial or religious reasons.
But you have much more choice here than you do from a bunch of nameless bureaucrats making decisions in secret that they never have to justify and for which they will never be held accountable.
What about curriculum? Don’t charter and voucher schools offer choice of curriculum?
No. They have one way of doing things. They have one curriculum. Either accept it or get out.
This is how we do things at KIPP. This is how we do things at Success Academy. You don’t like it, there’s the door.
By contrast, public schools tailor their curriculum to meet the needs of individual students. Each teacher does something different for every child in his or her charge whether those children are in special education, regular education, Emotional Support, the English as a Second Language Program, the academic or honors track.
Charter and voucher schools are naive utopias.
They propose one ideal way to teach all children and they expect parents to jump at their cultish schemes. All students will wear these sorts of uniforms and chant these sorts of phrases in response to these orders, etc. All children will be expected to provide marketing research to corporations on competency based learning programs and let their data be mined by these advertisers.
Because at these schools the emphasis is not on the curriculum. It’s on the system, itself.
These are privatized schools. They are schools run by private industry – not the public.
Decisions are not made by duly-elected representatives of the community in the light of day. They are made behind closed doors by corporate stooges.
THAT is the great innovation behind these schools. Everything else is mere window dressing.
If one of these schools found a better way to teach, public schools could pick it up and do it even better because the teachers and principals would be accountable for doing it correctly.
These so-called lab schools have never produced a single repeatable, verifiable innovation that works for all students without cherry picking the best and brightest.
That’s because the utopia these policy wonks are interested in building isn’t for the students or parents. It’s for the investors.
It may be the ideal situation for the moneymen, but it’s often pure torture for the students. Charter schools are closed without notice, the money stolen under cloak of night. Voucher schools fool kids into thinking creationism is science and then are no where to be found when reputable colleges want nothing to do with their graduates.
Let me be the first to say that public school is no utopia.
We have real problems.
We need adequate, equitable and sustainable funding. We need integration. We need autonomy, respect and competitive pay for teachers. We need protection from corporate vultures in the standardized testing, publishing, edtech and school privatization industries.
They are constantly changing. Teachers are constantly innovating.
A handful of years ago, I never had students design their own utopias before reading “The Giver.” But a colleague came up with the idea, I modified it for my students and we were off.
If I teach the same course next year, I’d modify it again based on what worked and what didn’t work this year.
I’m not expecting to be perfect.
I’m just doing the best I can.
Perhaps the greatest utopia would be if we could all realize that no utopia is possible; no place to run, no place to hide, just take care of business here and now.
NOTE: A version of this article originally was published under the title “Creating a Charter or Voucher School is Like Designing a Utopia – Biases Prevail.” I reworked some of it, including the title, because I thought readers were confused by my intent and may have passed it over under a mistaken assumption about its contents.
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