6 Elements of Democratizing Education


to make (a country or organization) more democratic

: to make (something) available to all people : to make it possible for all people to understand (something)

Follow my blog long enough and you will see a few phrase that show up often. “Democratize” is one of them. When I use the term, I am referring to increasing access and opportunity to education in the broadest sense. It is a concept that has a long and rich history, but it has more recently been amplified by the affordances of an increasingly connected world. As I see it, there are five areas of education that are becoming increasingly democratized in the digital world, with a sixth one on the way, one that truly does have the potential to hold its own alongside traditional forms of education.

Democratizing Information & Knowledge

This one doesn’t require much explanation or evidence. Just look at GoogleWikipediaPinterestGoogle BooksProject Gutenberg, or a site like Forgotton Books (an online library that gives access to over 480,000 free books). If you have a device with Internet access today, then you information and knowledge about an immense number of topics. This democratizes education by providing the self-directed learner with content to study and from which to learn.

Democratizing Learning Resources

Sites like OER CommonsMIT Open CourseWareiTunes UYouTube, and Academic Earth, have gone a step further. They have democratized access to organized learning resources in the form of lectures, course content, and learning activities. This garnered significant attention starting in first ten years of the second millennium.

Democratizing Learning Networks

Then we have the increases in access to learning networks, people leveraging the power of the web to connect with other people and communities around the world. In fact, this goes back to the earliest days of the web. We have communities like Cafe Mocha, free language instruction by interacting with people around the world. More recently, we’ve seen the development of Google Helpouts, further democratizing access to experts and learning coaches from around the globe. Of course, we also have a three-decade history of largely accessible online groups, communities and networks that people use to learn about everything from cooking to computer programming, home repair to getting a job. As such, we have access to not only content and resources, but connections with people from whom we learn. Today we see this thriving in social media outlets like Twitter, Google+, Facebook, and LinkedIn.

Democratizing Feedback for Learning

Within those communities, people have free access to interactive learning…gaining feedback, one of the most critical aspects of high-impact learning experiences. In addition to the communities, we also see the democratizing of learning feedback through initiatives like Khan AcademyCodeAcademy, and language apps like DuoLingo. It isn’t just content, but it is also detailed feedback on one’s learning progress.

Democratizing Courses

From all these, it is natural that we would see people blending these democratizing features into full courses. That is where we see the emergence of open courses, with the most recognizable ones being the many MOOCs on the web today (See the list of providers at the bottom of this post.).

Democratizing Credentials

These all contribute to the growing democratization of education. We have access to high quality content, learning communities, feedback on learning, even organized and facilitated online courses…free to anyone with a device, Internet access, and the skill to leverage them for one’s personal learning goals. Yet, there is another part to education that remains largely closed and controlled by more traditional learning and professional organizations, the credentialing of one’s learning. The democratization of learning credentials may well be a tipping point. As it stands, much of contemporary society uses diplomas, transcripts, and certifications as evidence of one’s learning. It is not a perfect system, and while there remains widespread social trust in these credentials, there are plenty of critics as well.

Now consider the emergence of democratizing credentials. Consider the possibility of open badges becoming increasingly accepted evidence of one’s learning through the other democratized elements above. Think about efforts like Degreed.com, resources that allow you to provide evidence of your learning and share it with others. Consider the tracking and documentation of learning in some of the resources already mentioned like Khan Academy and Code Academy.

We do not live in a time when the public widely recognizes credentials from Code Academy, Coursera, or self-study through Academy Earth as having the same value as a degree from an accredited University, but we do see alternative credentials gaining recognition. People are earning new jobs, gaining access to Universities, even procuring social recognition and influence by using alternate evidence of learning from democratized resources. And as the number of such people grows, so will the perceived value of alternates to traditional credentials. I do not expect to see these alternates as necessarily replacing traditional credentials, but I do envision a time in the near future where democratized credentials become a from of academic currency that holds significant value in society. I see a day when democratized credentials will allow more people to gain admission to careers and social groups that are currently only open to those with an A.A., B.A., or M.A.

Helpful Resources for Evaluating Educational Products

 How do you decide upon an educational product? Do you use a systematic process, go with your gut, choose what is most popular, or perhaps go with suggestions from trusted colleagues? The task of sifting through thousands of options can be overwhelming, evening impossible. However, when you do look at a product or narrow down your list, there are resources to help you evaluate it. This is not a 5-minute process, but if you are going to make a significant investment and/or make a decision that impacts students, it calls for a deliberate, systematic review. A careful review of educational products is hard work, but our students are worth it. In fact, you could even involve students in using one or more of these tools to help review products.

9 Questions for Evaluating Educational Innovation – This short document gives you a helpful list of important questions to ask when you are evaluating educational products. It is simple but gets at many of the important factors to consider when selecting a product or service.

The Pearson Efficacy Framework – Pearson Education created a framework for evaluating the efficacy of educational products. This report outlines that process. It is a longer document (56 pages), but it is well worth the time and effort to read. It will give you a robust understanding of what sort of factors to consider when you are reviewing educational products.

The Online Efficacy Tool – This is really just an extension of last resources. It is a link to a tool created by Person to evaluate educational products. It will take you through the review of a product based upon outcomes, evidence, planning and implementation and capacity to deliver (the broad categories included in the Pearson Efficacy Framework).

Conducting and Report Product Evaluation Research – Many companies provide “research” to back up the value of their product. This document is a guide for companies on how to conduct such studies of their products. It comes from the Software and Information Industry Association. Reading this will give you a better understanding of how to judge the quality of a research report about a given educational product.

How to Evaluate Educational Software and Products – This is an old resource (from 2000), but the list of things to consider/review is still excellent. It is a short two-page resource with a robust list of considerations.

25+ Digital Content Providers for #K12

You could be in a home school, private school, parochial, traditional public, charter, magnet, or even a self-directed learning academy. At some point, there is usually a search for content and resources. Where do you go? In the past (at least in much of the United States), this was often a process of searching from a ready-made textbook that would drive much of what happens in the school. There are so many more options today, especially if you want digital content and resources, many of which are interactive, much more than what you can get in a traditional paper-based textbook.

Today we have more information on the web than we could possibly use in a dozen lifetimes. And while there is something to be said for collecting and curating your own learning resources on the web, many of us (student, teacher, administrator, parent) find times when it would be helpful to use more vetted, organized and full-features resources on a given topic or subject. Where do you go to find such resources? Here is a small sample of the digital content options available today for K-12 learners. They range from costly to free, full online courses to collections of content, secular to religious. Some offer full courses and a teacher, but most in this list give the opportunity to take the content and/or resource and use it/them as you see fit in your own school, oftentimes including features that allow you to edit or customize for your specific needs.

Please note that this is not a vetted or exhaustive list. I am not recommending the resources and I certainly left out some excellent options. You will want to review them yourself to find out what best fits the mission, values and purpose of your organization. Nonetheless, I had a request from a colleague for such a list, so I thought I would share it on the web for the rest of the world to use as well. As you have time and interest, feel free to suggest new ones in the comment area or include short 2-3 sentence comments, summaries or reviews of any of these for future readers.

Accelerate Education/Accelerate Online Academy

Apex Learning 

BYU Independent Study – Instructor-Guided Online Courses

Calvert Education 

Concordia Publishing House – The publishing house of the LCMS has growing number of digital resources available.

Connections Learning 


EdOptions Online Academy (previously Edmentum)

Florida Virtual School – Global School 

Fuel Education 

Greenways Academy 

Keystone School 


Learning by Grace 

Lighthouse Christian Academy

 McGraw Hill Digital Solutions 

MIT Resources for High School  

Mizzou K-12 Online 

Mosaica Online 


Northwest Liberty School 

Open Education Consortium – This is a database of open textbooks and courses that might align with some school needs. Many are designed for college, but might work for middle and high school as well.

Pearson Learning Solutions Online Course Content 

Red Comet 

Virtual High School

Time For Learning

HSLDA List of Curriculum Providers for Homeschoolers – Did you not find what you are looking for in the list above. This page provides another long list of other digital content and online course providers.

Open Vs. Closed Badging Systems

Not all digital badges are alike, and that is okay. There is plenty of room for different badge designs and uses. Some worry that people using digital badges as 21st century stickers and gold stars will ruin the enterprise for those of us interested in using them as micro-credentials for substantive (even rigorous) learning contexts. I have no concern about one use diminishing the value of another, at least not when it comes to open badges built around the open badge infrastructure (OBI). OBI helps us address such matters.

There is discussion about whether people understand the difference between open badges and closed badging system. I’ve run into more than a few questions about that difference. The former is interoperable. The term has come to mean badge designs that are built around the open badge infrastructure, leading to:

  • important meta-data being attached to badges,
  • allowing badge earners to own and control their credentials,
  • making it easy for a badge earner to collect and display badges from different issuers in a single location (like an electronic portfolio, online resume or social media profile),
  • democratizing credentials by making it difficult for a single group or a few organizations to monopolize the badge ecosystem,
  • and giving freedom to any person or organization to “use, create, issue and verify” badges.

OBI gives us a common standard that allows for countless integrations between different systems that issue, display, store, curate and verify badges (hence the phrase “badge ecosystem”). And the meta-data allows people to easily understand who issued badge and what one had to do to earn the badge, helping to clarify issues about the authenticity, value, and distinguishing between playful “sticker” badges and those that represent loftier achievements. This allows us to know the difference between the equivalent of a certificate of participation and a Pulitzer prize. The ability to distinguishing between such qualitatively different credentials is built into the open badge infrastructure.

What about closed badge systems? Those are systems that have an option to issue badges, but the badges go nowhere, can’t communicate with other systems, and are usually entirely owned and controlled by the system used to issue the badges or the badge issuer. There is not necessarily anything wrong with a closed badge system, but it doesn’t promise any of the advantages listed above. They work fine if you are interested in using them as digital gold stars, but they are extremely limited if you want to issue and earn credentials that can be shared and displayed more broadly, if you want to capitalize upon the rapidly growing interconnected network of software/systems that allow one to earn, issue, display, and store credentials for many purposes. If you are fine with creating a language that will only be spoken and used by a small group of people, and you are confident that you don’t need or want to speak to anyone beyond that small group, then a closed badge system is fine. If you want to speak about the credentials to the world, then open badges are the way to go. For a growing list of options for issuing open badges, see my recent article on that subject or this great list from the Badge Alliance Wiki.

One compelling illustration between open badges and closed badging systems was introduced by Mark Surman at the 2014 Reconnect Learning Summit. It was a comparison with the development of email. In early stages, email was a closed system, only allowing messages to be sent and received within the mainframe or computers that use the same standard. If people wanted to send messages between mainframes, that required a common mail standard, which eventually became Simple Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). It was when we had a largely universal standard that we saw a rapid increase in the adoption rate of email. This example works well for thinking about open badges compared to closed badging systems. If you only want to do the badge equivalent of sending mail between people in a single class or organization, then a closed badge system might work fine. However, if you want the capabilities given by the badge equivalent of SMTP, then you definitely want to find a system that is OBI compliant.

There is another perspective that I tend to take on this matter as well. If you follow my blog, I’m clearly an advocate for digital badges, and if I want to help nurture more widespread adoption of badges as a more widely accepted credentialing currency, then I need to advocate for open badges. They might be able to do for badges what SMTP did for email. I do not tend to speak negatively about software that has a closed badge feature, but when I am asked for advice on what products to use, be assured that my advice almost always focuses on the systems that allow for open badges.

5 Quotes That Haunt & Inspire #mission #purpose #why

I’m a collector…a collector of books, ideas, and quotes. I have notebooks with random quotes scribbled on pages from books, articles, lectures and presentations, even some movies. Out of all the quotes, some seem to come to mind almost weekly. These are ones that haunt me.

“Do you want to sell sugar water for the rest of your life, or do you want to come with me and change the world?”

These are the alleged words spoken by Steve Jobs to John Scully, the words that convinced Scully to leave a top position at Pepsi Cola to join a 4-year startup called Apple. Each time I read, hear or remember this quote; I am drawn into a reflection about my own life’s work. Am I selling sugar water right now, or am I doing something that can change the world? The quote is a humbling and inspiring reminder to take seriously how we choose to spend our time and energy. The answer will vary from person to person depending upon talents, abilities, passions and interests, opportunities, life circumstances and the events around us.

‘I wish it would not happen when I was alive’ said Frodo. ‘So do I’ Said Gandalf, ‘and so do all those who live in hard times. But they can’t choose what time they are born in. All we can choose is what to do with that time.

From the Lord of the Rings, this short exchange between Gandalf and Frodo speaks to what we can’t change. We don’t choose the times or places in which we are born. We don’t choose many of the challenges, troubles or world events that will occur during our lives. All we can choose is how we will live in those times, how we will or will not respond to them.

For if you remain silent at this time, relief and deliverance for the Jews will arise from another place, but you and your father’s family will perish. And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?

From the Book of Esther, this quote comes at a time when Queen Esther must decide whether she will stand by silent while her people are massacred, or whether she will speak to the king on their behalf, even at the risk of her life. This statement calls me to consider the opportunity and purpose behind the circumstances in my life. Regardless of the life circumstance, it drives me to ask ask, “Could it be that I am here for such a time as this?”

 “Most revolutions end with the people still oppressed by the same or a different cruel master.”

This was a quote shared by Jim Shelton at the 2012 Education Innovation Summit, and it sticks with me. It was mentioned in the context of educational innovation, a reminder that we may seek to bring about an educational revolution with our work, but there is a very real risk that that our solutions to one problem/oppressor only create a new one problem/oppressor. And I am humbled by the fact that it is often difficult for us to foresee such things.

 “Whoever marries the spirit of this age will find himself a widower in the next.”

Stated by William Inge, this quote is also a humbling reminder to not cling our lean into those things that are fleeting; but rather to seek after those things that matter across time and generations. I do not interpret this to mean that I ignore trends and innovations, but it does drive me to strive from a clear and compelling “why” behind each one. What is the larger goal, purpose or value?

15 Organizations That Model & Inspire Educational Innovation

We live in exciting times. There is unprecedented educational experimentation and exploration. Even more exciting, people and organizations are exploring new and creative ways to address important social problems and challenges by rethinking how we go about education in an increasingly connected world.

There are hundreds, even thousands of organizations that are doing good and important work in education. While there are plenty of organizations in the education sector that continue to be driven by the yearning for as much market share as possible or for what seems like the primary goal of self-preservation, there are plenty of others that have clear and compelling visions, that embrace their responsibility and calling to promote social good through work in education, and that are helping us explore and imagine new and promising possibilities for education in a connected world. While far from an exhaustive list, here are fifteen such organizations, ranging from private to public, non-profit to for-profit, education providers to facilitators of educational movements. If you want a glimpse into some of the more promising things happening in education today, take a look at what these organizations are doing. In fact, if you want to be part of  some of the most promising movements in education, find a way to get involved with one or more of these groups. 

1. Digital Promise – The mission of this organization is to, “Improve the opportunity to learn for all Americans through technology and research.” This mission has led them into any number of initiatives: efforts to bridge the skills gap for adult learners, the league of innovative schools (a coalition of K-12 schools working together to address important challenges through a blend of educational research and learning technologies), and their new micro-credential / digital badge project focused upon reimagining ongoing professional development for educators.

2. Jobs for the Future – This is one of the more exciting organizations to me right now. They are “working to expand the college, career, and life prospects of low-income youth and adults across 25 states.” This includes projects like Credentials that Work (“aligning career training with employer demand”), efforts to increase college readiness, as well as impressive work around early college designs (“reinventing high schools for post-secondary success”). 

3. Badge Alliance – Started this year (2014), this alliance of key organizations like the Mozilla and MacArthur Foundation, “is a network of organizations and people working together to build and support an open badging ecosystem, with a focus on shared values including openness, learner agency and innovation.” They are leading the way and providing important connections among those who are interested in exploring the possibilities of micro-credentials for everything from out-of-school learning to increasing job opportunities for veterans, creating citywide networks of learning around digital badges, or even a growing number of K-12 and higher education institutions experimenting the role of these new credentials. This is a new group and much of the work is just getting started, but I am already seeing some exciting developments from the early working groups organized by the Badge Alliance. 

4. Western Governor’s University – WGU has been around for over 15 years, and it currently serves over 40,000 students throughout the United Sates with quality competency-based online degrees. There are parts to their model that I would like to tweak (like leaving more room for self-directed learning within a competency-based model), but what they have done has created a model for others. They have been groundbreakers in the developing world of competency-based education, challenging the odd historic practice of measuring student progress by seat time instead of what students know and can do.

Arizona State University – What Michael Crow has promoted during his time as President of ASU is nothing short of impressive: casting a vision for an entrepreneurial state University, building a high-quality online program through ASU Online, creating “trandsciplinary schools”, efforts to increase access and opportunity to higher education, corporate partnerships like the recent ASU / Starbucks program, and nurturing a startup culture. ASU is, without question, one of the most innovative higher education institutions in the world.

5. P2PU – Their tag line reads, “learning by everyone for everyone about almost anything. completely free.” P2PU is a brilliant social experiment in open education, leveraging the power of life and learning in a connected world, and peer-to-peer learning. Their MOOCs and other open courses are not just replications of authoritarian educational institutions and frameworks put into an online format. They have re-envisioned and redefined the word “University” with an unswerving commitment to openness and peeragogy.

6. Udacity - This one gets mixed reviews in the media (as to almost all innovative organizations), but Udacity is helping us to rethink credentials and education leading to employable skills through their new nano-degrees and courses designed around project-based learning. Unlike other online learning provides, both Udacity and P2PU are making their work about more than just digitizing old school courses and programs. They are giving us new and promising models. In fact, Udacity’s most recent is potentially a direct challenge to traditional Universities that dismiss workforce development as beneath them (which, by the way, is just what happens to companies and organizations that are just about to experience a disruptive innovation).

7. EdSurge – This is my single favorite news source for educational innovation and educational technology. If you have not done so, sign up for their newsletter today. From their website, “EdSurge is an independent information resource and community for everyone involved in education technology.” It is more than a news and resource center. Leaders at EdSurge are pulling up their sleeves and helping to build important networks, communities, gatherings, and even helping to recognize and highlight high-impact people and organizations through their Digital innovation and learning awards. Organizations like EdSurge help build bridges and networks among educational innovators that help great ideas spread, and help people find their place in this exciting world of educational entrepreneurship and innovation.

8. Maker Faire – The Maker Faire movement is helping to elevate a culture of creation in a world of consumption. They are doing it one maker faire at a time: providing a forum for makers to share their amazing creations, giving people a glimpse and invitation into the maker world, and promoting a vision for learning by doing and creating.

9. Thomas Fordham Institute – Here is their stated mission, “The Thomas B. Fordham Institute is the nation’s leader in advancing educational excellence for every child through quality research, analysis, and commentary, as well as on-the-ground action and advocacy in Ohio.” Even if I do not agree with all the commentary, I find this to be one of the more researched and enlightening sources of information about current and emerging research focused on educational innovation. They are leading voices in places like Ohio around a vision of ample choices for diverse students; whether it be charters, magnet schools, school choice programs, blended and online learning options, and dual credit. 

10. Khan Academy - If you haven’t check it out lately, take a few minutes. Their mission is, to change, “education for the better by providing a free world-class education for anyone anywhere.” It is an instigator for a world-wide conversation about the flipped classroom (although there are certainly many other major voices). Along the way, they have grow into some fascinating work that ventures into mastery-based learning, personalized learning, self-directed learning, adaptive learning, and learning analytics. As such, Khan Academy is a great example of a how an education startup can help people imagine new ways of going about teaching and learning, even impacting traditional schooling environments from the outside…but then seeing it find its way into many of those very traditional schools.

11. North Star Self-Directed Learning for Teens – I remember talking to one of the founders about three or four years ago on the phone, just learning more about the work they do. They are not a school. Instead, students sign up with the state as a homeschooler, but they come to this place of self-directed learning, get coaching and guidance as needed, and take responsibility for their own learning. Check out their site and videos for a better understanding of their work. Since my initial conversation several years ago, they have gained national attention and become a model for other self-directed centers around the United States. As such, they have essentially created a new model of schooling, neither traditional homeschooling or a teacher-led traditional school. They are an example of

12. Kidnected World - “kids create social good by doing what they love to do” – I learned about this group at the 2014 ISTE conference, more specifically as part of the the startup pitchfest (Have I mentioned that I am addicted to education startup pitches…what I consider the poetry slams of the education startup world?). This nonprofit exists to provide the tools that kids need to change the world. The goal is to connect kids to one another and provide them with tools to be agents of change by using their imagination and playing with others (what they already do well). That is where their “wonderment” comes in. It is a community. Kids enter, pick a path, participate in a challenge, see other kids joining in, the “wonder meter” rises, and they see the impact of a social good project. This is one of many exciting efforts to blend education and having a social impact. Is it more effective to tell kids about the good they can do once they finish twelve or sixteen years of formal school, or to actually provide them with the tools and means to impact the world right now? Organizations like Kidnected World are showing us the wisdom and possibility of the latter.

13. The Learning Revolution Project – Developed by Steve Hargadon, the Learning Revolution Project includes opportunities to learn about and from leaders and innovators across the field of education. The project has an impressive list of partners ranging from higher education institutions to professional organizations and companies in the education sector. This project includes opportunities to learn from and network through various communities, a growing number of free online conferences (with a refreshing spirit of openness), tour events with a special theme, as well as the beloved ISTE unplugged event hosted before the official start of the ISTE conference each year. Education is a field that thrives on openness, sharing, and networking; and The Learning Revolution Project is a champion and model for all three.

14. Alternative Education Resource Organization – The stated goal of AERO is to, “advance student-driven, learner-centered approaches to education.” As such, this is a single organization where you can learn about everything from Waldorf education to Sudbury schools, Montessori to Reggio Emilia, educational co-ops to unschooling. Even if you don’t embrace any of these models or visions, it is an organization that provides a collection of alternative voices to the dominance of talk about testing and national standards that seem to drive so many other contemporary K-12 efforts. This is an organization to follow if you want to learn from diverse models and perspectives.

15. Duolingo – At first glance, this is just a company if a fun and user-friendly app for learning a new language. Look closer and you see a company serious about figuring out how to best help people learn a new language, promsing work around the gamification of learning, and a willingness to also step into the realm of credentialing and certification of learning. It is probably this last part that ensured a spot on my list of fifteen, as they are providing a distruptive innovation in the world if English language certification for students seeking to study in the United States. They are offering a free (soon to be $20) test that is comparable ot TOEFL! This is a trend to watch, education companies that don’t just stop at offering educational opportunities, but are also willing to establish new forms of certification and credentialing that challenge traditional systems.

The Value of School Choice & Charters in a Compulsory Education System

Ideology – “The ideas and manner of thinking characteristic of a group, social class, or individual.

Values – “A person’s principles or standards of behavior; one’s judgment of what is important in life

- Oxford Dictionary Online

Compulsory without ChoiceRight now the United States has a compulsory public education system (with compulsory education being adopted across the country from 1852 to 1918). In the past, parents were fined for not complying, and there was even the threat of taking children away from parents who resisted the laws of compulsory schooling. Since education is required, it is also provided for free. After all, you can’t require someone to attend a school that they can’t afford. And there are also provisions for allowing people the option of homeschooling or attending a private school. In a context like this, I see immense value (even importance) in maintaining a commitment to school choice, vouchers, and charter schools. My argument is not made by claiming that charters outperform other schools, or that they even do a better job in some easily quantifiable manner. It is also not made without recognizing abuses of some people with charters and choice, and the need to refine policy to address such problems and to demand accountability and transparency (as evidenced by a recent news release where the State of Michigan stated that 11 authorizers are “at risk of suspension” to create new charters). My position is instead informed by the role of ideology and values in education.

Look at writings in support of compulsory school from around the world, and these are some of the arguments that you see. 1) It creates a shared socialization experience for all children. 2) It ensures a baseline level of education for all children. 3) It gives children a chance to “escape” the ideals and beliefs of their family. Let’s consider each of these.

“It ensures a baseline level of education for all children.”

There are several important aspects to this claim, but I will focus upon two. First, I accept that there is indeed some truth to the claim, although we certainly do not have a baseline level of knowledge and skill among students today. And even when we see a baseline in given schools or districts, this does not address important issues, like the fact that some of the most valuable knowledge and skills that students learn comes from beyond school. It happens through socialization in school and community; through informal play, experimentation and exploration; through having mentors and role models in life; through access to books in the home; through the groups and communities in which people participate beyond school. These have immense influence on the future of young people. There is something to be said about certain baselines, like having people pass a basic driver’s test before getting a license, but there is not as clear of an agreed upon baseline in K-12 schooling, which leads us to the second point. What is the baseline? Who determines it? Who should or does get to decide what students do and do not learn…and how the learning takes place? That leads us quickly to the other two arguments for compulsory education.

“It gives children a chance to ‘escape’ the ideals and beliefs of their family by experiencing a “neutral” education.” and “It creates a shared socialization experience for all children.”

Visit a dozen public schools around the United States. Sit in the classes. Interview the students and teachers. Then try repeating this statement about the public education system providing a “neutral” education. Public education is deeply ideological and values-laden. The curriculum in schools is not as neutral as the criteria for a driver’s education program. There are strong ideological positions about everything from the human condition and human nature to ethics and social issues.

It can’t be avoided. Look at government and politics. Do we have ideology-free environments there?   Even in classes and schools where teachers try to hide their personal ideologies, beliefs and convictions; they show up. And if a school achieved complete ideological neutrality (which I contend is not possible), do we really want to provide an education that is free from any ideological discourse? If we do, then we have promoted a new ideology, one that is a-ideological. Look at the closing statement from President Obama’s State of the Union Address in January, 2014. What are his closing words? “God bless you, and God bless the United States of America.” Is that ideologically neutral? How about our laws? What about the Bill of Rights? These are full of values and ideology. 

Ideologies are not just about matters of religions and ethics. They are also about beliefs and convictions regarding what constitutes a good education. These venture into what is learned and/or taught, but also into how it is learned and taught. The environment and culture is part of what is learned in a school. School leaders and teachers have strong convictions about how students should learn, behave, and act in school; but there is no universal agreement on these matters. Some value more student-led and democratic visions of schooling, where others argue for strong standards-based models that mandate to teachers what to teach and students what to learn. Some promote test-driven models while others advocate for more narrative feedback and portfolio assessment. Some promote a direct instruction vision where others embrace a project-based learning model. These all teach values and ideologies. They influence students in largely different ways, impacting how they think about themselves, others, and the world around them.

The Role of Choice

So, given this reality, what happens if we have a compulsory education system across the United States that provides little to no student or family choice on what and how things are learned? This is not a neutral education. Do we really want to repeat the errors of past generations in the United States when we forced native American children into boarding schools to “socialize” them? “Kill the native to save the man.” The United States does not have a track record of providing a neutral public education to young people. This is an education intended to teach the values and ideologies of the majority or of those with the greatest voice and influence in a given public school or school district. This is not an attack on public education, only a defense of choice in face of the fact that all schools (public and private) teach values and are influenced by ideology. Each public school and/or district haas control and influence over the values and ideologies that emerge in the school(s). And control and influence without individuals having choice is a dangerous and Orwellian path.

This is where school choice, voucher programs, and charter schools fit into my own philosophy of education. If we are going to require students to attend school, and school is incapable of being truly neutral, then it seems to me that the best option is to at least provide families and students with choice about the type of schools they choose to attend.

This is why debates about school choice can’t be reduced to comparisons of student performance and achievement on standardized tests, because more is taught and learned in school than what is measured on these tests. Education is about more than what certain groups choose to define as the best measures of student achievement, because those choices about what to test also reflect ideologies and values.

Without choice, vouchers, and charters; compulsory education mandates that students get an education into certain ideologies and values unless they have the money or life situation to afford homeschooling or a private school. Why should educational freedom related to one’s ideologies, beliefs, values and convictions only be available to those who can pay for it? That seems to set up a system that limits the rights of families based upon their economic situation.

What a second. We don’t let people choose which court to go to when they are on trial. Why should schools be any different? No, but we do have a jury of peers and legal counsel on both sides who have say in the makeup of that jury. That is not how we hire administrators and teachers in our local public schools, nor is it how we adopt curriculum or decide upon educational philosophies that shape the schools. And the court example allows choice and influence at the individual level…for each new person on trial. We don’t typically allow such choice on an individual level in our traditional schools.

Among those who argue against charters and choice, they are often some of the same who argue for putting the decisions in the hands of schools and teachers, not politicians and businesses. I agree with that in large part, but it does not solve the values and ideological issues that I’ve described so far. Note that the value is pro-teacher and pro-school (which is commendable), but there is nothing about leaving decisions to parents and students. What about pro-parent, pro-family, and pro-student? This is a massive philosophical and ideological difference among people in the United States. If some are trying to close down charters and remove choice and vouchers as an option from families, then we must give them an immense amount of choice and influence on what is taught/learned and the school culture.

Another position of some of the same people who argue against choice, vouchers and charters is the need to create a national curriculum that states what children in every grade should learn. Note that this is also about mandating values and ideologies on a national level in public schools. Not only do some people argue against choice and charters, but some of them also want to mandate the values and ideas taught to people in the only free education options that would be available to families. I realize that people will challenge me on this point, arguing that there is nothing that ideological about what we see in nationalized curricula, but that strikes me as being amazingly uninformed about the wonderfully diverse set of beliefs and values that come together in the people of the United States.

The vision of this nation is not to make everyone the same. We do strive toward certain shared values associated with the US Constitution, but schooling ventures into far more ideological and values-laden areas. As long as that is the case, I remain a strong advocate for the importance of choice, vouchers and charters; not to create some sort of healthy competition to improve the overall quality of education (because I don’t see evidence that it works that way), but because I believe in a vision of the United States that honors and values the Bill of Rights.

I recognize that there are serious challenges and problems in some choice, voucher and charter programs around the country…and they need to be addressed. Yet, I can’t support getting rid of them as long as we maintain a commitment to compulsory education.