Choice, in recent years, has become a mantra in public education, mostly for the right reasons. But there have been abuses of this important educational freedom as well.
The right of parents to be able to choose where to send their children to school has helped in large part to launch the charter school and other school reform movements and even vouchers in some states. Choice became a powerful force in California schools nearly a decade ago when a 1993 state law created intra- and inter-district public school choice policies in which parents can choose to enroll their child in a participating school outside the student's neighborhood, space permitting.
Within many schools, especially charter and magnet schools, there are rich choices in curricula and educational practices that respond to individual interests and needs of their students; choices that are made by parents and students. The idea is that choice should provide tailored options that will produce improved academic achievement on the part of all students in a culturally diverse society such as ours.
That notion, however, is not shared elsewhere in the world. In China, where I visited last month, a student's academic performance is the chief determinant of what kind of school a child attends and where that school is located. Students are identified and directed very early in their school careers into specific educational courses and curriculum, depending on their demonstrated potential and achievements.
There are not that many choices in China, compared to our educational system, but what choices do exist are extremely rigorous. Despite their limited educational options, Chinese students excel in math and science -- far above our students. Their education in recent history, current events and foreign languages is secondary to the quality of their math and science instruction. With math and science they've mastered the rigors of the two subjects that will equip their students to advance China as a technology power in future generations.
The lead Chinese students enjoy in math and science may be a little reminiscent of the late 1950s when the USSR launched Sputnik as the first satellite into space. That occasion set off an alarm in United States schools about how far behind we were in preparing students for careers in engineering.
However, the resultant reemphasis in math and science in the U.S. helped put American astronauts on the moon by the end of the following decade. Where is that reemphasis today?
Some have observed that we've gone soft once again in preparing students for careers in science and technology. Too few kids are taking enough math and science in their middle school years to prepare them to take the courses they need in high school that would equip them for higher education and jobs in the technology industries. They have a point, when you consider the dire shortage in San Diego of trained employees to fill jobs in local biomedical and other technology-based companies.
However, despite our present-day lag in math and science education on a national scale, we've been able to maintain our role as the technology leader of the world. China, along with several developing nations, is economically dependent on selling hardware to U.S. companies that manufacture computers and other electronic equipment.
For the most part, those who are responsible for today's technology leadership in the U.S. came up through U.S. schools that offered wide choices to students. We have come to believe as a people that the definition of an educated person extends beyond what his or her math and science quotient happens to be and that a superb education provides ample and varied choices.
In the past, such educational choices have been academically rigorous and relevant. In order for choice to continue to be a positive attribute in our schools, it needs to provide substantive courses and topics that collectively produce a well-educated society.
Maintaining academic rigor in all curricula, however, is where we can easily run afoul, often in the name of political correctness. Just one example: Some schools in Hawaii are spending the bulk of instructional time teaching students the Hawaiian language, how to make canoes and fishnets, Hawaiian music and other aspects of the Hawaiian culture in lieu of the classics in literature and other core subject basics.
The topics are certainly interesting and appropriate in terms of teaching children to appreciate the history and culture of where they live. The concern, however, should center on what is not being taught or emphasized. There are only so many instructional hours in the day and school year. How will such instruction prepare these children to succeed in a work force that is becoming increasingly global and multicultural?
The myriad examples of unbalanced curricula in other areas of our country abuse the concept of educational choice.
Closer to home, we need to be ever vigilant as to what our kids need to succeed in a choice-driven educational environment. What is the right balance between schools having ample curricular choices and teaching basic reading and math skills?
This is the essence of the continuing debate over San Diego Unified's Blueprint for Student Success in which basic literacy and mathematics skills are emphasized in favor of other subjects. Does this emphasis provide sufficient academic rigor for students at all levels to reach their maximum academic performance?
In the end, whether choices contribute or detract in our children's education depends on how we define the end result: a well-educated young adult. To do so, we need to look beyond multidigit standardized test scores that partially measure knowledge levels and reasoning skills. Just what does an educated person look like?
That could well be a question for future columns.
Hovenic, Ed.D, is president and chief executive officer of the San Diego Regional Chamber of Commerce Foundation and executive director of the foundation's Business Roundtable for Education. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.