Parental choice and the free market are key elements of most educational reforms being proposed today. If schools have to compete with each other, parents will send their children to the top performers. As a result, only the fittest schools will survive and education as a whole will evolve to a higher state.
Despite the Darwinian assumptions, this is a good idea, theoretically. But theories often fail to work into their calculations the complexity of our fallen human nature.
In a study of Wisconsin's open enrollment program, in which parents can enroll their children in any public school they choose, the results were surprising. Instead of transferring children from bad schools to good schools, the transfers were often going in the other direction.
Four out of 10 parents in the program took their children out of a school with higher test scores and transferred them into a school with poorer academic performance. A consistent 40 percent transferred to a school with lower scores on state proficiency tests, lower ACT scores, fewer advanced placement courses, and a lower graduation rate.
Apparently, many parents do not value strong academics. Instead, they want to send their children to a school that is easier.
The free market system works wonders in economics, but applied to other areas of the culture, it has given us Temptation Island, gangster rap, and the other shallow hedonisms of pop culture. Will the consumer mentality in education improve our nation's schools or result in a pop-education that is even more dumbed down than what we have already?
That many parents prefer easier schools by no means invalidates these programs. After all, 60 percent seem to be using the program as it was designed, sending their children to better schools. (However, the study indicated that the numbers were such that the bad schools, able to score a 40 percent market share, felt no competitive pressure to improve.) The success of these programs will depend not on the market but on parents doing their job.
In our culture today, many parents are such friends with their children that they do not want to subject them to anything unpleasant, including disciplines that will form them into well-equipped adults.
When Wisconsin tried to implement a graduation test to make sure that no child gets a diploma without being able to read, write, and do arithmetic, parents rose up in arms and forced state officials to kill the program, lest their child suffer the embarrassment of not graduating. Nationwide, various efforts to increase the amount of homework have had the kibosh put to them by parents who do not want their children to have to do too much work.
When Hollywood or the Internet faces criticism for corrupting children by putting out vile entertainment to all, the industries piously say that policing what children see is the job of their parents. Evidently, they do not think that parental supervision will do much to cramp their style.
The latest hit movie gross-out is Hannibal, which depicts cannibalism, disembowellings, and rank terror designed to creep inside the audience's mind. Stung by the revelations about how the entertainment industry has been actively marketing this sort of R-rated thing to very young children, the studio, MGM-to its credit-this time decided to market Hannibal in a more appropriate way. No ads for the movie on TV shows favored by young people, or on early prime time when children are watching. No Hannibal trailers at G-rated movies. No radio advertising on rock stations.
Nevertheless, many parents used Hannibal as just another nice family outing. Theater audiences for Hannibal-as well as other R-rated movies-regularly include moms and dads with their grade-school children or even toddlers.
A reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel interviewed some of these parents, asking why they would take young children to a movie like this. The answers were variations of what the mother of a 9-year-old said: "It should be the parents who decide." They are the parents; this is their choice; therefore, they are not doing anything wrong.
According to postmodernist ethics, what makes something moral is whether or not it involved a choice. As in the "pro-choice" abortion rhetoric, the content of that choice does not matter. In the absence of objective truth and an objective moral law, any choice is valid.
It is indeed the parents who decide, which is as it should be, whether in education or entertainment or other aspects of child raising. But there will be no improvements unless parents pay attention to what they choose.