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Home » Chalk Talk – Joy to the World or Bah Humbug! – Your Choice

December 14, 2004

Typically around this time of year, this blog might be called Joy to the World or ‘Tis the Season, but lately, there seems to be some hysteria around the appalling notion that anyone in the public realm should speak of anything related to why it is we even have a season to celebrate, let alone want to sing out of bringing joy to the world.

That’s particularly true in public schools, where from coast to coast, it appears that some school officials think the Holiday season should be relegated to a pagan winter wonderland rather than allow kids to sing out the messages brought forth over thousands of years from Christmas and Hanukkah.

What does this have to do with school or education reform? Everything. Schools that pretend holidays celebrated and cherished by more than 90 percent of Americans (or so says Gallup) are taboo reinforce the fact that education is this country is in dire need of reform.

School is the place where communities most often converge. They are places that were intended to foster education of the senses, and of the mind. Schools stimulate the brain and the passions. Good schools provide guidance to those who need it, and its leaders serve as models for doing good and right across the lessons schools teach. Parents believe that schools are the places that reinforce education in the broadest sense, from history and civics (which include cultures) to fundamentals (like reading and math), which are gateways to becoming wholly educated.

What was in the mind of the McHenry County, Illinois school principal who allowed children to sing a Jamaican folk song AND of Hanukkah candles, and even Santa, but were prohibited from referring to Christmas? School officials called the omission “inadvertent.” Teachers put together a “balance of music” that was celebratory for the kids, they said. Balanced, that is, for everyone but the children for whom Christmas is their alpha and their omega.

But there’s a lesson here for education reform advocates. It’s the same lesson we learned during the reading wars, when instruction over whether to teach children how letters sound and related to one another (phonics) once clashed with the notion that simply absorbing books (whole language) would take care of that fundamental.

It was battles like that – pre-brain research that definitively found children need phonics to become good readers – that gave rise to the movement for school choice.

When revisionist history became the norm in popular textbooks in most states, the cause for school choice was similarly reinforced. After all, if a state, such as California, was going to require that history texts offered the “right numerical balance of genders and minorities” – fat and skinny people, tall and short – at the expense of the story of the American founding, parents would want to seek an alternative to the mandated curricular blather and mis-education that was being forced on their kids (see “The Mad, Mad World of Textbook Adoption” by the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation for more on the sad state of such affairs historically).

Such ridiculous discoveries fortified the notion that if conventional public schools were going to tow the line of bureaucracies and thought police, and ensure that children were rarely taught that which they were sent to school to really learn, perhaps parents would have more success if they did the choosing over how and what their kids were taught.

Private schools have always allowed such choice, for those who can afford them. From small, Quaker-like independent schools to structured Catholic schools, private schools have, since before this nation’s founding, offered much diversity, albeit to the few.

But it is the development of charter schools that owe themselves mostly to the war over content. Not surprisingly, charter schools gave concerned citizens a place to develop schools that would be more likely to meet their criteria for good education. Be it back to basics or experiential learning, the charter movement that began in 1991 gave relief to parents who were stuck in schools teaching nonsense, or stuck in schools that simply were not teaching. Today the nation’s 3,400 schools are mirrors of the diversity America should embrace for all of its schools. They are smaller and more diverse. They often specialize in certain modes of instruction – 14 percent offer core knowledge (a program that is historically accurate and rich in literary content); 13 percent consider themselves college-prep, another 13 science-math focussed, and yet another 13 percent are direct instruction or thematically based. Some focus on the arts, others stress Montessori, some are constructivist and some outward bound.

I’m sure most don’t discourage Christmas carols or Hanukah songs, because I know that most charter school leaders take seriously the fact that they exist because parents want them to exist, not because they are propped up artificially by mandated enrollment. And because charters are smaller and more personal and more likely to serve poor children, they probably go out of their way to reinforce holidays because their students’ home lives may be lacking in some way.

But whether or not they do celebrate the holidays as opposed to pretend they don’t exist, parents can make their own determination and choose whether or not they want their children educated in the manner the charter has been set up to operate.

Avid Newswire readers also know that beyond charters, some states – and cities – also allow less fortunate children the wonderful opportunity to attend a private school of choice. Many of them religious in nature and most of them oversubscribed with hundreds on waiting lists for precious few scholarships, these schools provide additional support for families and values that are often the subject of discrimination in more secularly-sensitive environments.

So you make the choice. Want to be a Bah Humbug-no-holidays-ever -mentioned-in-school-kind-of-person with no carols or Christmas cookie treats along side the Santa and the Dreidel? Want to be a Joy-to-the-World “it’s so cute to see the kids singing all sorts of songs at their annual concert and cutting out little angels to hang on windows” kind of person?

Just like you can turn on a radio program that is blaring Christmas carols – or turn it off – you should be able to make a more fundamental decision for your own children, and that is, the kind of environment they spend as much as 30 percent of their waking hours in, during holidays and throughout the year.

Rather than give the lawyers and the ACLU more income, let’s adopt our own kind of tort reform – education choice – and ensure that beyond the state’s standards for proficiency, every child has a chance to be in a school that their family thinks best meets their broadest educational needs and the community values their families holds dear.

Until that day, here’s wishing you a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Peace to all!