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April 1, 2002
Vol. 59
No. 7

The Case for Diversified Schooling

Parents hold strong and diverse views about the methods and goals of education.Instead of imposing a “one option for all” system, public schools should respectthese differences by combining intentional diversification with meaningful parent choice.

The board of education in my community of Fairfax County, Virginia, was divided over whether to adoptmathematics textbooks recommended by the district selection committee. The committee's first choice wasthe Everyday Mathematics program, which aligns with the state curriculum standards and emphasizesactive learning, understanding, and the language of mathematics. Opponents—including some teachers,parents, and board members—preferred the Saxon textbook series, with its more traditional approach. Theselection committee had endorsed two other textbook series as options that each of the district's 132schools could choose instead of Everyday Mathematics, but did not recommend Saxon as an option. Thequestion was, How much disparity should the school district permit?
Everyday Mathematics is the product of almost 20 years of research and development by a highlyqualified team of educators at the University of Chicago, with support from the National ScienceFoundation, and is in accord with the platform of the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics. I thinkit's an excellent program—but some people, including some professional mathematicians, do not.

One Option for All

The Fairfax board of education's dilemma reflects the continuing battles nationwide over progressiveversus traditional math, skills-based versus literature-based reading, social studies versus history, andalmost every other aspect of curriculum and instruction. These issues are usually resolved politically, in aprocess that could be characterized as “winner takes all.” The group with a majority imposes its will on theminority.
From one standpoint, that's democracy. It happens all the time in local, state, and nationalelections. But although you can't have more than one mayor, you can have more than one reading program.Depending on the circumstances, you might have two—or many.
The “one for all” approach is reflected in the current standards movement. Begun a decade ago asan effort by subject-matter organizations to describe their visions of quality teaching and learning, thismovement has become a lever to enforce a narrow version of schooling (Meier, 2000; Ohanian, 1999). InVirginia, for example, the state history and social science standards represent a traditionalist view: Studentsmust master and recall a detailed body of knowledge at each grade level. Many people see nothing wrongwith that, and as far as I am concerned, they are welcome to their version of standards-based schooling.What I object to is imposing a particular brand of education on every public school and student in the nameof “high standards.”

Many Good Ways

Instead of more standardization, we need more diversification. Of the many approaches to education, Iprefer some to others—but I don't believe there is one best way. Limiting the options to any singleapproach, no matter how commendable, inevitably excludes the unusual and the innovative.
My purpose here is not to list all the variations that deserve consideration. I am impressed,however, with the “break the mold” designs promoted by New American Schools(www.naschools.org), such as CoNECT, with its computer-orientedstudent projects, and Outward Bound: Expeditionary Learning, with its emphasis on challenge and exploration.The federal Comprehensive School Reform initiative has helped disseminate the New American Schools models andmany other fine programs, such as Integrated Thematic Instruction (Kovalik & Olson, 2001).
The movement to standardize public education is balanced at least partially by the ComprehensiveSchool Reform initiative and the creation of more and more options: magnets, charter schools, cyberschools, homeschools, for-profit operation of public schools, and vouchers. Professional educators aregenerally wary of such options—perhaps for good reasons—but the trend will surely continue. Rather thanresist it, educators should actively seek diversification, accompanied by parent choice, within publiceducation.
Choice is not a new idea; it already exists in some public school districts. More typically, though,parents are expected to send their children to the school to which they are assigned by the district. Parentsmay request a different school, and transfers may frequently be approved, but parents do not have theright to choose. And even in states and districts where parents do have that right, the system usually doesnot provide the intentional diversification that would make choice meaningful.

It Can Be Done

A shining example of purposeful diversification is the Edmonton, Alberta (Canada), school system(Dosdall, 2001), which has implemented site-based decision making for more than 20 years (McBeath,2001). In the mid-1990s, after having firmly established the principle of full school autonomy in budgeting,staffing, and other matters, Edmonton added variation and parent choice, along with strong accountabilityprovisions. The central office monitors satisfaction levels of teachers, students, and parents; assessesstudent achievement; and closes unsuccessful programs and creates new ones.
The Edmonton model, in which a central board manages available options, is similar to one of thetwo models for governing public education that were recommended in a report from the EducationCommission of the States (National Commission on Governing America's Schools, 1999). The other modelwould give more autonomy to individual schools, allowing them to function essentially as U.S. charterschools do now.
The advantage of the Edmonton model is that a central board represents the interests of thecommunity, thereby avoiding excesses and ensuring efficient use of available resources, especially schoolbuildings. For example, one building can house several different programs. Principals in Edmonton seethemselves as the CEOs of their schools, but—unlike directors of charter schools, who are sometimes at themercy of unpredictable, independent boards—Edmonton principals are also part of a larger, supportivesystem. A centrally managed system, however, requires objectivity from school officials, includingwillingness to approve programs that they personally dislike.
Districts that do not have Edmonton's tradition of site-based decision making may begin bydiversifying their offerings without making the drastic changes envisioned in the Education Commission ofthe States report. Many school systems have established a set of alternative schools or programs to augmentthe standard program offered in most of their schools. The test is whether satisfactory choices are availableto the families who want them—within the local public schools.

Yes, But . . .

The heated arguments appearing daily in newspapers across the United States make it clear that manyeducators and policymakers dislike the idea of diversification. Some object to the basic philosophy ofschool choice; others doubt its practicality. Here are responses to some common concerns.

Loss of the Common School

Concern. Some people oppose diversification because they fear that it will fragment society and violate theideal of the “common school,” in which children of all classes mingle, learn to appreciate differences, anddevelop democratic values (Mathews, 1996).
Response. Although the common school continues to be an attractive idea, it scarcely applies totoday's public schools, which differ greatly depending on the population they serve. We all know thatschools in inner cities are very different places from schools in the suburbs. Rather than being across-section of the population as a whole, public schools must, to some extent, reflect the culture of theirsurrounding community. And in the modern world, that differentiation is to be expected because a primecharacteristic of urban life is diversity rather than similarity.


Concern. Perhaps the best argument against diversification is its potential for inequity. If school programsdiffer, some are likely to be better than others, and the differences will usually favor children of peoplewith power and influence. Researchers point out that when choice is permitted, selective schools oftenchoose students rather than the other way around (Fuller & Elmore, 1996). Because of such equityconcerns, some states have reduced or eliminated many student options, insisting that all students take suchacademic courses as algebra rather than “applied” courses. Theorists such as E. D. Hirsch (1996) and thelate Mortimer Adler (1982) see a common curriculum as essential preparation for democratic citizenship.
Response. Of course, equity is an important value. Diversity need not inevitably lead to inequality,however. Government policies can do much to prevent it. For example, difficult-to-teach students are morelikely to get an appropriate education if funding levels fairly reflect the extra cost of the special servicesthat they need.
It is entirely appropriate, moreover, to require all publicly funded schools to provide students witha well-defined basic education. Providing such an education can be done by maintaining large-scaleassessment systems that test only for essential skills (Popham, 2001). Beyond that, each school should beevaluated not just for “achievement” but also in terms of its own declared goals.

Lack of Curriculum Coherence

Concern. If schools within a community develop many different instructional programs, school districtsmay have difficulty maintaining continuity through different levels of schooling. Students may experiencea chaotic curriculum as they move through the grades.
Response. The Edmonton schools, despite their planned variation, provide for articulation bymaintaining the same basic curriculum in all schools. That may be the best solution, although somedifferences in curriculum are desirable. Schools must be aware of the problem and act responsibly. Insubject areas where continuity is especially important (world languages, for example), groups of schoolsshould plan accordingly.


Concern. Another argument against diversification is its inefficiency. In the Netherlands, where thegovernment provides equal financial support to many different types of schools, including small schoolsrequested by groups of parents, education is relatively expensive (Louis & van Velzen, 1991). Schooldistricts can implement new programs more easily if all schools need the same types of support, includingstaff development. And large schools are generally more economical to run than small ones. Finally, pupiltransportation costs will be higher if students are permitted to travel at public expense to schools outsidetheir attendance area.
Response. Diversified education does seem less efficient than standardized education, but thebenefits may be worth the extra cost. Consider the differences between capitalism and socialism. Thecapitalist system certainly has its faults, including wasteful duplication of effort, but people in most parts ofthe world have come to prefer capitalism over socialism.
Bigness and uniformity have some merit, but smallness and variety have even more—especially ineducation. For example, small schools have been found, on average, to produce better learning (Nathan & Febey,2001; Sergiovanni, 1996).

Problems in Rural Settings

Concern. Educators in rural settings often express another concern about diversification: How can itbe applied in small communities and rural schools?
Response. Extensive differentiation is probably more feasible in urban areas than elsewherebecause schools are closer together and communication is easier. That is one of the characteristics of urbanlife—people who live in cities also have access to a wider variety of restaurants, cultural activities, andstores than people in less populated areas. With fewer people and less variation in cultural norms, ruralareas may not need as much differentiation. Even so, schools in small communities can provide for somedifferentiation, possibly in cooperation with nearby school systems.

Can Parents Choose Responsibly?

Many educators are less uneasy about diversification than about parent choice. Although educators mayhesitate to say so directly, they believe that parents don't always make good decisions for their children.Some parents are intrusive and demanding, insisting on special privileges for their own children. Otherspay little attention to their children's education, expecting educators to do it all. And others areoverwhelmed with their own problems and lack the resources to become knowledgeable about educationissues affecting their children. Although I recognize the validity of such concerns, I nevertheless thinkparents should choose, because I don't see any other reasonable possibility.
Let's return for a moment to the issue of traditional versus progressive mathematics (neither ofthese terms is exactly accurate, but they will do for shorthand). “Enlightened” authorities are finding itincreasingly difficult to install their preferred approach over the protests of skeptical teachers and parents.Who should make the final decision?
Some educators and board members would contend that the best alternative is to compromise,including a little of both progressive and traditional approaches in the final decision. Such compromisesmay be possible, but curriculum developers usually have already included the blend of strategies that theythink appropriate, and competing programs are still decidedly different. The question remains: If more thanone curriculum is offered, who should decide which students get what?
Usually, local educators decide. Sometimes with parent input—usually from selected parents andonly in the year when adoption decisions are made—teachers and administrators at each school choose theprogram that they prefer. (That's how the final decision about the mathematics curriculum will be made inFairfax County.) When decisions are made in this fashion, educators relate to parents in one of two ways:They say, “Trust us—we know what we're doing” or they say, “Here are all the good reasons we've chosenthis obviously desirable program, so we're sure you'll agree it's wonderful.” (To be honest, that was myapproach when I was an associate superintendent.) But some parents may not agree. What then?

Provide Good Choices

  • Parent and teacher preferences—pedagogical and cultural values on which teachers and familymembers agree, reflecting viewpoints about the purposes and goals of education and life;
  • Evidence of effectiveness—results from use by schools in similar circumstances;
  • Community characteristics—suitability for particular situations (for example, AcceleratedSchools was designed originally for low-performing urban schools);
  • Resources—availability, quality, and cost of materials, training, and other support; and
  • Local capabilities, including teacher abilities and experience.

A Matter of Freedom

As you ponder the future of public education, consider religion as an example of diversification in modernsociety. In free countries around the world, people choose the religious institutions they will join andsupport. In Europe only a few hundred years ago, a particular religion was regarded as the only true faith.And even today, in some parts of the world, all are expected to practice the official religion and may bepunished if they do not. Religion is an important aspect of life—to many people the most important—soauthoritarian leaders consider it proper for the state to enforce “right” beliefs. But because it is soimportant, most of us would not accept a faith someone else had chosen for us.
Churches serve a different function from that of schools, but they are similar in some ways. Mostpeople's education philosophies, like their religious beliefs, are shaped by their worldview—therefore,politics and education, like politics and religion, are a poor mix. And I remind those dismayed by theprospect of having to “market” their schools that in a free society every church must continually advertise(in one way or another) for potential parishioners. It may be an additional burden, but it's a price that wegladly pay for freedom.

A Long History of Choice: Edmonton Public Schools

For more than 25 years, Edmonton Public Schools in Alberta, Canada, has combined school-site decisionmaking with central-office responsibility for establishing policy, setting priorities, determining funding,and monitoring success. The district currently offers 30 alternative programs, many in multiple locations.More than 45 percent of elementary students, 50 percent of junior high school students, and 60 percent ofsenior high school students attend schools outside their designated attendance area.

  • Language and culture—Programs include French immersion and bilingual programs in American SignLanguage, Arabic, German, Hebrew, Mandarin, Spanish, and Ukrainian, as well as in Aboriginal culture.

  • Subject matter—Programs include academic alternatives (enrichment/acceleration, Advanced Placement,International Baccalaureate), arts, hockey, science, dance, and visual and performing arts.

  • Instructional approach—Schools offer thematic curriculum; teacher-directed instruction; all-girls schools;traditional, values-based instruction; distance learning; and a focus on research, science, and technology.

  • Religion—Edmonton Christian School and Millwoods Christian School alternatives.

Under Edmonton Public Schools' Diversification Framework, all district programs must follow boardpolicies, teach the provincial curriculum, and receive funds in the same way. The district's program policyensures that all programs are consistent with sound education theory and practice, have appropriate staffand instructional resources, and don't have a negative impact on current offerings.

—Contributed by Angus McBeath,Superintendent of Schools, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada;Angus.mcbeath@epsb.ca

All Lighthouse Schools: Natrona County School District

  • No one school can meet the needs of all students;

  • The best education happens when parents, students, and school staff members work together towardcommon goals using commonly agreed-upon methods; and

  • Families are often the best judge of which kind of school will best meet their children's needs.

Schools select and implement exemplary programs, and parents choose the program that best meets theirexpectations and their children's needs, regardless of where they live. Whenever possible, the districtprovides transportation for students attending schools outside their attendance areas.

The district's 11,000 students attend 30 elementary schools, 8 middle-level schools, and 4 high schools.Program offerings include Montessori, MicroSociety, HOSTS, Success for All, balanced literacy,Spaulding Reading, Core Knowledge, Saxon Math, Connected Math, International Baccalaureate DiplomaProgram, Problem-Based Learning, and a self-contained gifted and talented program. The elementaryschool formats include thematic, multi-aged, direct instruction, and looping approaches. Secondary schoolformats include block schedules, traditional schedules, a program in which the students construct a Habitatfor Humanity house, courses that earn both high school and college credit, programs linked to technologyskill certification, and a program that integrates the four core areas.

—Contributed by Mark Mathern, Executive Director for Curriculum and Instructional Services(Mark_Mathern@ncsd.k12.wy.us),and Jim Lowham, Associate Superintendentfor Curriculum and Instruction (Jim_Lowham@ncsd.k12.wy.us),Natrona County School District, Casper, Wyoming

High School Focus Programs: Lincoln Public Schools

Five years ago, Lincoln Public Schools in Nebraska began to explore the idea of choice in response toconcerns about large and overcrowded high schools. With funding from the Cooper Foundation, the districtstaff and community members completed an extensive study of the focus program concept. Out of the studycame the Science Focus Program—more commonly called the Zoo School. Since then, the district hasadded the Arts and Humanities Focus Program and the Information Technology Focus Program.

Each focus program creates a small community of learners with a targeted area of study. The programs arenot “full-service” schools, and students retain ties to their home high schools, including their counselorsand the coursework, student activities, and interscholastic sports that are not available at the focus program.Generally, students at the Zoo School (located on the campus of the Folsom Children's Zoo and BotanicalGarden) and the Arts and Humanities Focus Program (located in a renovated historic building) participatein one or two classes at their home high school and attend the focus programfrom 10:00 a.m. to 3:00 p.m.each day. Students at the Information Technology Focus Program (located in an office building in thedowntown business and financial district) attend 90-minute focus classes and return to their home highschool; they may participate in multiple classes, extending the amount of time they are at the focus programdaily.

The focus programs offer the same kinds of choice that charter schools do, but they operate under theauthority of the public school district and the Nebraska Department of Education's rules and regulations.Students of all ability levels, from special education to highly gifted, can choose to attend a focus programas long as they make a commitment to participate as a member of a small community of learners. Someamazing connections result from this commitment. The small community of learners creates a supportiveand secure environment that students find to be the most important aspect of the focus programs.

—Contributed by Dennis Van Horne,Administrative Assistant for Instruction,Lincoln Public Schools, Nebraska;dvhorn@lps.org


Adler, M. J. (1982). The Paideia proposal. New York: Macmillan.

Dosdall, E. (2001). Edmonton's enterprise. The School Administrator, 58(5),6–11.

Fuller, B., & Elmore, R. F. (1996). Who chooses? Who loses? New York: ColumbiaUniversity Press.

Hirsch, E. D., Jr. (1996). The schools we need and why we don't have them.New York: Doubleday.

Kovalik, S. J., & Olson, K. D. (2001). Exceeding expectations: A user's guide to implementing brainresearch in the classroom. Covington, WA: Books for Educators.

Louis, K. S., & van Velzen, B. A. M. (1991). A look at choice in the Netherlands. Educational Leadership48(4), 66–72.

Mathews, D. (1996). Is there a public for public schools? Dayton, OH: Kettering Foundation Press.

McBeath, A. B. (2001). Decentralized dollars and decisions. The School Administrator, 58(5),12–16.

Meier, D. (2000). Will standards save public education? Boston: Beacon Press.

Nathan, J., & Febey, K. (2001). Smaller, safer, saner, successful schools. Minneapolis: Center forSchool Change, University of Minnesota.

National Commission on Governing America's Schools. (1999, November). Governing America's schools:Changing the rules. Denver, CO: Education Commission of the States. Available:www.ecs.org/clearinghouse/11/72/1172.pdf

Ohanian, S. (1999). One size fits few. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Popham, W. J. (2001). The truth about testing: An educator's call to action. Alexandria,VA: ASCD.

Sergiovanni, T. J. (1996). Leadership for the schoolhouse. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

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