Choose your color

Posted: Feb 06, 2005 12:00 AM

Ideas a-plenty are bouncing around on how to improve education. Take, for instance, the recent suggestion of doing away with homework. Alas! I was born too soon.

One education specialist said that having no homework would give kids ownership over their education. Yes, in a manner. But not everyone will agree that such ownership will improve educational results.

Then there's the issue of color. A brouhaha has broken out over which ink to use in marking mistakes, when teachers grade students' papers. It seems that the traditional red pen is all wrong and thus on the way out. Purple is on the way in.

Sharon Carlson, a Massachusetts middle school teacher, says, "If you see a whole paper of red, it looks pretty frightening. Purple stands out, but it doesn't look as scary as red."

Leatrice Eiseman, author of five books on color, says, "Red is a bit over-the-top in its aggression."

"I do not use red," a Florida teacher remarked. "Red has a negative connotation, and we want to promote self-confidence. I like purple. I use purple a lot."

But you can always find a different perspective. One student divulged, "I hate red. But because I hate it, I want to work harder to make sure there isn't any red on my papers."


In addition to these latest controversies, public education continues to be dogged by longer-running debates, such as over evolution.

One current battle takes place in Cobb County, Georgia, where the school board ordered district schools to place a warning sticker on their biology textbooks. The sticker reads: "This textbook contains material on evolution. Evolution is a theory, not a fact, regarding the origin of living things. This material should be approached with an open mind, studied carefully and critically considered."

Sounds more like a call for critical thinking than a religious statement, but a number of parents sued the school district asserting that this sticker was an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. Just recently, U.S. District Judge Clarence Cooper ruled in their favor, ordering that the labels must go, because they send "a message that the school board agrees with the beliefs of Christian fundamentalists and Creationists."

The ruling is being appealed, but while we still don't know which way the courts will ultimately decide, we do know that the future decision will leave some parents out in the cold.

Lynn Hogue, a professor of constitutional law at Georgia State University, argues, "Anti-evolutionists can take their case to the pulpit, but they have no business making it in public school classrooms through stickers in textbooks paid for by taxpayer dollars."

But as Neal McCluskey, an education policy analyst at the Cato Institute, points out:

[A] very large percentage of the people living and paying taxes in Cobb County are Christians. Why is it acceptable to force them to use their tax dollars to teach their children something to which they strenuously object, but unacceptable to place a sticker on textbooks that asks other people to consider, even for a moment, beliefs contrary to their own?

That question gets to the crux of the problem: No matter how divergent their views and values, all Americans are forced to pay for public schools, no matter what the educators teach.

But how can millions of people get what they want out of a one-size-fits-all-so-deal-with-it system? The answer is that they cannot. And the fight over evolution is just one of numerous struggles precipitated by a system for which all must pay, but only a select few control.

In virtually every facet of our lives we have an abundance of choices, an important fact I often call attention to in my Common Sense e-letter: We have consumer power, and this power is nothing to sneeze at. So why don't we have it in education? For all the lip service we hear about the value of diversity, the system squelches diversity of thought. Educational decisions must, as Cato's McCluskey says, become "matters of consumer choice, not political power."

There appears to be a never-ending supply of new educational ideas, new ways to teach and learn more effectively. And there are strong feelings on what should be taught and what should not. Some make good sense to most of us. Some will never gain a consensus in support. And some just make for good items in "news of the bizarre." But the funny thing is, we don't all agree which ideas are which.

Which is why, actually, the important thing is for people to make their own choices and thus create a marketplace where the decision-making power is placed in the right hands: the parents'.