I’m your ice cream monk, stop me when I’m passing by

Meditation expert Andy Puddicombe tells a story about ice cream from his days as a Buddhist monk in Tibet. Puddicombe related that the diet of the monastery was very limited and the monks ate their food very slowly. One day he relates that the monastery gathered for a meal and ice cream was placed out on the table.

Puddicombe felt very excited, but a bit dismayed as the ice cream was placed in the middle of the table and the usual mean of curry vegetables served first. As the monks slowly and ritualistically ate their vegetables Puddicombe felt anxiety, dismay and anger as the ice cream began to melt. Eventually he realized that he was never going to have the ice cream anyway.

“In place of the ice cream, you can basically put anything” Puddicombe concludes.

When I heard this tale, what came to mind for me was K-12 reformers. Their ice-cream is getting school districts to work.

Take for example curriculum reformers. They believe that some curriculum is much more effective on average than others. I share this belief. They also seem to believe that if they point out that some curriculum choices are better than others, the better stuff will be adopted. I don’t share this belief.

So why can’t they have their ice cream? Politics of course. Curriculum reformers keep bringing sincere belief and mere evidence to a political fight. The curricular preferences of the nation’s colleges of education, teacher unions and the rogue’s gallery of other usual suspects are very different than those of, say, E.D. Hirsch.

Hirsch may be a swell guy and his curricular preferences are similar to my own, but he doesn’t have any more ability to command a sprawling system of schools than anyone else. Thus, curriculum reformers can be both correct and almost irrelevant.

One failed K-12 gosplan after another – Goals 2000, NCLB, Common Core and (whatever comes next) – has melted in the heat of this basic political fact: Setting curriculum is about political power and the progressive education crowd has far more of it.

Luckily not all is lost. Choice mechanisms allow educators to create schools outside of the curricular veto power of status-quo forces. It can replace standardized failure with pluralism and diversity. Choice opponents will sometimes try to frighten people with the prospect of witchcraft schools etc. but if you look around the country the revealed demand is for a number of different curricular models.

Thus you can snatch the ice cream cone from my hand Grasshopper when you grasp that the many flavors always beats an imagined “correct” flavor.