Time's Leading Question to Kids: "If you had a choice, what type of school would you pick?"

"If you had a choice, what type of school would you pick?"

Time for Kids' inappropriate question, and its distortion of a complicated issue,
manipulates public school children and plants seeds of doubt and suspicion
about the quality of their own schools


At the excellent public school my kids attend, Time for Kids is often a regular part of the curriculum, providing relevant readings in contemporary issues and debates to promote reading and encourage discussion of current events.  The magazine bills itself as "a weekly classroom news magazine that motivates kids to read! Issues cover a wide range of real-world topics kids love to learn about - and it's the best nonfiction text you'll find!"
I've volunteered many times with struggling readers who enjoyed the colorful presentation, age-appropriate topics, and challenges to address hot issues and debates that are part of every issue.  I haven't always loved the way the magazine oversimplified complicated issues or presented every topic, but hey, I'm a really critical reader, and the kids seem to enjoy it. And anything that gets kids to enjoy reading is ok with me. Usually.

Some things cross the line. 

Rah! Rah! Schools of Choice! Time for Kids
cheerleads for the profiteers in an article that
circulates in public schools around the country.
In its September back-to-school issue (Edition 3-4, September 13, 2013), the magazine's cover features a girl who looks as sweet as she does empowered, in a martial arts uniform, fists raised and ready to strike (or is it defend?), with the headline "LEARN THIS!  Schools centered around a theme are becoming increasingly popular. Find out about them."  The caption tells us the girl pictured "studies tae kwon do at Whitehall Preparatory and Fitness Academy in Columbus, Ohio."

Hmm, a kid thinks.  Themed schools.  A tae kwan do school?! I'd like to find out more about that.  But, as a parent, I also know enough to recognize that trigger words like "preparatory" and "academy" usually indicate non-traditional public schools or charters.  And the all-caps directive (LEARN THIS!) coupled with the suggestion that kids need to find out what "popular" things they're missing out on makes the public school advocate in me stand up at full attention. 

Inside, the cover story by Melanie Kletter greets us with a pennant-type banner with the bold words "SCHOOL OF CHOICE" and the teaser: "Theme schools are popular.  What sets them apart?"

The article tells kids that some "theme schools" focus on fitness.  "I love learning sports in school," an 11-year-old says.  Others, we're told, focus on agriculture, science, art, technology, and language.

It's a really short article.  And it does not provide any evidence that the "theme schools" cover anything that isn't also covered in traditional public schools, or provide a tangibly more "exciting" way of doing so.  The final section, "Learning is Exciting" nonetheless concludes that these charter schools "are coming up with new ways to make learning exciting" and that "students are more motivated to learn when they are interested in a topic" (as if "interest" can only be stimulated through the "excitement" of a themed school).

Like all superficial assessments of an issue in today's press, this article includes an obligatory and irrelevant counter-argument.  Its superficiality is striking.  What might the potential drawback or controversy about charter or magnet schools be centered on?  That they're just one of many for-profit gimmicks in the national effort toward dismantling traditional public education?  That a focus on one area of study or interest will come at the expense of a well-rounded education? That charters and magnet schools suck money from regular public schools so that only the very few get the "benefit" of their "exciting" curricula and the vast majority of school children pay the price in budget cuts at their own schools?  That they often have little oversight and less stringent requirements for assessments and teacher qualifications than traditional public schools?  That they have been the subject of scandal after scandal after scandal as unscrupulous administrators took advantage of their relative freedom from scrutiny to line their own pockets?  That they consistently underperform regular public schools almost everywhere one finds them?  That they can pick and choose students, leading to segregated schools and unequal opportunities (especially for students with disabilities)?  That there's no hard data linking "themed schools" to superior academic performance or how "exciting" learning can be?   


Time for Kids doesn't mention any of those concerns.  Instead,  Time for Kids poses what is perhaps the most disingenuously superficial "counterargument" one might come up with in this debate:
"Many theme schools have longer school days.  That has some people concerned. They say students may miss out on outside activities."
That's it.  That's the whole "controversy" in a nutshell.  Not a claim one would take very seriously, given the plethora of "activities" the article implies are available at theme schools.  Longer days.  Almost too much time for learning. This is the journalistic equivalent of saying your only flaw is that you "work too hard" in an interview.
And the article concludes with another quote from a student who says learning Chinese is "fun, and it gives my brain a challenge."  Followed immediately by the core question of the article:
"If you had a choice, what type of school would you pick?"
The implication here that students currently do not attend their own schools "by choice" (ie they're forced to attend them), and that they are neither being challenged nor having fun, revives all of the very worst unfounded stereotypes about public education and has absolutely no place in an article written primarily for students who are supposedly expected to be critically engaging with these issues.

Worst of all, it misleadingly co-opts the language of education privatizers and their deep-pocketed lobbyists who define "school choice" in much broader terms, largely to promote the use of public funds for private and religious school education in the form of "vouchers" paid for by tax dollars.  To pretend, as this article does, that the phrase "school of choice" can be used to describe an innocent preference of the student for one "theme" or "activity" over another is both absurd and irresponsible. 

I want to make one thing clear:  I don't have a problem with theme schools, in principle, or theme-based academies, as that term (with all of its baggage) is more generally understood by parents and educators.  There are many excellent schools all over the country, and the vast majority of them are operated within traditional public school frameworks.  I also don't have a problem with Time for Kids covering them, or painting them in a favorable light.  But the fact that this article willfully distorts what is actually a very complex and heated debate as if there's nothing to be debated is both condescending to the intelligence of our students and irresponsible journalism.  This topic would be much more appropriately addressed in the "Debate" section of the publication, or with a more honest inclusion of the actual reasons parents, students, and educators are leery of expensive novelty schools that drain resources from the public school budget and increasingly serve the financial interests of education privateers.  

This article buys in, hook, line & sinker, to the "school choice" rhetoric that special interest groups have paid so dearly to inject into our politics and policies.  It's a shame and disservice to the public school children reading this piece that Time for Kids has chosen to inject it into their school day as well.

My kids love their public school and so do I.  And I resent that Time for Kids welcomes them back to school by spinning - and distorting - privatization rhetoric around them to make them feel like they're missing out on the "exciting" possibilities of a theme school. Since my kids don't have a "choice" whether or not they read this near-propaganda, I expect Time for Kids to hold itself to a higher standard of honest reporting.

Wisconsin taxpayers and students already have a great deal of "choice" through both open enrollment and a recently expanded voucher program.  And the overwhelming majority of us choose traditional public schools, which are the "schools of choice" in a productive, equitable democratic society.

Why is Time for Kids manipulating public school children with leading questions that use the language of privateers to plant seeds of dissatisfaction about the quality of their own schools?
Many thanks to my friends and fellow education advocates (who worked tirelessly to fight against the special needs vouchers proposed here in Wisconsin that would create dangerously irresponsible learning conditions for our children): Joanne Juhnke, for bringing this article to our attention, and Anna Mueller Moffit, who takes the lead in encouraging parents to contact Time for Kids if they share these concerns over the misleading message they are sending to our kids:
What "school choice" really means.
I plan on writing them and letting them know how many "schools of choice" discriminate against kids that don't want to "choose" for their school. Amazing how the influence of big money and special interest groups has infiltrated our children's reading material paid for by public schools.



  1. Thanks to your heads up on this TFK article, several Madison Public School Teachers did not distribute this edition to their students. Thank you!

    1. Thanks for sharing that! Glad to hear teachers are being proactive in screening these materials! So easy to let stuff slip through the cracks (like when I found a McDonald's ad in my kindergartner's workbook!)