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School Choice and Adolescence in America

By Michael Strong

On May 11, 2006, the Stanford Center on Adolescence is holding a symposium on "Positive Youth Development in our Time: The Age of Purpose." The advertisement for the conference claims "The experience may change the way you think about young people and the role you can play in fostering youth purpose."

William Damon, Director of the Stanford Center on Adolescence, is one of the founders of the "positive youth development movement" (PYD). He describes it as "a new approach with a more affirmative and welcoming vision of young people." Based in part on resiliency studies that show that many children thrive in the face of adversity, it acknowledges that the characteristics associated with resiliency include "persistence, hardiness, achievement motivation, hopefulness, a sense of purpose, and more." Damon goes on to say that

"Research in the PYD developmental tradition has taken seriously the role of moral and religious beliefs in shaping children's identities and perspectives on the future, and research has demonstrated a strong relationship between religious faith and at-risk children staying out of trouble."[1]

So in May, 2006, we have an opportunity to learn a "new approach" that may "change the way we think about young people" based on findings that children thrive in the face of adversity when they learn "persistence, hardiness, achievement motivation, hopefulness, and a sense of purpose" based on "moral and religious beliefs." Although Damon deserves kudos for recognizing the politically incorrect truth that "moral and religious beliefs" are relevant to adolescent well-being, most parents knew it fifty years ago.

In the 1955 Milton Friedman proposed educational vouchers that would allow children to attend private schools with public moneys. Friedman's proposal was dismissed in the 50s, 60s, and 70s. By the 1980s Brookings Institution researchers John Chubb and Terry Moe were coming to the conclusion that the decline in test scores despite doubling our expenditures in education was not an accident. They looked carefully at public and private schools and concluded that, in fact, Friedman had been correct: the private sector was more efficient and innovative than the bureaucratic government-managed sector. Despite their liberal Brookings base, they broke ranks with the Democrats and advocated school vouchers in their 1990 book, Politics, Markets, and America's Schools.

Today the school choice debate is being fought by scholars analyzing the limited test score data in an attempt to determine what academic benefits, exactly, school vouchers bring to education. In the meantime, when parents who do have a choice are asked what their primary basis for choosing a school is, their highest priority is their child's "happiness" or "overall well-being." Some voucher opponents argue that this is evidence that vouchers will be ineffective: because parents care more about their child's happiness and well-being than about academics, vouchers will not improve test scores.

It seems odd that anyone would be against improving young people's happiness or well-being. It seems quite natural, in fact, that parents' first concern would be for their children's happiness and well-being. And they have reason to be concerned; as a 1988 New York Times article pointed out:

Despite revolutionary progress in preventing and treating life-threatening infections through immunization and antibiotics, teen-agers today are as likely to get sick and die before reaching their 20's as they were in the 1940's and 1950's. Only the causes of death and disability have changed dramatically, shifting from traditional medical problems to health effects stemming more from social causes.

Instead of communicable diseases, the primary causes of adolescent death are now accidents, suicides, homicides, substance abuse, pregnancy, venereal disease and physical and sexual abuse. Indeed, 77 percent of deaths among 15- to 24-year-olds are now attributed to accident, suicide and homicide. From 1950 to 1980, deaths from homicide rose four-fold and suicides five-fold in this age group.

Although there have been some improvements since 1988, our adolescents are still suffering from a plague of "health effects stemming more from social causes." [2]

I have a cousin who sniffed glue, developed brain-damage, and later stabbed his room-mate to death. A brilliant former student of mine in elementary school went on to a middle school she hated where she dropped out and hung out with drug addicts who raped her and murdered a homeless person. Prior to the worst of it her mother, a good person, hand-cuffed her to her bed at night in a desperate attempt to keep her from running to these people. Another former student of mine was terrified of leaving the safe school that I had created, up through middle school this time; I later heard that he had attempted suicide and was institutionalized.

Adolescence in America is largely a disaster. Bill McKibben, the environmentalist writer and advocate of natural living, is as vocal in his critique as any fundamentalist Christian: "If one had set out to create a culture purposefully damaging to children, you couldn't do much better than America at the end of the 20th century." Patricia Hersch, in a book titled A Tribe Apart: A Journey into the Heart of American Adolescence, states: "All parents feel an ominous sense - like distant rumbles of thunder moving closer and closer - that even their child could be caught in the deluge of adolescent dysfunction sweeping the nation." [3]

Recognition of this problem led, in 1994, to the creation of the National Longitudinal Study of Adolescent Health that now has over 1700 publications studying the issues. This rash of concern, funding, and research, are among the catalysts for the founding of Damon's Stanford Center for Adolescence in 1996 which has now, ten years later, discovered a that virtues and a sense of moral purpose are key factors in adolescent health.

Does anyone doubt that if parents had been given school vouchers in 1960 they would have gravitated towards schools that encouraged virtues and a sense of purpose? Both common sense and Damon's research suggest that generations of students educated in such schools would have been and can be far less likely to suffer the "health effects stemming from social causes" that have harmed adolescents over the last four decades.

Consider Latter Day Saints (Mormon) public health: Utah, where 70% of the population are Mormon, has the lowest, or near the lowest, rates of smoking, lung cancer, heart disease, alcohol consumption, abortions, out-of-wedlock births, work-days missed due to illness, and the lowest child poverty rate in the country. Utah ranks highest in the nation in number of AP tests taken, number of AP tests passed, scientists produced per capita, percentage of households with personal computers, and proportion of income given to charity. [4] Within Utah, of course, the Mormons are the subgroup that bring the averages up. While there may be a portion of this due to the Mormon religion itself, most researchers believe that much of this success is due to the communal commitment to moral and religious beliefs that support good habits. No public health initiative is remotely as effective as Mormon culture.

Elsewhere I have argued that if an education market were allowed to function freely, parental interest in their children's well-being would drive an ever-more sophisticated market in happiness and well-being. [5] I am a secular humanist, not a religious person, but after spending fifteen years founding and leading innovative Montessori and Paideia schools, I discovered that I needed autonomy to create a school based on a common moral vision, more autonomy than is possible in public schools or even in charter schools. I needed to be able to hire, fire, and promote a staff based in part on their common commitment to a moral vision. Adolescent well-being cannot be developed using a character education curriculum taught by faculty who are cultural relativists. The faculty must believe in something, they must themselves be united by a common moral vision, and the school's leader must be free to organize the school around the core moral purposes of that community.

It is possible to create safer, better, happier, healthier, schools, and many parents would send their children to such schools if they had the option. An open education market would create an innovation dynamic that would allow for steady improvements in the school communities in which young people spent most of their waking hours. [6] Had we followed Milton Friedman's advice in 1955, millions of young people would not have died, and millions more would be healthier and better off today. Parents, choosing among educational entrepreneurs, could solve the problem of adolescent health far more quickly and more effectively than can academics trying to guide public policy.

After the fall of communism, many people acknowledged the Hayekian insight that governments cannot meet people's needs as effectively as markets can. Our need for our children to be healthy and well is paramount. It turns out, not surprisingly, that young people need a life filled with purpose to be well. Government cannot provide lives with purpose; only individual human beings, organized in communities with a common purpose, can provide young people what they need.

School choice is, of course, politically incorrect. While decade by decade the academic researchers are inching towards parental common sense, we don't need to wait another twenty years for the academics to argue about it some more, and then another forty years beyond that for them to acknowledge that government can't solve these problems, but that free people can. Competition is a discovery procedure, and we can discover right now how to solve the problem of adolescent health. Let us do it.


[1]This and the foregoing Damon quotations are from Positive Development: Realizing the Potential of Youth, Christopher Peterson, editor, Volume 591, January 2004,

[2] The improvements since 1988 don't compensate for the increase in violent deaths since the 1950s. For instance, although the teen death rate by accident, homicide and suicide decreased from 63 to 53 deaths per 100,000 teens ages 15-19 from 1993 to 2003, a 16% decrease, Anne E. Cas ey Foundation, KIDS COUNT, 1999 and 2005, it is still much higher than in the 40s and 50s.

[3] The material in the foregoing paragraph is all taken from a USA Today article titled "A Culture Purposefully Damaging," 10/01/98.


[5] Michael Strong, The Creation of Conscious Culture Through Educational Innovation, available at

[6] Michael Strong, "The Dyson Vacuum Cleaner and Educational Innovation," The Free Liberal, April 12, 2006,


Michael Strong is CEO & Chief Visionary Officer of FLOW.

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