Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The choice they don’t want you to have

I always feel a certain irony when I hear proposals for “school choice.” Many of the people advocating for school choice, after all, are the same people who brought us the No Child Left Behind Act, which was designed to coerce school districts into adopting policies that they otherwise would not choose to adopt. Not exactly a choice-friendly concept.

Under No Child Left Behind, my local public schools -- and all public schools in America, in fact -- now must pursue the policy of raising standardized test scores at all costs. School officials who don’t raise standardized test scores can end up losing their jobs. But if they turn out kids with no intellectual curiosity, kids who see reading as a chore, kids who perform just to please the teacher and get by, kids who’ve never learned how to use good judgment, ask a good question, or make a good decision, kids who see adults as adversaries, kids who take no pleasure in learning -- nothing bad will happen to them.

When I complain about the effects of that policy -- for example, about the fact that my kids’ lunch periods have been cut back to fifteen minutes or less, in the name of maximizing instructional time -- I can count on local school officials to sympathize with me, and then to patiently explain that they are just responding to No Child Left Behind’s pressure to raise test scores. If I’m concerned about what’s happening in my kids’ elementary school, I should write to President Obama. Not exactly empowering.

Yet many so-called school choice advocates are fine with all that. In fact, their “choice” proposals require you to choose a school that operates on No Child Left Behind’s premises. They remind me of Henry Ford’s policy about the Model T: You can choose any color you want, as long as it’s black.

Take charter schools. The government gives charter schools an exemption from many of the laws and regulations governing other public schools -- but only in exchange for a commitment to be accountable for student performance, as measured by the same standardized testing criteria that other public schools must meet. For a parent who objects to the whole idea of letting standardized test scores drive educational policy, charter schools offer no choice at all. “We want to give you lots of choices,” charter school advocates seem to say, “as long as it doesn’t interfere with our imposition of a uniform concept of education on the entire country.”

Here’s the school choice experiment I’d like to see tried. Let our school district require every parent to make an initial choice between two options. If the parents want to put their kids in a classroom governed by policies dictated by the federal government, they could choose the Federal Option. If the parents would prefer classrooms that are governed by policies chosen by the local community, they could choose the Local Option.

For the kids in the Federal Option, school would look a lot like it does now. No Child Left Behind would be in full force, and the district and its school personnel would have to meet NCLB’s standardized testing benchmarks or face the statutory penalties. In these classrooms, the district would do whatever it takes to raise math and reading test scores, regardless of the other values that might have to be sacrificed. Subjects with no direct bearing on standardized test results, such as art and music, would be cut back as necessary. Recess and lunch would be minimized. Untestable qualities such as curiosity, skepticism, creativity, and initiative would not be pursued. Whether the kids actually enjoy learning would be a secondary concern, at best. To keep the kids from squirming during their lengthy test prep sessions -- er, I mean, lessons -- the teachers would instruct them on the importance of unquestioning compliance with rules, and would single out the quiet and obedient students for special praise and rewards.

Down the hall, though, would be the Local Option classrooms. What would they be like? That would be entirely up to the people of our district. Maybe they would decide that there is more to being well-educated than what is measured by standardized tests. Maybe they’d give the teachers more autonomy over what and how to teach. Maybe they’d put more emphasis on developing the kids’ intrinsic motivation and pleasure in learning, and less emphasis on external rewards. Maybe they’d challenge the kids to think critically about the world around them. Maybe they’d recognize that kids need downtime, physical activity, and a decent lunch to learn well and to develop social skills. Maybe they’d treat the kids more like kids and less like employees. Maybe they’d take a few lessons from Finland. Or maybe they’d do none of those things, and come up with their own ideas. Who knows what our community might choose. It’s been so long since anyone asked.

I suppose there could be some awkward moments, when the kids in the Federal Option classrooms, with their ongoing math and reading drills and their nightly worksheets and their behavior charts and their abbreviated recesses and quiet fifteen-minute lunches, saw their friends down the hall having what would likely be a more meaningful -- not to mention enjoyable -- educational experience. Since the Federal Option classrooms would, by definition, be less likely to reflect the parents’ preferences, it might be hard for parents to choose those classrooms for their kids. But as things stand now, we all choose them every day. We’re just not constantly reminded that there could be another way.

Right now, of course, this experiment is impossible. My district could set up Local Option classrooms, but it couldn’t use tax money to pay for them. Why? Because the people who brought us charter schools don’t really believe that communities should be allowed to run their own schools.

What do these people have against choice?


KD said...

This is an interesting concept. Would we be able to find a group of people, from school board officials to teachers, genuinely concerned about running an educational system the way the community wished them to?

Chris said...

KD -- I don't know. I think it all comes down to whether you could find school board members who would take the initiative on those issues. If the school board were given the freedom to make its own decisions about educational policy, and were willing to do so, I think they could hire a superintendent who would put them into practice. But I always think it's a miracle that anyone at all is willing to run for school board.

Stuart Buck said...

I tend to agree with you that school voucher would be a better way of exercising school choice.

teacherken said...

not just up to local school board. Schools are a state function - you would have to get state legislature and governor to agree. Increasing numbers of state legislators are either owned by ALEC which makes them hostile to public education or in bed with those interested in making profits. I am not hopeful

Kay said...

Great summary of the problem. We live in Georgia and have three children. I would love to choose a neighborhood school for my children that is more like the ones I used to work in years ago, before NCLB and RTTT, but there is no escaping the plethora of tests that teachers, administrators and other parents believe we must prepare the kids for. So the tests drive the education.
Why is it so hard for some to see the insanity of this?

Becca said...

I found your blog through Diane Ravitch's blog, and I thought that I would share my comment from there:

See, the ironic thing is that I work at the kind of school you're describing — and it’s a charter school (the non-profit kind with a community- and parent-run board, not the corporate kind). Because the school is a charter, it has more leeway. The charter has a play-based curriculum where the kids move around a lot. There’s no homework K-2. Students’ interests decide the science curriculum, although we make sure that they end up eventually hitting all of the state standards. Teachers are treated as professionals. And while students have to take the state standardized tests — it is a public school, after all — they do not drive the curriculum. The assumption is that if kids are engaged and learning, they’ll do okay on the tests. (It’s a new school, so we’ll see if that is true.) Wasn’t the original point of charter schools to provide genuine educational alternatives?

But the problem with choice is that you can’t really have a public policy that embraces some kinds of charter school philosophies and not others (although it would be a good step in the right direction to nix the corporate ones). To take the your idea of “local schools,” it sounds great at first. But it assumes that communities are progressive. What if one local community decides that they want schools what only teach what’s in the Bible, or (like the Texas Republicans) they are against teaching any critical thinking skills because it makes kids not trust their parents? Or what if an under-privileged community is convinced by a smooth-talking reformer that what they really want is a skill-and-drill curriculum? How can we say yes to my school and no to their schools?

Chris said...

Stuart -- I don't see myself as arguing for vouchers, but for decentralization and local control. If each school could be what its particular community wanted it to be, I think that would break up the awful sameness that currently runs through the public schools.

Chris said...

Thanks, everyone, for the comments.

Teacherken -- Agreed. Again, right now there is no way my local school board could make this happen, because of the constraints imposed on it by the state. I can't say I'm hopeful, either.

Kay -- Yes, there is no escaping it. I wish I knew the answer to your question.

Becca -- Under the Constitution, any public school that discriminated on the basis of race, or violated the separation of church and state, could be legally challenged.

But yes, some school districts would make choices that I would not like. I think that's just in the nature of pluralism. (More extended discussion here.)

I'm not an absolutist about local control, because I do agree, for example, that Constitutional restraints have to apply everywhere. But I think it's a mistake to raise too many policy choices to that level. I just don't trust the impulse to use centralization to impose good policies on other communities against their will.

Your school sounds terrific, and if charter school laws have enabled it to exist, that's a point in their favor. But, as you note, the school is still responsible for meeting NCLB's test score requirements, so I can't help but think that if test-score concerns are not driving your practices, they may have to at some point -- that's the whole point of the law. I'd like to have the freedom to choose a different educational philosophy from the one that sees raising test scores as the only bottom-line goal.