"I know no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves; and if we think them not enlightened enough to exercise their control with a wholesome discretion, the remedy is not to take it from them, but to inform their discretion by education. This is the true corrective of abuses of constitutional power." - Thomas Jefferson 1820

"There is a growing technology of testing that permits us now to do in nanoseconds things that we shouldn't be doing at all." - Dr. Gerald Bracey author of Rotten Apples in Education

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Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Can You Choose a Good School If You Don't Know What One Looks Like?

This is National School Choice week and the major players are striking hard to move this ball down the field in SOME direction.  School choice is a hotter topic than the republican field of presidential candidates for most because, education affects everyone; from the parents, to students, to teachers, to state budgets, to businesses who supply goods and services to education, to the regular childless taxpayer. We all are impacted by America's public education system. Education reform is no doubt needed, but a vision of it is still as clear as mud some 80+ years after it was first talked about.

The Atlantic wrote a good piece about School Choice, which covers the history of this piece of education reform.  Here is the first part of that article:

How School Choice Became an Explosive Issue
By Kevin Carey

Conservatives champion it. Liberals loathe it. But both sides have distorted the cause, and students are paying the price.

Bill Cosby and Dick Morris presumably disagree about most things, so it's instructive to note that both have officially endorsed "School Choice Week," which began yesterday with a series of rallies and events around the country celebrating the idea of parents being able to decide where their children go to school. Indeed, school choice seems like such an obviously good idea that the most interesting thing about School Choice Week is why it exists at all.
That school choice is valuable is beyond dispute. That's why there's a multi-billion dollar private school industry serving millions of students. And it's why there is a much larger system of school choice embedded in the American real estate market. While some parents pay school tuition directly, many more pay it through their monthly mortgage and property tax bills. Anyone who has deliberately purchased a home in a "good" school district is, by definition, a beneficiary and supporter of school choice...
A key concern that Carey brings up is the idea that, while many parents would like to be able to choose a different school for their child other than the public one they are geographically districted for, they often lack the skills necessary to make a good decision about which school that is. 
Choice requires both information and consumers who are well equipped
to use it. Schools are highly complex organizations whose workings aren't
always apparent at first glance. It's very difficult for parents who have no
personal experience of having attended a good school to pick and choose among
school choice options for their children. Looks can be deceiving--shiny new
facilities and well-organized classrooms can mask poor teaching and incoherent
curricula. Schools vying for students in the market tend, like any competitor,
to present a self-interested view of themselves. Parents need much better
information about school performance, and education in its interpretation, in
order to make good choices on behalf of their children.
Reputation takes a while to build and many charter schools do not survive long enough to develop a good reputation.  We know that 37% of charter students perform below their public school peers on standardized assessment.
Opening up K-12 education to the free market does not magically conjure from the air organizations that know how to educate children.
What is guaranteed to fail is any program in which parents have not taken an active role.  In Californi,a where parents have the "trigger option", which essentially allows them to fire what they deem a failing school, public schools are rapidly being turned into charter schools.  Many look at this as the way for parents to finally have a say in how their child is educated. Another way to look at it, however, is parents continuing to shuck their responsibility for their child's education by firing one nanny and hiring another.   Expecting any outside organization to magically transform a neighborhood of serially disengaged children into both enthusiastic and successful learners is like expecting a one time visit from a professional organizer to cure the chronic hoarder.

One school in California that was recently turned into a charter, previously had mice in the cafeteria, clogged drinking fountains and urine puddles in the bathrooms. Now, unless you have the world's hardest water, drinking fountains only get clogged by people putting gum, paper and other objects into them.  Human waste that does not make it into the waste removal system only occurs if you have: a) students with palsy or, b) lie on a constantly active fault line or, c) students who don't care to aim. If the janitor weren't constantly having to clean out the drinking fountains, he might get to those messes. Exterminators would be called if budgets weren't spent on security measures to scan the kids as they enter school and on a security force to deal with the violence children choose to bring into a school. In other words, if the students and their parents actually took ownership of and responsibility for their school many of these problems would go away. But the parents of this school simply voted to give someone else a shot at civilizing their children.

If they, as the Atlantic author suggested, don't even know what a good school looks like, then maybe the first effort of school reformers and choice advocates should be to start educating the parents about how a school is supposed to work and what the expectations are for them and their children once in it. Otherwise school reform will be a never ending cycle of replacement babysitters for schools in the worst neighborhoods.

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