The Fallacy of School Choice

With the new administration pushing the privatization of public schools, headed by a Secretary of Education even less qualified than me, you hear from a lot of advocates for “school choice”.

They tell you that if all parents had the option to send their children to any school of their choice – charter, private, or public – all would be well with American education. Or at least scores on the NAEP and PISA tests would skyrocket, which is about the only way most school reformers understand learning and student “achievement”.

The Secretary and her friends in the charter school industry maintain that picking a school should be like any other purchase in the free market. After all you have lots of options when it comes to buying a car and many places to buy one. Why not offer at least a few choices when it comes to something even more important?

There are some major issues with a “free market” system for something that should be a public good, more than enough for several long posts. However, the specific concept of “choosing” as school for a child includes a big problem I haven’t seen discussed much.

Unlike finding a new minivan, the vast majority of parents don’t have enough information about the complexities of school to make a real, informed choice. And many, if not most, don’t have the resources, expertise, or time to become sufficiently informed. That’s not a criticism of most parents. Unless you’re as rich as DeVos, parents don’t have a lot of time to spend on research.

But schools, private or not, also don’t make it easy to comparison shop. Some work very hard to hide any meaningful data on their programs, outcomes, and finances. Public schools have been known to fudge the numbers. And the information provided by most private schools and charters often comes in the form of marketing brochures. Material that’s more about recruiting than transparency.

In addition to having enough information is providing it in a form that can actually be compared. When you research that new car, most of the basic metrics have common units and language that can be lined up in columns. You also have some relatively independent organizations that test drive vehicles and speak a common language about the vehicles.

No one “test drives” schools. There are few common metrics between all schools. Much of the common language – world-class, mindset, high tech, innovation, STEM – is at best vaguely defined. Test scores can’t be compared because not all schools use the same evaluations and students in charters are often not required to take them. Even graduation rates are not measured in the same way.

So, the goal is to allow every parent in the US to decide where their children will receive the basic education that will impact the rest of their lives. How do we provide them with the necessary, relevant, and comparable data to do that? Something more than websites and flyers with pictures of happy kids and competent-looking teachers, mixed with important sounding educational jargon.

That’s a serious question. One that I rarely hear the advocates of school choice address. Because without sufficient, understandable information, how does anyone make a critical decision about something as important as a child’s education?

Hey, here’s a radical idea! How about if we spend more time and resources on improving pubic schools for all children everywhere in this country? That too is a serious question.

Our Information Stinks

As a guest writer in the Post’s Answer Sheet blog points out, a good deal of the debate over education reform in the past two decades has centered around two concepts: choice and accountability.

Choice, of course, usually comes back to charter schools and vouchers, and accountability may as well be a synonym for standardized test since almost no other ideas of what it means to assess student learning seems to be considered.

Neither has done much to improve American education and probably have done a great deal of harm by narrowing the discussion of what public schools are and should be. But why have choice and accountability not lived up to their claimed potential?

Critics have a whole host of explanations, some of which are quite compelling, and some of which are burdened by political agendas. But the simplest answer, which also happens to be true, is that both movements are dependent on good information about school quality. And, frankly, our information stinks.

Both of these models, of course, are dependent on accurate information about school quality.  Whether parents have the power or accountability officers do, the central assumption is the same: that we can measure school quality precisely enough to make high-stakes decisions.

As the writer correctly points out “standardized test scores provide a very narrow picture of what happens inside schools”. As for charter schools and most private schools, they aren’t doing much if anything different from the public schools. They are working with a selected group of students whose parents are very motivated.

He concludes with a list of five criteria for rating schools that, while certainly not perfect, would be a much better alternative to test scores.

I especially love number one, how much time do students spend on art, music and other creative activities?, and number 5, which asks how well did the education they received help students five to ten years later.

However, back here in our real world, this is the unfortunate bottom line of our current education policy in this country.

Test scores, as many parents and policymakers already know, are misleading.  But they aren’t going away.  They aren’t going away in state or federal decision-making.  And they aren’t going away in the role they play in parental decisions about school choice.  In fact, the opposite is happening: test scores are insidiously taking hold in policy discourse and among the public as a perfectly acceptable measure of quality.  They aren’t.  And, as such, it is our job not only to resist narrow and simplistic measures of educational quality, but to demand access to the data we really need–information that allows us to make thoughtful decisions about our schools.

Thoughtful decisions about our schools. Wouldn’t that be a nice change?

Plenty of Choices. Just Not Good Ones.

With the next version of the iPad being announced later today, I was thinking about the way some in leadership positions here in the overly-large school district talk about using “tablets”, using the generic term when it’s pretty clear that most others are hearing iPads.

They try very hard not to lean toward a specific product since the system has also blessed the purchase of the Xoom device by Motorola and running Android. In effect, they want schools and offices to think of the two operating systems as equal and to make a choice based on needs. Or something like that.

Early in the school year when we started working with tablets in the system, I tried to be balanced when discussing which device someone should consider, with a collection of plusses and minuses for each. Now, after spending some time with the Xoom and watching others struggling with it, I’ve pretty much given up on being “fair”.

The big problem is that iOS and Android are not equal, not even close, especially when implemented on tablets.

I could go into my long list of reasons why, but instead read what Fraser Speirs, who has a whole lot more experience using mobile devices in a classroom, has to say on the matter.

His conclusion is that Android represents solid engineering on the part of Google. However, the way manufacturers deploy it – with multiple versions, confusing upgrade policies, inconsistent user interfaces and hardware integration – is a “deal breaker”.

Read the whole post which is a great analysis of Android’s problems. Speirs is focusing on a school environment but many of the points he makes will be relevant to anyone considering purchasing any mobile device.

Other than the rumors being passed around, I have no idea what Apple will show in their presentation. But I do know that whatever the products, the hardware and software involved will be tightly integrated, producing a user experience that’s just not available on any Android device.

You may not like Apple or iPads or stuff with i names. But the company’s recent successes (computers sales are also growing fast) shows that there are plenty of us who like our technology to just work smoothly without a lot of fuss.

And, of course, when it comes to tablets you do have plenty of choices. Just not good ones.

Presidential Choice

Jay Mathews looks at the educational options the Obamas have for schools in their new home town and wonders whether they should go public or private.

My recommendation? Private.

Their daughters will likely be spending eight years of their educational life in the city* and, although Mathews tries to make the best case possible for a few selected public and charter schools in the District, the reality is that the entire system is a crapshoot.

In any case, I hope the next president will work hard to improve public schools in DC (and everywhere else) but as a parent, he and Michelle should decide based on what’s best for their kids, not for the sake of politics.

Yes, that is school choice and, no, it does not conflict with my opposition to vouchers in many rants from the past.

Parents should have a great deal of involvement as to which school their child attends, a fully informed and educated decision.

However, it’s the public school system that should provide the options from which they would choose, offering multiple learning programs based on the differing needs and learning styles of the kids.

School choice should be a fundamental part of public education.

* Yes, I’m being optimistic!