Learning in Mind

Rethinking the Purpose of Education

School Choice: Asking the Wrong Questions


he confirmation of School Choice/Voucher advocate Betsy DeVos as U.S. Secretary of Education has created an avalanche of rhetoric, both for and against school choice. In a nutshell, the argument begins with the manufactured argument that public schools have been failing for decades.  (See this article for more information on that topic.)

There is no question that public schools have problems, but many of those problems arise from issues over which schools have little or no control. Perhaps the two most influential of these issues are poverty and the "one-size-fits-all" standardized education policy mandated by the federal government.

The question of whether schools are really failing is open to interpretation. But for the sake of discussion, let's assume that, for whatever reason, public schools aren't doing a satisfactory job educating all of our children. Here are two main questions that might arise from that situation.

Those who insist that schools are failing propose only two answers to that question. . . charter schools and vouchers. These options are based on several assumptions. 1.) "Other schools" are "better" than public schools; and 2.) "other schools" offer a different form of education than public schools.

Assumption 1: “Other schools” are “better” than public schools. A bit of history: The idea of charter schools began in the early 1990s.(1) Originally, the definition of a charter school was a “publicly funded independent school established by teachers, parents, or community groups under the terms of a charter with a local or national authority.” [Emphasis added]

One of the main arguments for the establishment of charter schools was more autonomy. "Charter schools are freed from the traditional bureaucracy and regulations that some feel divert a school's energy and resources toward compliance rather than excellence."(2) Originally, there were some excellent charter schools—started by “teachers, parents, and community groups”—that offered unique approaches to teaching and learning. Some of those still exist today. But today, many charter schools are started by “education entrepreneurs”—AKA “for-profit” corporations. 

Are these schools “better” than public schools? This brings us to another key question—what metric is used to determine whether a school is “better.” The answer is that the SAME metric is used to judge the success or failure of a charter school as is used in public schools—test scores on standardized “high stakes tests.” Even the early charter schools that focused on unique approaches to the teaching/learning process were still required to give the same standardized tests. So much for being “freed from the traditional bureaucracy and regulations…”

IF standardized tests actually measured learning…and IF standardized tests measured the growth of individual learners, and IF one-size-fits-all standards were an appropriate way to educate children, those tests might be a valid metric to judge the effectiveness of a school. But that is not the case. Standardized tests are based on the invalid premise that learning can be measured. They fail to measure the growth of individual students because student scores are compared to other students' scores, not the previous scores of the same learner. Whatever you believe the purpose of education to be—doesn’t it ultimately involve students learning? And if so, shouldn’t the degree to which a school facilitates the learning of all their students be the “standard” against which that school is assessed?

Assumption 2. “Other schools” offer different forms of education from public schools. One would assume that parents who are unhappy with the education their children are getting in a public school wouldn’t choose another school with basically the same structure and goals. Yet as we have seen, charter schools are held to the same “standard” as public schools—scores on high-stakes standardized tests. How likely is it that these schools can offer a more “learner-centered,” individualized approach when they are still held accountable for making sure all students “know and are able to do” the same things at the same age? 

Many private and/or independent schools DO offer different approaches to learning. Because they are not tax-supported, they create a learning environment that supports the development of each individual, rather than one-size-fits-all standards. Nor do they have to give standardized tests to "prove" their effectiveness. Because they are not tax-supported, these schools must charge tuition. These are the schools to which people who can afford the tuition (including many of the legislators who mandate one-size-fits-all standards for "other people's children") send their children. One might then assume that the approaches these schools are taking are "effective" in educating children.

Enter vouchers! Wouldn’t they allow parents to send their children to private/independent schools that ARE effective and learner-centered? Well, no. Each state that currently offers vouchers in one form or another has different regulations about who is eligible for them and how much they actually receive. And NO state offers anywhere near the amount that would cover the $20,000+ tuition charged by the best private schools--assuming that these schools would accept every child as public schools are required to do.

The purpose of this article is not to argue the pros and cons of charter schools and vouchers. You will find a number of links to more information on these topics at the end of the article.(3)

The Question About School Choice That No One Asks!

If you've read many of the articles on my website, it will be obvious that I am a strong proponent of learner-centered education, which involves educating the “whole child” and giving children as much choice in their learning as possible. Therefore, my question—the one that no one seems to ask—is why is choice not available WITHIN our public schools? Why, in fact, do government policy makers make it nearly impossible to incorporate effective learner-centered methods by mandating one-size-fits-all standards?

Responding to the call for school choice does not require giving taxpayer money to for-profit charter schools, or to parents as vouchers. If other schools, including private/independent schools, are so much "better"—so much more effective—than public schools, then why haven't policy makers encouraged their incorporation into public education? Students and parents do deserve choice! But that choice must be offered within our public schools, where all children, regardless of their income level, have access to them. Instead, government policy makers continue to mandate one-size-fits-all policies that are the antithesis of the way children actually learn, even as they send their own children to progressive, learner-centered private schools—schools that will forever remain out of reach for low-income and poverty level families?

There are many ways to provide choice within public education. Here's just one possible scenario. A large, urban school or district could be divided into smaller schools—no larger than 150 students each. Each mini-school would offer a pedagogy consistent with a proven approach, such as Montessori, "Big Picture" schools, International Baccalaureate, High-Tech-High, or other hybrid “learner-centered” approaches. For those parents who still believe that one-size-fits-all standards and tests are in the best interest of their children, that choice would also be available. Each approach would be explained to parents, who could then choose whichever “school” they and their children feel would best serve them. The district retains its taxpayer funding at the same time that parents and students have a choice of learning environment that best suits their needs.

The idea of “schools within schools” is not new. You can read more about the various approaches here and here. You will find some of the other benefits of small, learner-centered schools in this article. There are many ways to begin. Indeed, many enlightened public school administrators and teachers have already opened their schools to change--even at the risk of government censure.

Opening public schools to approaches proven effective over decades in private schools addresses the problem of school choice without any further economic and social damage to public education. The critical component of such a system must be the recognition that "success" and "effectiveness" must be defined differently. High scores on standardized tests are totally inappropriate for an educational approach that focuses on the development of the whole child—mental, physical, emotional, social, creative, spiritual (knowledge of self), and natural (connection with nature.) If the chains of standards and standardized testing are not broken, alternate approaches that are effective outside of public education cannot work within our public schools.

Many government policy makers insist that parents and children deserve to choose their schools because public schools are failing. At the same time, they refuse to admit that what has really failed is the one-size-fits-all standards and standardized testing that schools are mandated to use! Passing out taxpayer money earmarked for the education of all of our children to for-profit corporations is, at the very lease, a cop-out! At worst, it calls into question the motives of those same policy makers as they rush to give away taxpayer money to for-profit corporations. In recent years, our taxes have been distributed—without any input from taxpayers—to charter schools that no longer have to answer to local control, or to parents to pay tuition at whatever school will accept their children. I, for one, expect my tax money to stay in public education, but only if that money is used to transform schools to meet the needs of all individuals. Isn’t it time we speak out about how our representatives choose to use our money?

  1. http://www.pbs.org/closingtheachievementgap/faq.html
  2. Ibid.
  3. cf. http://www.dailykos.com/story/2013/05/21/1210512/-Nashville-charter-schools-lose-problem-students-to-public-schools-just-in-time-for-testing and https://gadflyonthewallblog.wordpress.com/2016/01/27/top-10-reasons-school-choice-is-no-choice/

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