Last week I published a piece about the shortcomings of school choice in addressing educational inequity. The false elixir of school choice, as I called it, is built on the assumption that more or diverse school options exist for low-income or vulnerable student populations. Unfortunately, they do not. Too often families are choosing from among a small handful of schools all of which are using the same pedagogies, and all of which are equally unappealing.
But I am a proponent of school choice. I believe families should be able to choose the best fit for their children, and I believe we owe those families a real menu of diverse, high-performing options from which to choose. So what should that look like?
Let me start by sharing a short video that highlights the problem. Despite the emphasis on choice, there are generally so few differentiated options that choice is an illusion. When all the options are the same, allowing people to “choose” which they prefer isn’t a form of freedom, it’s a form of deception.
The key to school choice is to free school from many of the restraints that produce outcomes like those in the video: schools that feel more like factories than fun. An overemphasis on testing forces many schools — again particularly those serving high-need student populations — to adopt one-size-fits-all pedagogies that neuter learning, suck joy from schools, and result in the discard of programs upon which school choice should truly be based.
Now imagine what it might look like if there were truly an array of educational pathways available to families. Though not all the examples I cite are publicly available, there is no reason the ideas could not exist within public education. And if school choice is to be an equitable solution to the America’s educational woes, education must remain a public endeavor.
- Some schools would focus on different pedagogical techniques. What types of learning work best for different students? How will students engage with the teacher, technology, and one another? There is a plethora of alternatives. Examples of schools already using pedagogical techniques different from direct instruction include public Montessori schools, where children pursue their own learning in a less structured manner while guided by a teacher, and elite boarding schools such as Phillips Exeter Academy, where all classes are taught via collaborative small group seminar.
- Some schools would concentrate on thematic learning. Already there exist academies for arts and sports, although most often they are private. Why aren’t there more schools like Brooklyn Urban Garden School (BUGS), a charter school with a unique focus on sustainability? What about schools that center on the humanities or foreign cultures and languages or coding and robotics? If these elements are present in schools at all they are secondary appeals, often inadequately funded and distant afterthoughts behind other concerns.
- There would be more career and technical options. I know that the data show how much greater lifetime earnings will be with a college degree. This raises a bigger longterm conversation about the sustainability of the economic and labor markets that contribute to the data. But absent that conversation it’s still true that better technical education opportunities would be useful in the short term, and perhaps in the future as well, providing opportunities that may otherwise be inaccessible to many children.
- There would be more options for students with special needs. Whether schools that focus exclusively on students with high needs or more schools with the ability to effectively educate students with special needs, the emphasis on giving these students the opportunities they deserve would be real.
- Schools would be more diverse. It would be hard to make schools any less diverse, and certainly school choice alone will not fix self-imposed segregation of schools (in some cases it might exacerbate it), but many families would see the benefits of sending their children to schools with diverse student populations, and would be drawn to this crucial element of education. Magnet schools are an example of models that attempt to create diverse learning environments.
- There would be online and remote learning options allowing students to connect with resources on a schedule and at a pace that suits their needs.
Schools like those I’ve mentioned already exist, of course. But they are outliers, perhaps expensive, often geographically remote, rarely found where they are most needed. Districts must allow individual schools and administrators to design schools that appeal to their communities and find suitable metrics for evaluating those schools to help the good ones thrive and expand if needed while ensuring that the ineffective ones are not allowed to do so. Innovation and experimentation must be encouraged, but held to rigorous, growth-based standards based on their goals and focus.
While it may seem as though I am subtly advocating for charter schools, I think it is important to be explicit that charter schools can play a role in this transformation, but are by no means a silver bullet or solution themselves. Charter schools are flexible enough to innovate, and other public schools need that freedom. But many good charters are the same pedagogies and techniques as their peer schools, and there are plenty of examples of excellent traditional public schools that fit the profile I’m espousing.
Incubating such a intricate ecosystem and measuring its effects will necessarily take time. Indeed, creating a truly robust system of diverse public schools is a radical rethinking of the current educational model. But the current model is failing students all around the country. School choice can help solve this problem, but only if we commit to making choice mean that families actually have access to a range of quality options, not merely the freedom to shuffle among bad ones.