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Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Choosing "Choice"

I know I've been promising to write some posts explaining some of the concepts I am covering in class. Unfortunately, all of the things I have thought about discussing involve me being much more familiar with the Latex formatting syntax than I currently am. For now, you'll just have to read another one of my extemporaneous ramblings.

My schedule has kept me off of the blogosphere lately. The only discussion I have really been able to participate in lately is one about school choice over at Mindless Math Mutterings. I thought I would take a few minutes to elaborate on that issue here.

There are a few misconceptions about school choice and what it can and can't do. The idea is that simply creating a competitive environment will force schools to fix all their problems and become successful. They will either sink or swim. Here is the problem with that reasoning. The choice model is patterned after good old-fashioned natural selection. Whether you prefer the metaphor of a biological system or the business world, the simple fact is this. The vast majority of species and businesses that have ever existed have failed. They are extinct. They caved under the competitive pressures.

Selection pressures do force the cream to rise, but it happens through a process that can best be titled "creative destruction." If you implement that kind of system, you have to accept the fact that most of the schools will fail and be forced to close. Most of them will not be able to magically adapt overnight. That will leave legions of children looking for a new educational institution.

That population overflow will cause the second major problem. Will the few remaining schools be able to scale up their success? Most of the schools that are doing really well are small schools. Whether they are private, public, or charter, they have small teacher to student ratios and they are able to cater to specific demographics. They do creative things like using students to clean up the physical plant instead of hiring full-time janitorial staff. But will they be able to do the same things with a student body that's been increased tenfold?

If you have any experience in the kitchen, you know that some recipes can be doubled or tripled, while others can't. What was exquisitely delicious when prepared for two is revolting when prepared for two hundred. Or a political example, if you prefer. Communism works extremely well in small groups. Contained familial styled villages can live quite happily using that political system. But I think we all remember what happened when that compound was scaled up to the size of a country.

Choosing "choice" would provide our nation with better schools over the long run, of that I have little doubt. But in the meantime, we will be closing a lot of schools and failing a lot of kids. I just don't think it's the answer.


concernedCTparent said...

KIPP comes to mind as a model of successful implementation. They are turning lives around and creating opportunity where none existed before. We have models of success in our own country as well as abroad. The very spirit of choice is that these options would be as unique as the students themselves. I just don't see how it could fail more miserably than so many public schools already are.

I'm open to be enlightened though. I'd love to hear some solid reasoning.

Anonymous said...

Two of the most important things I learned from my masters in ed program are:

- there's no one size fits all; and
- context matters

Choice is one way community members can try on different educational models ... the problem is, there's no built in "return policy" if it doesn't work/fit.

There's no end to the creative approaches many communities, administrators, teachers, and other stakeholders have taken to help improve education for their young people. Yes, much research shows that big schools often result in big problems ... but i've seen/read about some cool ways even big schools have dealt with creating more intimate learning communities. Check out this article from educ leadership:

Taylor said...

Great analysis of the school choice situation. Thanks!

Tony said...


What I'm reading from you is that you feel that there are schools that are so bad, that they are worse than having no school at all. I agree that things are bad in some places, but not that bad.


I'm not saying that big is bad. All I'm saying is that schools that are successful and small won't necessarily remain successful when big. They will have to adapt themselves.

Just to reiterate my point, choice does not strongly drive adaptation, it only selects the fittest schools.

concernedCTparent said...

Tony- There could be nothing further from the truth. Unfortunately you've read me absolutely wrong.

Why must choice be all or nothing?

Every child deserves an education (a quality education and not just babysitting). They cannot be without a school environment while we figure things out and that's why we're the adults here.

It's our job to make this thing work. It's in our best interest to have a well educated citizenry. Our democracy depends upon it. Choice is at the very heart of democracy, isn't it?

KIPP coexists with the public school system. It's actually ended up being the scaffold for failing public schools in many inner city areas. Why is that so threatening? Don't these children deserve the quality education they are receiving? Doesn't every child?

Choice can co-exist with public schools. As it stands, public schools are either not motivated or not capable of changing from within. It's going to take some serious outside pressure to assure a quality education for every child and choice can be the catalyst for that much needed change.

concernedCTparent said...

I should have said "children cannot be without an EDUCATION while we figure things out".

Schools as an institution are not the only places a child can learn...

As a certified teacher who homeschools and an afterschools 3 children, it is clear to me that what children deserve and need is a good education. This is what we should be fighting for whether it happens in a public school, private school, charter school or at home. It's not the size of the school that matters so much as what learning takes place.