School choice is a must

Posted on February 08, 2008 | Type: In the News | Author: Robert Robb
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Reality is beginning to set in about education reform, at least in some parts of the right.

The conservative education reform agenda is centered in choice. Allow parents to choose the schools their children attend, and schools will improve as they are forced to compete, goes the argument.

The primacy given to choice was challenged recently by an essay in City Journal by Manhattan Institute senior fellow Sol Stern, titled "School Choice Isn't Enough."

School choice is great and valuable, Stern acknowledged, particularly as a principle of social justice. Parents shouldn't be denied options regarding their children's education because of income.

However, according to Stern, the broad-based educational improvements from choice have been negligible, particularly for those students remaining in traditional schools. There are some gains reported in traditional schools facing choice competition, but they are small.

Moreover, there appear to be political limits to choice reforms. Vouchers are the purest form of choice, yet they are rejected whenever they are put on the ballot, most recently in Utah.

The public seems to want choice on the education menu, but not as the main course. The body politic views education as a public good and, thus far, sees the traditional neighborhood school as the more natural and appropriate means of delivering it.

Instead of choice, Stern says the emphasis should be on curriculum, pointing to gains made in Massachusetts after hard-nosed reformers gained control.

The City Journal invited some all-stars in the conservative education-reform movement to respond, including Matt Ladner from the Goldwater Institute in Arizona.

"Hey, we're just getting started here" was the common thread to the reaction. The best research indicates that choice programs do produce education gains, both for participating students and those remaining in traditional schools. These programs are still young and small. Too soon to conclude that marginal improvements are all they can produce.

Besides, the choice advocates asked, how can curricular reform be achieved without choice? Can't expect it to spontaneously generate from the educational establishment. They are the ones who installed the flabby curriculum to begin with.

Arizona has been on the forefront of the choice reform movement. Nearly a fifth of Arizona students are in charter schools or private schools or are being home-schooled. As Ladner points out, since school choice began in Arizona, about a quarter of student enrollment growth has been absorbed by choice schools. So, it's an option that's proved preferable to many parents.

And traditional school districts have responded to choice competition in some valuable ways, such as the establishment of traditional district schools with back-to-basics curricula.

Yet it would be difficult to make the case that choice competition has produced break-through gains in Arizona's traditional schools serving around 80 percent of the student population.

Accountability through testing has seemed to produce the largest gains around the country. But even there, improvements have been modest because of the pressure to define success downward.

Arizona rates schools on a six-point scale, with "performing" being the doing-OK rating. Six times as many Arizona schools are rated above that as below it. Now, I've defended Arizona's public schools against the charge that they are unusually awful. But this doesn't reflect the reality of student achievement in Arizona.

A comparable measure of modesty would be in order from educational reformers on the left. The gains from their reforms - early childhood education, smaller class sizes, better-paid teachers - are also meager at best, and much more expensive.

None of these reformers are drilling down to what I suspect matters the most: decorum in the classroom. It's hard to teach or learn in a disorderly classroom.

Yet the ability of teachers to impose order in their classrooms has been substantially eroded. Usually, they have to follow disciplinary procedures established from above. The threat of second-guessing and even litigation hangs over everything they do or say.

Students sense the limitations of their teachers' authority. Many are bathed in victimization attitudes, if not yet politics.

That's the real appeal of choice options, the ability to get your student into an orderly classroom.

Other things matter. But the suspicion here is that order in the classroom matters most of all.

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