The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Monday, April 20, 2009

Thinking and Acting Beyond Local

The Way to Expand School Choice Is to Expand Our Neighborhoods.

Last Friday, I posted about a federally funded voucher trial that just ended in the Washington D.C. public school system. Proponents of vouchers trumpet them as providing parental choice and promise they will force schools to improve or perish by applying free market forces. Opponents of vouchers condemn them as anti-democratic and direly predict they will not improve schools, making them worse instead.

The D.C. trial results proved paradoxical. There was little to no difference between voucher students and their public school counterparts yet voucher parents liked the program and insisted their children received a better education under it, in terms of cleaner/safer schools and a better sense of self-discipline and self-worth.

Even if we regarded this as sufficient to justify the continuation of the experiment, the D.C. voucher plan is not scalable much beyond the trial size of 1,900 students in a district containing 70,000 students. The alternatives would be to build dozens of unproven new private schools or concede a certain elitist aspect to vouchers that critics contend, similar to varsity sports.

The Century Foundation, a nonprofit public policy research institution specializing in education, published a paper in 2003 at the start of the D.C. experiment, entitled Public School Choice vs. Private School Vouchers. While recognizing the inherent dangers of vouchers, the group also acknowledged the basic unfairness of trapping kids in bad schools. The second part of their report provides a reasonable and practicable means out of the apparent voucher/choice conundrum. They presented their findings at a National Press Club luncheon in 2003, from which most of the quoted material to follow is drawn.

They contend that while two basic virtues serve as the foundation for public education in this country, society tends to only acknowledge and celebrate one of them.

The virtue we recognize is excellence, particularly in term of education’s ability to allow us to realize the American Dream and make better lives for ourselves. We hold up Abraham Lincoln doing sums in charcoal on the back of a shovel as a boy and then going on to become a self-educated lawyer. We celebrate those who took advantage of their (limited) educational opportunities so much that we tend to regard those opportunities as ubiquitous and egalitarian.

The fact that some achieve excellence does not prove everybody has opportunity and a few succeed because they try harder. In fact, providing education as a right for all is something favored since the Founding Fathers as a way to promote democracy and avoid the rigid class structure of the European societies from which they came and ultimately rejected. Equal opportunity is the second, often unsung virtue of public education.

Excellence is an individual property and an individual choice. Providing equity in opportunity for education (or anything else) is a societal property and a societal choice. No Child Left Behind often earns criticism for its extensive use of testing and measurement but measurement itself is not this law’s basic weakness. The problem is that it only measures excellence achieved without regard to opportunity provided.

It assumes that by achieving parity in excellent performance, parity in opportunity follows. But this is exactly backwards.

Here is where basic selfishness comes into play. When parents complain of substandard schools, they too often mean the neighborhood schools their children attend are unsatisfactory. If they are happy with their children’s neighborhood schools, they do not care about other problems in their district, county, state, or the U.S. and categorize parents complaining in such places as troublemakers and radicals out to raise everybody’s taxes.

Richard Rothstein is the former education columnist for the New York Times and currently a research associate for the Economic Policy Institute. He carefully analyzed studies done within various school districts and found that type of school (i.e. public versus private) is seldom a predictor of school achievement. Instead, Rothstein found the key differentiator is the social class of the neighborhood in which any type of school is located.

In other words, if a neighborhood contains good private schools, it tends to have good public schools as well or at least better performing ones than public schools in “bad” neighborhoods. Conversely, if a neighborhood contains bad public schools, it tends to have bad private schools as well or at least worse performing ones than private schools in “good” neighborhoods.

Not surprisingly, higher income neighborhoods tend to possess high-performing schools while lower income neighborhoods tend to possess low-performing schools.

Rothstein found that neighborhoods help or hurt their constituent schools in two basic ways – parental involvement and supplemental summer learning experiences.

Teachers in both public and private schools located in lower income “bad” neighborhoods expressed frustration they could not get parents involved with academic programs, either at school or via help with homework. In higher income “good” neighborhoods, teachers in both public and private schools reported a surplus of parental volunteers, sometimes even to the point of becoming disruptive.

Likewise, learning and other enrichment experiences continue year round for both public and private schoolchildren in higher income “good” neighborhoods while both public and private schoolchildren in lower income “bad’ neighborhoods routinely spend three months each year with virtually no classroom supplemental learning experiences. Rothstein believes summer learning may constitute as much as half of the so-called learning gap between students in “good” versus “bad” neighborhoods by the time they graduate high school (assuming students in the latter actually make it this far).

This phenomenon goes a long way to explaining the relatively small academic improvement demonstrated during the D.C. trial, as most voucher families opted for private, usually parochial, schools located in the same neighborhoods as the public schools their children would otherwise attend.

Dr. Charles Willie, a sociologist and Professor Emeritus at Harvard University is the co-author of Student Diversity, Choice, and School Improvement. He has consulted with numerous school systems on the subject of school choice and developed a model, or at least a general approach, to achieving it without vouchers. He has tried implementing such a model, with various degrees of cooperation/success, at school systems in Boston, Florida, Seattle, San Jose, and Illinois.

The central tenet of Willie’s approach is to force parents to think about their children’s education on a larger scale than their immediate neighborhood schools. His greatest success to date is the Lee County Florida public schools. This is a very large district, serving about 80,000 students and consisting of thirteen high schools, seventeen middle schools, forty-three elementary schools, nineteen charter schools, and twenty various other specialty schools.

Willie divided Lee County into several large zones. He invited parents with entry-level children to visit all of the schools at that level within their zone. Parents then picked which schools within a zone they most wanted their children to attend by ranking their top five choices. Willie attempted to meet these choices while simultaneously seeking to maximize diversity within each school along racial, gender, and socioeconomic lines.

Unsurprisingly, the schools with the best reputations filled up the fastest. Since they were popular with parents from all demographic backgrounds, they also tended to be the most diverse. However, diversity did not impede choice. Eighty-five percent of parents got their first or second selection. When allowed to re-apply for their first choice the next year, less than five percent opted to do so, having found their second or third choice to be “good enough.”

As the new program got underway, Willie and school administrators began using a combination of goal setting and incentives to make less popular schools follow the policies and practices of their more popular peers. Academic performance scores improved under the new approach but so did those “tangible intangibles” so highly valued by D.C. voucher families.

Parents in Lee County had long been able to “grade” the schools their children attended. When the experiment began, fifteen percent of schools received a grade of “A,” fifteen percent received a failing grade of “D,” and the rest were somewhere in-between. A mere two years later, the number of “A” schools had doubled to thirty percent and not a single school received a “D.”

The fact that Lee County schools are still using his system today testifies to the success of Willie’s approach. Moreover, what about the parent volunteerism missing so often in “bad” neighborhood schools? The Lee County Public schools website reports that last year sixteen thousand parents logged over 425,000 hours in support of students.

The Lee County model, while promising, is far from a panacea. One reason Willie’s model worked there is because this district was already geographically expansive, with a large and highly diverse student population. Smaller, more geographically bound, and more segregated districts might need to dissolve their boundaries and combine with neighboring schools to achieve the same effects. This is sure to be exceedingly controversial as well as logistically difficult.

However, it seems clear the general principle necessary for excellent neighborhood schools everywhere is to get our heads out of the confines of our own neighborhoods and start regarding education as the global societal responsibility it truly represents. What is more, we must understand we cannot force global excellence. Our responsibility lies in first providing global opportunity and then inspiring, recognizing, and rewarding as many as possible to use that opportunity to achieve excellence.

“Think globally, act locally,” runs the old saw. Where public education is concerned, we have to move beyond local in both thinking and action.

No comments: