More on School Choice

When we believe in something, it is human nature to say that our beliefs are the source of a wide range of virtues.  And, it is human nature to ignore evidence to the contrary.

For example, I like the idea of smaller high schools.  My preference is based on personal experience.  I went to a small high school and had a great experience and I have succeeded academically.  I would like to join the small school bandwagon – which is receiving millions of dollars of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation – and claim that small schools will lead to higher student achievement.  It is just that the evidence doesn’t necessarily support that claim.  I still believe in that small schools have merit and are an idea we should look at seriously in this district.  However, I can’t claim that small schools will guarantee higher student achievement.

I wrote yesterday that there is not clear evidence that school choice will lead to higher student achievement.

Advocates of choice will point to studies that “prove” that choice does lead to higher achievement.  Brad Jolly posted this link in the comment section yesterday.  Please see http://www.friedmanfoundation.org/friedman/research/ShowResearchItem.do?id=10082 for data to the contrary.”

Opponents of choice can find evidence that “proves” choice does not lead to higher achievement, too.  For instance, see Freakonomics, by Steven D. Levitt and Stephen J. Dubner, page 158.

Paul T. Hill is an education researcher/expert who I respect.  He is an unabashed supporter of choice.  I find him authentic because he realizes that ideas such as choice can’t be pursued simplistically.  Choice does not guarantee good outcomes.  He wrote in Education Week:

The old arguments in support of school choice are still right:  Choice can make parents full partners in education and drive innovation.  Without it, public education is frozen in place by laws, contracts and adult entitlements.

But arguing for public school choice in the form of charter schools or voucher programs is not the same thing as claiming that any program offering choice will deliver all of the concept’s potential benefits.

[C]harter schools are getting mixed results, as are the few public voucher programs now in existence…

We could go back and forth on the debate of whether choice leads to increases in student achievement forever.  My point is that providing families with options of schools has merits irrespective of impact on student achievement.  And, boosting student achievement will not be solved simply by creating more choices.  That’s why I believe it is important to decouple these two issues.

I would like to make one more point on school choice.  I diverge from many choice advocates because of my interest in the civic health of our communities and nation.  Over the past couple of decades, the role that public schools play in nurturing and sustaining democratic life has been lost from the conversation.

We need some areas of our lives in which we are more than mere consumers.  We need institutions in our lives in which we are required to be democratic citizens – or our democracy will suffer greatly.

I believe we must strive to preserve public schools as an essential democratic institution.  That is why I support options and choices in the context of public schools but not vouchers.

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One Response to “More on School Choice”

  1. Brad Jolly Says:

    John, it’s all about the meaning of the word “choice.” As I pointed out yesterday, Paul Hill’s definition of choice would include the SVVSD as it currently exists, and certainly, I would not argue that this arrangement leads to improved achievement.
    You say that, “We could go back and forth on the debate of whether choice leads to increases in student achievement forever,” and then you boldly assert that the argument is over in the same paragraph! To wit: “boosting student achievement will not be solved simply by creating more choices.”
    Finally, you say that you are different from supporters of true choice because of your “interest in the civic health of our communities and nation.” What evidence do you have that a) supporters of real choice do not share that interest, or b) public schools are better than private schools in creating civic health? Your humble correspondent is a public school graduate; you might be surprised to learn how many of the top people on S. Pratt St. were the beneficiaries of private school education.

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