Wednesday, September 2, 2009

The Beat Goes On

School choice always seems to remain in the forefront of the education reform agenda even though there's limited evidence to support its success and obvious logical flaws with the program.

First, we know that charter schools (the frequent instrument of school choice) are not automatically better than traditional public schools and that their presence does not automatically lead to an improvement in all other schools in the area. This second point is largely due to the fact that parents often prefer not to exercise their choice and instead stay in the schools they know. So the facts don't support the choice as panacea theory that's often put forward.

Furthermore, it just doesn't make logical sense. As I've written before, we just don't have the capacity to offer good school choices to every student (which we would presumably want to do since we want all children to have a good education). If there were enough good school seats for every child, then every child would already be in a good school. That's a logical truism. The problem is that we don't have enough good school seats (hence the good schools and bad schools we see) and saying that parents can choose to try to attend the good schools doesn't help those who get shut out and therefore need to attend the bad ones.

Yet, despite the empircal and logical flaws in the position, the drum beat for "choice" goes on. Most recently, L.A. passed a huge school choice measure that will open up about 250 schools to outside control. So let me throw another argument into the hopper.

Choice arguments are based on the idea that parents will choose the best school for their children. Never mind for a moment that the Education Sector report linked to above found that increased school options "will not, in and of themselves, ensure that all of those options will be high-quality. Nor will they guarantee that consumers will make good choices and utilize the newer, better options that come along." That's assuming that everything is equal and parents have the information and capability to make the best choice. But what if that gets warped?

A report a few days ago in the New York Post found that some city public schools are going to outside agencies for "marketing makeovers." We're talking here about logos, websites, and uniforms designed to draw in parents and students. In case it's not obvious, I'll point out here that none of those things actually make a good school. All the cosmetics in the world won't get a student to excel in reading or math. They may get more parents to enroll their children.

What we're looking at now is going from a system that already doesn't actually work to one that doesn't work and in which the choice system gets perverted by slick advertising and branding. This will not help kids learn. And yet the beat goes on.

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