Schools and accountability

[updated]

Here’s the part that gets me – if, as is assumed in this critique (an assumption I largely agree with by the way) that it is not possible to adequately measure performance via testing, then by what standard is it appropriate to say that parents shouldn’t have the ability to determine their own criteria for evaluating their child’s education, and then act on that criteria to send their child to the school that best matches that criteria? ~ Mark Thompson in the comments

Here’s how I see this.  Standardized testing is a shabby substitute for actual community and parental involvement in our schools.  It’s a crutch.  Inevitably, it’s a crutch that empowers bureaucrats and enfeebles teachers and students and schools and families and communities.  If we want our schools to be more ‘accountable’ and our teachers to perform adequately, then we as a society need to reintegrate our schools and our communities. No man is an island, as Donne so aptly put it.  Well, no school is either.  Nor should they be.  School should be a piece of the larger community.  We should hold our schools accountable by holding ourselves accountable first, by being a part of our children’s education. 

There are many ways to do this, including more community partnerships and, as I’ve said before, apprenticeship programs.  In some places, this means we need to reevaluate how much influence teacher’s unions have.  Not everywhere, by any means, but in those places where bad teachers get preferential treatment over their students.  It strikes me that more and more we feel that all of this should be done for us.  How well are our schools performing?  We don’t know because we aren’t involved in them so we’d better have them take lots and lots of tests!  How are our teachers performing?  We don’t ever see or speak with our teachers, or really with our kids, so we’d better grade their performance based on these tests!

If parents want ‘the ability to determine their own criteria for evaluating their child’s education’ they should simply be more involved in that education.  Some school choice probably won’t hurt here, but I worry that school choice in general will be used as an excuse not to really become involved in the first place.  ‘Well we picked a really high-performing school for our kids, so everything will be just fine!’  Again – I think some school choice is probably not a terribly big deal.  It may do some good.  But I think it only addresses one tiny sliver of the problems our schools face*.

In a sense, this is the problem we’ve seen with retirees in places like Sun City who want to avoid paying taxes to pay for public education.  That is more malicious, obviously, than simply wanting to pick a better school for your kids – but both actions undermine a commitment to our communities.  And that comes back to haunt us.  In the end, I think you get what you put in.

Another question that has been raised is the idea of gifted-students classes.  I’ll be blunt.  At this point in my life I’m against both gifted and special-needs classes being separated from the mainstream.  What classrooms need is a diversity of ability.  If gifted kids need more of a challenge they should be able to get it through electives or after-school instruction.  If special needs kids need more help, that should be provided.  But placing all these kids together will enrich the entire experience.  Hell – I’d say we should go back to one-room schoolhouses if I thought we could get away with it!  Segregating students based on age is just as silly to me as separating them based on ability.

In any case, segregating classes based on talent misses so many fundamentally important things about how we learn, how we socialize, how we learn to get along, that in the end is ultimately a disservice to everyone involved.

I’ll have more elaborate thoughts on the brain-drain concept later.  For now, suffice to say that I think we have been suckered into a grand illusion that centralizing our best and brightest is the only way, indeed the inevitable way – and that, I believe, is entirely untrue.

* P.S. I agree with Freddie on this point as well – most American schools are doing just fine!  Indeed, most Americans think their own school is doing just fine, even if they think everyone else’s is awful!  For instance, take a look at this chart from Gallup:

 

UPDATE.

Max Socol asks:

Not to argue from authority but just out of real curiosity: have you worked with special needs students before? Have you spent any time in any kind of classroom? (As a teacher, I mean.)

The answer is yes – a little.  I have taught in special-needs classes, both behavioral special ed and traditional special ed.  And I have had a great deal of experience with educators, talking about these issues – including the issue of special education being “mainstreamed” – as well.  The fact is, to adequately mainstream real problem kids or really handicapped kids, you need to probably have teacher assistants on hand.  There is no way that these kids will learn at the same rate as others.  Some severely handicapped kids need one-on-one instruction.  There is no perfect way to integrate them into the larger class.  That being said, segregation is a really backwards way of treating people with different learning ability and even different basic intelligences.  Of course, if you try to have everyone learn at the same rate, well you’re going to fail.  Then again, I’d say that applies to “normal” kids as well.  But who ever said all kids in a class should have to learn or achieve at the same rate?  That’s sort of an odd way of thinking, actually, even if it is firmly ingrained in our psyche.

Also, I like Greg’s ideas for measuring school success.  I bet we could come up with more if we tried:

College admittance rate
Trade school admittance rate
Military enlistment rate
Number of incidents that require police intervention
Winning academic prizes or scholarships to college, etc.
Hours volunteered by HS students
Number of grads who get jobs straight out of HS and they avg pay

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43 thoughts on “Schools and accountability

  1. I strongly agree with the community involvement part E.D. but I can’t agree with the idea of forcing special needs kids and gifted kids back into the main classroom. For the gifted kids this would only have the impact of boring some very smart kids but otherwise wouldn’t do much harm. With the special needs kids though this would be an utter disaster. Perhaps when you think special needs you’re thinking just of quiet kids who have a hard time understanding material. This is not necessarily the case.
    My cousin is autistic, for example, and requires a specific kind of manner of communication in both directions so that teacher and child can understand each other. This is partially how autism works (in a very simplified manner). If you do not know how to communicate with him he gets frustrated and can get as bad as hammering his own head against a wall while the blood flows just to express what he’s feeling. And his level of autism is considered above average performance. A single child like my cousin or heaven forefend one of his more unfortunate peers would shut a normal classroom of children down.
    Having special needs kids in the classroom with regular kids and smart kids will not produce a bunch of kids in a normal classroom. It’ll produce a whole bunch of normal and smart kids trapped in a special needs classroom. Special needs children are special in a variety of ways; they need special attention, special curricula and (especially) a special approach to discipline. Either the class will crawl along at a special needs pace or the special needs kids pretty much disable the classroom. Even worse some teachers would probably out of desperation just segregate and ignore the special needs kids in a corner in a desperate attempt to get some teaching done. Lumping special needs kids in with the general population would have a terrible impact on the regular kids and a worse (and crueler) impact on the special needs kids themselves.

    That issue aside I agree a lot.

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    • The term used in my school district is Mainstreaming and you are so right, North. The disruptive and plainly unabled kids do bring down the classroom. The spend more time sitting in the halls outside the classroom door or in the office under the gaze of the assistant principal than in the classroom itself. They are not bad kids but they learn in a different and special manner and need that special environment. The gifted kids need to be grouped also. The one room school house doesn’t work when trying to teach trig or statistics to two kids, basic intoductory algebra to 20 and remedial multiplication to six more. The total number of kids can and should be grouped in the electives; art, music, PE and tech ed.

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  2. Possible metrics for assessing the success of schools:

    College admittance rate
    Trade school admittance rate
    Military enlistment rate
    Number of incidents that require police intervention
    Winning academic prizes or scholarships to college, etc.
    Hours volunteered by HS students
    Number of grads who get jobs straight out of HS and they avg pay

    When choosing metrics its best to go with the natural events hope will come from a certain activity, not to invent new ones. Standardized testing is not a natural outcome most people want from school so it twists incentives.

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    • I’m sure some US News & World Report like ranking system could be devised using these but ultimately, the thing that I’m struck by from this list is how many of these things are cultural.

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  3. “What classrooms need is a diversity of ability.”

    That seems really, really misguided to me, and I would suggest that while you’re absolutely right that schools need to be reconceived as community projects, you have probably tacked too far in the other direction here.

    Not to argue from authority but just out of real curiosity: have you worked with special needs students before? Have you spent any time in any kind of classroom? (As a teacher, I mean.)

    It is a delightful notion that students could learn how to socialize with peers of radically different cognitive ability while at the same time absorbing the all of the information and learning technique we expect them to internalize in during the school year, but in the vast majority of cases it’s simply not possible. Maybe that sounds pessimistic, but I’m pretty certain it’s also correct.

    If anything I’d like to turn your formula on its head, and provide more extracurricular opportunities for students of different abilities to socialize, while maintaining divisions by cognitive ability in the classroom.

    For what it’s worth, I also think you’re misrepresenting the attitude that most parents of charter school kids have (at least in DC). Charters here are very difficult to get into – the waiting lists are miles long, and parents have to show up to every open house, talk to every teacher, do everything in their power to prove that their family *wants* this for the child. And of course, it’s quite easy for students to lose their charter spot if they don’t share their family’s feeling.

    Again, not saying it’s a cure-all, but families that seek out charters are in my opinion significantly *more* invested in the school than those whose children attend public school.

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    • The extracurricular thing is a good point and as a response to you and Erik, it seems that if the point of redefining the school is to be more a part of the community, the focus on curricular environments (ala mainstream) without consideration of the more explicitly social extracurricular environments seems a bit mismatched.

      Also, one of the related findings (IIRC) from the studies on OSP, that student performance was same or better but parental satisfaction was significantly higher, something that might be explained by the parents who want to be more involved and found it easier to be part of a school community at a charter than through DCPS.

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  4. So basically, what you’re saying is that the problem with testing is that it attempts to substitute a mechanical standard for what is really a question of virtue, which is notoriously hard to quantify. Education is more than getting a particular arbitrary score on a particular arbitrary test. It’s about shaping the mind and soul into the best versions of ourselves that we can be.

    Well, guess what: the reason testing was introduced in the first place was because that wasn’t happening. If what you want to happen were happening, testing wouldn’t be remotely relevant. In fact, the reason it was introduced in the first place is because it wasn’t “scientific,” and results were wildly uneven. Testing and the kind of industrial educational system we’ve got today was the result of the attempt to bring what used to be the province of the very rich, namely a rigorous and thorough education focused on moral improvement, to the masses, by making it mechanistic to the point that anyone could be expected to succeed at it.

    So I think you have to choose between either mechanistic education for everyone or virtue-based education for those who can afford it. I don’t think you get to choose virtue-based education for everyone. If that were an option, we wouldn’t be having this discussion.

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  5. I have to agree with the others, mainstreaming just bores the gifted and frustrates the slow kids (although you might try a pilot program where the gifted kids learn to help teach the mainstream and slow kids). Charter/Magnet schools at least offer parents a choice of places to go that might fit their kids best.

    Case in point, my cousin struggled in school for years, getting C’s across the board because the school could not teach him. Finally his parents got a scholarship & sent him to a Montessori school, where he excelled. Vouchers would have saved him years of anger & frustration.

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  6. From ED:

    “At this point in my life I’m against both gifted and special-needs classes being separated from the mainstream. What classrooms need is a diversity of ability. If gifted kids need more of a challenge they should be able to get it through electives or after-school instruction. If special needs kids need more help, that should be provided. But placing all these kids together will enrich the entire experience. Hell – I’d say we should go back to one-room schoolhouses if I thought we could get away with it! Segregating students based on age is just as silly to me as separating them based on ability.”

    I think you’re off the rails here ED. Segregating by ability when necessary is the best approach. Separating by age is equally necessary. Maturity level, general behavior, etc are all important factors in education. Special needs kids often have short attention span and need a less formal environment. That is why they get more frequent breaks and have classrooms that are more informal. On the other end, put an intelligent child in a lower-level classroom and you’re just asking him to take a nap while the teacher works longer and harder with other kids.

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  7. Got to agree with those who say mainstreaming is not the way to go. On the contrary, a good argument can be made for more segregation in the classroom. Single sex schools, for example, are making a comeback. One of the most successful charter schools is KIPP which serves inner city, mostly minority students. In our area – and probably others – the school with the best record for returning LD students to the mainstream is a specialty LD school.

    Some school choice probably won’t hurt here, but I worry that school choice in general will be used as an excuse not to really become involved in the first place. ‘Well we picked a really high-performing school for our kids, so everything will be just fine!’

    You find this at all schools. Poor performing public to the most elite prep schools. You can’t legislate morality or good sense. The goal should be to increase parental involvement. Kaizen and all that.

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  8. Another note on accountability: If I told my customers that we would no longer self-measure our quality metrics for their accounts and they just needed to be more involved with our business…they would quickly tear up their contracts. Consumers generally want to see quantifiable results. A broad spectrum of metrics paints a pretty good picture though (check your email for a file from me ED).

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      • Different businesses cater to different clients.

        If you are looking for your child to receive a world-class college prep education, what do you look for in a school?

        If you are looking for your child to receive day care, what do you look for in a school?

        If you are looking to stay out of jail for contribution to delinquency, what do you look for in a school?

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  9. Greg,

    Most of those measurements tell me how good the guidance counsellers are, not how capable the school is of teaching. Anybody who grasuates from high school can go to college somewhere.

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    • Everybody who graduates may be able to go to some college, but not always the one they want to. Whether kids go to an Ivy or a state school or a community college says a lot. partially it says a lot about the community and its values and such. But college admission is one , only one, way of looking at how well a HS does. I would suggest a number of metrics myself. Something like military enlistment would not say much in some areas but would be very common in others. I think ASVAB scores would also be a useful metric. Whether or not kids move on to success at the next level of their lives seems like a good measure of the success of a HS. The most direct way to measure that is whether kids can get access to that next level based on their prep in HS.

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  10. So it’s then doubly interesting to me that you’re an advocate for this kind of radical reformulation of the classroom. You admit that for this to work, teachers would likely need assistants in every classroom, which seems like the very least that would be required. What about emotionally disturbed students who lash out at their peers? Autistic students who frequently bite or soil themselves? How many teachers and assistants would need to be in every classroom in order to handle these challenges?

    Who will be put in the front row of desks or tables — the students with crippling ADHD, the students with hearing or vision impairment, or the students whose violent behavior requires that they be within arms reach of a teacher at all times? When students are assigned class presentations, where will the teacher find the time to work individually with every learning disabled student? Or are we merely talking about placing those students in the same room but continuing to give them wholly separate work? (This would seem like lip service to me, but perhaps you envision a kind of socialization by diffusion.)

    There are perhaps classrooms in the US that are capable of dealing with a scene like that. But for public schools in the this city, what you are describing sounds catastrophic.

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  11. If my kid went to a school that felt like my kid sitting on his hands for three hours a day while the slower students are catered to because he can learn more after-hours and get further ahead of his peers and be even more bored in class and sit on his hands for four hours a day learning little new or worthwhile would be a worthy endeavor because it would create an enriching social environment, I would enroll my kids in private school the next day.

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  12. My last comment was unusually intemperate of me. Apologies. This is a subject I feel very strong about because I was an borderline honors-caliber student in regular classes. The social experience was not enriching. Further, in addition to spending my time in class drawing comic books as I would figure out the day’s class’s lesson and have the homework done halfway before the period was done, but my grades weren’t even as good as they could have been because I would miss 15% of the lecture that I didn’t know tucked inside the 85% I figured out on my own in the first ten minutes of class. And I was a borderline honors-caliber student. I can only imagine how bored the *really* smart kids would have been.

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  13. Parents can assess their children’s education and take action as it is. Some have greater freedom to act than others; that will always be the case vouchers or no (that’s where the discussion of a terminally unfair social system comes in). Schools still need tools for assessment. There will always be tests, and states and countries will always need to try something to get a fix on how their educational systems are performing, so there will always be standardized tests as well. i don’t understand what Mark is proposing in that paragraph. That the only mechanism for education system improvement is through the blind operation of choice in the market? Educational institutions need to self assess and for that they need tools they can rely on systematically.

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    • What I am proposingis that what constitutes “improvement” is a very subjective thing. If we have made the decision that “education” should be subsidized, but we can’t really agree in a material way on what constitues a “good” or a “better” education, then the recipients of those subsidies ought to be able to spend those subsidies in the manner that makes the most sense for their educational goals. I don’t think it right that, if you don’t make enough money, your ability to influence the education your child receives while you’re at work is strictly limited to your ability to convince your local school board to provide the education you’d prefer (naturally at the expense of the education others might prefer); increasingly, even this ability is irrelevant as curricula become increasingly controlled by higher levels of government.

      Put it this way – I’ve got a big problem with the poor in Texas or Kansas having no choice but to send their children to a school where they’ll get indoctrinated with GOP talking points as part of their curriculum for no reason other than that they’re poor.

      When we talk about vouchers or, alternatively, tax credits, we’re not often talking about vouchers for everyone or even vouchers for the full amount of a student’s pro rata portion of a school budget. Instead, we’re almost always talking about heavily means-tested vouchers for a percentage of a student’s pro rata portion of a school budget.

      Vouchers/tax credits make sense because they take money that is already being spent on the poor and gives the poor the opportunity to decide how to spend it to best suit their particular educational needs, whether on sending their kid to a safer school, to a school that scores higher on standardized tests, to a school that provides a stronger emphasis on moral education, or to a school with a strong vo-tech program.

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      • I figured that was what you meant, I was being a bit disingenuous there. Thanks for indulging me.

        You do have to admit though, Mark, that this

        I don’t think it right that, if you don’t make enough money, your ability to influence the education your child receives while you’re at work is strictly limited to your ability to convince your local school board to provide the education you’d prefer (naturally at the expense of the education others might prefer)

        is ultimately inimical to public education, at least in places of high concentrations of poverty and (nearly always correspondingly) struggling schools districts, don’t you? I absolutely acknowledge that exclusively supporting public subsidies for education to be used in a private market is a philosophically and even practically coherent position. But as a society we have chosen to do public education through actual public provision of the service. On the whole, we embrace public education; the choice movement is a reaction to that. They are ultimately exclusive of each other, at least the vision you lay out and the system we have currently, aren’t they? Obviously we can’t fully fund public education as well as public subsidies — though I’d be fine if we tried for a while. But budgets would just hit the wall at some point. I think you have to acknowledge your vision is out of step with what we choose to have as a society, and that’s a system (multitudes of systems, really) of public institutions that offer, and in fact purport to guarantee, a quality education to every child who is willing to give the effort necessary to achieve it. The question is whether we continue to provide the resources necessary to be able to make that guarantee — and of course whether they are used well. I do understand the argument in favor of allowing an opt-out and subsidizing it in cases where means are the question, but it comes down to a question of scale. The vision you outline as far as I can tell is one in which the public system barely survives, and indeed in which there is no need for it to survive. The problem, as E.D. has pointed out, is that not all schools can be above average, and a great portion of the problems facing troubled public schools are societal at root, and will not be transformed by privatization.

        Those I guess would be my two responses to your vision. 1) What is role does public education play in your vision of an education system dominated by subsidies, and 2) to what extent do you believe that the societal problems that represent the challenge that public schools so often fail to overcome would be mitigated or carry over through a switch to a public-subsidy/private-market system? I guess a number 3 would just be, do you really propose this seriously or is it an intellectual position, believe yours is a realistic vision, would you acknowledge it is fundamentally as transformative/radical/counter-to-established-values as I take it to be, and am I overstating the extent to which you advocate you vision being implemented? And if the answer to the last is yes, then what is the principle by which you say, I would go this far in the direction of subsidies/rebates, but begin to protect public education at this point? Or is there some national policy that is preventing all of this from taking place at local levels and allowing all these specifics to be worked out organically?

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      • I guess the other thing I would say is simply that the fact that “we can’t really agree in a material way on what constitues a “good” or a “better” education” is just a guaranteed problem in a free society — even on the size of a medium-sized town. Some parents are not going to agree with what is decided. Allowing a universal opt-out merely for that level of failure to arrive at a collective agreement, which I take you to be saying needs to be consensus to be legitimate, just defines a legitimate system of public education out of existence. I understand a need for an opt-out where there is clear failure and dissatisfaction. But if you simply disagree with the decisions that are made about what is offered by way of public education, well, there is always home schooling. Expecting large subsidies for private education in all cases where the public educational product is not to a parent’s liking ultimately leads to dismantlement of an institution that we have heretofore resumed legitimate. That’s a perfectly legitimate position to take, but I do think it is a fair characterization of yours.

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      • Mark,
        I’ve probably gone and massively overstated your position again. I myself agree that in cases where there is organic demand and need for a financial opt-out of public education (which is to say, where local public institutions are objectively failing, and actual local families of their own volition have sought a way out), there is no legitimate response other than granting those discreet families that choice. But in my mind having an outside agenda for implemeting such options everywhere or in a widespread, nonspecific range of places regardless of local demand is an entirely different agenda, and one that amounts to a positive assault on public education inasmuch as it isn’t a direct response to real demand from real, actual, discreet families for options. And in fact I don’t know where you stand along that spectrum; i.e. whether you just support those voucher/rebate programs that have been established through local pressure, or if you advocate a widespread transformation toward subsidies. I hope you can see where the problem of the scale of implementation really is materially determinative of the nature of the proposal you are making. But rather than my above statements that assumed your position with respect to that, I should have inquired into that aspect of your view. My apologies.

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        • No problem. Let me try to answer as many of these questions as I have time to at the moment.

          1. I wouldn’t necessarily be opposed to large-scale implementation of a school choice program, but I think it makes a lot more sense for such programs to be implemented on a state or city level, at least for the foreseeable future. There will certainly be districts where their implementation is impractical, unrealistic, or even undesirable.

          2. Even if implemented on a relatively wide scale, however, I don’t think school choice must of necessity be inimical to public education. Indeed, I can think of ways that parental choice can be better respected even without a full-scale voucher program. One example would be a program where a city could set up a range of different curricula and/or types of schools within its own system or provide principals with greater control over curricula and then provide parents with an option of choosing the public school to which they send their child. In this scenario, funding “follows the student,” meaning each student is apportioned a share of the system’s budget based on their economic background, whether they have a learning disability, etc. The public schools then compete with each other, but they are especially competing for the most disadvantaged students. Roughly speaking, I think this is relatively similar to what Mayor Bloomberg has been implementing the last few years in NYC. To be sure, I’d prefer vouchers or a tax credit system, but something like the aforementioned would largely resolve my concerns about choice.

          3. Even if we’re talking about a more boilerplate voucher or tax credit system, I’m also not sure that it’s necessarily inimical to the concept of public education. Conceptually, in fact, I don’t think it would look much different from the notion of a public option in health care (about which, as I think I’ve expressed in the past, I’m fairly ambivalent….but that’s another topic entirely), at least not to the extent that vouchers or credits are implemented in the manner that is typically proposed. That standardized level of education is still provided free of charge; the difference is that the poor now have a reasonable ability to obtain a type of education (I shan’t say “level”) for their children that is currently out of reach. Meanwhile, the public schools themselves also benefit because they are left with more money per student, since vouchers are rarely, if ever, going to be a dollar-for-dollar match of expenditures.

          4. Admittedly, my rationale for school choice is a bit radical and unorthodox, especially since it utterly rejects reliance on standardized testing. But that’s a different statement from saying that school choice as a policy tool is inherently radical or inimical to the notion of a public education – my rationale is certainly not the only possible rationale, and as I explain above, and as I’ve explained in other threads both here and at my old digs, implementation of school choice need not mean the death of the public school.

          5. In some ways, my argument for school choice is almost precisely the opposite of more mainstream arguments for school choice (this is not the same as saying that those arguments are empirically wrong, BTW). Where many mainstream arguments rely on the need to boost our standing on math and reading and science scores in relationship to the rest of the world in order to “be competitive,” and argue that introducing competition into the school system is the solution, I utterly reject the notion that such scores are an appropriate measure of evaluating the success or failure of our schools. For me, it’s all about allowing the people who are closest to children’s education the right and ability to determine their own metrics for what constitutes a successful education. I think this is especially important in an age where curricula have become and are becoming increasingly politicized and in an era when the structure of our existing public education system (ie, without choice) has given ideologues in Texas, Kansas, and California an outsized influence over the minds of young children who they have never met and never will meet. The wealthy can escape this; the poor are left as mere pawns in a political culture war.

          One final thought, which I hope to have the time to elaborate upon more in the future. My approach to school choice is pretty much my approach to social programs in general – social programs should be purely about creating a safety net. I do think there is a social responsibility, inherent in any properly thought out notion of a social contract, to ensure that all have the resources at their disposal necessary to meaningfully exercise their freedom. That said, I think it arrogant of society to presume to know better than the individual how that individual should dispose of those resources. When we require low-income parents to spend their child’s portion of education taxes on sending that child to a particular public school with a particular curriculum (which is how our system is effectively set up right now), we are quite literally telling that parent that we, as a society, know what’s best for their child.

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          • I agree with much of what you wrote Mark but #2 rings the loudest with me. That system is already implemented in a lot of districts. Here in Louisville (Jefferson County Public Schools) we have three main tools we use to create choice and competition. One is the before-mentioned magnet programs. These exist at the middle school level but are sort of watered-down. They really shine in the high schools though and some are gaining national recognition. With limited enrollment, there is competition. The next is optional programs which are usually just a high-level honors program at certain schools with an emphasis on an ancillary area. One school we looked at places a heavy emphasis on technology, for example. The last area are traditional schools. these are very similar to the Catholic schools I grew up in and demand serious discipline, good performance, etc. They are sort of the ‘elite’ of the public schools and demand is very high.

            The three options work together to create a pretty high level of competition. I’ve seen it first hand as we’ve tried to find schools that were a good fit for our kids. What I believe is that there is a level of choice for every parent, if they are willing to work with the system and push their kids. The kids that end up in basic reside schools generally come from backgrounds where their parents weren’t very engaged. These schools aren’t all terrible, but they have their challenges.

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            • Thanks, Mike. That’s pretty close, albeit not necessarily identical, to what I was describing. Which, come to think of it, pretty well explains why I think school choice is best implemented on the local level – there’s so many valid different ways of doing it that it would be wrong to adopt a one-size-fits-all school choice program on a local level.

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            • And I agree with both you, Mike, and Mark that public schools must tilt toward providing choice across their programs if they are to expect not to be challenged by a private choice movement of growing strength going forward. Other than my hometown of Madison, Wis. (an exemplary school district), it is probably significant for my views tha the school district I am most familiar with is in fact the NYC district, and specifically with a school that was a result of the entrepreneurial approach that Klein and Bloomberg have taken, which has provided significant choice within the public context. In that sense, my view of the overall level of flexibility offered by typical public school systems in the U.S. is probably skewed in a somewhat rosy direction.

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  14. “School should be a piece of the larger community. ”

    Just playing devil’s advocate here… but why? Why must a school be part of a larger community? What if the school is located in a drug infested crap-whole of a place?

    Also, how to explain the success of elite prep school, many of which board students who come from quite far afield. These schools have town-gown issues just like college. That is, many of them have little if anything to do with the communities inwhich they are located. They do not educate kids from those communities. And yet… they are widely considered great schools.

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    • Nothing is a magic bullet, Sam. I would simply posit that part of making schools better in those crappy areas has to do with making those areas less crappy; and part of making those areas less crappy is making the schools better. You might be able to sustain a very wealthy community in which all the kids were shipped off to boarding school, but I don’t think the same thing applies to the middle or lower class. In any case, your question probably deserves a much more in-depth answer.

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  15. So – y’all may have some good points about mainstreaming. I think it should be done with care, obviously, and I’ve seen hybrid models that have worked well – with satellite classes which the special needs kids return to once or twice a day. In any case, I would never dream of implementing such an approach nation-wide. Far better to try it out locally and see how it works…..

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  16. So,

    I’m confused about something, previously you criticized the egalitarianism of voucher/choice proponents. In your intro to education, you described a convincing argument that,

    “…school choice can actually lead to the dumbing-down of our schools in the name of egalitarianism and accountability.”

    You can probably see where I’m going with this but how is the ideal of the one-room schoolhouse not just a different brand of egalitarianism, if not even more egalitarian? By shifting metrics, you would move accountability away from tests and more towards some sort of community involvement method of accountability (a Texan model?) for schools. So how is the egalitarianism and accountability of your localism-infused, community focused school system different? Or at least different enough that it won’t have the same effects as the ones you’re skeptical of vis-a-vis choice.

    If you could clarify that, I’d greatly appreciate it.

    Also, and I’m sure you didn’t mean it this way, but I found this to be particularly callous.

    “If parents want ‘the ability to determine their own criteria for evaluating their child’s education’ they should simply be more involved in that education.”

    Not every parent that wants to, can. More importantly, different aspects of choice reduce the amount of time and energy required to make changes in a child’s education. So, for example, the ability to move to a charter or magnet program via application, often involves a lot less effort than finding the time between two jobs or multiple kids in multiple schools to develop a rapport with the relevant officials/teachers to affect your cihld’s education.

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    • Charter and magnet alternatives (i.e. public school choice)are rather widespread and accepted in major urban school districts even by staunch defenders of public schools. There’s just not much controversy there to push against anymore. Families need access to choice within the public systems that serve them. That’s not a contended point these days. Smaller districts, of course, are less able to provide that choice.

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      • They are the most accepted versions of choice, yes but to say that they aren’t contentious just isn’t correct.

        Mostly, I’m responding to Erik’s point, not saying that these are terribly controversial things that must be supported or they’ll die. I’m saying that choice allows for a spectrum of parental involvement that can make it easier for parents who would like to be more in control of their child’s education and/or more involved but can’t – as he put it- “simply be more involved in that education.”

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        • There’s certainly still grumbling but I think choice within public systems is a reality in very many districts, and that most leaders have moved past that.

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  18. Social promotion has made a farce of accountability. In Europe and Asia, one exam is given at the end of an academic year to see if the student has the minimum mastery of grade-level standards to be moved into the next grade. This does not take place at any urban school district in this country. Giving high stakes assessments that presuppose the mastery of previous grade-level standards is dishonest, especially when you want to hang secondary single-subject credenitaled teacher with the responsibility for the students continuing to do poorly, when they had nothing to do with setting the failed public school policies. This system has gone on so long that the students I was unable to teach adequately 23 years ago when I started teaching are now the parents without the skill set- social capital- necessary to advocate on behalf of their children. Like heathcare, banks, and Wall St., there are institutions in this country that are immutable to the accountability that must exist if they are to work. Come to http://www.perdaily.com to read about what really goes on and what we can do to change it by creating a virtual commons for real and accountable public education reform. If the foundation of a democracy that vests power in its citizens is not an educated citizenry, then there will not be a democracy for much longer in theis country.

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    • Lenny:

      You mean to say that liberal European countries use a standardized test? From all the bitching you hear in the US, I thought standardized tests were not legitimates means of accountability.

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      • Standardized tests are not the problem, it is the context in which they are given. If you give one test a year in May or June to determine whether a student has a minimally sufficient knowledge of that years work to be promoted to the next year, that works. However, if you socially promote students from one grade to the next, so that they are years beyond their actual level, such standardized test have no meaning because they assume mastery of prior grade-level standards that do not exist. Without Cognitive Academic Language Proficiency (CALP) or higher level of Bloom’s Taxonomy, the very act of trying to educate is humiliating to an adolescent ego when asked to do work that these students are objectively incapable of. When I lived in France, foreign students arrive in the country were given one and sometimes two years of “Special French” to assure that they had the language skills necessary to do grade level work, which they ultimately and easily caught up with, when given the language skill set necessary to achieve and succeed. Single-subject credentialed secondary teachers from middle school onward are not equipped to address massive language and math deficits when they barely have enough time to teach the substantive course they are charged with teaching. Also, having unprepared students in your class causes behavioral disruption, since these students are incapable of being engaged and preclude other students who have the misfortune of being in these over populated classes to not receive the instruction that would make them competitive with students in more affluent urban school districts. Instead of being the great equalizer, public education becomes a beehive model, where some students get the royal jelly and others get the royal shaft. Come to http://www.perdaily.com and see a reality that teachers see every day, which somehow never makes it into the mainstream media- Is that an accident? lenny@perdaily.com

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