Why School Choice Fails (?)

I’ve written before that the idea of school choice has a lot of merit, especially for those of us still under the spell of elegant philosophies behind Enlightenment economic thinkers.  I argued that across a whole system, applying principles of choice might be able to achieve change in ways more profound than well-meaning school leaders.  I did point out there is no evidence for the idea (some to the contrary, in fact), and it is quite unpopular in academic circles.A new salvo in the war emerged recently.  Natalie Hopkinson, in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times, created some controversy this winter when she declared, more or less, the US experiment with school choice and charter schools a failure.

She tells of a system where “neighbourhood schools are dying” because of school choice and charter schools.  The problem? Washington, D.C., like many cities in the US, in an effort to improve its school system, created choice-based incentives for schools to improve: “if a school was deemed failing, students could transfer schools, opt to attend a charter school or receive a voucher to attend a private school.”  Schools would be accountable to their stakeholders, and in so doing a “second education system” was created.

But a cycle emerges: local neighbourhood school, not doing so well, loses more and more students to the competition; eventually, stripped of resources, it is shut down and the kids move to a nearby public school that is not doing so well; soon, it is shut down, too.  Each wave of the cycle brings greater cynicism and disillusionment with the public system.  The second, shadow education system consumes resources that once went to local neighbourhood schools.

All of this leads to a few avenues: rich neighbourhoods have great schools with great programs; poor nieghbourhoods have poor schools with weak programs, and ultimately get shut down; the kinds in poor neighbourhoods have fewer and fewer options.  (Most Canadians are surprised to find out that one of the best options is to win a lottery to attend a better school out of your neighbourhood.)  Her son attended three elementary schools by the age of 11, and all of them were closed.  Living in an under-served, mostly black neighbourhood, means you probably won’t have a local school worth wanting to send your kid to.

She looks out at the broader US experiment with school choice and declares the future grim: “Like us, those places will face a stark decision: Do they want equitable investment in community education, or do they want to hand it over to private schools and charters? Let’s stop pretending we can fairly do both. As long as we do, some will keep winning, but many of us will lose.”

She does make a compelling point.  But given the obvious criticism supplied by some of her detractors, I think she has the wrong problem in mind, and the wrong solution.  Kevin Chavous, the chairman for the Black Alliance for Educational Options, writes in response: “Ms. Hopkinson points to what she deems the fundamental unfairness of the lottery aspect of the charter school law. To be sure, it’s not a perfect system, but luck and chance have always determined where one attends school. If you are lucky enough to be born to reasonably well-off parents who can write checks to private schools or buy a house in an expensive suburb, opportunity is everywhere.
“If you aren’t so fortunate, your parents grit their teeth and send you to the neighborhood school, chosen for you based on nothing but your ZIP code. If access to high-performing schools has to come down to a number, better it be a lottery number than a ZIP code.”

A good point, though there is a lot less to find agreement with in his views in this clip:

The debate over choice is far from the centre, though; the solution to all this is not to quibble over school choice, but to examine the sources of funding.  In the US the tradition has been to fund schools from local tax bases – the richer the neighbourood, the richer the schools – ad vice versa.  It was like this in Ontario, too, but (under a very conservative regime, even) the province decided to apply a provincial funding model where the school receives the same amount for each student, no matter how rich the local neighbourhood.  This kind of centralized funding is an easy way to provide for poor niehgbourhoods – and it isn’t incompatible with school choice.

Building a Better Teacher

How can teachers teach better?  Though the question is simple, the answer is elusive. Elizabeth Green tackles the topic in her superbly written, thoroughly researched, and thoughtful article in the New York Times Magazine from earlier this year.

Green’s piece reads as a who’s who of educational powerbrokers, prominent theorists, and rabble-rousers, touching on many of the common educational debates but weighing in on the central question: how do we build the best teachers?

Is teaching, like the guitar, something that can be learned through careful study and practice, or is it innate? Is quality teaching something that can be bought with better incentives? Should teacher education stress subject knowledge of teachers, or pedagogical savvy? (And another question raised by Green – but not fully dealt with – involves the most basic of questions in the debate: what criteria should we use in establishing which teachers are better than others?)

Doug Lemov serves as one of the central characters in the story. An educational consultant, founder of charter schools, former teacher and principal, he describes an experience common to many educational administrators:

As (Lemov) went from school to school… he was getting the sinking feeling that there was something deeper he wasn’t reaching. On that particular day, he made a depressing visit to a school in Syracuse, N.Y., that was like so many he’d seen before: “a dispiriting exercise in good people failing,” as he described it to me recently. Sometimes Lemov could diagnose problems as soon as he walked in the door. But not here. Student test scores had dipped so low that administrators worried the state might close down the school. But the teachers seemed to care about their students. They sat down with them on the floor to read and picked activities that should have engaged them. The classes were small. The school had rigorous academic standards and state-of-the-art curriculums and used a software program to analyze test results for each student, pinpointing which skills she still needed to work on.But when it came to actual teaching, the daily task of getting students to learn, the school floundered. Students disobeyed teachers’ instructions, and class discussions veered away from the lesson plans. In one class Lemov observed, the teacher spent several minutes debating a student about why he didn’t have a pencil. Another divided her students into two groups to practice multiplication together, only to watch them turn to the more interesting work of chatting. A single quiet student soldiered on with the problems. As Lemov drove from Syracuse back to his home in Albany, he tried to figure out what he could do to help. He knew how to advise schools to adopt a better curriculum or raise standards or develop better communication channels between teachers and principals. But he realized that he had no clue how to advise schools about their main event: how to teach.

He set out to discover why some teachers’ students succeeded and others’ did not – at least, not in the same measure. His observations were collected in an underground book called Lemov’s Taxonomy, only recently available for purchase, Teach Like a Champion – a book that, like Strunk’s Elements of Style, seeks to put into words something ethereal, mystical, but unmistakable when you see it. For Strunk, it was composition; for Lemov, it is teaching.

Lemov argues that by collecting mountains of data – some quantitative from standardized tests, some qualitative from classroom visits and videotaped lessons from ‘star’ teachers – we can determine a list of the best kinds of teaching methods. Most center around ‘getting and holding the floor.’ A skill that, argues Lemov and others, is nearly entirely absent from the curricula of teaching faculties – but one so central to successful teaching it will resonate with anyone who has ever stood in front of a class.

The article is, like many that have appeared in the NYT over the past few years and beyond, highly critical of teacher education – and the often pointless exercise that seems to be so many of our schools and classes. Many practicing teachers will feel slighted by it and probably more than a little angry. But there is little denying that it raises some commonsense questions – the dismay should not be in the asking, but in realizing we often lack consistent and cogent answers.