Friday, July 09, 2010

Choice in Education - No Silver Bullet

Some anticipated studies have been released concerning the two main 'school choice' options many are advocating as the fixes to our education system. Those options are charter schools, which are receiving a lot of attention from the Obama administration and the development of Race to the Top, as well as in a recent talk given by Bill Gates, and voucher programs, long a favorite of the political right. Charter schools are public schools where children in the hosting district may apply via lottery, and these schools generally have themes around which they build their curriculum - it could be the arts, science, the environment, or others. Voucher programs will take monies from the public school district, give that money directly to parents, and then parents have the choice to use the money to send their children to any school, including private schools (regardless if they are secular or religious private schools).

The studies conclude that there are no statistically significant differences between those students who went to charter schools or were recipients of vouchers than their peers who were in the public school system. The charter study looked at a variety of charter schools across 15 states, and when students who won the charter lottery are compared to those students who did not win the lottery and had to attend the public school district, no significant differences in math and reading are found. The voucher system that was studied was the Washington, DC, program, which is the first federal program ever tried. While graduation rates were better than the public school rate, achievement was, on average, no better than what students achieved in the public schools.

This does not surprise me, as it does some others I know. Anyone who is involved in education understands that there is no silver bullet. We are dealing with students, who are human beings, and each individual student comes with his or her own 'baggage' from outside the school. Until we learn how to get effective and efficient with more individualized instruction and learning, it will be very difficult to achieve significant increases in student achievement across the board for the vast majority of students. There is no single model of education that will work for all students, just like there is no single physical health regimen that will work for all people. We go and see our doctors for our physical health and progress and treatments on an individual basis, simply because every body is different. We will not fix our children's mental and intellectual health until we 'see them' on an individual basis in schools, simply because every brain is different. Yes, there are great individual charter schools and great individual private schools who are involved in voucher programs, but there are also poor charters and private schools, too. Keep in mind that there are great public schools, too...I would put my students up against students from any other school (and in fact do in a variety of competitions), and they normally shine at the local, state and national levels. But there are also poor public schools.

But bottom line is, we are not there yet in education, and charters and vouchers programs are not, in and of themselves, the final solutions to our education problems.


Anonymous said...
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vonny said...

I wanted to share some comments by my great friend, Zenpundit:

Ironically, what ppl forget was that when Milton Friedman proposed "choice" in 1962, he said in the inception of the proposal that it would not be a silver bullet or a panacea for all Ed. problems, just a market mechanism that would change distribution of educational services to be more efficient in the aggregate as with any other good. Every school was not going to automatically get better and there would be spillover costs as well as benefits. Presumably, as with any market, some schools would get worse as institutions failed ( I suspect that back then "choice" also was intended, as Friedman was a radical libertarian, to break up segregated school systems with extreme rapidity which might explain why Friedman's idea went nowhere until America grew to think of racial integration in schools as "normal").

Charter schools are useful for curricular innovation but there's no magic structure or program that changes the fact that for children to learn they have to be mentally engaged with concepts that stretch them intellectually without being completely beyond their developmental capacity. Nor can you pay teachers a low wage, no pension, mediocre health benefits, treat them badly and expect to attract and retain talent to get a very high level of results. This is free lunch thinking ("Johnson, we've hired you to teach math, not to apply mathematics to evaluating how crappy working conditions are here and make rational economic decisions about your future!"). Teach for America is boutique program that let's super-bright college grads play at teaching before leaving to go make real money just as they are starting to figure out how to teach effectively by design rather than inspiration or accident.