Friday, April 24, 2009

Choice proponents: What about the children left behind?

Joanne Jacobs, a promoter of charter schools, has a piece today promoting vouchers. Those are certainly two of the top two items on the list of those who consider themselves "educational reformers." I think there are situations in which vouchers are appropriate, and I also have to acknowledge that there are some charter schools that do some wonderful things. Nevertheless, I don't think anyone would consider me to be a big fan of either, so I have a question for those who are. What about the children left behind?

Charter schools and private schools have a definite advantage over the public schools that are the objects of the reformers scorn. Any student who attends charter or private schools are there because their parents have decided that they wanted their children to attend that particular school. That, in itself, indicates that the parents have some interest in their children's education. Students at public schools, on the other hand, are assigned to them. Some parents might want their kids to go to a particular public school, but there will also be a number of students whose parents couldn't care less. That means that any private or charter school, at least to some extent, is skimming the cream.

There is one thing that successful private and charter schools have in common, and that is good discipline. The bottom line of the good discipline those schools have is a certain reality that has to be in the back of students', parents', and teachers' minds: If a student doesn't meet the behavioral and performance standards of the school, he or she will be gone. In Sweating the Small Stuff, a book about six successful inner-city schools, a teacher is quoted as telling a misbehaving student, "If you're going to act like that, you won't be able to stay here."

If we take a kid out of an inner-city school that isn't doing well, and put him into a situation where all of the students have parents who wanted them to go to that school, and the school is able to maintain good discipline, how can the student not do better? The one thing that is amazing to me is that the results from studies comparing kids who have gone to voucher and charter schools with those who have remained in public schools are not more clear.

In any case, in a public school district that is not particularly good, I can certainly understand a parent wanting to send their child elsewhere. But once all the parents who want to do that pull their kids out of that public school, what do you have left? Do we just write off the kids who remain? What ever happened to No Child Left Behind?

The argument that "choice" advocates make is that the competition will force the public schools to improve. Balderdash! Even Sol Stern, who made that argument in a book a few years ago has finally come to the conclusion that that doesn't happen.

Whether you are for choice or against it, doesn't it make sense to give public schools the same power in dealing with their students--and therefore to maintain good discipline--that the good private and charter schools have? Wouldn't all kids be better off if we did that?

16 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Dennis :-)

"Whether you are for choice or against it, doesn't it make sense to give public schools the same power in dealing with their students--and therefore to maintain good discipline--that the good private and charter schools have? Wouldn't all kids be better off if we did that?"
I can answer that: Sure!

I suspect that many/most voucher fans have basically given up on the public schools being *permitted* to maintain discipline. They would like to see it happen, but don't think that the combined forces of the judiciary, ACLU (I think?), and other interests that have created the current situation can be defeated.

Vouchers are seen as a way to save those kids who (a) behave, and (b) have parents that care.

It would be nice to be able to save the kids who behave, but have indifferent parents. But it isn't seen as possible in the current environment.

Sucks for those kids, but the perfect should not be made the enemy of the good, etc.

This is my best guess for the pro-voucher position on this.

-Regards,
Mark Roulo

4/24/2009 6:26 PM  
Blogger mazenko said...

For a long time, Dennis, I have held the same position as you, noting the children "left behind," and arguing that better students in a class elevates the class as a whole. However, I have been giving this a lot of thought lately, as well as doing a lot of research. And I am not so certain that perspective is the correct one. I am becoming much more open to the charter and voucher movement, especially when I look at it as a parent.

There is simply no way to argue to a parent that his child should stay in a struggling school with disruptive students because his presence will help them. That's not his job, and it shouldn't be the concern of the parent. If a child can move to a different environment that will help him achieve his potential, he should be allowed. I have a hard time arguing against the logic of that, especially on a personal parental level.

I must admit, I have some personal experience, as my child is in a charter school - it's the magnet school for G/T kids in our district. As this is a high performing district, many could argue that my son will be fine at his neighborhood school - and because it is next to my house and I know the high quality of the environment, I know they have a point. However, at the magnet school, he will excel far beyond being "fine," and, as a parent, that is my concern, not the kids he "left behind."

In terms of those kids who are left behind - and I'm speaking of those struggling kids/schools to which you refer - I would argue that what happens is we teach them as they are. There's no other option. That school will absolutely have to adapt to changes in their student population. As the adage goes, "we need to teach them as they are, not as we'd like them to be."

I've had a somewhat comparable situation in that our school's AP Language population has exploded, leaving the regular level English without any true stars/anchors. The kids who used to be A's in regular levels are now in AP, often struggling with C's. Thus, the regular level is academically gutted in many ways. However, we have an open AP policy, and I would never argue certain kids should go back to regular levels because they have some responsibility to the education of the others.

I simply have to adapt my class/instruction to the changing nature of the student. It's been a struggle, but it is my job, and I am doing everything I can to meet that challenge. Granted, this is a weak example compared to a struggling school left with very low achieving/low motivation students. However, that is the reality.

As I've continued to debate this, I wondering about your thoughts.

4/24/2009 9:07 PM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Mark, thank you for a very practical and honest answer.

Michael, I have to admit that I come from a different era. I grew up in Minneapolis, and we were assigned to our neighborhood schools. This was in the 1950s and 60s, and I remember my parents being involved in our community and being very proud of the high school I would be attending. I think other people who sent their kids to other neighborhood schools in the city also felt pride in theirs. There was no open enrollment in Minnesota like there is now. Things have obviously changed. I would love it if we could get back to "the old days," but that ain't gonna happen.

The question that needs to be answered is what policies should we have now to bring about the best education for the most kids? Let's face it, the community feeling that existed when I was growing up doesn't exist in very many places, so a typical parent's concern has become less and less "our kids" and more and more "my kid." We can't expect any parent to sacrifice their own children's education for others if the school isn't very good, and I think our policies should allow caring parents in poor districts to send their kids elsewhere. Is it good policy, however, to encourage people like you to pull their children out of what sounds like a pretty good school?

I firmly believe that the best way to improve education for the most kids in America is to make public schools better. "Educational reformers" believe the way to do that is through competition, standards, merit pay, new and improved teaching methods, etc. I'm convinced that any improvement brought about by those things will be marginal, and that the only way to bring about meaningful improvement is to abandon the idea that a kid's being in the classroom, no matter what he does or doesn't do, is a right. If we would make that change, go ahead and have choice, too, because that would allow public schools to compete on a level playing field.

4/25/2009 3:50 AM  
Blogger mazenko said...

I completely agree with that assertion, Dennis.

However, knowing the "property right" history of education at the Supreme Court level, I believe that is going to be as difficult as any other approach. Noting that charter schools can operate outside those rules, they may be the best approach to guaranteeing that condition for as many kids as possible. And, then, as I said before we have to teach the kids who were "left behind" as they are. There are plenty of struggling urban schools who are doing exactly that. And they have been as far back as Joe "Batman" Clark in NYC in the 1970s and 80s.

As far as the golden era of the 1950s and 1960s, I would have to point out the criticism of that view, as seen in Diane Ravitch's "Left Back." The schools were struggling with a lack of parental involvement and community parenting as far back as the 20s and 30s, which was the origin of forcing all kids into school until the age of sixteen. Certainly, there were many close-knit neighborhoods where kids succeeded. However, there were as many examples of the "Blackboard Jungle." That movie was designed to reflect urban reality, not create a mythical view. At that time, there were far fewer high school graduates and more dropouts in major urban centers.

However, I'm not arguing it's any better. I taught urban kids in the city of Chicago. However, I was at a Catholic school where parents sent their kids to avoid the violent, struggling city schools. My neighborhood was a pocket of "community," but five blocks in any direction could get you shot for wearing a hat the wrong way. It's been that way for a long time. And open enrollment, vouchers, and charters may be the best way to provide the best education to the most kids, while we modify environment and do everything we can to the best of our and their ability to be successful with those troublesome or unmotivated, unparented kids "left behind."

4/25/2009 6:44 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, I made the above comment earlier this morning, and I just finished breakfast. My breakfast book these days is "Outliers: The Story of Success," by Malcolm Gladwell, and I just read something that made me think of you.

First of all, I'm not surprised that your kids are gifted and talented. One of our three was, and I'm still trying to figure out how that happened. In any case, the chapter that I just finished was "The Trouble with Geniuses: Part 1," and I think you could make the argument from that chapter that if you have a bright kid who is in a high performing public school district, you will gain nothing in the long run by sending him to a "better" school. I must admit, however, that you might read it differently than I do, and since I'm less than halfway through the book, I might end up having to eat my words. Great book, though! I think you'd like it.

4/25/2009 6:51 AM  
Blogger Mrs. C said...

Oh, I *used* to be an involved parent. I'd volunteer three hours a week at the school, do the PTA thing, buy the stupid fundraising stuff, etc.

I've learned better, though, and not just through my experience with Elf in public school. Here's what I mean:

We keep getting calls and newsletters about please join the PTA, this or that committee, blah blah.

Then when you join, the public school staff TELLS you what you are doing. They TELL you that the Box Tops money should go for a new playground or whatever.

And um, if I'm on a curriculum committee, shouldn't I be able to select ANY sort of reasonably secular material for the children? No? It has to be "Show Me Standards" this and "Aligned with District Expectations" that, so you get a choice of two, but then they tell you the other is way expensive and ask you to only recommend "this" one. Here you go! Now write a report about how great it is and recommend it for us, wouldya?

Um.

Or, we're redistricting! We want parent input! Once you're on the committee, the district tells you that any redistricting has to work out so that there are certain numbers of socioeconomically deprived kids in each district (map already looks wonky when you do that). AND we want the races equally distributed (more wonky) AND it has to go with efficient bus routing...

By the time you're finished, you might as well have had zero input.

Actually it's worse than zero because they give you the IDEA that you are helping, and no substance.

Is it any surprise that parents on the whole are uninvolved??? It shouldn't be.

4/25/2009 6:57 AM  
Blogger Roger Sweeny said...

mazenko,

You speak of the "property right" history of education at the Supreme Court level. Do you have a citation to somewhere on the web that I could use to get myself up to speed?

In a previous life, I spent some time in law school and am familiar with Reich's "New Property" and some of the 60s and 70s cases that treated welfare as property. But I don't know anything about education.

(I do know that some state constitutions have provisions which explicitly say something like, "all children have a right to a free and equal public education." But I assume you're talking about the U.S. Constitution and the U.S. Supreme Court.)

4/25/2009 8:35 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Hi Roger,

I know you directed your question to Michael, but I thought I'd tell you where I got my info. In Philip K. Howard's book, he talks about the Supreme Court making decisions and declaring education to be a property right that can't be taken away without due process of law. The first decision in this series was Tinker v. Des Moines Independent School District in 1969. That's the one where the Court made the statement that students don't leave their rights at the schoolhouse door. I've been trying unsuccessfully to find the other cases since I read your comment, but the book I'm talking about is at school, and I'm at home. If I get any more info for you, I'll pass it along, but I suspect Mazenko will probably be all over it by then.

4/25/2009 10:02 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Roger, if you're out there, the other key case was Ross vs. Lopez, 1975. A Columbus, Ohio principal handed out suspensions to students who were carrying out a demonstration in the lunchroom of a school. Even though he witnessed the incident, the Supreme Court ruled the suspensions were illegal because the principal didn't give the student due process. Apparently this was an extension of what you referred to--treating welfare benefits as a property right. That theory apparently came from a Yale professor named Charles Reich, and the Court bought into it and applied it to education in this case.

4/25/2009 10:42 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Let's face it, the community feeling that existed when I was growing up doesn't exist in very many places, so a typical parent's concern has become less and less 'our kids' and more and more 'my kid.'"I don't think that this is quite right. There is less consensus (e.g. for reading: phonics or whole language? For math: NCTM approach or Saxon/Singapore?) which makes it harder for a typical parent to make any headway. For each parent pushing for one thing, you'll have another parent pushing in the other direction (and/or the school employees). Lots of people *care*, there just isn't any agreement on the right thing to do (maybe this was what you meant by 'community feeling' ... although I read it as 'caring' instead of 'agreeing on what do do').

Eventually, many parents conclude that: (a) they won't get what they want for all the kids, partially because (b) lots of people who also have input DON'T WANT TO GO THERE.

The logical thing to do at this point is to stop trying to push the *entire* system in one direction, and instead try to carve out a part of the system that will go where you want it to go. Basically, stop trying to convince everyone that they should drive Saabs and just try to ensure that you can.

Thus you get support for charter schools and vouchers.

I'm seeing this play out (again!) in Palo Alto, California regarding math. It wasn't pretty in the 1990s and it isn't pretty now. The involved parents (both positions) are pretty pissed. As is the school district.

-Mark Roulo

4/25/2009 10:59 AM  
Blogger Dennis Fermoyle said...

Michael, Mrs. C., and Mark have all put me in my place regarding my nostalgia for the 50s and 60s. Actually, I'm quite aware that the Golden Era of public education wasn't so golden, and I've said that in the past. I would still argue, however, that we have become more "my kid" oriented in the past several years.

4/25/2009 2:48 PM  
Blogger mazenko said...

Roger,

Dennis is right on the major court cases that have established this right, and there are numerous state supreme court cases that have used them as precedent. For example, districts in Illinois attempted years ago to craft a mandatory attendance policy which would disqualify kids for chronic truancy. Some, I believe, set standards whereby if a student missed ten (unexcused) days in a quarter or twenty in a semester, they would be removed from the rolls, and they would not receive credit. While it made sense to me, the court ruled that the property right could not be taken away, and if a student chose to neglect his education, that was his right. These days, I doubt any school districts would complain, as they get federal money for each kid, and many will gladly take cash for students they don't have to bother educating. It's almost fraudulent if you think about it.

Dennis,

While I haven't read Gladwell's latest, I generally like what he has to say. However, I do believe at times he misses some more general points as he makes his insightful, but narrow assertions. In terms of bright students thriving anywhere, I'd say he ignores all the intangibles and unmeasurables. There is much in terms of environment and opportunity at charter schools that isn't quantifiable in terms of achievement. My son's school has capped enrollment, expanded opportunities, personal instruction, general happiness and well being of the student body, and a freedom from much social pressure. That consistent environment is simply unavailable at the neighborhood school, which is also rated "excellent" by state standards.

A comparable example is the study of the Ivy League in Time Magazine years ago that asked whether the cost was worth it. The study argued that students who could have gone to Harvard but didn't were every bit as successful years later as the Harvard grads. However, the study in no way proved that the Harvard students "gained nothing" from going to a better school.

Overall happiness with their situation is not quantified by measure's of school success, but I think it's integral. And, as you've noted, the group environment can raise or lower the group. Thus, being with all the best and brightest can elevate discussion to levels not found in the average school. That may not show up in earnings later, but for the truly academically motivated, that environment can contribute quite a bit to overall well being.

Granted. the converse can be true. But, I would bet on the benefits of the "better school" nine times out of ten. I will have to read Gladwell's book. Currently I am working on Wagner's The Global Achievement Gap, and he is intriguing and frustrating me at the same time. Check my blog if you'd like, as I think I'm going to start taking some of his points on one by one.

By the way, I hope this response didn't sound smarmy - it wasn't meant to be.

4/26/2009 8:28 PM  
OpenID mrsgee said...

some of your readers and i have very different opinions of what an involved parent is. from what they are saying about being involved, i would classify them as extremely involved parents. when we discuss parent involvement at our school, we are very simply talking about parents who are supportive of their child getting an education. parents who make sure that their child does their homework. parents who make sure that their child is at school. even that seemingly insignificant involvement would go a LONG way toward improving our public school system. however, this debate is about charter schools. i think that they can be really great, but i think that they should reach out to all different populations and performance levels. it is amazing to see what can happen to a kid we all think average (or even below) when they are put into a learning situation where their learning styles and interests are addressed. maybe i am idealistic, but i still believe that any child, given the right environment, can be successful (maybe we just have to review our definition of success) and that charter schools are a vehicle to allow non-traditional students the opportunity to experience this success.

4/27/2009 2:07 PM  
Blogger Esspweb said...

The study argued that students who could have gone to Harvard but didn't were every bit as successful years later as the Harvard grads. However, the study in no way proved that the Harvard students "gained nothing" from going to a better school.
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3/24/2011 3:07 AM  
Blogger Jack said...

This is a really interesting discussion going on here. I'm only recently looking to put my kids in school and I've been looking at both charter and private schools and, I'm sorry to dumb down the conversation there, but what exactly is the difference between the two?

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