Commentary

More 'Choice' Is Key to Public-School Reform

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After looking back on my experience with education issues as a U.S. Representative, a member of the President's National Commission on Excellence in Education, and Governor of Minnesota, I have concluded that the recommendations for school reform made in A Nation at Risk are inadequate.

I now believe that fundamental reform will occur only when parents are directly involved in the education of their children, and when we turn the schools over to teachers much more than we have done in the past.

Too often, when educators say they want more parental involvement, all they mean is help in raising funds or disciplining children. This attitude, coupled with the tendency of parents to be intimidated by educators or antagonistic because of past experiences, offers little in the way of substantive cooperation. And the only way we will achieve such cooperation is by implementing a system of choice in public schools.

For too long we've confused equal educational opportunity with identical education opportunity. Charles Glenn, the director of the Massachusetts Bureau of Equal Education Opportunity, when asked why he had become a strong advocate of choice among public schools, said: "Choice creates conditions which encourage schools to become more effective, by allowing schools to specialize and thus meet the needs of some students very well, rather than all students at a level of minimum adequacy. ... [B]y limiting choice we have tried to force schools into a single model which can never meet the needs of students.''

When people ask me if choice systems can help poor, inner-city students, I refer them to New York City's District 4, in Spanish Harlem. Because there is no "neighborhood'' junior high school for students to attend, all 6th graders receive instruction on how to choose from the district's 23 junior-high programs--developed by teachers--specializing in areas such as maritime careers, performing arts, science, and mathematics.

Measures of the program's success are its ability to attract students from other, much more affluent areas and the dramatic increase in the test scores of children in Spanish Harlem.

In many states, there are either no choices offered at all or only a few magnet schools, which typically have long waiting lists. Is it not better to empower teachers to make all public schools distinctive and then allow families to choose among them?

I am convinced that providing different kinds of programs can cut down on the number of dropouts--a key goal for the next wave of education reform. I've listened to teen-agers in Minnesota, who have been allowed to attend colleges and vocational schools under our new postsecondary-options law, who dropped out of high school but came back and earned A's and B's in college. I've heard youngsters from poor families who never thought they could make it in college say that taking--and doing well in--a college course changed their whole vision of what they could accomplish in life. Interestingly, it's not the students with straight A's in high school who are most likely to participate in the plan--it's the students who need a different structure, a different kind of challenge.

The Minnesota plan also encourages high schools to improve their programs. Responding to the competition from colleges and universities, a number of high schools have created more advanced-placement courses and several districts have established new collaborative programs with colleges.

Some people from the state's small, rural districts are worried that choice will force consolidation. But many of the small districts offer excellent programs. In fact, there are places in Minnesota where students are transferring from large, comprehensive programs to smaller ones in order to receive more personal attention. Choice encourages the development of better schools, not just larger ones.

That's why I'm disappointed by the opposition of some educators to the notion of expanding choice in public schooling. In visiting schools around the country, I've learned that the best ones are those in which the teachers have considerable discretion to create distinctive programs. But teachers will not receive this autonomy if every school is expected to have the same focus, use the same overall structure, and employ similar instructional approaches.

Parental choice is central to enhancing teacher professionalism. I disagree with those who say choice among schools is merely one of several methods of holding schools accountable. If teachers are to be allowed more discretion, then parents should be permitted to select from among the different programs developed by professionals. The moves for expanded educator professionalism and increased parental choice among schools are inextricably bound together.

Vol. 6, Issue 34, Page 19

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