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Choice Claims Overstated, A.S.C.D. Panel Concludes

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Claims by President Bush and others that "choice works" are overstated, a panel brought together by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development has concluded.

"The political rhetoric is running far ahead of the evidence," the panel argues in a report that is expected to be released this month.

The report notes that several districts with well-established choice plans, such as District 4 in New York City and Montclair, N.J., have experienced improvements in student achievement.

But it is unclear whether such im4provements are the result of choice or other factors, such as parental involvement, teachers' and administrators' skills, or student motivation, the report suggests.

In addition, it points out, choice plans also may lead to harmful consequences, such as resegregation by race or social class.

Paul Heckman, the panel's chairman, said that instead of embracing a structural change that may or may not enhance student learning, schools should "look behind classroom doors" and determine factors that contribute to the kinds of interactions between students and teachers that promote achievement.

"We keep looking for some sort of medicine that's going to do it for everybody," said Mr. Heckman, the assistant dean of the college of education at the University of Arizona. "By focusing on the variable of choice, we have not gotten down to where the rubber meets the road.''

The ascd's study panel was aimed at helping guide administrators and educators on a key policy issue, officials said.

In addition to Mr. Heckman, the group included: Barbara Jackson, assistant superintendent of the Washington school system; Asa Hilliard, professor of education at Georgia State University; Stephen Bing, executive director of the Massachusetts Advocacy Center; Richard Elmore, professor of education at Michigan State University; Gilbert Valdez, manager of the instructional-design center in the Minnesota Department of Education; Douglas Pearson, superintendent of the Asheville, N.C., City Schools; Anne Meek, project editor at ascd; and Diane G. Berreth, project director at ascd

The group included "strong advocates of choice, strong opponents of choice, and people in the middle," according to Mr. Heckman, who characterized his own position as "an advocate for the common public school, which has to be radically restructured."

Mr. Heckman said the panel agreed that schools should promote both the public good and the private interests of parents and students. But it warned that choice threatens to place private concerns ahead of those of the general public.

Moreover, he said, choice advocates' assumption that the idea will improve education by fostering competition among schools may be flawed.

"It's not clear competition is a stringent motivating force in the private sector," Mr. Heckman said. "A number of industries are on their knees because they didn't respond to competition, even though competition was evident and there."

Choice "needs much more study before it becomes a policy everyone should embrace," he added.

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