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Published in Print: September 5, 2007, as Waiting for the ‘Tipping Point’

Commentary

Waiting for the ‘Tipping Point’

Why school choice is proving to be so hard.

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The old arguments in support of school choice are still right: Choice can make parents full partners in education and drive innovation. Without it, public education is frozen in place by laws, contracts, and adult entitlements.

But arguing for public school choice in the form of charter schools or voucher programs is not the same thing as claiming that any program offering choice will deliver all of the concept’s potential benefits.

While charter schools are getting mixed results, as are the few public voucher programs now in existence, choice is spreading. But it is doing so slowly. Districts, too, have been slow to improve their own schools in response to the competition from schools of choice. So it is right to ask why everything once envisioned for the choice movement is taking so long.

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The reason is that building a system of choice on top of one based on regulation is different from creating choice from the ground up. As the economists who took market-based ideas into Russia after the fall of communism soon learned, efforts to introduce transparency, performance accountability, and personal initiative clash with habits of secrecy, lack of accountability, and passivity. Naive market-based initiatives encounter unexpected problems and produce meager results.

It is time to acknowledge that getting dramatic results from school choice will be harder than expected—and that the actions that must be taken will be more difficult than some supporters had hoped. It is now clear that schools of choice present some challenges not adequately factored into the original equation. For example:

They are hard to run. Principals who come from district-run schools to head choice schools are often unprepared to make the financing, hiring, firing, admissions, and self-assessment decisions that fall on them. Some learn how to work within this new environment, but others don’t. Those who take the “my way or the highway” attitude celebrated in district-run schools come into conflict with choice school founders and parents, who had definite reasons for creating or choosing the school.

They are demanding places to teach and aren’t for everyone. Teachers become partners in an enterprise that must sink or swim depending on performance. Hours, assignments, pay, and job security can’t be guaranteed by a deep-pockets school district, but are the products of collaborative effort at the school level. Many former public school teachers find that schools of choice don’t offer the security and bounded responsibility that made the profession attractive to them in the first place.

They can’t compete successfully with district-run schools unless they get as much money as their competition for pupils they educate. Early hopes that choice could lead to schools that were both cheaper and better ignored the fact that schools of choice must compete for teachers and instructional materials in markets where prices are set by school districts.

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Join the related discussion, “Saving School Choice?”

They need to prove themselves on the same tests and other outcome measures as other schools. Early hopes that charter and voucher schools would be so obviously great that no finely calibrated outcome measures would be needed to prove it have been dashed. So have hopes that families and communities would be willing to wait until children had completed school to make judgments about school performance.

They need strong, not weak, government oversight. School districts and other charter authorizers might turn a blind eye to what is happening in schools of choice for a while, but when one school neglects students or doesn’t pay its bills, government agencies crack down on everyone. Schools need oversight that is capable and fair, not negligent.

They do not automatically inspire districts to improve. Even in places where charters serve a significant segment of the public school market, districts have done little more than adjust marketing strategies to compete.

They segment the market. Effective schools of choice know what they do well, and what they can’t do. They want families to choose them for the right reasons, and don’t make promises they can’t keep. If schools of choice try to be all things to all people, they become overcommitted and ineffective. Thus, they are always open to complaints that they are “creaming” on the basis of talent or preferences, or, for those that serve the disadvantaged, that they are isolating children.

Hindsight makes these conclusions obvious. But together, they mean that schools of choice have a tougher time than expected finding leaders and teachers, getting the funds they need to be run effectively, proving that their programs work, and creating stable parent clienteles. And the more that schools of choice develop clear missions and specialties, the more that they will be open to attack.

Special surprises were in store for scholars and philanthropists who thought that good schools could be replicated quickly in large numbers, and that public education would soon reach a “tipping point” beyond which choice would become universal. As it turns out, replicating success is hard, and organizations trying to run many schools of choice struggle with costs and quality and can end up resembling inefficient district central offices. Furthermore, nobody knows what the tipping point is. Surely not at 20 percent of public schools as schools of choice, as some first thought. Maybe, as a cynic recently guessed, the tipping point comes at 99 percent.


Scholars need to abandon the stance that choice will inevitably prove itself, and get to work on the obvious problems. These include:

• A lack of real instructional innovation, including imaginative uses of technology, in today’s schools of choice;

• A shortage of school leaders and teachers who understand the challenges they will face in schools that must survive on the basis of academic results and stable parent support;

• Too many weak government oversight agencies and too many charter school leaders who disdain tests as a measure of performance;

Surprises were in store for scholars and philanthropists who thought that good schools could be replicated quickly in large numbers.

• Lack of clarity about how schools of choice can maintain consistent approaches to instruction over time despite significant rates of staff turnover;

• School districts’ inability or unwillingness to embrace the ideas and flexibility that would allow them to compete with schools of choice;

• Confusion about how to exploit economies of scale for charter schools without creating costly new central-office structures; and

• A lack of fine-grained information about what is working and not working in charter and voucher schools, and for whom, so that new schools can imitate truly superior practice, and parents, teachers, and authorizers can tell when a particular charter school plan is the right one for them.

Finding solutions to these problems also requires changes in government and foundation investment strategies. Money should be used to support the following objectives:

• Development of new instructional methods that exploit the potential of technology to make teachers and students more productive;

• Implementation of large-scale training programs that prepare adults to lead and teach in schools of choice;

• Formation of partnerships between and among charter associations and business schools, to identify better ways to attract teachers and manage staff turnover in schools of choice;

• Building the oversight capacity in charter and traditional school systems; and

• Experimenting with new forms of charter management organization that cost less and rely more on existing financial-services and staff-training organizations.

The difference between a dying movement and one that can ultimately succeed is the willingness to acknowledge problems and work on them. The choice movement has opponents, and they cause plenty of trouble. But many of the movement’s problems are intrinsic to any effort to create alternatives to an entrenched, centralized system. For the road ahead, both honesty and perseverance will be needed, along with a plan for dealing strategically with the inevitable roadblocks that slow down progress.

Vol. 27, Issue 2, Pages 26-27

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