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The Right 'Choice' For Teachers

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Many of the most important participants in the on-going national debate over school reform have come to believe that "choice'' has a significant, and perhaps essential, role to play in bringing about successful change. But choice is the piece of the reform package over which teachers are most divided. Many oppose choice because the concept seems to suggest that teachers do not do their best unless motivated by competition. More importantly, many teachers fear choice could undermine all we have done as a nation since Brown v. Board of Education to achieve educational equity. They argue that choice could be used to provide publicly funded educational sanctuaries for parents with power and status. And finally, teachers and other supporters of public education worry that choice-- even if now limited to public schools--could be a stalking horse for vouchers and subsidized private education. But in arguing against choice, teachers are cutting themselves off from both a popular cause and one that could liberate them while strengthening educational equity.

Teachers who oppose choice overlook the fact that it is linked inextricably to school-based management. Once teachers have the right to create schools that reflect their varying viewpoints about what is the best way to educate children, they will come up with different approaches. The results of these differences will be a wider variety of schools, structured differently, with differing curricula and educational philosophies. Each of these will appeal to different parents and students. Teachers will have to give them the right to make choices, or teachers will spend their energy fighting with parents and politicians, all of whom must be teachers' allies. In short, teachers who argue against choice handicap themselves in the struggle for increased teacher empowerment.

But what about equity? Some teachers and policymakers argue that top-down standardization and the lack of choice that accompanies it must be reinforced to protect minority children from discrimination. They fear that choice, combined with greater decentralization of power, will work to increase, not reduce, the achievement gap between black and white, rich and poor.

History suggests, however, that standardized education has failed to protect society from these evils. In fact, standardized education has led parents with greater power and income to leave the public school system altogether, to move to different neighborhoods, or to create, via tracking, elite schools-within-schools for their children. The educational experience of most American children, therefore, is still a reflection of the neighborhood they live in, their family income, their race and ethnicity, and the power of their families. There is no evidence that tinkering with standardization will enhance equity or even begin to deal with differences based on class and neighborhood, let alone the vexing problems of in-school inequities like tracking.

Nor is there evidence to suggest that the schools, as they are now organized, can live up to the unprecedented demands being made on them to provide a far more rigorous and intellectually serious education than has ever been offered before. What educators are being asked to do--for the sake of our country--is not only to create equity, but to lift everyone far beyond yesterday's expectations. To get this kind of education we can't rely on yesterday's methods. We can't fall back on the old formulas. After criticizing teachers for the educational failures of the system, people have finally come to understand that teachers are the most underutilized resource of that system. To transform our schools will require unleashing their power--in classroom after classroom, in school after school.

Coerced learning communities won't work. Schools created by forcing consensus between unwilling participants, randomly thrown together in a single building, produce not a strong, powerful educational culture, but a weak, compromised one. Where there are serious disagreements, creating two small schools where there was one large one, thus allowing choice, should not be viewed as a defeat but as a step forward. Choice doesn't, however, release teachers from the responsibility of establishing standards for their work. In fact, it requires educators to be even more selfconscious and public about our practice. Teachers, parents, and administrators will need to establish prolearning, not pro forma, procedures to make schools accountable. These include:

1. Schools of choice should provide accessible data to all parties. Indicators of performance might include attendance data, pupil and staff turnover, data on the status of past graduates, and selected academic assessments.

2. On a regular basis, perhaps every third year, schools should undergo in-depth inspections by teams of independent experts who prepare an assessment of the schools' work.

3. Parents and the general public need direct access to schools, their meetings and records, and all relevant curriculum and assessment documentation used by the faculty. Parents and students should be able, at any moment, to ask: "How am I doing, and what's the evidence?'' And, if in doubt, parents should be able to ask for a "second opinion'' from other educators of their choice.

4. With the exception of health and safety, and regulations to ensure nondiscrimination, state and union regulations should be waived when teachers and parents agree that they block effective action.

5. And finally, students and teachers must be in a position to choose, not just to be chosen.

Neither the luck of the draw, nor the happenstance of an address, should become the sole determinant of our children's lives. A powerful educational community must be a place of conscious and thoughtful decisionmaking. Choice is a powerful tool in creating such a community. The logic of diversity calls for a new approach to public education. The logic of democracy, at this juncture in our history, calls for public schools of choice.

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