Education Opinion

“Common” vs. “Choice”

By Nancy Flanagan — December 07, 2012 5 min read
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It’s been an interesting couple of days. Yesterday, the Michigan legislature, House and Senate both, passed bills imposing Right to Work on one of labor’s flagship states. And this morning, I was guest commentator on a radio broadcast on my local NPR station, Interlochen Public Radio, discussing another trick Michigan Governor Rick Snyder has up his sleeve: making Michigan (already an educational choice-friendly state) a “super-choice” state.

You can access the re-broadcast--via radio or internet--here. And you can find information about the democracy-thwarting Right to Work vote here, here and here--and about 1000 other media outlets. It’s the hot ticket in Michigan, all this choosing: choosing whether or not to join a union, choosing whether or not to do four years in high school or take the $5K payout for finishing early, or even choosing which “course” vendor will help your 3rd grader read at grade level, one of the core metrics and models mentioned as desirable features of the Any Time, Any Place, Any Way, Any Pace uber-choice legislation package.

Choice! It’s what’s for dinner, evidently.

There’s a certain irony in all this choosing. Traditional public schools are currently experiencing a rescinding of what few choices they had left. Public education, in order to be considered for federal dollars, has been funneled by Race to the Top policy into All Things Common. Nearly all states have adopted the Common Core State (sic) Standards, and gotten on board with one of two aligned common assessment plans, Smarter Balanced or PARCC. The standards--which prescribe and prioritize learning--and the assessments which measure student performance are all standardized. And--just in time!--Pearson and the Gates Foundation plan to roll out an on-line curriculum that fills in the blank between standards and assessments.

In other words, decisions that have traditionally been made in schools and classrooms--instruction, curriculum, assessment, use of resources--have been taken out of the hands of educators. And replaced with national (let’s call ‘em what they are) standards, curriculum, tests, and suggestions for instruction so students can be “successful” on those tests.

In the meantime, for parents who are frustrated by Common Core Everything, the door has been opened for “vendors” to open up a boutique academy here, a 21st-century learning center there, a just-in-time test prep program, all competing for parent and student interest. One high-profile charter administrator recently complained that other charters were now competing with her charter, offering iPads, gift cards to Foot Locker, or the opportunity to be “mentored” by sports heroes. That’s just the beginning, once the market opens wide.

It’s no surprise that one of the authors of the proposed Any Time plan is a constitutional lawyer. The carefully constructed language allows proponents to claim that it’s not a voucher plan, because students can’t take their entire state funding grant and use it to offset costs at a pricey private school. But they can sample courses at state expense, making stable funding for public districts--already a crapshoot--a genuine nightmare. Oversight and accountability, the heavy-duty watchwords of NCLB? Not an issue in the Oxford edu-marketplace.

All of this reminded me of an idea I once had that was--I’m cutting to the chase here--soundly denounced by my school board and administrators:

Back at the turn of the last century, my school district was getting ready to open a new elementary school, relieving overcrowding. As it happened, three elementary buildings in the district were located less than one mile apart. Each would hold about 500 students, and the buildings had different features and facilities. The School Board was wrestling with re-configuring attendance zones, always a political tap-dance: Who gets to go to the new school?

I drew up a plan suggesting we designate each elementary building with a different theme and focus, instead of basing attendance on which neighborhood kids lived in. The new building--which was wired and outfitted with state-of-the-art technology--would be the Math and Science academy. The building which had once been a high school would become the Arts and Literature-focused school. And the other building would become a kind of core knowledge school, a place where parents who wanted to see spelling bees, reading groups and traditional mathematics instruction would be comfortable.

The district had its own curricular standards to follow--and every school would have support staff for art, music and physical education. But the schools would be decidedly different. The after-school orchestra program and the all-district drama club would live at the Arts-Literature school, and Lego League at the Math-Science school. The district was in a conservative town, where many parents had traditional expectations about what schooling should be--there would be no problem with finding parents who wanted a “classical,” straight-rows, direct-instruction model.

Because the schools were so close together, buses could stagger drop-offs at five-minute intervals, meaning that two children in the same family could choose different schools, but ride the same bus. Busing and catchment areas were already in flux, as were teaching assignments. In this plan, teachers would also have a choice about which school best represented their strengths and beliefs. I could already predict which teachers would go for the technology-rich school, which would prefer more creative drama as learning vehicle. If one school was seriously oversubscribed, it would tell us what most parents in the district wanted for their children.

I promoted the plan using the ideal of choice, a familiar concept in Michigan, which had just passed charter legislation. Parents chose our district--and with this plan, they could custom-tailor their child’s elementary education. What’s not to like?

As I mentioned, the plan went down in flames. Board members didn’t get it--and the Curriculum Director was incensed. Everyone must get the same thing, he said. That’s the only fair way.

We’ve gone from being suspicious of genuine, in-district choice (a win-win for districts) to bitter squabbling over who gets access to publicly funded resources. Next up: Common rules and standardization for traditional public schools, choice and opportunity for educational entrepreneurs.

The opinions expressed in Teacher in a Strange Land are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.

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