Education Opinion

To Mandate or Not, That’s the Question

By Deborah Meier — May 28, 2015 5 min read
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Today Deborah Meier and Joe Nathan discuss what should and should not be mandated in public education. Deborah begins, and Joe responds.

Dear Joe,

“There oughtta be a law.” What we might wish to “mandate” and what we may passionately believe in but wouldn’t, even if we could, require of others, is a knotty dilemma.

There’s the “could” and the “would” to consider.

I suspect our lists (see last two weeks!) differ in this respect--at least a bit. Would you mandate projects, for example? If you could, remember, “others could.....”

There’s one area in which I think we both agree--but it’s not likely that we could get our way. That’s on selectivity: the school’s right to be choosy about who they accept. I’m for nonchoice neighborhood schools--a change of heart--with some choices within. Except ... where choice would diversify the student population re race, ethnicity, or class. I’m prepared to sacrifice the virtue of the common school for the virtue of class and racial integration when the “common school” is far from common.

There’s always a price. So we all have to weigh the impact of anything we “require” as against its social and individual gains. I thought, for example, that sending my children to their far-from-perfect local schools was in their self-interest--because they’d best make sense of and value the world if they saw themselves and their family as part of their community, with all its faults.

In a perfect world there’d be no need for mandates. In an imperfect one we should still tread carefully when we mandate--even within a single school, much less a single state or nation. Sometimes what we gain is illusory or unintentional--"that’s not what I meant”!

The question, for me, is “who and what is hurt” if we don’t mandate against selectivity. I think all those who are not chosen are seriously damaged, and those chosen...are damaged too in ways less immediately obvious. Not to mention the impact on democracy.

But, I’d say--alas--that eliminating tracking by so-called “ability” within classrooms within schools and within state schools--is unlikely any time soon. I would, though, if I could. I thought we had made progress on tracking within NYC schools at one point in the early 70s. But now we’re doing it widely between schools! There have never been more choices in NYC based on one’s so-called abilities as measured by test scores. (For reference, see Jeannie Oakes work on tracking.)

Let’s explore this a bit, Joe. What makes this issue so untouchable today?

Joe Responds:

Dear Deb,

Lots to think about in what you wrote.

First, we agree that district and chartered public schools should not be allowed to use admissions tests. That’s why most charter laws were written to prohibit this--widespread agreement on this, so most state laws include this provision. That’s in big contrast to magnet schools in many places that are allowed to use admissions test. As I’ve mentioned, that’s wrong. It appears that you agree.

A second part of this is allowing districts to bar students from attending if their transfers help improve racial balance. A Minnesota law going back 25 years ago permits families to apply to transfer across district lines, so long as this has a positive impact on racial balance. I helped write and am a fan of that legislation. It also makes sense in rural areas where the location of a district’s school or schools means the nearest public school is not in their district. Minnesota wisely decided to let reason rule and permits cross-district transfers so long as it does not have a negative impact on racial integration.

Why is this so difficult? A few reasons. First people with privilege are very reluctant to give it up--as Frederick Douglass understood.

Second, some people are fine with admissions tests as long as a local board decides them. They don’t like charters to use admissions tests in part because they don’t want schools that are part of public education that are not covered by traditional district/union contracts. New York City has a lot of these admissions tests schools in part because:

  1. Some wealthy and powerful parents like them
  2. The teachers’ union does not seem to object
  3. Some foundation people who fund advocacy don’t view this as a priority to challenge.

What to do on all this? Continue to write and advocate for controlled public school choice. I’ve suggested one of the controls on choice be no admissions tests.

I also think there’s a lot to learn from tribally controlled colleges and historically black colleges and universities that are freely chosen by students. That’s a subject for another day.

You also raise the critical issue of what to mandate versus what to encourage. Would I require every student to participate in a youth/community service project? Would I require site governance over critical issues like budget, personnel, and curriculum? No, but I’d make both possible, in both district and charter sectors. And I’d provide some incentives--like startup funds for charters and district options like you and I helped create. That’s part of the work our Center currently is doing.

Deborah Responds:

Joe: Charters have their own way of “selecting” who the school is to serve. Many choice public schools do, too--and it’s often right there in the school’s title, plus its pedagogy. Yes, magnets were a way of attracting middle class, mostly white parents to stick with public education.

And yes--one way to encourage “projects” would be to promote the kind of graduation requirements that coalition schools adopted, which rest on the kind of work that makes projects so powerful.

Joe responds:

Deb, we agree on the value of service projects and on the value of allowing schools to create graduation requirements that include demonstration of skill and knowledge via projects.

On the student selection issue: The title/theme of a school influences who will apply. Everyone does not want their youngster, and every youngster does not want to attend an Arts Focused, or a Chinese, French, Hmong or Spanish Immersion school, or Montessori, or Core Knowledge school (examples of public school options available in Minneapolis or St. Paul.) But isn’t there a huge difference between

  1. Creating a school with a theme, and
  2. Creating a school with explicit admissions tests that screen out most students because they can’t pass the required admissions test?

For me, the answer is “yes.” There is a huge difference. The theme approach helps build community among students, faculty and families. A theme or agreement about how to work with students, such as the Montessori or language immersion approach, is a way to recognize teacher professionalism. It empowers educators to create the kind of school they think makes sense.

Screening out students based on test scores seems to violate one of the central ideas of public education - that public schools are open to all.

The opinions expressed in Bridging Differences 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.