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Rick Hess Straight Up

Education policy maven Rick Hess of the American Enterprise Institute think tank offers straight talk on matters of policy, politics, research, and reform. Read more from this blog.

School Choice & Charters Opinion

Does School Choice ‘Work’?

It’s more complicated than either side acknowledges
By Rick Hess — May 21, 2024 10 min read
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In “Straight Talk with Rick and Jal,” Harvard University’s Jal Mehta and I examine the reforms and enthusiasms that permeate education. In a field full of buzzwords, our goal is simple: Tell the truth, in plain English, about what’s being proposed and what it means for students, teachers, and parents. We may be wrong and we will frequently disagree, but we’ll try to be candid and ensure that you don’t need a Ph.D. in eduspeak to understand us.

Today’s topic is educational choice and whether it “works.”

—Rick

Rick: It’s been another busy spring for educational choice, so let’s dig into the heated debate about whether choice “works.” Here’s where I’m coming from: I’ve supported full-spectrum educational choice since the last century, including intradistrict choice, charter schooling, school vouchers, education savings accounts (ESA), and the rest. That said, regular readers also know that I’m critical of the absolutist rhetoric favored by some choice advocates, over-the-top claims for choice, and the insistence that choice works. As I see it, educational choice is part of the answer to our challenges, but it isn’t the answer. Choice enables more parents to find options that are right for their child, creates more room for the emergence of promising new options, and offers educators more say as to where they’ll work. These are all very good things.

But educational choice programs are no one thing. They vary dramatically, from relatively restricted open-enrollment programs that give students some choice among district schools to ambitious ESA programs that radically reimagine how schooling works. Just within charter schooling, there are vast differences from state to state in who is permitted to authorize schools, how they are authorized, the goals they are required to meet, and so forth. Broadly asserting that choice is “good” (or “bad”) ignores that it means many different things depending on context, policy, and practice.

In short, choice isn’t a bag of magic beans. Worse, suggesting it is makes it less likely that anyone will do the hard work necessary to make choice programs deliver. Ultimately, the how of choice matters mightily. How tough is it for good new schools or programs to emerge? How do we ensure that scam artists aren’t ripping off families and taxpayers? How do parents find out what the options are? How does the financing work? The answers to questions like these determine whether a school choice program works for the families that participate or not.

Anyway, that’s how I tend to approach all this. Curious to hear your take, especially given how much you’ve thought about these issues in the context of your scholarship on institutions and deeper learning.

Jal: Yet again, there is a surprising amount of agreement here. Choice can mean very different things depending on the context and the nature of the regulations. In some states, even fairly proven providers can’t open new schools, whereas in others, licenses are offered to schools that have no track record or plan. As I’ve talked with graduate students coming from all over the nation, their views of choice often vary significantly depending on what state they are coming from.

From an innovation perspective, I think the hopes of the choice movement have not been realized. Charter schools, in particular, were created based on the idea that they would use the freedoms they had been granted to try out new possibilities, which might, over time, influence traditional public schools. But in practice, most charter schools, including a number of the most well-known ones, have mostly just done the same old thing—the same seven-period days, same subjects, same teaching methods. Even Nina Rees, the former head of the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools, acknowledges that charter schools frequently haven’t been as innovative as their advocates have hoped. The reasons for this are almost overdetermined: Teachers teach as they were taught, parents expect school to look the same as what they experienced, external measures like state tests and college admissions reward conformity, etc.

If we wanted to take advantage of some of the benefits of choice to generate more genuine innovation, we would need to make some changes. For instance, we would have to alter the external ecosystem: If we want schools to be organized around students doing more authentic work, then schools have to be evaluated on the basis of students doing that kind of authentic work. These evaluations might include performance assessments or balanced scorecard-style dashboards. Or it might look like the state getting out of the business of measuring outcomes entirely and trusting that parents will be able to select the schools that work for their kids, without having one set of measures that standardizes everything. (Ted Sizer advocated market over state accountability for this reason in The Red Pencil.) A more split-the-middle option would be to have the state perform periodic accreditation reviews, such as those that are used in England. This would allow schools to experiment as they like but offer some protections that public institutions are meeting a certain floor of public goals.

What do you think, Rick? Has choice produced “innovation”? How do we create quality without standardization?

Rick: You know, it’s almost disturbing how much common ground we find in these exchanges, even surrounded by frenzied hyperbole (with Kentucky’s lieutenant governor recently thundering that “‘school choice’ is nothing more than welfare for the well-to-do”). I’m always struck how crazy it is that we’ve ceded so much ground to the self-interested industry of outrage-peddling politicos and culture-war grifters.

But that’s a sermon I’ve preached many times, so I’ll get back to the point. I agree with you both that choice works largely by creating room for better solutions to emerge . . . and that it mostly hasn’t. As you note, this is due to the failure (of even its supporters) to embrace the kind of ecosystem that fuels rethinking. For me, it’s useful to think of this as a humane, organic vision of school improvement. Now, talk of choice as “humane” and “organic” can sound odd when the debate is filled with talk of “wars on public education” and “failing public schools.” But all this wild-eyed rhetoric misses the mark. The promise of choice is not that, tomorrow, schools will magically be “better.” The promise of choice-based systems is that, over time, they create room for educators and families to build better solutions.

This should all be intuitive to anyone who’s spent much time talking school improvement with principals or district leaders. Conversations are peppered with phrases like, “I’d like to do this, but the contract requires . . . ,” “I’d like to pay them more, but HR says . . . ,” or “I’d love to move those dollars, but we’re not allowed. . . .” Educators wrestle with layers of rules, regulations, and contract provisions. That’s why choice can be so appealing: It can make it easier for educators to pioneer promising new school models. School vouchers and ESAs make it feasible to offer alternatives to low-income families who’ve long felt trapped in local schools. Charter schooling enables educators to get a new school approved by a charter authorizer without having to spend years pleading with district officials for flexibility, facilities, and approval.

This kind of inertia is hardly unique to education. Older organizations are rarely good at managing change. They tend to grow rigid, routinized, and hierarchical with time, making it tougher to leverage new technologies or meet changing needs. That’s why the average life span of a Fortune 500 company is just 50 years. When we tell educators they’ve no path other than “fixing” aged systems or schools, we put them in a nearly impossible position.

That’s one reason I’m optimistic about choice today, in the wake of the pandemic. As I noted in The Great School Rethink, the emergence of microschools, learning pods, and hybrid home schools; the adoption of large-scale ESA programs; and the explosion of home schooling have together changed the choice landscape. Choice is no longer mostly about a handful of broadly similar urban charter school networks; today, it’s far more decentralized, dynamic, and geographically dispersed. Of course, these new changes have also surfaced new challenges, ranging from accountability for public funds to questions of staffing and logistics. Our ability to thoughtfully navigate these will determine the success of this next era of educational choice.

Wondering what you make of this changing landscape and what it means going forward, pal.

Jal: Embracing a “humane and organic” approach to school reform? If you don’t watch out, you’re going to get kicked out of the GOP, Rick.

I agree with your idea that the emerging choice landscape—particularly the growth of home schooling, learning pods, and microschools—is much more varied in its goals, means, and approaches than the charter schools that dominated the dialogue in the aughts and 2010s. There also seems to be a much more fundamental willingness to rethink what is taken for granted. This can range from parents who want to resist the standardizing pressures of schools to those whose kids aren’t being served well by the peer or racial dynamics of such schools.

There isn’t yet much research about these efforts, so what I know about them is pretty partial. But still, there is a sense that these folks are motivated by a much more human focus than past reformers. Rather than being committed to grand ideals like social mobility for other people’s children, these are people who are looking at their own kids not as abstractions but as real human beings who are not being served well by school. We can hope that what they generate is much more varied and authentic and that it serves the wide diversity of interests that young people bring to the table.

At the same time, the idea of unschooling and escaping the conformity of public education is not a new one, nor is it a surefire way to educate children successfully. Experience suggests that there are certain Romantic ideas that will turn out to be not entirely true. While intrinsic motivation and self-directed learning are important (and in much too short supply in regular public schools), for most kids, they won’t be sufficient without some structure, community, and routine. Some kids listen better to other adults than they do to their own parents. Thus, there is a lot to be figured out in this emerging world: Who should “teach”; what sorts of structures, communities, and routines should replace the ones previously provided by school; and what models work and for which kids.

To make this a bit more personal, we were home schoolers for most of one year during the COVID-19 pandemic. We had a bright 6-year-old who was bored by virtual school and would click “leave meeting” rather than partake in the community-building activities his school had designed for 1st graders. We enrolled him and his best friend in a little school in our living room. We used some materials for science and social studies that my wife found on a home-schooling site and signed up for Beast Academy, a virtual math program for bright kids who like math. Beast Academy was a hit and lasted well past the pandemic. The home-schooling materials we got were more mixed: Some landed and some didn’t. For ELA, we had him read (what he wanted) and write (what he wanted). This was good, but only worked because his kindergarten teacher had already taught him to read. Eventually, the friend had to go back to school, and our son got sad and lonely without him, and so he went back to school. The lesson here is that what we call “school” is really a bundle of things—curriculum in different subjects, teachers, friends, specials—all of which have to be replaced in ways that work. This is much easier said than done.

One obvious question is what the role of the state is in this process. When we home schooled, we just had to fill out a form with the district at the beginning of the year saying what we were going to do and then one at the end saying what we had done. This seems a little light to me. I think some kind of performance of understanding in different domains is important to ensure that real learning has taken place. But the trick, as is always the case with any alternative arrangement, is that if we put too tight strictures on what counts, we are going to lose the innovation that choice can potentially unleash. Finding a way to manage this balance is the key to making the new choice movement more innovative than the old.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up 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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