With uncanny clockwork, a noisy new movement hits the public schools each winter. Gathering momentum like a cattle stampede, it soon dominates the educational landscape and then quickly fades into the sunset. Later we ask, who was that masked man guiding the herd? Where did he go?
In 1988, the movement was called “restructuring.” The prior year it was “renewal,” or was it “empowerment”? Perhaps that was earlier? One forgets, as time passes rapidly. So, it seems, do educational El Dorados. They often lack the definition or the substance required to maintain staying power.
For 1989, the magic word is “choice"--or so President Bush and other prominent figures proclaimed in January at a national conference in Washington. Choice plans, it seems, will bring public schools out of the wilderness to the promised land of sensational teachers, enthralled students, committed parents, and beautiful prom queens.
But the sizzle of most trends is greater than their substance, and so it is with the concept of choice applied broadly to American schools.
Choose carefully with choice, especially with proposals for interdistrict programs. If educators fail to consider carefully the possible consequences of interdistrict plans, attention to choice might not create basic improvement but simply divert energies away from it.
Some choice strategies make good sense. Magnet schools, for example, provide students with a distinctive curriculum at each site, and their track record is strong. But they are not new; some have operated for a decade.
New to the game of choice is the notion that parents should have the option of sending their children across district boundaries in search of general education rather than specialized curricula. Less rationalized and more problematic than magnet schools, this approach raises several major questions.
First, can choice strengthen a school district currently providing only marginal education to its students?
As the researchers Ray Faidley and Steven Musser have pointed out, competitive markets do breed efficiency, but they also produce different products to accommodate differences among consumers. Thus, a Ferrari may be the automobile of choice for those who can afford it; for those who can’t, a less expensive car such as a Yugo may have to suffice.
But the quality of the two products can hardly be compared--and more important, the quality of a Yugo is only marginally affected by the existence of a Ferrari on the market. Each attracts its own customers, with different expectations for performance.
And so it would be with schools under broader systems of choice. Should Americans support an educational system as differentiated in quality as the automobile market? What would be the social implications and the economic consequences of such a development?
Schools are the one place in society where every child has a chance for an equal start. Admittedly, some starts now are more equal than others, but a choice system will simply aggravate the unevenness.
For every child who transfers to a new school district, left behind are tenfold students who lose the parental commitment and community votes necessary to improve their schools. The forces for the status quo gain strength, and improvement is blocked. The Yugos become used Yugos--because they are the product of choice for the remaining customers.
It is a bald fact of life that the families most committed to good schools are the families most likely to bail out of a mediocre system. They will make the sacrifices necessary to send students across district lines.
But while their children may win, the other students lose. The entire nation then suffers a heavy long-term loss, given the link between education and economic development. When strong parents switch rather than fight, all Americans eventually get the bill.
Viewed broadly, then, choice becomes a short-term expediency rather than an effective long-term solution. It is more likely to increase than reduce the differences in quality among school systems.
Second, educators must ask themselves how choice will improve the essentials for learning: the professional skills of teachers and the quality of resources for students.
Already, a teacher shortage is upon us, and outstanding teachers are in especially short supply. An efficient free-market system presupposes ample sources of people or products. The inefficient person or defective product is moved aside by a higher-quality replacement. But when no replacements are available, the dynamic changes. Improvements must be engineered within the available pool.
A free-market system of choice, then, will not improve teaching in mediocre districts. The poor talent and limited resources are locked in place. What we have is all we will get.
The only way out is to directly address the deficiencies. But such action is likely to occur only if the families most interested in education remain in town and fight for good schools, both at home and at the statehouse. Schools can be turned around; we have ample evidence in every state.
One strategy that does improve weak districts is providing incentives for gains in test scores or reduced dropout rates. For example, South Carolina provides major assistance to previously marginal districts and has achieved positive results.
Teachers in resource-short districts need opportunities for professional growth and resources for students, such as computer software. Losing their best students to the next community--and their best parents from the ballot box--will not help these teachers become better.
Third, how will the leadership and management of schools be strengthened by a choice system? Repeated studies affirm the value of good leadership to effective schools: Scratch an excellent school, and a strong principal usually emerges. The best principals focus on improving the educational program and the learning climate of the school. But choice won’t reinforce this emphasis.
In fact, choice programs could easily draw principals’ energies away from instructional matters toward peripheral management problems, such as refereeing the interdistrict recruitment of talent.
Secondary-school coaches are legendary for locating exceptional athletes. Their appetite is curbed by current regulations that require talented players to attend their hometown school. But what if just one more 200-pound tackle or 6-foot, 6-inch forward would assure a district championship? With choice, legal barriers against such recruiting would fall--if little Terry can transfer, why can’t big Mack?
For other competitive areas, such as music, the problems would be similar. And they would all add up to consume administrative time and attention. Who, for instance, would talk to the distressed parents whose child is replaced as quarterback or first clarinet by the transfer student?
Such concerns are only the tip of the iceberg; under choice plans, uncertainties would abound. How could administrators conduct strategic planning when school census figures mean nothing? How could budgets be set and staff contracts signed? Principals would be forced into jump-start management, seeking short-term or ad hoc solutions to fiscal and political problems.
Fourth, how will choice strengthen efforts to address the major social challenges schools face--for example, improving racial integration, helping at-risk students, combating drugs, or reducing teenage pregnancies?
In fact, choice compounds these problems. The advocates of choice freely admit that restrictions are necessary to prevent schools from becoming racially isolated. California’s school chief, Bill Honig, for instance, has made it clear in discussing a possible choice plan that student transfers would be prohibited if they interfered with desegregation programs.
Early-childhood education--not choice--will improve racial understanding. Small classes and interactive software--not choice--will strengthen mathematics skills. Drug education and strong sanctions against pushers--not choice--will reduce drug abuse.
Minnesota’s experiment with open enrollment is already running into trouble, according to Representative Bob McEachern, chairman of the state’s House Education Committee. This year, only 435 students chose to transfer to different districts, and some school officials are complaining that students are using this option to transfer to districts with better athletic teams or softer graduation standards, Mr. McEachern recently noted.
“We know it’s good for hockey, and we know it’s good for lesser graduation requirements,” he said of open enrollment. “But we’re not sure it’s good for academic reasons.”
Advocating student transfers between districts is a political statement, not an educational strategy. And like Ronald McDonald and the Kentucky Derby, choice is a solid American symbol. But symbols are not substance.
Educators should possess more professional confidence in themselves and their schools. Rather than embrace every trendy proposition, they should measure new ideas against sound educational practice.
Do we really want an educational system that generates large differences in opportunity for students? Rather, should not our democratic society aim for the highest level of education for all students in every community? How else as a society do we assure individual development and opportunity? How else can we compete economically among nations? How else can we claim to be the country of the common man?
Don’t break out the champagne just yet for choice. Hold the acclaim and look this one straight in the eye. Get a clear view before you decide to join the herd for 1989.
A version of this article appeared in the April 19, 1989 edition of Education Week as Perspectives on Public-School ‘Choice”