Teaching Opinion

Why Public School Choice Should Be Part of School Improvement Efforts

By Joe Nathan — May 14, 2015 6 min read
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Today Joe Nathan responds to Deborah Meier’s comments earlier this week. He explains why he thinks public school choice should be part of overall school improvement efforts.

Dear Deb,

This note responds to some of what you wrote earlier this week: “Small, self-governing community-based schools, well and equally funded by the state and federal government seem wisest to me at this time in our history. " I’m going to focus on that, and return next week to other issues you raised.

You and I agree that the kind of community controlled, democratically governed schools you favor should be options for as many families as possible. The “as many families as possible” is included because many rural families don’t live in a town. One of the roles that the public school district and charter movement has played in Minnesota and other states is to provide options for such rural families. That’s because Minnesota state law allows families to move across district lines if the receiving district or charter has room.

Another reason I favor public school choice is that I’ve learned from thousands of youngsters and families over the last 45 years that no single form of school, no matter how well funded, is a great place for all students. Some people confuse “equal” educational opportunity with “identical” educational opportunity. They think if they create virtually identical schools, that promotes equity. Seems to be that’s about as equitable as asking everyone to wear a size 5, or a size 9 shoe. People learn in different ways. They have different things that are of particular interest.

Some youngsters blossom in a more progressive, Montessori program. Central Park East and St. Paul Open School were two successful, progressive examples. However, some youngsters did not do well at Open School, but were much more successful in a more traditional program.

Recently I spent two evenings listening to Harding High School students present their graduation portfolios. At this 2,000 student, St. Paul district high school, each student prepares and then shares materials describing classes, community service, honors, recommendations and other material describing their four years. It’s clear after listening to dozens of students present their portfolios that Harding is a great option for many young people.

Other students flourish in a smaller alternative school. I’ve just finished writing a column after listening to dozens of students in alternative schools (some in district schools, some in charters). There are incredibly eloquent about how traditional district schools did not work well for them. Jessenia wrote that she found teachers at Ivan Sand Community High School who give “emotional, verbal and any kind of support you need. ... I now know what it’s like not to give up on someone even when they give up on themself. I can’t count how many times I’ve said screw it, but the teachers are right over my shoulder ready to help me.”

Another student, Aaron, wrote that he was “drifting along” in traditional schools: “Letting others insult and spread rumors about me, expecting it all to get better one day. I was pulled down again and again with despair. ... I even was led to bring others down to feel better, but I wasn’t proud, I hated myself.”

Then he enrolled at Northwest Passage and helped plan the statewide conference MAAP STARS, where students share information about their lives. Aaron wrote: “MAAP STARS turned out to be the perfect fit. I was inspired by the many students and staff who all were participating in the program, who had just as much trouble in their lives as I did. MAAP STARS gave me the courage to keep going, to find myself and lead on. “

One parent told me her son’s problems “evaporated” when he went to a small, project based, individualized alternative school, Jennings Community Learning Center.

The alternative schools did not necessarily have more money. In some cases they had less. But they had attracted staff deeply committed to working with these youngsters. Many have considerable decision-making power over how money was spent. Some alternative schools used project-based learning; some made extensive use of technology. The number of youngsters in Minnesota attending these schools has grown from about 4,000 in 1988 to more than 162,000, full and part time in 2013-14. Alternative school students represent about 17% of Minnesota’s public school students.

I think we should give MORE money to public schools that serve high percentages of students from low-income families, and students who don’t speak English in the home. That’s what Minnesota’s legislature has done. But increased funding by itself has not solved all the problems.

One of the central questions for your suggestion re community control of schools is: What about school boards?

Recently journalist John Merrow praised the work of New Visions, which has helped create a variety of district options in New York City that operate with considerable autonomy under considerable but not complete autonomy (I am not a fan of complete autonomy).

People at the University of Washington, including Paul Hill and Robin Lake, have written about school boards that delegate lots of responsibility to district public schools. I’m interested in your reactions to how they describe what happened in New York City. It sounds similar to what happened in East Harlem. But like you, I’ve learned to not believe everything I read. Here’s how the University of Washington researchers described NYC developments:

“Starting in 2002, the NYC school district pioneered the development of large numbers of small, focused high schools to share buildings that formerly housed low-performing, large, comprehensive schools. District leaders selected school leaders known to impart clarity and focus to their schools and provided funding for those leaders to plan a school before opening it. The district also allowed those leaders to choose leadership teams and teaching staffs and to affiliate with organizations like New Visions, which had years of experience in new school creation. Leaders also controlled school budgets and could make trade-offs between different kinds of expenditures. Teacher professional development and evaluation were controlled at the school level. In their first year of operation, the new schools admitted students for 9th grade and subsequently added a grade each year until they were complete high schools. Students were admitted by citywide lottery.

In New York City’s small schools, investments in planning and staff recruitment paid off, as did the frequent use of ideas like Sizer’s and Hirsch’s, and other reproducible models such as the International Baccalaureate. Educators in the most effective New York high schools attribute their success to academic rigor and personalized relationships in their schools, enabled by small size and the ability to hire hardworking, flexible teachers. But successes were not isolated to a few cases. A decade after reforms began, a rigorous randomized control study has shown that New York’s small high schools are highly effective at raising student test scores and increasing graduation rates. Coherent schools also exist in other district settings, though rarely as systematically as in New York.”

Deb, you wrote about the larger economic and political environment in which public schools find themselves. I’ve chosen to leave that discussion for another day. But isn’t one of the central principles in a democracy, the power of citizens to make choices and decisions, within some limits? Also, don’t we know that there’s no single design/curriculum/organization for a school in which all students succeed?

I think the answer to both questions is “yes.” So public school choice, including chartering, with schools open to all - no admissions tests - should be part of what we work for.

Joe Nathan has been an urban public school teacher, administrator, PTA president, researcher, and advocate. He directs the St. Paul, Minn.-based Center for School Change, which works at the school, community, and policy levels to help improve public schools

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.