CURMUDGUCATIONThe slightly-cranky voice navigating the world of educational “reform” while trying to still pursue the mission of providing quality education.


Can Choice Return To Its Roots?

Deborah Meier wrote in Education Week recently wit an interesting question.

Can school choice return to its progressive roots?” she asked. She goes back to the days in which she became involved in starting charter schools, to get out from under the heavy hand of regulation and red tape and start a school run by educators who would focus on the stuff that really matters, serving students who has been largely ignored by the system. In those early days, school choice could be seen as a progressive cause. And yet, with the growth in the charter movement came misgivings:

It was the proliferation of charters that made me pause and worry about how choice could work against the values I was presumably promoting. Small schools of choice soon became a way of resegregating where integration had begun to be practiced. It also pitted teachers and parents against each other as they were asked to share limited space. And, soon it began to seem as though it was also a way of dividing a community’s efforts at improving all their schools. Bus trips to Albany were conducted by competing groups with competing external sponsors—serving however the same community. And, of course, sometimes families were attending schools in districts where they didn’t live and in the process, some districts lost valuable parent leaders and activists who solved their personal interests without tackling the larger dilemmas facing their neighbors.

Meier’s question is on the surface pretty simple. Can the progressive impulse be put back in the forefront of the charter-choice question? She didn’t ask me, but I’m answering anyway.

My answer is “No.”

And the reason for my answer is also simple.


There are two main reasons that money will remain a barrier to progressive school choice paradise.

First, there’s been no attempt to actually fund such a system. Instead, every attempt at a charter-choice system has been founded on the premise that we can fund multiple school systems with the same money previously used to fund just one system. That premise is nuts. The result is a zero-sum Battle to the Death cage match between public and charter schools, resulting in some of the issues Meier notes above. Not enough resources, building space, quality teachers, expensive administrators and just plain funding to go around.

The only solution for this problem is a bunch of brave politicians who will stand up and say, “We think that having a choice-based multi-school system is so important that we are going to appropriate a bunch of new tax dollars to fund it.” That seems unlikely, particularly in those states where the legislators are unwilling to fully fund the system they already have.

But even if full funding somehow magically happened, that would not solve Problem Number 2. That because Problem Number 2 is also money.

A charter-choice system as currently conceived is about unleashing the free market, and the free market feeds on money. Many states are well along in the transformation of education from a public service sector to a free market profit-seeking sector, and the result is not pretty. A charter school founded and run by local folks and based on progressive values is already quaint, like a Mom and Pop corner grocery store. There’s money to be made in the charter biz, and a whole bunch of people who want to make it.

Free market fans will insist (many of them sincerely) that the drive to make money will lead to top notch quality schools for every child in the US. There is not a lick of evidence to support this view, and plenty of evidence that it is wrong. You can find plenty of arguments here from me, but for the moment, let me just toss out one question– can you name one business sector that has thrived by producing a top-quality product that gets to every single person in the country? In the meantime, the pursuit of money through charters has led to elbowing aside all obstacles, including the local community members and taxpayers whose school it supposed to be, and satisfying some of the less admirable desires if the marketplace, like a school free from Those People.

As long as education is a big beautiful football field with bags of money buried all through it available to anyone who liberates them, people will show up with shovels and backhoes and plastic forks and dig holes until nobody can really play the game the field was meant for in the first place.

Until charter choice systems are fully funded and carefully regulated, they will never return to their roots. But right now too many operators smell too much money for us to go back easily.

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This afternoon the set was struck and the stage swept clean. We’ve come to the end of this year’s spring musical. As always it was one of the highlights of my year, and as always, it reminded me of how inadequate so many of our educational models are.

There are weeks of rehearsal, learning music, learning choreography, working on blocking and lines and the underlying character work that goes with all of that. We have a cast of students in 7-12 grade in very many levels of skill and experience.

Used properly, a portal to a world of learning

That means that in the course of assembling the show, each student learns a different set of lessons that depend a great deal on what roles they receive and what skills they bring to the table, as well as their ambition and adventurousness of spirit.

So this educational experience is extremely personalized, and that means far more than I have twelve lessons to choose from and a computer picks the next one based on how the last one turned out. My lead actor may need to learn about comedic timing, while one of my chorus folks may need to learn about the importance of the chorus in a show. My leading actress may need to learn about how to flesh out a character when the writers haven’t given you much to work with. But the list of lessons will be different for every different role and every different cast member.

The lessons also vary with directors. This program is a co-op that allows my school to join in with a school just across town, and I split directing duties with an old friend who heads up the other school’s program. We’ve divided up duties many different ways over the years, and it works because we work well together. Every theater production is a collaboration of some sort, and that collaboration is always shaped by the approaches of the people involved. Some directors have a very specific vision for the actors to bring to life, while others like to leave spaces for the actors to fill in with their own choices. We tend toward the latter, but some actors are more comfortable with the former and all sorts of combinations can get good results (and the requirements of the script itself also make a difference). All of which means that if you showed up with a specific program for exactly how a director should put together a show, I would laugh at you. Here we are with a performance based task that literally comes with a script-– and yet only a fool would claim that the script is all you need to produce a great show.

Likewise, putting on a show is the very definition of a performance-based learning experience. Yet if we were to follow the PBL model currently favored, we would break the show down into a checklist. Does the actor know the lines? Check. Does the actor know the blocking? Check. Can the actor put on her costume? Check. And on and on and even if I have checked off every micro-credential on the list, that is not the same thing as actually performing the show. Nor do we build toward that performance capability by working down the list one separate performance task at a time, because they are all part of a greater whole.

And those tasks would be performed for an evaluator, an assessor of some sort, which is not the ultimate goal. Our show was performed in front of an audience, and because it was a comedy, the audience reaction was a critical part of performance (in fact, on our second night, I saw something I’ve never seen in school or community theater before– the show was stopped by audience laughter). Unlike competency-based education, which presumes that competencies can be approached as separate, discrete skills that can be measured through proxies, tasks that aren’t the real thing. There is no checklist that would have substituted for dress rehearsal, no assessment more valuable than audience reactions in performance.

And speaking of assessments– at no point in the eight-week process of preparing the show would a multiple-choice standardized test have been useful.At no point in the process did anyone think, “Hey, we need to do some assessments here to make sure that everyone is on track for a good performance.” It would have been a pointless, useless waste of time.

In fact, standardization of any type is useless in this process. I have no idea how many productions of The Addams Family have been put on in community and school theaters at this point, but I will bet you the farm, the rent money, and a full box of donuts that not one of those productions looks exactly like any other. It’s true that nobody who saw our production would have mistaken it for Hamlet or Oh Calcutta, but every production exists at the intersection of a specific cast, director, school, community, and stage (ours has no fly gallery, so that affects set design considerably). School theater in particular has to make adjustments for things as simple as language and as substantial as character gender (I can tell you, for instance, that interesting things happen to the subtext of Disney’s Beauty and the Beast when Belle’s crazy father Maurice is replaced by Belle’s crazy mother Marie). It is those specific variations that most often give the special flavor and quality to the local production; the deviations from the standard are a source of excellence, not treatment-demanding flaw.

I love working with students and theater (despite the giant chunks of my life that it demands) because it is an experience that, in an absolutely authentic manner, helps each student grow and learn and discover new greatness in herself. It is an absolutely real learning and growth experience, which is why I’m always struck by how completely it does not match any of the assumptions about real learning made by the forces of ed reform. This is what real learning and growth look like, and they don’t resemble the whole standard-driven test-centered punishment-fueled system that has been forced on us for the past fifteen years.

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