Can We Use the Case of Public Parks to Critique the Logic of School Choice?

Can we use the case of public parks to critique the logic behind school choice? Some think so. Voltaire is quoted as saying, “A witty saying proves nothing.” That is the quote that came to mind when I saw someone post the following on Twitter recently:

What do you think? Some might read it and join in a resounding cheer for this witty statement about some people’s belief that school choice is “ridiculous” on the same grounds as the fictional public park statement. The problem is that this is not really an argument against school choice. When we use such comparisons, they can be clever and stick with people, but we must also ask whether they are inviting us into a candid and substantive consideration of the true affordances and limitations of school choice, and there are indeed both.

Yes, the example with the parks does sound a bit ridiculous, but it only takes a few moments of listing the similarities and differences between public parks and public schools to recognize that this comparison comes rather close to what some might call ridiculous.

If we are going to work with the park comparison, allow me to offer a few thoughts.

  1. It is mandatory for people of a certain age to attend school, but not so with parks.
  2. When a park is unsafe, you don’t have to go to it. When you are in a community with an unsafe school and it is your only option, you are still required by law to attend (unless of course you are wealthy enough for the private school or can afford to have a parent stay home to homeschool).
  3. What would you say to a person who is told that it is un-Amercian to not send their kid to an unsafe park every day, arguing that you should send your kid to that park while fighting to make it safer? If your child is harmed during that time, we can chalk that up your American duty. Yet, those with the money and time to travel further for a safe park are insulated from this same “American duty.”
  4. My point is that we don’t force people to go to parks and then improve them. We improve parks and then people start going to them.
  5. When a park is poor in quality, people vote by not going to it. If there are better options, they take advantage of those choices. My family does that all the time. We used to go a little further to the park with the best playground, the bets hiking, or whatever else aligned with our goals. Note that quality also wasn’t a simple measure on some standardized test of park quality either. We made a choice based upon our goals and values and what the park could offer.
  6. Your kid loves skateboarding and the closest park doesn’t allow or have room for skateboard. Yet, there is a great skateboard park about a mile away so you opt to help your kid go there instead.
  7. Now imagine a local park where the officials decided that it was a public health essential that parks include “how to” posters related to the park official’s viewpoint on certain political and hot social issues, and much more. Maybe you agree with those positions and maybe you do not, but you don’t have to go to that park. Mandatory daily attendance at the park does not exist, so you can opt to play or walk somewhere else if somewhere else is available. If not, you can fight to change that park, but if those in charge reject your complaint, that is it. Not only that but imagine the park officials ridiculing your complaint as being too liberal, too conservative, closed-minded, backward, socialist or something else. There is limited actual openness to a substantive debate about what goes into the park.
  8. If there are park officials on duty who are not the type of role model that you want for your children, you express concern, and your concerns are disregarded, what next? Those park officials might rank about the importance of legalizing marijuana, locking our borders to illegal immigrants, making oil illegal, or some other position. That is not their primary job as park officials but their ideas quite often come out in subtle and direct ways. Again you express concern but the park board and park administration supports the park official.

I’m not saying that these are always issues for people, but the simple public park to public school comparison make in the above poster does not help to surface such important candid discussion. Or, since I’m writing this as a response, maybe it does.

A Tale of a Bullied Boy and a School Where Curious is Cool

This is the tale of a bullied boy and a school where curious is cool.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Kathy and Jim both drove their only child, Nathaniel, to his first day of 6th grade in a new school. Like many parents, they were as nervous as their son about this new adventure. They were also excited for him. Both of them loved middle school as kids and they looked forward to him having the same experience. Perhaps that is why is was so hard when they picked up Nathaniel at the end of the day, and his first words were, “I hate school.” The bullying started on that day and didn’t let up the entire year. Of course, they talked to the teacher about it, and the teacher seemed responsive at first. Yet, nothing changed.

Nathaniel wasn’t being physically bullied but he was ostracized and mocked throughout each day. It was a school with a heavy athletics culture and Nathaniel was not very athletic. He was a curious boy who loved to talk about ideas, but he was disappointed that nobody else in the class seemed to have shared interest in such things. People mocked him in subtle ways that were hard for the teacher to identify. In fact, to the teacher, it just looked like Nathaniel was a depressed and unmotivated loner, even though the unmotivated part from far from the truth.

Each day, Nathaniel got up and went to school. He dreaded it, but he didn’t say much. He also didn’t smile much, at least not during the school week. Day after day, Nathaniel spent hours in a building, trying to learn and make friends, but with little success. The more people made fun of him, the less others were willing to take the risk of befriending him. His mood spread to the classroom too. It is hard to be interested in learning when you are in a room of people who don’t seem to like you or care about you.

The teacher was nice enough, but as Nathaniel became increasingly disengaged in and out of class, the teacher seemed to lose patience with him. While she never used the word, to herself she thought he was lazy and distracted. Before long, Nathaniel not only had his classmates rejecting him, but he felt the same sort of ridicule from the teacher. It was subtle, but he felt it nonetheless.

As unhappy as Nathaniel was, he was also a wonderfully curious boy. That is why the one thing that he looked forward to each week was Saturday morning. That is when he got to work with his dad on any number of fun projects. His dad was a mechanical engineer by day, but on the weekends, he loved to work on several projects at once. He had a classic car that he’d spent the last five years rebuilding with an electric motor. He was remodeling the basement, turning it into their very own home theater. In addition to that, he was working on building his own cedar strip canoe after seeing someone else do it while they were on family vacation last summer. Nathaniel loved working with his dad on these projects.

Nathaniel usually woke up before his dad each Saturday. He made himself and his parents breakfast (just cereal and milk, but it is the thought that counts, right?) while waiting anxiously for when they would head out to the shop and get started on one or more of the projects. His dad treated him like a true partner. Nathaniel already knew quite a bit about electronics and was a sponge when it came to learning about how to build a boat from scratch. As they worked on the car and canoe, they would daydream about what they would do with them when they were finished. Nathaniel dreamt of creating a mount for the canoe so they could use the electric car to drive over to the state park. Then they’d spend the day fishing and talking as they canoed around the lake. He even had the snacks and lunches planned out in his head.

One Sunday, as Nathaniel and his dad worked on the car, Nathaniel said, “Dad, I wish this could be school. I learn more on the weekend with you than I do all week at school. And this makes me happy. School is a sad place where I don’t learn much of anything except how to stay strong while people are making fun of you.” Jim stopped working as he let those words sink in. He didn’t say anything out loud at the moment but what he thought to himself was this. “Why couldn’t this be school?” That night Jim retold this conversation to Kathy.

Jim talked to Kathy talked for hours, deciding to start researching homeschool possibilities. As they browsed the web, however, they also stumbled across this movement of parent-led and parent-designed schools. They discovered a whole new world of education that they didn’t know existed. They had no idea that so many parents were dissatisfied with school for one reason or another, and that they used that to fuel their efforts to create any number of wonderfully rich and interesting new schools.

As Kathy read more, she explained her thinking to Jim in this way. “So many parents just put up with the existing school system. They see it as some sort of necessary rite of passage, even if it is a terrible experience for their kids. I don’t want to teach Nathaniel to run away from his problems. At the same time, this school is a toxic place for him, and the teachers and administrators don’t seem to be doing anything to change that. What would it take for us to start our own school, one that really is based upon the sort of things that you do with Nathaniel on the weekend? They could learn science by building and making. They could even learn history by creating museum exhibits for the community. Imagine how fun that would be for us and the kids.” Kathy was an art major, and she was already starting to imagine how they could create this wonderfully rich, creative hands-on type of learning.

Their next step was to talk to others about the idea. They started with some of their friends, and everyone seemed to think it sounded like an amazing idea. Of course, many of them also thought it was idealistic and unlikely to happen. As a last chance for the school, Kathy and Jim set up a meeting with a couple of the school leaders to share what they had been learning. They wanted to see if the school might be interested in working with them to create some sort of school within a school project. Unfortunately, the leaders didn’t have much interest. The idea didn’t fit into their existing strategic plan and it just didn’t seem to resonate with their idea of what a school should be.

So, after months of reading, research, and conversations, Kathy and Jim decided to take the next step. They pulled Nathaniel out of school and started to homeschool him, building the entire curriculum around rich, hands-on projects, including connecting those weekend projects into the “schooling” experience. They also started to invite other homeschool families to join them for various projects.

Before long, Kathy and Jim were facilitating over eight different immersive hands-on projects throughout the semester that were tied into various content areas, and there were between ten and twenty students participating in every project. They had an aviation class where students studied physical science while building their own remote control airplanes. They had another one that blended science, economics, and business; where they got to work on building actual electric cars, but they also worked on research about the viability of electric cars as replacements for the standard cars of our day. They had a third project where they partnered with the local history museum for a completely student-designed series of exhibits focused on the question of whether stricter gun laws would decrease violent crime. Students grappled with the issue, looked at it from an historical perspective, a criminal justice perspective, a sociological perspective, and they also studied issues related to constitutional rights. They provided exhibits that represented different stances and the reasons behind those stances. This turned out to be the highest traffic exhibit in the museum that year.

By the end of the year, they had over a hundred different kids engaged in their programs, so they decided to take it to the next level. They continued the homeschool model the next year while raising the funds and doing the preparatory work needed to launch a new school that would be completely built upon hands-on learning and immersive projects. In a matter of months, their first class was full, and the school launched in the fall. They continued to run the homeschool projects alongside the school, and allowed families to opt in for only parts of the school experience. Some were there for full days, while others came and went for certain projects.

What was even more exciting is that they didn’t have bullies in this school. The kids didn’t tolerate it. The teachers guided the young people, but over time, it was the students themselves who built the culture, and they decided that school would be a place where you are welcome, cared for, you are free to be curious, and you are challenged to be kind and collaborative. They created a school where curious is cool.

The Power of Choice is Differentiation, Not Competition

I’ve written about this more than once before, but the context about which I’m writing is always a little different each time. This time I’m focusing on choice and charter schools. While some advocates for school choice do so based on the theory of competition, I am an advocate for them, but for an entirely different reasons. As I explain in the title, the power of school choice is differentiation, not competition.

One argument for the benefit of choice programs goes like this. If we give families and students choice on which schools to attend, then schools will experience competition for the students and be driven to improvements that make people choose them over other options. Competition is touted as the secret sauce in this alleged recipe for educational reform and success.

There is at least one major flaw with this link of thinking. Competition doesn’t necessarily create improvements, especially not improvements valued equally by all the key stakeholders – most importantly parents and students. We have evidence that there is competition conjured by choice programs, as indicated in “Every Kid is Money”: Market-Like Competition and School Leader Strategies (Jabbar, Huriya, Educational Evaluation and Policy Analysis, December 2015). According to this study, administrators in New Orleans choice schools did “experience market pressures”, but that did not necessarily translate into school improvements. Besides, we do not all agree upon what we mean by a school improvement. As long as we are thinking about competition among largely similar school models, we are missing the true point and power of choice, charters and many other K-12 education reform experiments.

When charter schools first launched, many people thought of them as incubators for promising innovations in education. The charter would test a practice or model and, if it succeeded, people hoped that it could be transferred back into the more traditional schools. Yet, the problem with this line of thinking is the same as with the competition conjured by choice programs. We are not all keeping score the same way. What is a success to one is not a success to another. Besides, I’m not convinced that we should have a detailed and universal standard for keeping score when it comes to school success.

Parents and students have different needs and goals. Communities have different needs and goals. Yes, there are some factors upon which we can all agree. We all agree that schools should be safe and that student learning should take place. Yet, what we mean by safety and student learning continues to vary as it should. That is because, as much as we aspire to quantify performance in school, schooling is a cultural expression and an art as much or more than it is a science. Science is part of the culture, but it is not the same thing.

What makes choice and charter schools special and valuable is that they are opportunities to celebrate differentiation in philosophies and approaches to schooling that play by often wildly different rules. This commitment to creating space for a diversity of schooling models is not only the secret sauce in the education reform recipe, it is a secret sauce to many fundamental American ideals.

Who Decides What Should be Taught & Learned in an Age of Educational Choice?

Dozens. There are more choices in education than there are cereals at the typical US grocery story. Where I live there are dozens of choices for schools. There are community public schools, charter schools, magnet schools, independent schools, and faith-based schools. There are classical schools, core knowledge schools, self-directed learning academies, project-based learning programs, game-based learning, blended learning schools, and place-based schools. This has empowered families with choice about curriculum, pedagogy, and anything else that they consider important. While some would rather us have a single uniform community public school system (with limited and select options through magnets), that is not where we are in education today. This is true about early childhood, elementary, secondary, and higher education. In addition to these educational organizations, there are hundreds of education startups and established companies that offer even more choices about what and how to learn. It is also true about the what and how of lifelong learning. With the digital age comes more educational options than any time in history.

That is the thing about democratized knowledge. It not only increases access and opportunity, but it gives voice and choice when it comes to determining what knowledge is worth acquiring and when to acquire it. Personalized and adaptive learning movements in education are growing quickly, but many of these early efforts are focused upon training and education that is largely standardized (e.g. math and foreign language). These are often complex product designs that require a large audience to get a reasonable return on the investment. That is why it is no coincidence that developments like the Common Core State Standards parallel the growth of education startups and the education sector at large. There is a reason the market share of educational assessment and testing companies has increased over the past couple of years. We see adaptive software gaining traction in areas like math, language instruction, and computer programming. What do these have in common? There is far less debate about the scope and sequence for areas like this.

Depending upon your perspective, these are delightful or troubling times withe regard to choice. For the business-minded, there are experiments like Draper University, probably one of the only schools that has a business curriculum that focuses upon futurology, bitcoins, and the warrior mindset. At this point, it seems that the startups and education sector in the business world are leading the way for more choice. As I shared in a presentation to University presidents yesterday, consider projects like Lynda.com, General Assembly, Udacity, and Learn Up. These are samples of the creativity, innovation, and infusion of choice that exemplifies the modern education landscape. These are not only efforts to sell products to schools. These are also standalone education companies that do what schools often do not or cannot do, reaching out directly to the learning, bypassing the educational establishments.

  • To what extent will we see some of these education companies filling the gap for schools and Universities?
  • How much will come from partnerships between these companies and schools?
  • Will more schools begin to embrace similar offerings and innovation from within their organization?
  • Which organizations are most insulated from growing choice and which are least?
  • Will the broader culture of choice redefine standard operations in many schools, driving them to provide more choice to learners?
  • How much with regulatory bodies limit the growth and impact of educational choices?
  • And, will the heavy regulations drive most of the innovations out of schools and into education startups and companies that are less bound or completely unbound from such limitations?

These are the types of questions that intrigue me in this age of educational choice.