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.

10 Tips for Parents Who Crave More For their Childrens’ Education

Are you frustrated with the educational opportunities for your children? Do you find yourself wishing that there was something more, something better? Or, have you already taken things into your own hands, seeking out or creating an alternative to the standard schooling options? If any of these are true for you, please keep reading. I have 10 tips for parents who want more for their children’s education.

Are you a teacher who is not content with the educational opportunities available to many children today? Are you convinced that a one-size-fits-all approach risks becoming a one-size-fails-all approach? Do you love education and kids, but believe that there has to be a better way? Are you frustrated with the amount of boredom or bullying, testing and grading, ranking and rating, and the overall lack of time talking about how to nurture curiosity, character and a love of learning? Or, have you already taken things into you your own hands to create better alternatives to the dominant systems? If you answered yes to any of these questions, please keep reading. While my comments are mainly directed at parents, I think you might find value in them as well.

Some, maybe even most, parents are happy with the current education system. They drop their children off at school or send them off to the bus stop, and they have little concern about the school day. Generally, they trust the system, the teachers, the leaders, the curriculum and the community. They are happy with the quality of the education and what their kids are learning. It is not uncommon for them to argue that it was good enough for them and it is good enough for their kids. They know things will not be perfect, but they are good enough. They know there will be that occasional ill-prepared, unfair or unpleasant teacher whom their kid has to endure. They reason that this is okay. It just prepares the kid for the real world when she will need to work with sometimes unpleasant bosses and co-workers, or live by an unfriendly neighbor.

They realize that bullying and boredom can and will happen (more or less depending upon the school), but also see that as a chance to develop a thick skin. Or, the parent is just confident that their kid is not one of those bully-able children. That is for “those” other children. They hear their kids talk about school being boring sometimes. The parents are alright with that too because that is what the parents thought about school when they were kids. School is just boring sometimes. You suck it up and work your way through it one grade at a time. Besides, these parents also console themselves by noting that not every moment is boring. There are also engaging and wonderful teachers, lessons and learning experience; again more or less depending upon the school. Sometimes they even see their kid liking what they are learning and talking about how much they love school.

Along the way, these parents are happy that their kids will make school friends, participate in some valued extracurriculars, get decent grades, and then move on to the next level of school. They rarely question the grading system, the nature of the community, the curriculum, or whether they system could be better. It is what it is, and it is good enough for them.

Besides, school is also a community for the parents, sometimes building friendships with other parents. It is one of their connections with the community. It makes them feel like they belong to something, and belonging, even when it is not perfect or when it is unpleasant, can be an important factor.

Some of these parents are largely submissive to leadership in the schools. They grew up learning not to question teachers and school leaders, and they stick with that approach. They might not consider themselves qualified to question leadership or they just consider it best to leave these decisions to the “professionals.” They might have moments of doubt and frustration, but in the end, they will usually just go with the flow.

Other parents are actively trying to shape the school to meet their needs and the needs of their children. They might volunteer. They might use their refined skills of influence and social pressure on parents, teachers, leaders, and even board members. They speak up for their kids if the parents are unhappy with how things are playing out. As such, they might not love the system, but they get enough of what they want to be content. They do what they can to make sure their kid is taken care of or maybe even given a little advantage over others. They might even see it as a game, and they are going to help their kid win it.

All of this is typical, but it isn’t the only way. There is a different breed of parent that is breaking new ground, exploring lesser known (but increasingly traversed) pathways, and becoming more informed about the greater array of possibilities for their children’s education. They are sometimes bold, but other times a little (or more than a little) nervous about stepping out of the traditional and ready-made system.

nagging aching desire of parents These parents are not like the parents mentioned earlier in this article. Their concerns and needs are too great for them to just go along with the system because they are not content with it.These parents have a nagging, evening aching, desire for something different for their children, and it moves them to action. It makes no sense to them why we would overlook or downplay bullying as a necessarily social rite of passage. They don’t accept that boredom should be standard practice in school. They believe that learning should be engaging, rich, deep, rewarding, challenging, impactful and something that their children value and love. They believe that schools can be a place where each child is valued and helped to discover and develop his/her passions, lives, and abilities for personal well-being and service to others. They know political debates about national standards, standardized tests, integrating technology and the rest are not the pathway to better schools. They don’t want to settle for less. They want to know that their kids are safe, challenged, learning, growing, and helped to discover and nurture their gifits and abilities.

They also don’t accept that schools claim that they are ideologically neutral but then turn around and disregard or downplay their family’s values and convictions by supporting teachers and curricula that sometimes aggressively attack some of their deepest held convictions. They realize that their kids need to learn to live in a diverse world, respecting and relating with people from different backgrounds and perspectives, but then they are confused when the school seems to welcome certain types of diversity while labeling other types as unacceptable or even unethical. I”m not just referring to religious or ethical convictions. This is also about deeply held beliefs and convictions about education and children.

This blend of discontent and a dream of something better drives these parents to expand their search. Some are turning to homeschooling, although life circumstances or other factors make that challenging for certain families. Those who opt for homeschooling are finding that the variety of software, curricula, and community education opportunities are often so vast that they can quilt together an intellectually and socially rich learning experience. Others are looking to private and charter schools that have been bold enough to create a clear and focused vision to become a certain type of school. Even as people are rating these new charters based on narrow criteria like standardized test scores, they are looking for so much more out of a school experience then test-taking acumen, and these niche schools meet their needs and affirm their goals and values. Others are happy with a blend of homeschooling and alternative school options. Then there is also that small group of parents who venture into educational entrepreneurship, delving into a school or other learning community startup.

If you are one of these parents or teachers, or you are thinking about becoming one of them, I have the following words of encouragement and tips. While I’m writing these for the parents, teachers will find plenty of applicable insight in here as well.

You are not alone.

What you are thinking and feeling is not weird, undemocratic, or anti-social. You are in good and significant company. People around the United States and the world are thinking and feeling the same thing, and their courage to do something about it is driving some incredible new schools, new educational pathways, as well as some promising school reforms.

You are not a label.

Some will try to label anything that challenges the status quo as corporate education reform, neo-liberalism or some other category where they feel like they can easily label and then dismiss you. Don’t accept it. Just because they make up a category and put you in it doesn’t mean they really understand your position, how you came to that position, or your motives.

Your convictions matter.

I had a wise teacher once tell me that, “We learn too late that our convictions matter.” Don’t accept the rhetoric that you must suppress your convictions. For a little inspiration, take a moment to reread the 1st Amendment in the Constitution and consider whether the standard education system is deeply shaped and informed by that Amendment. Then consider whether the system is supporting and helping you to embrace and protect those personal rights by what they are doing. We can’t claim that public education is a democratic education unless we create an educational ecosystem that is truly shaped by the 1st Amendment, not to mention the others.

Find your tribe, but still mingle with and learn from other tribes.

The great part about life in a connected world is that you can find people who share your convictions and ideas from all over the world. You can support and inspire one another. You can collaborate with one another in pursuing your goals.

Stretch yourself. The other great part of life in a connected world is that you can also learn from people who are different from you. Explore the models and practices that don’t align with your beliefs and convictions as well. There is much to learn from the diverse practices and viewpoints. Some might even challenge you to reconsider some ideas. Others will help you clarify your convictions. Either way, this will deepen your understanding.

Get informed about the possibilities.

There are so many possibilities available to you and your children today. Take the time to learn about them. Read, interview, observe, and experience the wealth of options available.

Don’t accept the “good of the community” argument.

Every so often you will run into people claiming that you are self-absorbed anti-social if you are not signing up for the “assigned” public school for your area. People might tell you that it is somehow your civic duty to send your kids to that school, that this is something bigger than you and your children. I encourage you to challenge this idea. Yes, life is not all about you, but being a parent who is all in on supporting your children and their education is a civic duty. In fact, the family unit is an important part of positive communities. Muzzling your own rights and passively going along with someone else’s ideas about education is not a more noble or democratic path.

Respect but don’t accept the expert myth.

Yes, those working in education often bring great expertise and insight that individual parents do not. That is no argument for you to sit on the sidelines or submit to whatever they say. Even the medical field recognizes this. Doctors don’t order you. They advise and recommend. Those working in schools exist to serve and support you and the children, not to rule over you and the children. It is great to respect their expertise, listen and learn from them, but you still have the final say; and your ideas and convictions matter.

Go for it.

You might opt to stay in the legacy school system, homeschool, go the charter school route, or select a private school. You might even choose to create a new school. Along the way you might need to re-evaluate. All of that is good and okay. Don’t feel badly about it. It is great to find wise counsel amid the decision, but there is no one or perfect choice. Any of these options can be a good and positive experience. At the same time, don’t feel like you need to settle. I realize that circumstances and resources might limit your options for a spell, and that is reality. At the same time, even amid fewer resources, chances are that you have more options than you first realize. Explore the possibilities. Weigh the benefits and limitations. Seek wise counsel. Then go for it.

Respect the decisions of other families.

Sometimes, after doing all this work and thinking, it is easy to become a powerful voice and advocate for whatever you choose. Sometimes this can also turn into way to assure yourself that you made a good choice. My advice, however, is to beware of turning your choice into the choice, trying to convince everyone to do and choose exactly as you did. This is not a one-size-fits-all decision. The legacy school is a great option for some and not for others. Just as you examined your own convictions and ideals, leave room for others to do the same. This doesn’t mean that you can’t boldly advocate for what you truly believe to be good and right, but consider bringing a good measure of humility to such conversations. While I believe that there are certain ideas that are universally good (like keeping kids safe), there is still plenty of room for difference, and that difference might actually be part of what makes the overall educational ecosystem healthy.

Don’t be limited to what “is.”

Part of why are seeing so many wonderful experiments in education is because more people are willing to not stop at what already exists. They are willing to imagine what could be and they are working to make those things a reality. I invite you to at least consider whether you might be one of those pioneers, visionaries, or educational innovators to add more good and important option to the mix.

parents who crave more

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.

What does it mean to be educated?

I flew into St. Louis last week to participate in what ended up being a rich and rewarding conversation with education faculty members at various schools in the Concordia University System. Little did I know that the taxi drive would also be a thought-provoking part of the trip. On my way home, I took a taxi to the airport (yes, it was one of those old school taxis, not an Uber). This was not your ordinary taxi. It was half car, half library. There were paperback history books with dog-eared pages sitting on the dashboard, a couple in the front passenger seat, and a few more resting between the two front seats. Before I even had my door closed, this driver was ready for conversation.

“What are you doing here?”

“What type of work do you do?”

“You are a professor of what?”

“So, what do you think about the state of higher education today?”

After asking seven or eight such questions, he offered his first conviction. “Look, I don’t have a college degree. I dropped out of college, but I read a lot, and I consider myself fairly well educated. It seems to me that college is really just more about work preparation and technical knowledge today. Do you agree?”

 

I started by affirming his conviction about being educated; noting that I certainly don’t think the definition of an educated person is defined by whether he has a college diploma. Then I responded to the second question. Has college become more about work preparation and technical knowledge? I acknowledged that there are indeed far more majors focused on specific career pathways, especially in healthcare, that there are plenty of business and education majors as well. Yes, these tend to be professional programs, but there is still a liberal arts core for these students where they study history, literature, philosophy, one or more sciences, and math. The conversation stopped for about thirty seconds, just silence.

“Do you mind if I ask you a question? Who was the president during World War I?”

Now there is swift shift in the conversation, and I certainly didn’t see the line of thinking, but there was a crystal clear connection for him. Perhaps you knew the answer right away when you read the question. Maybe you struggled to find the name. Maybe you didn’t have a clue. For him, this was a powerful and enlightening question. He went on to explain that one’s ability to answer this question is a litmus test for whether a person is truly education, or truly well read as he clarified. There is no possible way that you could be well read and not know the answer to such a basic question about United States history. His test included nothing about the Emancipation Proclamation; the Boston Tea Party; the Louisiana Purchase; the Manhattan Project; the Revolutionary War, Vietnam War, or Civil War; September 11, Apollo 11, the Bill of Rights; the Reformation or Renaissance; the Industrial Revolution; the history of major religions and religious figures; the Pax Romana; or the Gutenberg Printing Press. His test didn’t involve any literature, art, music, philosophy, science or math. The measure of an educated person comes down to knowing who was president during World War I.

I pushed and tested this conviction in subtle ways, but he was unswerving. For one reason or another, this question is what mattered most. As the conversation continued, I was apparent that well read for him meant reading lots of American history. That was the cannon of literature most important for a person. I didn’t disagree with his value of American history, but as I left the taxi and wandered to my gate at the airport, this exchange reminded me of an important reality about modern education. Everyone (and I mean everyone) has a personal philosophy and set of convictions about what it means to be educated, what really matters for a person. This is the root of many of our debates about education. It is why no one system, format, model or framework will completely win the day. It is why the American people are largely drawn to the era of school choice in which we find ourselves. It is why there are so many different types of higher education institutions, and likely why we will have even more in the future.