Further thoughts on school choice and community
Lots of interesting feedback on my last post. Kevin Drum and Ryan Avent both focus on the notion that the sort of choice Bramwell describes is only available to higher-income families, leaving poor Americans and their children to waste away in subpar schools in broken neighborhoods. (Avent called my defense of public schools regrettable, though I think he focused entirely on Bramwell’s argument instead…)
My point, however, while riffing off of Bramwell’s initial argument, was simply that schools are a secondary issue, and won’t be fixed until the neighborhoods and communities are fixed first. Without fertile soil for public schools to grow and improve in, all the school choice in the world will have negligible effects. Even the sort of choice Bramwell claims we already have. A couple quick thoughts:
- School choice not only undermines public schools by draining their coffers, it creates a “brain-drain” on communities, often pulling the most determined, driven students out of the local school and placing them elsewhere.
- Notably, many voucher-proponents are wealthy, and as is the case with many charters, it seems likely that the already wealthy would benefit the most from any voucher program.
- School choice does not address the problems of affordable housing, restrictive zoning, and lack of business investment in many of these communities. Avent makes a really good point about zoning in particular:
But that doesn’t mean that the issue of affordable housing should just be forgotten. It’s really important. The quality of schools isn’t the only thing capitalized into the price of a home. So too is the value of neighborhood amenities, including things like public safety and convenient grocery stores. And of crucial importance to home values is access to employment centers, and the stronger the local labor market, the higher are home values. You’re not just paying for a building or a piece of land; you’re paying for a location that secures for you certain opportunities and a certain quality of life.
I just think it’s strange — and really troubling — that writers of all stripes shrug off the huge set of regulatory and legal restrictions that hold down housing supply and density in the country’s strongest economic centers. There are serious consequences to these rules, and we should take them seriously.
I think that while many Americans can move across town to a better school, it certainly doesn’t hurt to have a charter or magnet nearby as well. Some school choice, I believe, can be a net benefit to a community. Too much, and I think you’ll start to see an even greater divorce between schools and communities than already exists. Focusing instead on creating cities that have mixed zoning, better opportunities for low-income families to live in nicer areas, and better climates for business investment in areas that are currently low-income will do a better job at addressing the problems with our public schools than simply busing students off one by one to better schools elsewhere.
Here in my hometown we have a pretty good public school system, but we also have several charter schools at the elementary, junior high, and high school level. These provide people with a bit more choice than they would have otherwise had, but not so much that there isn’t still a strong public school system fairly well wedded to the community. Things could be better, but they could be much worse as well.
Furthermore, the poor neighborhoods remain stuck with the poorer schools, and the families in those neighborhoods tend to not make as much use of the charter system as more well-to-do families. This may be simply cultural and may touch on what Bramwell meant when he said that families who placed a higher value on education were more likely to put their kids in a good school (even a good public school). Of course, this gets right to the heart of the problem with cyclical poverty.
I’m not sure that vouchers, charters, and all this school choice would actually lead to much of a different outcome than what I’ve seen here, either. It’s possible even that the poor schools would simply suffer greater than the relatively well off schools as money is siphoned out of the public school system and into charters, vouchers, and so forth. That’s not a foregone conclusion, but it’s not really going against the grain of history either. Misguided egalitarianism and unintended results have gone hand in hand for some time, after all.
Apart from all of this, my larger point is that education is local, and that school choice plans tend to come part and parcel with efforts from the federal government to exact more control, more standards, more tests, and so forth over local schools. I think autonomy is the best remedy for schools – creative control over curriculum and teaching methods, fewer restraints over teachers and schools by not only the state but by teacher’s unions as well. Unfortunately, while school choice seems to do a pretty good job at getting at the problem of teacher’s unions, it does a terrible job at getting rid of federal interference and, as NCLB has shown, creates a system of teaching to tests that is antithetical to the way American schools have always been run, and how American teachers have always taught. (I think we can still do merit pay without the standardized tests, by the way.)
This country is too big and diverse to teach to a national standard. The one thing we have unifying us is our commitment to a vibrant – but diverse – public school system, and I think we should keep it that way. We will not achieve equality, but that doesn’t mean we can’t work to improve schools across the board. To do that we need to rethink how schools and communities interact, and find ways to rekindle failing communities. Pulling out the best and brightest students from these communities isn’t the answer. Far better to think of ways to make these schools better partners with their communities and vice versa. I suggested reawakening the very old tradition of apprenticeship programs. Why not partner schools with local businesses and allow students after say, tenth grade – if they so choose – to go learn a valuable trade? Not everyone is destined to be a doctor or an English professor. Why should we encourage this myth?
In the end, no matter how egalitarian we would like the world to be, not everyone is going to be very good at school, and nothing we can do will change that. Not every school can both be excellent and equal – far more likely that equality will come on the heels of mediocrity. These are just facts of life. So why not focus on making communities stronger first? If all this federal interference into our schools isn’t really helping, why not focus instead on bringing jobs to these deflated neighborhoods? I think mixed-zoning, fewer building restrictions, more and better public transit, and fewer barriers to entry for small businesses (including lower business taxes!) are all great ways to improve our worst schools. And none of them have anything to do with education.
Just out of curiosity, if a single school in some part of the country decided it was going to teach intelligent design along with or instead of evolution, would you support state intervention (say, of the state school board) to change that or would you support the right of that community to educate locally as they see fit. In other words, at what point do you think it is appropriate for the state or federal governments to set minimal standards versus keeping most local autonomy?Report
Excellent point! It’s why I continue to believe a national curriculum is best.Report
National Curriculum Huzzah!
I wouldn’t be opposed to letting the local groups experiment with methods of teaching that curriculum.Report
curriculum IS teaching.
A national curriculum with local methods of teaching is by definition mutually exclusive.
I’m more than happy about moving towards national standards, though we have voluntary ones in most key subjects, but a national curriculum loose enough to allow for “local flavor” isn’t a national curriculum.Report
It seems to me that this is one of the areas wherein school choice helps. Allowing some schools to ascribe to a national curriculum while others go off and do their own (EDK’s locally tailored curriculum) gives people options to decide whether they want a curriculum designed in Washington or one with a more local flavor.
If the local system is working better than the national due to regional perspectives and local enthusiasm, then that’s fantastic. But if it’s not… people have somewhere else to send their children. I become a lot more brave on the subject of doing away with standardized testing and rigid curricula and the like when parents who are uncomfortable with a locally-controlled, freewheeling atmosphere can opt out.Report
Sure it is. Think of it as a series of landmarks teachers must hit throughout the year. It’s not a day-to-day lesson plan. national curriculums create a certain dependability from school to school, district to district. That is sorely lacking right now. It also makes national testing easier and gives parents a lot more mobility.Report
We’ve gone ’round and ’round on this but basically, I don’t disagree with the substance of what it is you’re saying, only the usage of the word curriculum. I understand and don’t really object to your idea, but what you’re describing are interannual content standards.
Normally, I wouldn’t get hung up on the semantics but I think using curriculum this way makes the conversation more confusing. At the collegiate level we use curriculum to denote a generalized course of study, without necessarily specifics within those courses or specific evaluative tools. In a K-12 context, though, curriculum often does include the latter so I can’t really think of curriculum as “a series of landmarks” because that’s not what they are.
Anytime we’re talking about places we want to go, we’re talking about content standards and if you want those to be national and interannual, which you do, that’s fine. When we’re talking about how to get there and how to assess where we are, relative to where we’re going, that’s curriculum and assessment.
So a national curriculum would be a national consensus on how we plan on enabling second graders to identify synonyms.Report
Lysenko, Lysenko, Lysenko.Report
If they’ll stay out of my curriculum, I’ll stay out of theirs. Who’s going to hire those from creationist schools?Report
As to your second bullet, I’d say the biggest group of school choice supporters is the teeny-tiny percentage of lower income lottery winners who have been fortunate enough to ‘win’ positions in better schools as a result of the so-far very controlled voucher experiments.
And, it’s poor performing schools who suffer under vouchers. Which is a good thing.
Better school boards at the local level will help fix schools. Better parental involvement will help fix schools. Waiting to fix government as a means of ultimately fixing schools is not an option, imho. Running both efforts on the same track is, of course.
I remain a proponent of school choice for all. It would not only go a fer piece toward fixing public schools, it would also “encourage” better government all around. Now, how we get to total school choice implementation is the real question. Logistical challenges abound. I may be a dreamer, but I am a pragmatic one.Report
It occurred to me – from reading your comment – that there’s something of a chicken and egg problem here, how much of the lack of parental involvement is because schools are structured the way they are?
So we’re saying if your parents care and are involved you’re going to escape bad schools, which is demonstrably not true in all cases and in places where this is true, often the result of previous efforts to expand school choice, but because in bad schools, parents aren’t involved choice is a lost cause. I think it’s worth exploring a.) why parents aren’t involved, b.) whether choice encourages more engagement from either students or parents, and c.) how many and what types of students do academically succeed despite the involved prototypical involved parent.Report
Kyle, you raise an interesting question. Unfortunately answers are myriad. Low parental involvement in low-performing schools could also correlate to high single-parent households. High unemployment. High crime. No one has my sympathy like a working single-mother who loves her kids, tries to keep a good home for them, hold down a job, check their homework, etc. Does she really have a chance to participate in her children’s school(s) in a meaningful way? I’d say she’s lucky if she can manage to attend requisite parent-teacher meetings. (Of course, this dynamic is worsened the further away the school from either home or work, but I will not digress.)
Chicken and egg? Perhaps. Like health care, though, there isn’t a single cause for under-performing schools. There are many correlatives. For example: What does a public school principal really care what a taxpayer/parent has to say? Their revenue flows to the budget (lowly though it may be) whether or not said parent is happy with the school. That could be another big factor in lower parental involvement in public schools in general. A sense of impotence. Point is, we risk generations as we play whack-a-mole with top-down statist solutions.
No one loves these children like caring parents. I say, empower them through vouchers. Allow those who don’t care to fail. Re-institute meritocracy in education. It’s harsh, I know. But so is punishing excellence and initiative through the imposition of equal mediocrity. We should teach our children that hard work and excellence are rewarded and mediocrity and laziness are not. That lesson should be more than mere words.Report
A question that troubles me time to time is this:
Is society in general helped more by pouring resources into the slow kids or is is helped more by pouring resources into the smarter ones?Report
I think society would be helped by pouring resources into the hands of those who love the slow kids and the smart kids.
There are very smart low income kids who languish in our current educational system. There are slow ones in high income areas who do better than they would in a low income situation simply because their parents have choices that their counterparts’ parents don’t.Report
To the quick thoughts:
School choice is more than just charters and vouchers and grouping mixed ability students is fairly controversial. Indeed before NCLB, the smart kids that weren’t leaving were routinely masking the fact that minority-students were functionally illiterate.
As for the many voucher proponents, I don’t see how this relates to whether vouchers in and of themselves would actually be a good thing, moreover, it doesn’t explain at all the support for DC’s OSP which is specifically not open to the wealthy.
School choice doesn’t affect the economic problems of communities, true, but it’s not supposed to. School choice is supposed to provide disadvantaged students with access to advantages that wealthier children have. School choice doesn’t affect zoning, but zoning doesn’t make kids literate.
My fundamental criticism here is that you’re saying one set of reforms is likely have drawbacks while not solving the problem, ergo we should focus on another set of even more unlikely, expensive reforms that are focused on more intractable problems because that will solve the problem, even though the causality there remains to be established.
I mean if you substituted education for health care, would you feel the same way Erik? Couldn’t someone just turn around and say access to health care is a secondary problem and if we addressed the communities and neighborhoods, then we’d solve health care. If we attacked poverty, people would have access to knowledge, healthier foods, healthier work environments, gyms, and community support networks, not to mention higher paying jobs that would allow them to afford better health care.
Education reform is my hobby horse, but it seems to me that in 5000 ish years of human history we’ve never actually successfully eradicated or mitigated poverty. On the other hand we have created well functioning education and even health care systems. It seems to me that we’re more likely to abolish murder before poverty and while we’re running around trying to address poverty, there are real students who won’t learn to read, won’t learn basic numeracy, whose lives might be meaningfully improved by pursuing a basket of reforms, rather than one inelegant technocratic solution or reverting back to an ideal of localism that simply couldn’t afford to exist without state and federal funds. \
Incidentally I also think that there’s a substantial difference between pursuing equality of opportunity and equality of result. The difference in fact between a goal of 100% literacy and 100% college attendance, the latter I think is the invidious egalitarianism you rightfully criticize, however, some of the tools mentioned are aimed at achieving the former and hopefully but not primarily reducing the inequality of results.Report
related and totally interesting… thanks for the link.Report
Finland’s school system is one of the best performing systems in the world, as it has highly qualified and trained teachers (weak teachers are forced out of the classroom).
The premise that weak teachers ought to be forced out of the classroom is a premise that regularly surprises me insofar that there not only exists opposition to it, but that the opposition has won the argument.Report
So true. Another example of how mediocrity is rewarded and protected in our schools. Collective bargaining is another of the correlatives.Report
This subject is near and dear to my heart and a frequent subject at my own blog. One thing you might be missing as part of the equation is the dreaded B word…busing.
Study after study shows that in elementary and middle school lower income kids benefit from being integrated with kids from higher income/socio status. Studies also show there is zero adverse effect for wealthier kids being sent to lower income schools. So that is another tool in the school choice kit…although probably the most debated and complained about by parents.
Another ancillary factor that is interesting to note is that at least in my own city (i suspect this is true elsewhere) race plays no measurable role in the performance of elementary and middle schools. I discovered this by comparing rankings in about a dozen different metrics for middle and high schools in my city, since my youngest starts middle school next year. I found that at the elementary and middle school level the number of minority students plays no role in predicting the overall success of a school. Some schools with high numbers of minorities do noticeably better than other schools that are mostly white. When they start high school though, schools with higher numbers of minorities immediately drop to the bottom of the rankings. I haven’t had the time to explore the numbers further but it’s a very interesting finding. I suspect cultural factors outside the home begin to play a big role at that point.Report
We agree and clash on education so often Mike, it’s pretty fun actually.
I agree vis-a-vis your point about socio-economic integration, indeed I actually prefer it to explicit racial integration. Also, that’s part of the reason I’m incredibly unsympathetic to the plight of wealthy suburban kids’ art education being cut. Their parents can and often do just purchase education supplementals to offset the perceived lack at their friendly, neighborhood public school/district.
As for the schools-data thing, one of the most consistent finds of performance data is that middle school (depending on how its defined but usually 7th/8th/9th grade) is where performance drops. That’s common. It’s where the achievement gap significantly widens and if I were to put money on it, I’d say that socio-economic reasons exacerbate something elusive that’s impacts all students.
If I were to guess, I’d say it’s a function of increasing school and class sizes, onset adolescence, increasing relevance of interpersonal issues, and often changing schools, routines, subjects, and faculties. I’d say something of a point of convergence of a number of sudden changes pretty much across the board.Report
“schools are a secondary issue, and won’t be fixed until the neighborhoods and communities are fixed first.”
Ah! But how to fix communities when all the rich professionals keep sequestering themselves in their own communities out of a desire for better schools?
To be blunt… rich people don’t want their kids going to schools with poor people. Toss in the racial issue and… boom: White (or minimally integrated) suburbs with great schools. Quite often nice places to live, too! “”Fixing the neighborhoods and communities” entails enacting rules and regulations that keep people from sequestering themselves in this fashion. These people generally know this, and generally resist such regulations with great success. Or move again.
Social justice is all well and good until Junior needs to sign up for AP calculus.Report
You’re right that we should be thinking of ways to get the community involved in the schools. What about getting them involved in upkeep? I remember when I used to live near the more decrepit schools in DC, there were parents who wanted to come in one weekend and scrape and repaint the walls. The district wouldn’t let them do it for that old bureaucrat’s reasoning- “Someone could get hurt and sue”. But it seemed like having the painters sign a waiver would solve that problem.Report
There are also some really important ideas here about the benefits of class mingling. Social mobility has declined sharply in America and I think part of it has to do with a decline in social mixing. Back when my grandparents were my age, almost everyone they knew was involved in social groups like the Lion’s Club, where a struggling plumber and the local bank manager could get together and socialize and network. Instead of getting the government involved, I’ve often wondered if people who want to do something about social mobility shouldn’t be setting up more bar-b-ques.Report
(Avent called my defense of public schools regrettable
Of course he did; you violated the orthodoxy and must be punished.Report
Let me ask you a question, Freddie.
Whenever your ideological opponents express themselves, you seem to view it as punishment, or as preventing you from speaking, or at any rate as something other than civilized discussion (even when said expressions aren’t remotely aimed at you). So — are you punishing people as well, and preventing their views from being heard, whenever you express a contrary opinion? What would a frank, sharp, but open debate even look like? Is such a thing ever possible?Report
There are mountainous archives of me arguing with people in this very space, sport. Do your homework. Want to argue about something? Have at it; I’m right here.Report
The last time I tried, it didn’t end well. Seriously, if saying that something is “regrettable” is tantamount to “punishment,” then we don’t have much room to discuss.Report
Ah, so you want to score a cheap point by saying I won’t argue, but when invited, you don’t actually want to. Got it.Report
How many folk here actually have kids? How many that do actually spend at least one day a week at their schools? How many people actually know what they’re talking about? It’s all about the specific community. There are awful parents both rich and poor.Report
This article popped up in my news feed today. Relates to the college-as-necessity paradigm Erik writes about.
My point, however, while riffing off of Bramwell’s initial argument, was simply that schools are a secondary issue, and won’t be fixed until the neighborhoods and communities are fixed first. Without fertile soil for public schools to grow and improve in, all the school choice in the world will have negligible effects.
1. Most likely but not always.
2. If we can’t raise the quality of urban public schools to the level of suburban or private schools without substantial change in the communities they are situated in, what we can do is defund them.Report
Notably, many voucher-proponents are wealthy, and as is the case with many charters, it seems likely that the already wealthy would benefit the most from any voucher program.
There’s no need to speculate, given that many voucher programs already exist and we can examine the facts as to whether they benefit the wealthy. In point of fact, you’re wrong: all of the voucher programs in existence are limited to poor children or to special needs children (i.e., the Florida special education voucher program).Report
Stuart is right there. Vouchers are popular in black communities, for example. I’ve often argued, as a conservative, that education is one area where the GOP could made serious in-roads with minorities because conservative policy proposals on education are pretty appealing in those communities.Report