Modeling Civil Discourse

What happens when the head of the nation’s largest teachers’ union and a noted reformer and a resident scholar from a conservative-leaning Washington, D.C. think tank talk school choice? We were curious about how two clearly bright, opinionated and passionate education leaders would present their ideas, agree to disagree and, perhaps, find common ground.

On Common Ground…

Modeling Civil Discourse

Lily Eskelsen Garcia
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How may education leaders and policymakers move past the politicization of school choice and focus on what is best for kids?

Decades ago, people across the political spectrum saw that education should be less one-size-fits-all and more personalized. That was a good thing. School districts answered the call with magnet specialty schools, dual-language schools and alternative high schools for students at risk for dropping out, to make sure all students had the support, tools and time they needed to learn. But that original good idea took a wrong turn when people stopped thinking about how we could improve access and opportunity for all students and started focusing on how to dismantle our neighborhood public schools and serve “individual customers” in competitive markets. The jury is now in. Privatizing education does not improve education. In fact, it can hurt kids, as research on voucher programs in Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio and the District of Columbia proves. Students who explore privatized options find that providers are not held accountable for delivering a high-quality education and taxpayers are left holding the bag when mismanagement and chaos ensue. The free-for-all markets have not served students. To de- politicize school improvements, all we have to do is let go of ideologies and focus on students. We must study our best schools and follow the evidence. What makes them successful? They are well-resourced, have rigorous courses and gifted programs, arts and athletics, foreign languages, a librarian, counselors and technology. That’s why the overwhelming majority of families — urban, rural, suburban and of all political persuasions — wants a great public school in their own neighborhood. The way forward is to make all schools as good as our best schools.

Frederick Hess
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How may education leaders and policymakers move past the politicization of school choice and focus on what is best for kids?

Part of the issue here is one of language: what exactly do we mean by “school choice” or when say “focus on what’s best for kids”? As I see it, school choice has two signal virtues. One, it makes it easier for schools to embrace a clear vision and sense of mission and then attract families and educators who share that vision. Two, it makes it easier for educators to rethink calendars, schedules, staffing, school design, curriculum and instructional practice without necessarily having to first negotiate the maze of school district bureaucracy and the miasma of state and local mandates. I see all of this as helping to foster schools that are “best for kids.” I’d suggest that magnets and dual-language schools rarely do either of those two things especially well. Well-designed charter school laws or private school choice programs can create conditions where educators are less encumbered in their attempts to promote great teaching and learning. As for Lily’s survey of the research, I see things quite differently. While I’ve long resisted efforts by either side to argue that school choice does or doesn’t “work,” it’s only fair to note that the preponderance of randomized control trials (i.e. “gold standard studies”) have found positive effects for voucher programs and that the Center for Research on Education Outcomes’ widely cited work has found that, on state assessments, charter schools are generally doing as well as or better than their district counterparts. We can move past politicization when we cool the sweeping rhetoric and focus on talking frankly and practically about the benefits and costs of various approaches to choice.

Hess

What kind of choice do you see as a workable solution to improving education?

Let me start by saying that I don’t really see school choice as a “solution” — workable or otherwise. Rather, for the reasons I mentioned a moment ago, I’d say that choice can be a valuable tool. It can make it easier to create coherent school communities, places where educators and families that agree on curriculum, pedagogy, discipline or values are able to forge coherent school communities. Choice can also allow educators bogged down in frustrating systems — or others boxed out by those systems — to devise better ways to serve students. In some communities, this kind of improvement strategy may be unrealistic or superfluous. In many rural communities, for instance, school vouchers may simply be impractical (though other approaches to expanding educational choice, like online courses, may make a lot of sense). In some places, families may have little appetite for options beyond those offered by the local school district. In communities, however, where parents are seeking something better or different than what the local district has to offer, the possibilities created by choice can be a powerful thing. Now, to Lily’s point, if all this doesn’t align with long-term demographic growth projections (which can be famously capricious) or the improvement strategies provided by big-dollar outside consultants, so be it. As I see it, this is a matter of choosing between the needs of students, on the one hand, and the convenience of bureaucrats, on the other — and that doesn’t seem like much of a choice at all.

Eskelsen Garcia

What kind of choice do you see as a workable solution to improving education?

School districts for decades have created innovative public school offerings to inspire students’ natural curiosity and desire to learn and serve the diverse needs of their communities. They plan them within a system of services and supports, such as nutrition, health care and after-school programs, and within their budgets — budgets that must be carefully and intentionally developed, taking into consideration where a new housing subdivision is being developed; how many seniors are graduating and how many kindergartners are entering; where immigration trends might mean increased services to English as a second language learners; and what the construction needs, staff needs and support service needs of the community are. When you throw out the reasonable, long term planning that must drive public school decisions, you get chaos. We must take a systems approach to personalized learning. There are many quality options within public school districts that offer students magnet schools, early-college high schools, International Baccalaureate schools, Montessori schools, community schools and career tech or alternative schools. In our most successful school districts, these programs are part of a cohesive plan based on the budgets, demographics and needs of the community. Programs that work are intentionally designed and delivered as a comprehensive system of quality options, designed by caring, qualified and committed educators who know the students well and strive to connect with each child. The programs are relevant to students, responsive to parents and accountable to the broad community that pays for and benefits from the common good of public education.

Eskelsen Garcia

Are you hopeful about the future of K–12 education?

There are many things that give me hope that the country is going to come together to do what it must to strengthen K-12 education and make sure our public schools have what they need to set every kid in America off toward a great future. First, more and more of the people who thought that simply allowing unlimited, unaccountable school privatization and deregulation of what they call the “education industry” would be the silver bullet are looking at the evidence and shaking their heads and asking themselves, “What were we thinking?” That makes the path forward clearer than ever. Without an act of Congress, without anyone’s permission, educators and their unions, administrators and school boards, parents and local business leaders are getting together to look at their most successful schools. Together, they’re analyzing the programs and services that make them so successful, and making wise decisions with the goal that every public school should offer the same access and opportunities as our best public schools. They’re making wise decisions to awaken from the nightmare of standardized testing that takes valuable time away from learning and embracing everything we must do to fully support our students. They’re thinking about how we nurture critical, creative minds and healthy bodies and engage families and communities. The business community, social services, health services, community organizations and colleges are working with school professionals to identify needs and develop solutions and services to target those specific needs. It’s breathing new life into learning communities where teachers, principals and support staff feel that they have an essential role in design and delivery of instruction, where their creativity and passion count. I’ve seen it. It’s beautiful. We’re on our way.

Hess

Are you hopeful about the future of K–12 education?

Sure, I’m hopeful. For one thing, no matter how frustrated one gets with our government and the state of public debate, it’s hard to look at the innocent, laughing faces of our nation’s children and not be hopeful. For another, education is so filled with passionate people eager to make a difference that it’s tough to be too bleak. That said, the very passion that buoys efforts to improve schools can also work against us. It can undermine patience and fuels a tendency to leap from one fad to another. It can lead us to attack the motives of those who see the challenges differently or who embrace different solutions, dividing us into isolated tribes blinded by our own certainty. I think Lily is right that there is sorely needed reflection taking place about the stumbles of various 21st century reforms, with hard questions being asked about the lessons to be learned from the stumbles of new teacher evaluation systems or No Child Left Behind. We agree that there has been an awakening to the perils of over-emphasis on testing, ill-conceived accountability systems and lodging too much influence in Washington — far away from schools and communities. This has made it possible to explore a more promising, less one-size-fits-all approach to school improvement. Of course, one could have made a similar observation every decade or two for the past century. Here’s to us working to ensure that, this time, we really will do better.

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