The False Choice of School Choice

Some, including Nobel laureate Milton Friedman, have heralded school choice as a silver bullet in education reform, in that it offers low-income families the same ability that wealthy families have when they cannot afford private school tuition.

School choice is increasingly being adopted into policy across the country in the forms of charter schools, voucher programs, and magnet schools. However, evidence challenges the notion that school choicehousing choice, or even forced school choice through the closures of low-performing schools results in enhanced educational opportunities and outcomes for students. Rather than focusing on school choice to improve education, policymakers should focus on making schools more responsive to students and parents.

Picking a school to enhance education is like picking a hospital to improve health. While the choice of hospital (or school) may make a slight difference, the advantage gained from the ability to pick the doctor (or teacher) and to negotiate the diagnosis and treatment (or educational style and accommodation) is far greater. Thus policymakers should focus on the latter aspect of educational customization to improve equality of educational opportunity.

As illustrated in Annette Lareau’s research, lower-class parents differ from upper-middle class parents in their relatively lesser ability to negotiate the school culture, but also to evaluate schools and educational opportunities within the context pertinent to school's definition of success. For example, lower-class parents and upper-middle class parents may both tutor (or provide tutors for) their child, but the upper-middle class children are more likely to have their tutoring aligned with the school program, translating into greater educational profits. A greater understanding of school culture and expectations by lower-class parents would help lower-class students improve their educational profits from academic supplements.

While there is an inequitable distribution of effective teachers across schools, simply changing schools to improve student outcomes is problematic.

Teacher quality matters in the ability to create achievement growth among students, but the pioneering study of teacher evaluation by student achievement growth concedes that low performing students make commensurate gains regardless of their teachers’ effectiveness. Only higher achieving students require highly effective teachers to accomplish academic growth. Rather, the problem is that under strict accountability, like that of No Child Left Behind, teachers’ attention is diverted to “bubble kids,” those students closest to the cutoff for passing. When parents fail to advocate for their students’ education and seek to customize it instead, their children risk educational neglect in these high-stakes environments.

Rather than focusing purely on school choice to enhance equality of educational opportunity for students, policymakers should strive to increase communications between teachers with parents on their children's education with policies including decreased class sizes, teacher release time for community relations, and professional development oriented towards communicating with parents.

Teacher-parent interactions should include information about both performance information and concrete, realistic steps parents can take, including where parents can seek academic help and what specific content or objectives their children should focus on. These types of interactions should start before their children enter school for the first time and can assist parents in monitoring, supplementing and improving their children's education.

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