Wednesday, January 18, 2012

Opportunity to Expand Choice (Maybe)

I've been busy responding to my governor's education agenda. On Monday, I wrote about the initiative to advance literacy. On Tuesday, I wrote about possible implications of repealing the Kings Dominion Law. Today will be a much meatier post about choice. I want to take a minute to acknowledge that school choice is a very thorny and complex issue; I do my best to approach it as such. To read a sampling of related posts on my blog, please go here.

In "Expanding Educational Options for Virginia's Students," McDonnell talks about virtual learning, charter schools, university lab schools, and granting tax credits to businesses that contribute to private school scholarships for low-income students. Many of these ideas seem to have been borrowed from Florida. One recent Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed praised education reform in Florida, but Florida has hardly proceeded carefully. Virtual schools have a very mixed record there with some schools giving out worthless diplomas. The McKay Scholarship Program, intended to give vouchers to parents of special needs, though a savior for many who know how to navigate the choices, has been a harrowing experience for others, "pioneering" an industry of fraud and chaos. As for charter schools, those in Florida enroll far fewer poor and special needs students. Furthermore, they operate as a parallel school system controlled largely by for-profit management companies and private landlords with very little oversight and too much corruption. Finally, by their own measurements, charter schools in Florida aren't getting the results advocates said they would. Virginia's education system and efforts to reform it would be better served if we learned from Florida's mistakes rather than if we imitated them.

Using technology to expand learning spaces, methods, and opportunities is exciting and well worth exploring, but as with extending the school year or day, it needs to be done thoughtfully, based on evidence and with strong considerations of design. I was incredulous when a high school teacher in my district told me about p.e. as an on-line class, but when she explained to me the requirements and curriculum, I changed my tune. With that in mind, as we explore virtual education options, we should first tap the knowledge of our in-state resources. We need to look at what our districts are already doing in this arena and learn from their successes and failures. Furthermore, we should consult with Virginia-based virtual learning scholars such as VCU's Jon Becker. Even then, we need to be very careful that virtual learning is offered for the good of students and not merely for the benefit of those with a financial stake in the virtual education industry. Furthermore, we need to ensure that for Virginia students, any virtual learning is quality learning--for some caveats, see hereherehere, and here.

As for charter schools, if the goal is to offer more choices and further racial and socio-economic integration, magnet programs such as have been started in Miami-Dade County, Florida and Wake County, North Carolina, seem to have relatively stronger and more stable track records. We should also consider merging some of our urban and suburban school districts such as has been done in the afore-mentioned Wake County and also recently in Memphis, Tennessee, challenges notwithstanding. Montgomery County, Maryland, offers a magnet school/ choice-system of sorts at their traditional high schools--an effort worth studying. Each district in Virginia should examine its structure and programs--magnet schools and programs, Governor's Schools, alternative schools, vocational and trade schools, and even course offerings per school--to make sure it's offering the most options possible in the most inclusive and accessible way possible, towards meeting the needs of ALL students.

After this, if the people of the Commonwealth decide they do want more charters specifically, then we must make sure they're done right: initiated and managed by communities and educators and held accountable to the districts where they exist. Chad Sansing has a great post on this. As he describes the already existing charter schools in Virginia:
These schools matter to their students and communities and serve as examples of grass roots start-up efforts in Virginia schools. Because of their local origins and capacities to address local needs, these schools might not “scale up”, but the community-based processes used in their development are definitely replicable.
Districts, for their part, need to stop being hostile to groups of parents and educators who want to try something different, lest they drive them into the arms of profit-minded and unaccountable outsiders. Finally, while charters such as Richmond's Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts were started with a mind towards more integration, we must keep in mind that nationally charters are leading to increased segregation.

One final thought on charters: They will only be as "innovative" as high-stakes-testing and accountability schemes allow them to be. Schools will only be as good as what we hold them accountable for. Most of the glowing reports about Patrick Henry, for example, in the same Richmond Times-Dispatch op-ed cited earlier, glow about their test scores:
Recently, Richmond's first charter school (and the state's first elementary charter), the Patrick Henry School of Science and Arts, announced that its students surpassed school district and state averages in every subject on the Standards of Learning tests in its first year. In fact, every group of its students (white, black, economically disadvantaged) outperformed both district and state, an accomplishment made more impressive by the fact that the school teaches a more truly diverse population of students than any other in the city.
Test scores certainly give us some information about how a school is doing and we can glean some other useful information from them, but what's more important is what kids are actually learning (curriculum) and how they're being taught (pedagogy or instruction). If we keep doing the same thing we've been doing for the past ten years and focus on scores on limited and narrow standardized multiple-choice tests, instead of on what is actually being taught and learned and how, education in our state will not progress or innovate, and our students won't engage in meaningful, challenging learning, whether they're in traditional schools or charters.

If we're going to expand choice in Virginia, we need to do it with two goals in mind. First, we should make choice as fair, equitable, and democratic as possible. Exclusion of special needs students and English Language Learners, and increased racial and socioeconomic segregation should not be the outcome of increased school choice. Second, the choice provided should be diverse options between different schools, rather than a competition to get the best test scores. Increased choice could be among programs that provide rich and meaningful learning and quality teaching along different dimensions (such as language, science, or arts magnet schools) while meeting the needs of all students. Or choice could simply be among schools beholden to the same corrupting incentives that undermine real student learning  in our current system, which means having many poor choices, which, frankly, is no choice at all.

cross-posted at the Virginia Education Report


  1. Hi Rachel - You bring up some interesting issues but the charter school issue is so specific to the neighborhood being affected that making general decisions about whether they are good or bad is not possible (similar to whether virtual classrooms are good or bad). One note - the Richmond charter school that has been showing improved test scores is close to losing their charter because they are failing financially. Thus, you have an experiment that drew resources away from the regular school system to benefit a select few students who may now have to be placed back into the general school population. Who benefited from that? Why not use funds to conduct pilot programs within the existing schools - everyone knows that longer school years and longer school days will result in higer scores. It is common sense that the more time for instruction, the more kids will learn. Just ask the Chinese.
    I don't believe that the issue is whether charter schools are good or bad. I think a community should be able to decide whether they want the school and how its curriculum should be designed. But the system in VA allows for applicants to decide FOR the community what, how, and where the charter school proposal should be put forward. The charter being proposed in Fairfax (reported on by Emma Brown) is not "initiated and managed by communities and educators." It has been initiated by a group who worked for two years to get their proposal together before EVER approaching the school and community that would be most directly affected. Their charter school is not a bad idea. It was just poorly implemented by (1) not engaging the community to ask what they thought would be most beneficial in a charter school, and (2) selecting the wrong site to place the school they designed without community input.

  2. @Lynn P - This is a very good comment. I will respond in more detail a little later. In the meantime, I was wondering if you could also post it at the Virginia Education report where this post has been cross-posted. Thanks.

  3. I frankly believe the tax credit should also be for families who opt out of the public school system, so that school choice is not a fight limited to a choice between regular public schools and charter schools. I send my children to a Catholic school both because the education offered is far superior to the school system in my county, and because I want my children educated in a Christian environment. Educational achievement will only improve when public schools have to compete against private schools.