School Choice: A 21st-Century Model for Education
Imagine The New York Times running a column that supports arguments for greater school choice! It happened yesterday, with a piece in which columnist Bob Herbert discussed bringing the American educational system out of the 20th Century and into the 21st. Herbert focused on two primary ideas that drive improvement in America’s schools: teacher quality and non-traditional school models.
Herbert pointed out that the most common way of evaluating teacher quality these days is to look at credentials, instead of evaluating (and rewarding) teachers’ success in helping their students learn. This leads to the popular obsession with requiring teachers ? even elementary school teachers ? to have earned certain degrees or certificates, while almost entirely disregarding the question of whether they are actually effective at imparting knowledge to the children with whom they are entrusted. One of the persistent “insults” hurled by opponents of choice is that private and charter schools rarely face the same “high standards” for teacher qualification to which public schools are held. Of course, this simply means that private and charter schools have the freedom to seek out teachers who can be both highly effective in the classroom and more affordable to employ, resulting in much greater efficiency for the school and, consequently, for the people paying to maintain that school. Herbert wisely notes that emphasizing teachers’ in-class performance would allow the identification of excellent teachers, the dismissal of inept teachers, and would generate tremendous improvement in the nation’s classrooms.
Herbert’s second point addressed the exceptional success of certain alternative school models, which are almost exclusively the province of private and charter schools that are unbound by the regulations that handcuff traditional public schools. He observed that programs such as the Knowledge is Power Program (KIPP) have “consistently gotten extraordinary academic results from low-income students” in urban and rural areas alike. One of the strongest arguments for school choice is that equipping parents to send their children to the best available schools would also allow them to seek out (and spur demand for the creation of) schools that specialize in educating children in situations that traditional schools are ill-equipped to address. For example, schools could specialize (as we have already seen in Milwaukee and elsewhere) in meeting the educational needs of children who are autistic or homeless, developing and implementing strategies uniquely suited to those groups, and allowing parents to find the best possible situations for their children. A perfect example of this sort of specialization is the Urban Prep Academy that I referenced in last week’s entry. By committing itself specifically to the educational needs of low-income African-American boys, Urban Prep has achieved astonishing success for its students.
These kinds of educational innovation are already available, if only parents are given the means to seek them out for their own children. That prominent educational thinkers are beginning to recognize the benefits of such innovation suggests a continuing growth in the momentum toward school choice.