While I am certainly not convinced that “school choice” or vouchers are the salvation of public education, but there is one thing inherent in the idea of choice that I think warrants consideration. That idea is that schools, when facing competition, are forced to be more responsive to student and parent needs. Public schools in our country are massive bureaucratic institutions that are too often unresponsive to student and parent needs, and more interested in preserving and promoting themselves and the status quo. For example, how many times as school leaders are we forced to use the justification, "Well, it's just board policy." Or, "It's state regulations?"
I sympathize with parents who do not feel that their public schools are meeting the needs of their kids. Whether or not their claims are true, it is still their perception. Many decisions are made, from the legislative level to the classroom, for all kinds of reasons. And, if one questions those decisions, the reaction is "How dare you question my motives!" but the reality is, as educators and school leaders, we should be hyper-vigilant and willing to question all decisions. Decisions that can't be entirely justified to be in the best interests of kids, should be questioned vehemently. As 21st century school leaders we must be willing to scrutinize decisions that are made and be willing to express our opinions when we do not feel those decisions are being made in the interests of our students.
It's too bad public schools can't adopt a customer service model in their approach to educating kids. While schools are not businesses, nor should they be considered so, the disposition of approaching our kids and parents as if what they need and want matter is what I call having a "responsive mindset." Schools with this responsive mindset approach school with a disposition that says, "What if my parents could pull their students out of my school immediately? How would that affect how I make decisions and deliver education to the students in my building?"
For all the reasons and arguments others have made, I realize treating our kids and their parents as “customers” in the business sense is not totally adequate. Still, public schools do owe students and their parents to be responsive. Perhaps if school leaders acted with responsiveness there would be fewer people who advocate for vouchers in the first place.
What would some of these responsive mindset behaviors look like? Here's three that come to mind.
- As school leaders, we never say we are doing something simply because policy says so. While we need policy to guide us, policy should never be something to hide behind. If what we are doing can’t be argued to be in the best interest of kids, perhaps we should not do it period. Arguing that we do it because policy or the law says so makes us look like that policy or law is more important than the child. Being a responsive school leader means always making decisions for the good of kids, not because it is written down in some policy manual. It also means making sure we can meticulously explain our actions and decisions in, not hide behind the law.
- As school leaders, we should make every effort to make the rationale for what we are doing clear to our kids and their parents. Most parents, if we take the time to explain, can understand why we do what we do. They still might not agree, but we must give them the opportunity to have their say. When we make decisions that affect the lives of their kids, we must always keep in mind, even parents who struggle, most often want the best education they can get for their kids. Being a responsive school leader means taking whatever amount of time it takes to explain our decisions, allowing parents the opportunity to explain their disagreement, and being willing to change our decisions if our parents make a good argument for changing our decisions. There's no room for ego in the process for doing what's right for kids.
- As school leaders, we should make decisions as if all our parents could pull their kids out of our schools tomorrow if they so desired. Making decisions in this manner, makes us responsive when it comes to providing an education to kids. If our parents could simply go elsewhere to get an education for their kids, we would perhaps scrutinize our decisions as school leaders a bit more carefully. In a district or school that operates with a responsive mindset, every decision is viewed through a lens of its impact for all kids and for individual kids, and care is given not to delude oneself into thinking that what's being done is best for kids when it clearly is not. I would hope we would never sacrifice a single student for the good of all students, hence arguing that the needs of many outweigh needs of the few, or one, does not give us an excuse to harm the few or one at the expense of the many. Being a responsive school leader means always examining the impact of a decision on every single student.