Sunday, January 18, 2015

Thoughts on School Choice and the Fight to Preserve Public Schools

Is it time for school choice? Before those against vouchers and charters start throwing rotten tomatoes, let me explain. As most who've read this blog know, I am and have always been a staunch public school advocate. I do not believe that anything miraculous will happen if suddenly vouchers were available for every student, nor do I think that an increase of a thousandfold of the number of charter schools is suddenly going put us at the forefront in international PISA scores. Often those who push these choices do so for ideological reasons that have absolutely nothing to do with what's in the best interest of kids. So I am certainly not siding with free market fundamentalists who believe that market forces will suddenly catapult student achievement to first in the world. I simply don't see that happening. I also certainly do not side with those who think public education should be abolished and that the government has no business in it. Public education in this country has done wonders in providing opportunities and futures for kids. Still, what makes me ask the question, "Is it time for school choice?" has more to do with a public education system more interested in preserving itself than being introspective and asking why parents and their students want options in the first place.

Immediately, when public education begins to argue against charters or school choice, they begin crying about the loss of funding. From my perspective, this is entirely the wrong argument to make. It betrays a perspective that sees each student as an additional dollar sign to be added to a total, instead of a individual student to be taught and provided with educational opportunity. When districts begin using dollar amounts lost to defend against school vouchers or charter schools, they are demonstrating the wrong attitude. Instead, they should be asking why parents and students want to attend charter schools or want vouchers in the first place. Instead, they fight battles with the wrong ammunition, when they would be much better off being introspective and asking the tough questions about why their students are leaving or leave in the first place.

I suspect most parents just want the best schools they can get for their kids. They really don't care whether they are a charter school, private school or traditional public school; they want school to be a positive asset in their child's life. Public school districts, school leaders, and educators can work to provide those schools for parents, or they will continue to pressure politicians to give them options. I haven't the data, nor do I know even if it exists (maybe a reader out there can provide it), but I can't but wonder if there's a correlation between the proliferation of charter schools and school vouchers in places where public schools focus more intently on self-preservation rather than focusing on making themselves better. I realize many schools fight budget constraints, and poorly funded schools who are struggling can't compete. Still, when public schools lose their focus and spend more time on self-preservation than taking an honest look at themselves, schools couldn't possibly be focused on the primary mission of educating young minds.

What I have learned these past few years as a principal of a public school of choice, not charter, is this: many parents are seeking options, especially at the high school level. They want alternatives to the large, often impersonal, traditional high schools that most districts still operate. They are least interested in arguments about why charter schools are a bad idea because big schools will lose funding. They don't care about how efficient these large schools operate, and you can honestly throw all the test data you want to try to convince them of the effectiveness of that school. In the end, they want their child to be in a school that cares about them, that knows their child as individuals and not as test scores or a number. Finally, they want their child in a school where that child wants to be.

So, is it time for school choice? I think that question has been answered, at least here in North Carolina. Public schools districts had better stop fighting the battle of self-preservation, and start looking to see how they can re-form their schools into places that meet the needs of kids.

Sunday, January 4, 2015

No Such Thing as an 'Objective Test'

“Every act of measurement loses more information than it gains, closing the box irretrievable and forever on other potentials.” Margaret Wheatley, Leadership and the New Science

The problem with accountability and testing lies within a single assumption: “that which is the most important content to be learned can be reduced to a single test or be captured in a test question.” If life were a dance between a, b, c, or d, then standardized tests could capture the essence of learning, and we could be satisfied that a correct or incorrect answer on multiple-choice questions actually tell us whether substantial and important learning has taken place. Sadly though, nothing worth while or lasting can be reduced to that level of simplicity.

As Wheatley points out, when observations, in this case tests, are created, choices are made as to what is to be tested and what is to be ignored. That ‘subjective choice’ reflects all manner of value judgments and decisions regarding importance. Hence, the very ‘subjective nature’ of tests like those being administered is questionable. The observation choices made by those who write the very questions on tests reflect their own subjective choices regarding importance. That’s why no standardized tests are ultimately entirely objective. As Wheatley points out, “Every observation is preceded by a choice about what to observe.” The person who makes those choices are exercising their subjective opinion regarding that is worthwhile to learning and what is most important.

To claim that state standardized tests or any standardized tests are “subjective” masks this fact: these tests reflect the subjective judgment of those whose wrote and designed them. It is simply their opinion regarding what is valuable enough to be tested. Next time someone throws the term “objective measures” or “objective testing” at you, remember this. The quest for ultimate objectivity in testing is a fool’s errand.