Friday, February 1, 2013

The Sincerity of Choice Advocates and the Failure of Urban Education

While I am, and will continue to be a strong advocate for charter schools, I have to tell you that some of the most ridiculous drivel I hear in the education reform movement comes from supporters of school choice. A great example is today’s Trenton Times Op-Ed by Chris Boyajian in favor of choice and the Opportunity Scholarship Act.

The idea behind the Act, allowing parents in low performing districts to send their kids to the out of district school of their choice, is all well and good, but in reality will only benefit a very small number of the children in poor school districts. I sympathize with these parents and their kids, they are doing what any good parent would do and advocating for their kids. What drives me crazy is that people like Mr. Boyajian somehow rationalize that this Act will somehow benefit the poor school district these children were attending. “The OSA will effect (sp!) positive change in chronically failing districts by providing students with the funds necessary to attend the school of their choice.” Huh? Am I missing something?
Mr.Boyajian leaves it to our imagination to figure out how siphoning off the supposed “better students,” and the tuition money that would follow them, will benefit the “chronically failing district.” Exactly how will the school benefit?
Choice advocates give nothing but lip service to the notion of improving underperforming districts. Their concern is not with the schools, but with the individual students and families. Unless you are going to trudge out the unsubstantiated claim that losing these students will somehow spur competition among schools to keep these students, and that competition is in fact a desirable strategy for improving schools, then choice advocates should drop the canard and stick to their primary position that it is individual students, not schools, that they care about.
Bills like the OSA are mere window dressing, school reform on the cheap. There is so much that is dysfunctional in New Jersey’s educational system that nothing short of a complete paradigm shift will be needed. The need for iconoclastic thinking has never been greater. Holistic solutions to inner city education are urgently needed. Disuniting the urban and suburban schools in the policy making process is critical. Improving communication between urban public and charter schools is vital. Integrating the business community directly into the learning process in the inner city is essential. Enticing the best and brightest among our college graduates into a career in teaching would reap huge benefits, as would interjecting performance pay and/or performance ladders into the remuneration process. And getting the grip and domineering presence of the State out of the urban schools is paramount. Is it just a coincidence that the performance of these schools has plateaued or decreased as the number of state mandates and directives has risen? I don’t think so.
Urban schools are as dissimilar from suburban schools as oranges are to apples. The need for career and college tracking, for its own unique core content standards, and for its own graduation assessment, are all justified by realities “on the ground.” Of the 100 worst performing schools in the State, 99 of them are from DFG A,B,or C and are located in our urban areas. 
We really need to take a sober look at why a district like West Windsor-Plainsboro is so successful, and why Trenton is a failure. Until we take an honest look at the differences, and they go beyond just wealth, we will never be able to honestly improve our worst schools. Getting into college, and especially a top tier college, is a pervasive goal of the families in WW-P, and the parents have the resources to help make that a possibility. College is not, nor should it be the driving force at Trenton High School. But our state curriculum and state assessments are all influenced by this goal, expounded by our President, that every child should have college in their future. This way of thinking is holding back true progress in our urban schools.
In this day and age of MOOCS (massive open online courses), the need for having college as the organizing principle for urban high schools is no longer necessary. Soon these MOOCS will be offering certificate programs that employers will look as favorably upon as a traditional degree, maybe even more so since “MOOC students” can be designing a curriculum from colleges across the globe, tailored to meet existing opportunities in the modern workplace.
Boy did I go off on a tangent, so let’s get back to the original point. Choice advocates should drop the insincere position that choice will improve the quality of failing schools. It’s not their policy goal and would never achieve that policy goal. Choice advocates sole concern is individual families, and there is nothing wrong with that. That is one of many reasons why I support charter schools.   
As one component of a comprehensive education reform strategy, Opportunity Scholarships are all well and good, but if that is seen to be a major piece of the puzzle then we’re in a lot of trouble.             

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