School Choice… A new definition


Illustration of Pogo quote by Walt Kelly, 1970

As some of you know, I’m a fan of Jan Resseger and  her blog.

Jan is a staunch supporter of equitable access for all to a quality education. She has been following and writing about the impact of a largely under-regulated charter school “industry” and, more recently, about the push by the current administration to move the voucher, privatization agenda. I would like to offer some additional thoughts for consideration.

Pogo’s not right but he may be on to something. In the discussion of choice, vouchers, charters, etc. we are not THE enemy, but we are not always our own best friends.

In the time I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve found myself returning to a theme. It stems from work done by Peter Drucker and Russell Ackoff. Drucker wrote that a focus on efficiency involves a commitment to doing things right; however, a focus on effectiveness involves doing the right thing.

As our world seems to move/change with increasing speed, the expectation for leaders to solve problems quickly has too frequently been at the expense of the need to define the problem correctly. Doing the right thing, for me, involves spending sufficient time to get a clear picture of the problem – i.e., moving beyond solutions that are targeting symptoms and focusing on the identification of the root cause, the core issue.

Repeating Peter Drucker’s thinking about the difference between doing things right and doing the right thing, I wonder what would happen to our national conversations on public schooling, if we conceded the possibility that the choice, voucher, privatization discussions have, as their focus, the need to “do school” better. But what if “doing school better” is a symptom?

Taking this a step further, I wonder what our debate might look like if we seriously explored the possibility that the question is not whether or not charter schools, private schools or public schools are better schools but whether the concept of school as we have experienced it is still the appropriate vehicle for insuring a quality education for our kids.

In my work I’ve spent time in private, public and charter schools. In each category, some are better than others. But they are all a pretty recognizable variation of school. Regrettably, and regardless of label, too many represent a form of “marching backwards into the future.”

Is it conceivable that we are getting deeper into what Drucker described as trying to do the wrong thing righter?   Is it conceivable that “choice” might be the right word, but is being applied too literally and too narrowly?

What would happen if we committed to building our public system around choice? Not choice defined as expanded number of course options within a structure that has changed little in 100+ years. Not the false choice of allowing parents/students to attend another school within the district. Not the ideological driven “portfolio” approach to school diversification.

What would happen if we defined choice as building learning around the needs and interests of the learners? About providing choices of learning within our schools that can occur both within and beyond the walls of a building? What if parents didn’t feel that they had to change schools in order to exercise choice… that choice was central to the ways kids learn in their local, public school?

This is not simply an intellectual exercise.

  • The media is overflowing with reports of district budget crises in both urban and rural districts. Combining this with the success of Grover Norquist and friends have had in labeling any and all taxes as bad, we are seeing the acceleration of funding shortfalls in schools throughout the country.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in a landscape littered with the hulks of buildings half-empty or abandoned in our urban centers.
  • The current examples of choice have resulted in, and continue to result in, yet one more form of white flight.
  • The current system of underfunding schools and further reducing their resources through monies diverted via voucher, opportunity scholarships, tax credit programs, etc., is not sustainable. What if we look at the urban and rural funding dilemma as the “canary in the coal mine”?

Stephen Covey pointed out that we have gotten quite good at managing the day to day, hour by hour issues dealing with efficiency, focusing on the here and now. He pointed out further that Day-Timers and calendar apps are not a sufficient replacement for the compass, the tool that helps us stay on course as we travel. We need a compass check.

We, and here I mean those of us working in schools, need to confront the possibility that the structures and organizations that we’ve enjoyed as students and have labored in as teachers are neither capable of meeting the needs of the majority of our young people nor are they sustainable in their present form.

We need to confront the possibility that schooling best meets the needs of students whose life circumstances make them best suited to success based on the measures of success that we currently use.

We need to confront the possibility that one of the biggest threats to the system as we have come to know it is our own unwillingness to accept that there is a threat… and that the solution does not involve winning the battle of charter/private school choice options, but in the creation of choice options within our schools. It does not involve emulating programs that have been successful maintaining and verifying the performance of the already successful, but in finding the openness and acceptance necessary to make things like student agency, micro-school options, interest, competency, and community-based learning the defining drivers in the school culture.

To avoid this “right thing” issue is to insure the continuation of arguments over how to make the wrong thing better.

Some time ago, a young teacher asked me what she needed to do to be successful on her path to promotion. I suggested that, although it wasn’t written down anywhere, I had come to realize that as an administrator in such circumstances I found myself asking two questions… (1) Why should I hire this person? Or (2) How can I not hire this person? I suggested that she needed to work at making the second question the only one an interviewer would ask.

While there are numerous arguments possible about the value of school choice, privatization, vouchers, etc., the discussion may miss the larger issue. Why should my child have to relocate in order to enjoy the choices that we know are critical to the kinds of learning opportunities that our young people need and deserve? And, perhaps, most importantly, “How can I not send my child to my local public school?”

What’s next…

  • What kinds of choices do kids have in your school?
  • How would you rate them?  Real world, important, pretty superficial?
  • How might you offer more choice to your students? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What are the obstacles to offering greater choice? In your class? In your school? In your district?
  • What questions would you add to this list that might enhance the discussion?


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