When Rhetoric Meets Data: About School Choice



In theory, school choice ought to offer a way out of our educational woes. Knowledgeable parents and children trapped in a failing educational system would use tax dollars to choose among excellent options. Bad teachers in inadequate classrooms should conveniently fade away as free-market competition allows successful programs to bubble to the top.

Poor children then would have the same options as their wealthier peers and our society would meet, head on, one of the great civil rights problems of our time. Such is the theme of "Waiting for Superman," where charter schools offer a panacea for those lucky winners of a privileged slot.

The story has a Disney ring. But when we move from rhetoric to reality, it fails to ensure that happy ending. In The Death and Life of the Great American School System: How Testing and Choice are Undermining Education, Diane Ravitch, a central architect of President Bush's No Child Left Behind Act (NCLB), writes that charter schools not only fail to live up to expectations, they also undermine investment in the public system that has long been a centerpiece for American acculturation and upward mobility.

Writing for the National Education Policy Center earlier this year, Bruce Baker and Richard Ferris arrive at the same conclusion. Taken in aggregate, charter schools in New York — the national testing ground for choice and charter school performance — produce student scores that are dead average compared to comparable public schools. Some are great; some are awful.

In 1983, in a governmental report issued under President Reagan, we learned we were a "Nation at Risk": "Our once unchallenged pre-eminence in commerce, industry, science and technological innovation is being overtaken by competitors throughout the world." That 38-year-old prophecy is our stark reality.

School choice is the latest experiment designed to reverse this reality gripping inner city schools in particular. But our fashion for educational reform changes much like dress designs. And our children are caught among the whimsical fads.

In 2001, testing and accountability were the fashion. While laudable in intent, scores in reading and math have been largely stagnant since NCLB became educational mantra. Our finest teachers are handcuffed by scripted lesson plans and pedagogy that teaches to the test.

By 2009, teachers were scapegoated, and heroine Michelle Rhee proposed reinventing school reform by gutting teacher unions. Today, there is talk of school choice and of redesigning professional development.

Educational reform is a complex issue with no single solution. 25 percent of America's children live in poverty. Their families rarely read to them and often speak a different language. Children in these homes consume 13 hours of media per day. Often they live in chaotic and violent neighborhoods.

Solutions won't come in the form of political rhetoric or tweets, but from programs informed by scientific research. Business leaders and scientists agree that to be successful in a Google world, our children must learn more than basic facts regurgitated on narrowly construed tests.

They must learn the 6Cs: to Collaborate, Communicate, have Content (math, reading, science and the arts), think Critically, be Creative, and have Confidence to find their own voice. Further, research suggests that we best instill these skills by starting educational reform with young children and their families.

I challenge political reformers to dialogue with scientists and educators so that together we might create an educational system — public, charter or private — consistent with proven methods of how children learn.

Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, Ph.D., is professor of psychology at Temple University, director of the Center for Re-Imagining Children's Learning and Education, and the author of several books, including A Mandate for Playful Learning in Preschool.


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