Saturday, December 3, 2011

The Reality of "Choice"

Gail Collins writes about the growth of online K-12 charter schools, the most successful being for-profit K-12, Inc.
"...a big private online education business. It was founded by a former Goldman Sachs banker and by William Bennett, the Republican writer and talk-show host, with an infusion of cash from the former disgraced junk-bond king Mike Milken. Its teachers generally work from their homes, communicating with their students by e-mail or phone. (At one point in Arizona, essays of students attending an online academy run by K12 were outsourced to India for correction. K12 says the program was a pilot and was discontinued.)"

Having taught at a charter school with a major emphasis on homeschooling, and that was increasingly moving towards an online model, I can speak to some of the concerns people have about these schools.  There was little transparency in terms of how the school was run, and financed its activities.  This is a critique of charter schools in general, removed as they are from conventional public school accountability.  This was especially concerning to me, as I worked at one of the satellite campuses, which was located in a poor neighborhood and drew from a largely disadvantaged population.  I worried that the students' needs were not being met and being given short-shrift by the charter's more middle-class, home-schooled demographic priorities.

Another concern people have with online programs is that they'll further inhibit poor brick and mortar schools' ability to serve the special needs of their populations.  As with brick and mortar charters, they will further siphon off the families with means, leaving behind the families with the fewest resources.  The poor are often thought of as a homogeneous demographic, defined only by financial capital.  But in reality there exists a great diversity of means, in terms of human and social capital, the efficacy of individual parenting, family education levels, issues with substance abuse or criminality, etc.  Statistically, only a very small percentage of poor parents have been actively trying to get their children into charter schools as alternatives to traditional public schools.  These are the parents who would be raising higher performing students, and realize that their students are being subjected to the many negative social pressures and forces at work in ghettos.  This is simply a function of geography and property values.

The effect of this movement of high-capital families out of poor schools is to further segregate communities by means.  While certainly a great benefit to those who know how to take advantage of the process, those left behind are further isolated and concentrated in their disadvantage.  For instance, an average poor classroom might have 20% of its students suffering from emotional, behavioral, and academic deficits owing to severe neglect and strife at home, and another 20% enjoying the benefits of a cognitively stimulating and loving environment at home, able to complete work and be actively engaged in positive learning.  In a class of 30-35 students, this presents an enormous challenge for a teacher in differentiating his instruction to adequately meet the needs of every child.  In removing the top 20% of students, you are essentially (if my math is correct) removing 100% of the highest performers, in return for a 5% increase in the lowest and 15% increase in middle performers.

Now, in a perfect world, this may not be the worst thing.  There are many advantages to less differentiation, or more homogeneity in a classroom.  With a smaller range of needs, the teacher is better able to manage his instructional specificity.  At the site level, resources can be more focused and delivered more efficiently.  Unfortunately, this doesn't really happen.  The poor have a tendency to get neglected.  In the classroom, more low-performing students means more interruptions, more truancy, more remediation, lower standards, and greater teacher burnout.  Class sizes remain the same, only increasing the teacher's burden.  At the site level, while more services are often offered, the decline in parent means translates into less local community resources, and more demand for interventions, requiring ever more services and attention.  Socially, the negative pressures are reinforced, while the positive pressures are reduced.  Net negativity is thus increased.

It doesn't have to be this way.  If class sizes were reduced, more services were offered, and resources were made available for teachers and staff to leverage, you would have a system in which high concentrations of disadvantage and dysfunction were ripe for efficient, targeted intervention.  Yet the system would have to be designed to support this extra burden.  From the ground floor up, it would take into account the population's special needs, and not expect teachers to primarily bear the burden.  Currently, "teacher accountability" is frequently mentioned, but more rarely is "systemic accountability".  Where is the accountability when systems are in place that shovel highly needy, at-risk populations into traditional classroom environments.  It is as if schools, teachers and students are set-up to fail.

I would not be as skeptical of educational innovations such as charter schools or online programs, if they were understood in the context of larger socioeconomic issues in education.  For many poor parents, online schooling might make the most sense, and be a good fit for their child's needs.  For many others, their children's needs may be better served by an environment that can set the bar higher, knowing that students will be able to competently meet it, as opposed to simply being set-up for failure.

I've long thought a rigorous socio-economic assessment regime could be designed that measures and then places families into school settings designed to appropriately meet their specific needs.  To me, this is truly what "choice" looks like.  It isn't bottom-up, in terms of parents being "allowed" to send their children wherever they like.  But that concept assumes that poor families are homogeneous in their ability to best see to their children's development.  The reality is that many poor families need top-down help, and giving them "choice" is a false notion, implying that poor performing families are "choosing" not to be successful.  Everyone wants to be successful, even the families struggling with poor parenting skills, single-parenthood, substance abuse, etc.  But they don't know how.  The sad reality is that we only have two choices when it comes to many poor families - the nanny state, or the neglectful parent state.  Contrary to the fantasies we would like to believe about human behavior, reality is that, due to the many disadvantages and behavioral constraints besetting poor communities, owing to numerous historical and systemic factors, we are in a position of "parenthood", in that if left to fend for themselves, too many families - and their children - will not be successful.  That is the reality.  That is the reality of "choice".

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