Tamping Down the Rhetoric on School Choice


Rational minds can differ on most issues, but trouble arises when disagreement morphs into unproductive disdain. Unfortunately, with respect to education, the latter has occurred more frequently in recent months.

As we venture into a more uncertain future, one which will become all the more disrupted by online technologies, it’s crucial that all educators address and attempt to reverse a surge of inflamed rhetoric. If not, I fear that all schools—public, charter, and private alike—will suffer.

Inflamed rhetoric

Since the fall, at least three major publications have come out vilifying school choice rather than fostering constructive dialogue on the issue—much less focusing on how to help all students succeed. Any legitimate criticism advanced by the authors of these works is tainted by one fact—they pick fights rather than build bridges.

  1. In August, Slate posted a blistering condemnation by one of its managing editors, Allison Benedikt, “If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person.” The article has over 66 thousand “likes” on Facebook, and its bold title leaves nothing to the imagination: “You are a bad person if you send your children to private school. Not bad like murderer bad—but bad like ruining-one-of-our-nation’s-most-essential-institutions-in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad,” Benedikt writes.
  2. In September, former U.S. Assistant Secretary of Education Diane Ravitch released her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. Ravitch derides school choice as an outright attack on the public system, while also accusing education reformers of a “deliberate effort to replace public education with a privately managed, free-market system of schooling.”
  3. Earlier this month, Christopher and Sarah Lubienksi, professors at the University of Illinois, released an equally charged book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. They argue that there is “danger in private school autonomy,” especially with respect to state standards not applying to professional certification and accountability.  In a Washington Post story about their work, they also write how this “autonomy is too often used to maintain outdated strategies that may align with parental preferences but are not particularly effective for educating students.”

I don’t doubt that these authors are passionate about their work, that they have important thoughts to share (regardless of one’s views), and, most importantly, that each is entirely capable of less inflammatory rhetoric.

Earlier this month, I enjoyed a friendly e-mail exchange with Christopher Lubienski, who promptly and politely responded to my inquiries about his work. I asked serious questions about how he and his wife conducted their research—and to what extent, if any, he thinks private and public schools could or should work together.

“Professional collaboration is a wonderful thing with potential benefits for both types of schools and, more importantly, for the students,” he writes. “But as we put schools into more competitive conditions, opportunities for such collaboration diminish. Moreover, for-profit schools have even less incentive to enter into such relationships.”

I’m glad that Lubienski admits as much, and it’s hard to disagree that overly competitive conditions among all types of schools undermine genuine efforts to collaborate. It’s this softer tone that has more potential to foster dialogue.

Reasons for inflamed rhetoric 

Still, it’s important to recognize that the inflamed rhetoric has arisen from significant developments with school choice.

To gain deeper insight, on Monday I spoke with John Chubb, President of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). America’s public school system once served around 90 percent of students, he says, noting that the remainder enrolled as part of a private school system—comprising religious, traditional, and independent schools.

But something changed this dynamic in the 1990s, when the nation began passing charter school legislation—allowing for a new, independent set of schools to enter the marketplace.

“Charter schools have exploded,” Chubb says.

There are now over 6,000 charter schools with 2.2 million students enrolled, Chubb says, adding that the charter school sector is now almost half as large as the private school sector.

“What happened over the last 20 years is the happy, historical coexistence of public and private schools has been disrupted by the introduction of charter schools,” Chubb says. “Now, the percentage of families that are choosing alternatives to public schools is approaching 15 percent. In addition to that, we have online schooling that is growing rapidly… We have homeschooling that’s been growing. That’s 1.8 million students.”

In the coming years, Chubb says, there will be more choice and more competition—especially with online education continuing to disrupt the traditional school system.

“The system will become more dynamic,” he says. “I believe that ultimately, all schools will be stronger for it.”

I agree with Chubb, and I also understand why his prediction might alarm some in the public school sector. As choice develops and becomes more attractive, fewer students will enroll in public schools, and this could have countless repercussions for teachers and, in a very real sense, how students learn.

How to overcome inflamed rhetoric 

But rather than add to the antagonism, I urge all educators, from all types of schools, to refocus their energies on how amicable collaboration can better benefit students—regardless of where they choose to enroll. How can we accomplish this? Share, share and share some more.

  1. Share on Twitter: Each day, I revel in communicating with likeminded colleagues around the country, sharing ideas about how best to serve students. I teach at an independent school, and while I receive more responses from NAIS-members, I’m delighted when my opinions also stimulate public school educators. Twitter has connected me with such inspirational and creative public school educators as John Bergmann, an innovator of the “flipped classroom” model.
  2. Share on Edmodo: I haven’t always supported Edmodo, a student-friendly social networking site that looks and feels a lot like Facebook. But regardless of how I feel about any of its other features, without question, Edmodo has the largest online teacher sharing community. I post all of my stories here. In response to a recent article I wrote about learning alongside students, on Tuesday, I received positive feedback from Walter Brown, who teaches at Motoaca Middle School in Virginia: “I agree with much of this and have been teaching in this way for some time.”
  3. Share on a blog: Blogging has allowed me to connect with dozens of talented public school educators, all of whom I’ve learned from to become a better independent day school teacher. I’m most grateful to Rick Wormeli, one of America’s first Nationally Board Certified Teachers. He also wrote the most impactful book I’ve ever read, Fair Isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. On several occasions, he has also provided me with feedback on articles. We haven’t spoken in a few months, but our relationship exemplifies the best of what’s possible when all types of teachers collaborate.

Use improved rhetoric to prepare for more disruption

A fruitful sharing of ideas today should prepare educators for far greater disruption tomorrow. About a year ago, I first spoke with Curtis J. Bonk, Professor of Instructional Systems Technology at Indiana University and author The World is Open: How Technology Is Revolutionizing Education.

“I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and pick their peers for the day,” he says. “And they’ll be coming from all over the world. They’ll just hit a little map and they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from Philippines and Singapore and other places.”

Bonk’s predictions are slowly becoming reality. Today, even at the high school level, terrific online institutions are forming to offer teenagers some of these advantages. I recently learned about the three-year-old Global Online Academy (GOA), whose mission statement speaks to how technology can and should foster a brighter teaching and learning environment:

The mission of the Global Online Academy is to replicate in online classrooms the intellectually rigorous programs and excellent teaching that are hallmarks of its member schools; to foster new and effective ways, through best practices in online education, for students to learn; and to promote students’ global awareness and understanding by creating truly diverse, worldwide, online schoolroom communities.

I spoke recently with GOA Director Michael Nachbar, who explained an intricate teacher-training program, which requires intense online coursework for potential hires to learn and gain experience with managing an online class. At the end of that initial six-week period, successful recruits travel to Seattle, Washington, where the company is based, to experience a week-long summer workshop. “That, I think, is the highlight for many of our faculty because it gives them a space to fit all the pieces of the puzzle together. We get to work alongside them,” Nachbar says.

I’m equally in awe of The Online School for Girls (OSG), which opened its virtual doors in 2009. I also reached out to OSG Director Brad Rathgeber, who says that he wanted to help create a growing consortium that afforded easy entry for any school that shared OSG’s vision for girls’ education and online learning. I’m not surprised to learn of the tremendous success OSG continues to experience under his leadership. In fact, the program has grown from 50 total semester enrollments to now over 900.

“The growth has been pretty tremendous on the student front. We also have a pretty robust student summer program that enrolls about 100 kids over the summer to take courses,” he says. “On the other side, we also have a professional development program that has grown pretty dramatically too, as we’ve tried to help faculty members engage with tenets of online and blended learning and give them an avenue to explore that field and to engage in it.”

As online learning communities grow, so too will the disruption in every education sector. No school systems will remain unchanged

All teachers must collaborate on how to adapt to quickly changing circumstances, and how best to prepare students for a world where essential skills are ever changing. This may mean having to drastically rethink how to fund and structure tomorrow’s schools.

But complacency, or, worse still, indignation directed at any school system, will only stall that progress.

As a coach, history and journalism teacher at Brimmer and May, a wonderful independent school in Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts, I have the absolute best job in the world. I am thrilled to get up every morning to engage with interesting young people, and I'm equally fortunate to have such amazing colleagues and mentors. As the founder of Spin Education, I encourage you to check-in frequently and submit posts and lessons—all in an effort to better our practice as teachers.

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