25 February 2010

Middle School Letter Week

This is the week that 5th graders across the Denver Public Schools are getting their middle school letters from schools from charter schools and programs that require special applications within ordinary schools.

The dreadful complexity of the process, numerous bureaucratic steps involved that must be completed, and individual preferences narrow the pool at each school a great deal. There are some school programs, like the Denver School of Science and Technology in Denver that are grossly oversubscribed. But, that is the exception. The vast majority of students are getting their first choice, and the 10%-15% or so that do not frequently have a carefully considered Plan B at the ready to implement that is likely to work out. My sense of how the system works is that in the 5th grade to Middle School progress, that involves perhaps 7,000 kids, my guess is that perhaps 4,000 will simply go with the flow and go to their home school, perhaps 3,000 will try to exercise some sort of right in the process, that about 2,550 or so will get their first choice, that about 400 will find an acceptable Plan B within the system, and that 30-60 students will not get an option that is satisfiactory to them, some of whom may end up trying to arrange a private school or homeschool arrangment, will give up and go to a school that they aren't happy with, or will hagglye with the administration.

Denver Public Schools also probably loses more kids to private schools and transfers out of the district (often with kids who don't participate in the regular process0 than at any other point in the process. Finding a tolerable environment is a small neighborhood elementary school turns out to be easier than finding a tolerable middle school, a time when life is almost guaranteed to be miserable in some way or other that also impacts their peers, even in the best environment.

The biggest benefit of the system may have only a little to do with the extent to which what is taught and how it is taught is tailored to the particular child choosing a school. There is a benefit in having a process in which a student participated and has a choice, because that process secures buy in to the middle school attended, regardless of the quality of the actual choices (likewise, studies show that people feel better about their country after voting, even if the race was uncontested or none of the candidates were particularly appealing).

School choice is also good for Denver real estate. As long as parents believe that their child in Denver can attend a good school with enough attention to the school choice process, wherever that child lives, that parent can feel comfortable living in Denver without having to pay for private school tuition. In contrast, in a system of strict neighborhood schools, real estate in attendance areas for schools where students perform poorly academically (and Denver has a great many such schools) become very unattractive to families with school aged children.

Proximity to good schools is still relevant, but only for the fundamental reason that it impacts the time it takes to get to school. My experience in where children we know have chosen to go to school strongly suggests that perceived school quality and offerings are a sufficiently powerful draw that middle class parents will largely ignore any transportation concerns within Denver to have their child attend what they see as a good school, a sensible stance since Denver is sufficiently geographically compact that even the longest trips aren't impossibly onerous.

On the whole, I support options like school choice and charter schools (and the Colorado practice of providing some of the in state student economic support available to public college students to students attending private colleges in the state). Milton Friedman was mostly right when he observed that parents have more effective power that is relevant to them in the power to make a school choice (even if it is hemmed by bureacracy that excludes some from the process and isn't entirely unlimited), than they do through the political process of electing school board officials. They may be at a disadvantage each way, but here and now, politics is even less of a level playing field than the process of navigating a complex school choice system. The risk of having parents choose not to attend your school adds a disciplined pressure to perform to every school in the system, public neighborhood, charter and private alike, without regard to the quality of management taking place at the district level at the behest of the school board.

There are plenty of ills that school choice does not solve. It does not itself solve achievement gap problems already mostly in place by the third grade and earlier. It does little to assure adequate public education funding and may even undermine it, because it is easier to rally and organize political support for institutions than mere spending formulas. It may lead to more, rather than less demographic segregation in schools. It doesn't by itself, bring more qualified teachers into the system. But, it does open up more room for experimentation disciplined by parental choices, it does decouple real estate decisions from education decisions, it does secure buy in from parents and students, and it does provide a much easier and reliable way for administrators to identify failing schools: parents choose not to send their children there. Simply by forcing school districts to address those schools that are failing relative to other options, the choice system brings up minimum standards for the district as a whole.

No comments: