Tamping down the rhetoric on school choice

| June 24, 2014 | 0 Comments

By David Cutler

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.1

Inflamed rhetoric Since the early fall of 2013, at least three major American 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 2013, Slate online magazine posted a blistering condemnation by one of its managing editors, Allison Benedikt, entitled ‘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-essentialinstitutions- in-order-to-get-what’s-best-for-your-kid bad. So, pretty bad,” Benedikt writes.2

2. In September 2013, Diane Ravitch, former US assistant secretary of education, released her newest book, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools.3 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, freemarket system of schooling”.

3. Recently, Christopher and Sarah Lubienski, professors at the University of Illinois, released an equally charged book, The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools.4 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 In a Washington Post story about their work, they also write how this “autonomy is too often used to maintain outdated strategies that may align with parental preferences but are not particularly effective for educating students”.5

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. Not long ago, I asked Christopher Lubienski 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.” It’s this softer tone that has more potential to foster dialogue.

Reasons for inflamed rhetoric

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

To gain deeper insight, I also spoke with John Chubb, new president of the National Association of Independent Schools (NAIS). America’s public school system once served around 90% 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. “What happened over the last 20 years is that 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%. In addition to that, we have online schooling that is growing rapidly… We have home-schooling 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 enrol 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 enrol. How can we accomplish this? Share, share and share some more:

1. Share on Twitter: I teach at an independent school, and while I receive more responses from NAIS members, I’m delighted when my tweets also stimulate public school educators like John Bergmann, an innovator of the ‘flipped classroom’ model.6

2. Share on Edmodo: Edmodo has the largest online teacher sharing community.7 I post all of my stories here.

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 national 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.8 On several occasions, he has also provided me with feedback on articles. 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.9 “I think kids in 20 years are going to walk into school and… hit a map… they might even pick their teachers for the day coming from Philippines and Singapore and other places.”

Bonk’s predications are slowly becoming reality. I recently learned about the three-year-old Global Online Academy (GOA),10 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 programmes 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 programme, 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. I’m equally in awe of The Online School for Girls (OSG),11 which opened its virtual doors in 2009. I 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. “The growth has been pretty tremendous on the student front. We also have a pretty robust student summer programme that enrols… kids over the summer to take courses,” he says. “On the other side, we also have a professional development programme 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 with it.”

Collaboration is key

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.

1. Charter schools are publicly funded, independently operated schools that are allowed to operate with more autonomy than traditional public schools in exchange for increased accountability. (Source:
2. Benedikt, A. (2013) “If you send your kid to private school, you are a bad person.” Available at: http://www.slate.com/articles/double_x/doublex/2013/08/private_school_vs_public_school_only_bad_people_send_their_kids_to_private.html.
3. Ravitch, D. (2013) Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools. New York: Knopf Publishers.
4. Lubienski, C. and Lubienksi, S. (2014) The Public School Advantage: Why Public Schools Outperform Private Schools. Chicago: University Of Chicago Press.
5. Strauss, V. (2013) “Are private schools better than public schools? New book says “no”.” Available at: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blog/answer-sheet/wp/2013/11/05/are-private-schools-better-than-public-schools-new-book-says-no/.
6. See: http://jonbergmann.com/the-flipped-class-as-a-way-to-theanswers/.
7. See: https://www.edmodo.com/.
8. Wormeli, E. (2006) Fair isn’t Always Equal: Assessing & Grading in the Differentiated Classroom. Portland: Stenhouse Publishers.
9. Bonk, C.J. (n.d.) The World is Open: How Technology is Revolutionizing Education. New York: Jossey-Bass Publishers.
10. See: http://www.globalonlineacademy.org/.
11. See: http://www.onlineschoolforgirls.org/.

Category: Featured Articles, Winter 2014

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