When I was a kid growing up in rural Virginia, there was no such thing as school choice. We went to the school the district assigned. By today’s standards, they probably weren’t great schools, but they also weren’t terrible, and they were our only option. With a daughter about to enter kindergarten, I find myself overwhelmed by all the options. The narrative seems to be that good parents research every option and choose the best school for their family.
Feeling that pressure and, like all parents, wanting the best for my kids, I created a detailed spreadsheet with each school of choice (magnets, charters and private) in my area. It also includes the school that is our districted school. On this sheet I’ve noted when tours are, when applications are due, when lotteries are held and, perhaps most importantly, my thoughts about the schools.
My notes say positive things, like:
▪ Teacher’s approach provides students lots of active learning.
▪ Small class sizes and teacher assistants for each kindergarten.
▪ Multiple recess periods throughout the day.
▪ Students seem engaged and enjoying learning
▪ Nice facility and ample resources (library, computers, etc.)
My notes also say negative things, like:
▪ Too much focus on assessments and test data
▪ No or shared teacher assistants
▪ Only 20 minutes of recess a day
▪ Class seemed disorganized or unfocused
▪ Limited resources (library, computers, etc.)
As an educator, I know what I’m looking at and looking for. I know what the policymakers think makes one school “great” and another school “bad.” I also have my own research-based ideas about what is best for students. The fact of the matter is I can send my child to the neighborhood school even though I feel it’s not the best, or I can send her to a school of choice where I feel she will get a better education. I think most of us would choose what we think is best for our child.
I’ve had many conversations with my friends that end with, “Well, if s/he doesn’t get in such and such a magnet/charter school, we will move to a better district or pay for private school.” The problem is that there are many in our communities who don’t have such options, many families that don’t have the knowledge or resources necessary to send their children to choice schools, much less move or pay for private school. It is not OK that these students are just “stuck” in sub-par schools.
The question is, why are many schools of choice better options than many traditional district schools? Why don’t all schools have and do the things that research has shown are best for students? There are those who claim that schools of choice are causing the problem by their very existence as an option. I would argue that they are not the cause but a symptom of a much bigger problem.
The bigger problem is the trickle down of policy and “accountability” from the national, state and district level that has left district schools so shackled by standardization that they don’t have freedom to innovate and iterate to do the things that the teachers and school leaders know would make their school better.
The solution is really simple. Give site-based school leaders the freedom and resources they need to do what they know is better for their students. Magnet schools are one attempt districts have made at a solution to this, but, in reality, most of them are only marginally different from their traditional counterparts and still underfunded and overburdened by oversight. The successful ones become much sought-after schools of choice with hundreds of applicants for each spot.
It’s time we stop wasting breath on the schools of choice vs. traditional school debate. Instead, traditional school leaders should look at what successful schools of choice are doing that attracts families and learn from them how to improve their schools. It’s time teachers stand up for the right to make decisions that affect their classrooms. It’s time for principals to stand up for the right to make decisions that affect their schools.
It’s time district, state and national leaders recognize and respect these rights. Working together, we can build schools that all our children deserve.
Mamie Hall is a teacher at Research Triangle High School. She previously taught for 10 years in the Chapel Hill-Carrboro and Orange County Schools.