school choice

(O?Hare Airport, Chicago) I just attended a very stimulating large conference on ?values and evidence in educational reform,? organized by Crooked Timber?s Harry Brighouse and the Spencer Foundation. There were panels on standards and testing; charters and vouchers; and small schools–major controversies in educational policy today. The panels combined statements by passionate advocates of each reform; careful and dispassionate reviews of the empirical literature; and philosophical analysis of the underlying moral issues.

I?d like to summarize the most challenging of the presentations, but I?m not sure whether the ground rules permit such publicity. So instead I?ll offer a thought about ?choice? in education. Given the prominence of vouchers in the public debate (although not in our actual school systems), people tend to equate ?choice? with parents? options about where to send their kids, using public money. But there are other critical choices that people can be allowed to make; any given policy will combine several of these in varying degrees:

  • Parents? choices about where to try to enroll their kids
  • Kids? choices about where they want to enroll and whether to attend school at all
  • Kids? choices about which particular classes and other activities to participate in
  • Schools? choices about which kids to admit (or actively recruit)
  • Teachers? and coaches? choices about which of their students to involve in various classes and activities
  • Teachers? choices about where to work
  • Schools? or school systems? choices about whom to hire as teachers and administrators
  • Schools? choices about what to teach and how to teach it
  • Adult citizens? choices about how to assist or influence all kids? education
  • I doubt there?s a single ideal recipe, but I am at least somewhat enthusiastic about giving families choices among schools and giving adults choices about what and how to teach. (There is, however, a profound question about whether adolescents or their parents should choose schools, under various circumstances.) I don?t much like allowing public schools to choose their students, because then they can take the easy road to success: selecting and admitting those who are easiest to teach. Allowing teachers to choose where to work clearly worsens inequality–many of the best qualified instructors place themselves in easier school buildings and systems. However, simply denying choice to teachers is impossible: they can always quit altogether.

    We already have an educational system characterized by choice and constraints. The question is not whether to increase or reduce choice, but who should be allowed to choose what and when. The considerations mentioned above are just the beginning of that discussion.