On Choice in Education

You know what I'm really tired of doing? Thinking of ways to market my school. You know what would probably make me a happier, more effective teacher? More time to think about my instruction and students' work with colleagues.

Last month the small school I teach at was told that we need something of a new direction. The way it was presented? We have a "choice." We can begin offering AP courses, IB courses, or something else called College in the High School - which encompasses a series of programs offered by different universities that allow certified high school teachers to teach courses that entitle students to college credit. To be fair to the district, they went on to say something to the effect of, "Well, it doesn't HAVE to be one of those, but it has to be some program, and those are the only ones we know of."

While it wasn't stated explicitly, it seems pretty likely we've been given this "choice" because our district is very excited about offering students and parents "choice," and there are a lot of vocal parents uninterested in "choosing" our school. So, something has to be done.

Last year, one of the other small schools on our campus, Odyssey, became a school of choice. Odyssey offers a program that considers students from across the district, but only if they submit an application and show up with their parents for an interview to be considered for admission. Odyssey also seems to have some latitude to suggest school reassignment for students who don't fit with their program. (It should come as no surprise that their principal's name shows up on a list of public education workers who supported the YES on charter schools campaign in Washington this year.)

By becoming a school of choice, Odyssey, perhaps unintentionally, also made the other two schools on the campus, ACE and Global Connections, de facto schools of choice. Since all three high schools are located in the same mostly low-income community, families who don't "choose" Odyssey choose Global or ACE.

Global offers a band and AP. ACE only offers American Sign Language and services for the district's deaf and hard of hearing. It is a downside of small schools. There are fewer electives and extracurricular opportunities. And, as the logic goes, districts that offer the small school environment must have a host of varying small school experiences for families to "choose" from.

So why do I keep putting the word "choice" and its derivatives in quotations? Because what we are often describing when we use that word is really something different than they way most people think about choice.

Sometimes the "choices" we're offered aren't really choices at all, like when your school district communicates that you must choose to choose one of three options, none of which, as far as I can tell, really align well with our mission of preparing free-thinking, socially concious CITIZENS (which I capitalize to indicate how much weight I feel that word should carry.)

Sometimes you make a choice even when you're not offered one. When families choose not to apply for Odyssey, they're choosing to attend ACE or Global Connections.

Other times, in the case of families choosing a school, the choice they make probably often has less to do with what families want or what is good for students than it does with the way choices are framed.

As James Surowiecki pointed out in the August 13, 2012 edition of the New Yorker:
If you offer a choice in which one option is seen as a default, most people go for that default option. People who are automatically enrolled in a retirement plan, for instance, are more likely to stay with their original plan than those who choose plans for themselves. In countries where people have to choose to be an organ donor, most people aren’t donors; in countries where people have to actively say they don’t want to be an organ donor, most are donors.
He goes on:
In a classic experiment by Itamar Simonson and Amos Tversky, people asked to choose between a cheap camera and a pricier one with more features were divided more or less equally between the two options. But when a third option—a fancy, very expensive camera—was added to the mix most people went for the mid-range camera. The very expensive camera made the middle one seem less extravagant.
I would argue that the average parent is in a significantly better position to evaluate and act on their views regarding retirement, organ donation, or camera purchasing than they normally are regarding schools. School quality varies widely, is extremely debatable, and is influenced by myriad factors, not the least of which is the motivation, interest, and social-emotional stability of other students at the school - which brings me to my last point on "choice."

A few years ago, Chief Sealth High School, located in West Seattle, became an International Bacclaureate World School. IB is a program widely recognized as being one of the most intellectually challenging programs a high school can have. Chief Sealth had, prior to the IB program, a relatively poor reputation. Today, it has an excellent one. Middle-income families have come from across Seattle to have an opportunity to engage with the IB curriculum. Demographics have changed immensely, and so has its success and reputation.

School choice is too often really about finding ways to "juke the stats," to borrow a phrase from The Wire. Written as a piece of satire, this post by Mr. Teachbad comes all to close to what's really going on in schools across the country. Short of kicking out students not making the grade, which is what Geoffrey Canada and his board did to the first class of students at Harlem Children's Zone, we can make our schools more marketable and competitive (with AP, IB, or College in the High School) to the families we most want.

None of this is to say school choice is a bad. It only makes sense in a culture where choice and competition are seen as panaceas to virtually any systems problem and our prevailing national education narrative sees schools and teachers as capable of ameliorating the crippling effects of poverty single handedly. Districts try to conform to the narrative. They use choice to do it. And using AP, IB, and College in the High School as a means of improving marketability also makes perfect sense. At least it does when students see these programs as a way to receive cheap college credit and save themselves the stress of crippling future college debt.

Yes. All of this makes perfect sense. And that's too bad.


  1. Giving smart options to choose always worked for my kids. Whenever I was sure something wouldn't be convenient for them I added one, much worse option and then, guess what... :-)


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