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8 While school systems in most American suburbs are functioning fairly well, central city schools struggle with colossal problems, abominable (if slightly improving) test scores, abysmal graduation rates, terrible attendance, and appalling career prospects for their graduates.
Something must be done. But as Richard Kahlenberg and Bernard Wasow ably note, vouchers to attend private school are an ineffective stab at a solution, based more on theoretical worship of the market than on concrete evidence of success. Studies have not shown voucher schools to perform better, despite exemption from burdensome administrative requirements and freedom to cream the most likely to succeed. It seems the market for education differs from the market for cereal.
Or maybe not so much. Unregulated markets have rarely served the poorest very well, even for the private goods that are suited to markets. Labor markets have deserted central city communities. Financial markets provide too few banks and too many exploitative check-cashing firms, too little access to mainstream credit and too much predatory lending. Housing markets with few regulations lure the affluent to distant suburbs, leaving abandoned and sometimes dangerous board-ups. Supermarkets are rare and mysteriously lacking in produce while liquor stores are plentiful. Low-income consumers are especially vulnerable to shameless marketing of harmful or overpriced products, from Big Macs to $160 sneakers to cigarettes. For public goods like education there is reason to believe that markets will be far less effective.
In fact, those failures of private markets have more to do with what ails central city schools than problems with pedagogy. Families are poor, parents overworked, too many fathers are jailed and too many mothers work at jobs that dont pay enough to cover the basics. Kids see a dim future and get little guidance on how to navigate it. And some schools dont help much, offering overcrowded classes, underqualified teachers, inadequate resources and overwhelmed administrators. Our school funding structure makes this almost inevitable.
Kahlenberg and Wasow argue that controlled public-school choice that assures that children of diverse socioeconomic backgrounds attend school together is the solution to this problem. While I share their goal of integrated, quality public schools, Im less persuaded by their solution.
First, the authors fail to demonstrate that reform of neighborhood public schools has been sufficiently tried and discredited. Skilled teachers, smaller classes, early intervention, and equalized funding arent sexy new ideas. But they work, and they havent been fully implemented.
The authors call for every family to be given a choice of which school to attend, within a given geographical area, but they brush over how that will lead to integration in most places. Cambridge and San Francisco aside, most poor black and Latino kids dont live a short bus-ride from wealthy white kids and arent in the same district.
Kahlenberg and Wasows solution would require extensive bureaucratic energy, which would be better devoted to promoting quality in all schools. Parents, teachers, administrators, and students will dump time, money, and thought into paperwork, busing assignments, research and comparison, marketing and promotion, and other tasks that dont improve learning.
Further, the ideas are still based on a premise of the market working to help parents choose higher-performing schools, thus providing an incentive for lower-performing schools to improve or face closure. The authors glibly brush over what it would mean to close schools that dont work on a regular basis and blithely say that successful schools should be replicated or franchised. But what makes schools successfulinvolved parents, excellent teachers, sufficient fundingis tough to replicate, particularly if schools are removed from communities.
For markets to work well, consumers need reliable information that they can accurately assess. But theres reason to think that low-income parents with limited education will have trouble making informed assessments of school quality.
Controlled choice fosters a range of interesting pedagogies, the authors argue, from French immersion to basic skills to Afrocentric to Drama-based. But most parents dont want a particular pedagogy so much as they want an excellent school. With great teachers and administrators, good resources, and reasonable class sizes, flavor-of-the-month education styles matter little. The Waldorf Method delays reading until well into grade school while Montessori lets capable three-year-olds begin reading, yet parents swear by both methods because each tends to draw committed teachers and families with resources.
Kahlenberg and Wasow indulge the idea that fanciful pedagogies hold the key to educational success. And certainly a broad array of creative and disparate foci will fuel many an educational studies dissertation. But really, what evidence shows that trendy variations improve outcomes? Specialized schools are compelling, particularly to involved, educated parents. The ones that emerge organically should be nurtured and existing alternative public schools with their science or arts specialties should be preserved. But shifting to a whole system of controlled public school choice neatly sidesteps real problems, while sucking resources into something thats relatively unproven.
We know what really improves outcomes: engaged and highly skilled teachers promoting excellent reading and writing, solid math and science, a grasp of history and social science, and a love of learning. A pseudo-market isnt the best way to get to that; resources and accountability is.
Markets work because people switch to Wheaties if Corn Flakes prove too soggy. In contrast, schools thrive not when parents abandon them but when they stay and join the PTA. And making PTA meetings, as well as just making it to the playground on occasion, is much harder if the school is on the far side of the district. Switching schools is disruptive, both to students and the system. A model that relies on such dislocation
detracts from community engagement. In contrast, a strong neighborhood school can anchor the community, promote interaction and involvement, and provide a neighborhood with a sense of identity.
My son just started kindergarten in a district with its share of problems. But when I walk onto the playground and see the Muslim family from his old preschool; the multi-colored faces from our neighborhood park; the across-the-street neighbor who he greets like a long-lost cousin; the bi-racial, tri-lingual boy whose mother befriended me when I arrived in town; I know were in the right place, in large part because its where our neighbors are. An integrated, high-quality neighborhood school. Lets redevote ourselves to creating more of those. <
Amy Hanauer is executive director and a cofounder of Policy Matters.
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Originally published in the October/November 2003 issue of Boston Review