School Inc. is a global exploration of discovery by the late Andrew Coulson, senior fellow of education policy at Cato Institute’s Center for Educational Freedom. He takes viewers on a worldwide personal quest for an answer to the question—if you build a better way to teach a subject, why doesn’t the world beat a path to your door, like they do in other industries?
The three-part documentary exposes audiences to unfamiliar and often startling realities: the sad fate of Jaime Escalante after the release of the feature film Stand and Deliver; Korean teachers who earn millions of dollars every year; private schools in India that produce excellent results but charge only $5 a month; current U.S. efforts to provide choices and replicate educational excellence; and schools in Chile and Sweden—in which top K-12 teachers and schools have already begun to “scale-up,” reaching large and ever-growing numbers of students.
Like the Cosmos and Connections series that inspired it, School Inc. takes viewers on a personal journey, led by an expert so passionate about his field that he made arrangements before his imminent death to ensure the documentary would be completed. Coulson offers his analysis with a sense of circumspection about the limits of science, as well as a sense of humor. From its surprising twists to its beautiful visuals, the series doesn’t just edify, but entertains.
Patricia MacCorquodale, a parent in Arizona, describes her experiences with school choice. She is obviously biased in her assessments of choice and charters. She describes her frustrations with choosing the right school for her child. But instead of advocating for a more streamlined access to information, she essentially concludes that choice is hard and therefore not worth pursuing.
My daughter attended two private, two public and four charter schools during her K-12 education; the search for each one was extensive. With 547 charter schools and 480 private schools operating in Arizona, there is a lot of school choice.
‘I navigated the school choice maze as a university professor with good income, flexible hours, reliable transportation, and a strong parent network. Imagine the process of school choice for parents of students attending failing schools, with limited income, or relying on public transportation.’
School choice is at the center of the Trump administration’s education policy efforts, with initial proposals calling for additional funding for charters and other forms of public school choice, as well as the creation of a new federal private school choice program. Some advocates have raised concerns about whether expanding school choice will help disadvantaged families, especially in rural areas and other places where there may not be many schools from which to choose.
Concerns about potential inequities in the availability of different schools to different families, based in large part on geography, are plausible but have not been subject to systematic empirical analysis. In this report, we begin to fill this gap by using nationwide data on the locations of public and private elementary schools to calculate the percent of American families that could potentially gain access to new school options under different national school choice policies. This baseline analysis of school locations does not consider important issues such as school capacity, existing choice programs, or possible changes in the supply of different kinds of schools that might result from choice policies.
Texas SB 3, House Committee
Corey A. DeAngelis, Distinguished Doctoral Fellow in Education Policy, Dept. of Education Reform, University of Arkansas
This experience led me to the following conclusions:
First, parents know what is best for their kids. No parent should be denied the opportunity to send his or her son or daughter to a school with confidence that he or she can learn, grow and be safe.
Secondly, good teachers know what’s best for the students in their classrooms. Teachers deserve more respect than many give them, and more opportunities than the system affords them today.
And thirdly, state and local leaders are best equipped to address the unique challenges and opportunities they face, not the federal government. Locally driven innovation and customization are far more likely to generate meaningful results than are top-down mandates.
I am in favor of increased choice, but I’m not in favor of any one form of choice over another. I’m simply in favor of giving parents more and better options to find an environment that will set their child up for success.
I’m opposed to any parents feeling trapped or, worse yet, feeling that they can’t offer their child the education they wish they could. It shouldn’t matter what type of school a student attends, so long as the school is the right fit for that student.
Our nation’s commitment is to provide a quality education to every child to serve the public, common good. Accordingly, we must shift the paradigm to think of education funding as investments made in individual children, not in institutions or buildings.
Let me say it again: we must change the way we think about funding education and instead invest in children, not in buildings.
There is no perfect, one-size-fits-all system of education: A magnet school is not inherently better than a traditional school, nor is education at a private school inherently better than education at a charter school.
Similarly, there is no one delivery mechanism of education choice: Open enrollment, tax credits, home schools, magnets, charters, virtual schools, education savings accounts and choices not yet developed all have their place, but no single one of these is always the right delivery method for each child.
Policymakers at every level of government would do well to maintain a humble acknowledgement of these facts. Let’s put aside the politics of the adults and actually focus on what will best serve kids.
And that’s what brings us here today. Too much of the conversation on education loses sight of the thing that matters most: the individual child. This report sheds light on how districts are providing choices and information to parents and opportunities to students.
The Education Choice and Competition Index is important, and unique, because it’s very parent-centric. Parents are the first and primary point of accountability. The report makes the distinction that simply having a choice program is not enough: It must be accessible, transparent and accountable to those who need it most.
I’m glad Russ has highlighted such districts as Mobile, Alabama, that nominally provide choice but don’t give parents adequate tools to take advantage of the program. As a parent, you can’t take advantage of a choice you don’t know exists. We need to find ways of better connecting citizens to the information they need.
The report notes that Mobile is not alone: 26 other districts, nearly a quarter of those surveyed, receive a letter grade of F on the report’s scale – meaning they provide few to no tangible school options. There is clearly a long way to go for many school districts, and I’m hopeful that this report will help light a fire under them to better serve students.
While we may be tempted to emulate cities with a higher grade, I would urge a careful look.
The two-highest scoring districts, Denver and New Orleans, both receive A’s, but they arrive there in very different ways.
New Orleans provides a large number of choices to parents: All of its public schools are charters, and there is a good supply of affordable private schools. The state also provides vouchers to low-income students to attend private schools if they choose. Combined with its easy-to-use common application, New Orleans’ sophisticated matching system maximizes parental preference and school assignment.
Meanwhile, Denver scored well because the single application process for both charter and traditional public schools, as well as a website that allows parents to make side-by-side comparisons of schools. But the simple process masks the limited choices.
Russ has mentioned this, but I think it’s worth repeating that, even though a district may place well on the competition index, the letter grade does not necessarily reflect the state of education within that district.
The benefits of making options “accessible” are cancelled out when you don’t have a full menu of options.
Choice without accessibility doesn’t matter, just as accessibility without choices doesn’t matter. Neither scenario ultimately benefits students.
Consider Chicago. Chicago received a B on the index, and improved its score because it now includes data on student growth on its website. While this is all well and good, we cannot pretend that Chicago’s education is “above average” for the tens of thousands of students being left behind.
One example is Marilyn Rhames and her daughter.
Some of you may have read Marilyn’s firsthand account.
When Marilyn taught at their neighborhood school, she enrolled her oldest daughter there to remind herself to treat her students as if each of them was one of her own kids.
When she tried to raise objections with the school as a parent, she was fired as a teacher. So she took a job at a charter school and brought her daughter with her. Marilyn’s oldest daughter graduated from the charter school, but her youngest daughter was struggling there.
She considered the neighborhood school again, but that school failed to meet the family’s needs.
Marilyn finally found an independent, classical private school that she says could celebrate her daughter’s heritage while instilling the academic discipline needed to succeed. Marilyn wrote that while she may wish her tax dollars went to a rigorous district school that could fit her child’s needs, the fact is that they simply haven’t. In her own words, “Siding with my child is an unalienable right … My only real school choice right now is private.”
For Marilyn, there was really only one choice that allowed her to meet her daughter’s needs. The index may have given Chicago a B score, but can we really claim that Marilyn had plenty of quality options?
Separately, the report argues that “There is no question that alternatives to the traditional school district model are destructive of the traditional school district model.”
Many would read this and conclude that such alternatives (or choices) are destructive of traditional public schools and of the students they serve. But I would argue that these alternatives are constructive, not destructive, for students, parents and teachers.
Let me offer this example from a different part of our daily lives.
How many of you got here today in an Uber, or Lyft, or another ridesharing service? Did you choose that because it was more convenient than hoping a taxi would drive by? Even if you didn’t use a ridesharing service, I’m sure most of you at least have the app on your phone.
Just as the traditional taxi system revolted against ridesharing, so too does the education establishment feel threatened by the rise of school choice. In both cases, the entrenched status quo has resisted models that empower individuals.
Nobody mandates that you take an Uber over a taxi, nor should they. But if you think ridesharing is the best option for you, the government shouldn’t get in your way.
The truth is that in practice, people like having more options. They like being able to choose between Uber Pool, Uber X, Lyft Line, Lyft Plus, and many others. Or when it comes to taking a family trip, many like options such as Airbnb.
We celebrate the benefits of choices in transportation and lodging. But doesn’t that pale in comparison to the importance of educating the future of our country? Why do we not allow parents to exercise that same right to choice in the education of their child?
The reflexive question asked, often politely, by critics of choice is why should we not simply fix the broken schools first? If only schools received more funding, they say, the schools could provide a better learning environment for those being left behind.
But of course we’ve already tried that, and it’s proven not to work. We know because it was a signature plank of the previous administration’s education agenda: the School Improvement Grants (SIG).
Former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan said just last year that the SIG program was their “biggest bet” on education.
Well he was right on one thing: The size of the bet certainly was big. The administration ended up spending $7 billion on trying to fix targeted schools.
It’s interesting that the previous administration waited until January 18 of this year to release the final results of its “biggest bet.” The report, released by the Department’s Institute of Education Sciences, stated, “Overall, across all grades, we found that implementing any SIG-funded model had no significant impacts on math or reading test scores, high school graduation, or college enrollment.”
“No significant impact.”
At what point do we accept the fact that throwing money at the problem isn’t the solution? I’m not trying to vilify the motives of SIG’s backers. But good intentions and billions of dollars clearly aren’t enough to give students what they need to succeed.
Let me be clear, if we can identify a school turnaround model that shows promise, I want to learn about it. If we find a solution that demonstrates consistent results, I want to support it. But waiting and hoping for a miracle, while blocking efforts that can help millions of children immediately, is simply not something this administration will abide.
The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. That’s not policymaking.
Neither is education reform without changing the culture around education.
Changing the culture starts with shifting away from an “us versus them” mentality. The focus shouldn’t be on whether we have a “public” system, “private” system, “charter” system, “virtual” system: It should be about the child, and about what is best for each individual student.
It’s important to remember that statistics aren’t just numbers, they represent real people. I’ve been with them in their schools and heard their concerns.
Last week, when I was at a student roundtable at Valencia College, one student told his own story, and it pained me to hear it.
His name is Michael B. Michael grew up in East Hartford, Connecticut, in a low-income neighborhood. He was an average student throughout elementary and middle school, but that all changed when he started ninth grade at the district high school.
Michael described a school where students were the real ones in charge of the class, and they would make it impossible for the teachers to teach.
He was constantly bullied and became afraid of even using the bathroom at school. This constant fear made him hate school and made it impossible for him to focus on learning. He said, and I quote, “It was nothing more than adult day care … a dangerous daycare.”
But, even though he was failing, the school still gave him passing grades – D-minuses – and so he felt that he was no better than a D-minus student.
Fast-forward some years, and Michael is a veteran of Afghanistan, married with three young daughters. He was working as a bell man at a hotel in Florida. He enjoyed the work, but one day his wife asked, “Do you want to be a bell man for the rest of your life?”
He was afraid to try something different, but with his wife’s encouragement, he was inspired.
Michael got an A in his first class. He thought it was a fluke until he continued to earn straight A’s. He’s now in the school’s honors program with a 3.8 GPA, and is finishing his pre-requisite classes to be a nurse, with the goal of working in an emergency room.
He’s on the path to realizing his dream, and Valencia College gave him that second chance.
But Michael still worries for his daughters and other young children in America. He doesn’t want them to go through what he did, trapped in an environment where he felt unsafe and learned nothing. That’s why he asked me a question that fuels my passion, “What are you going to do to change the culture of these schools?”
The culture he is talking about defends a system at the expense of the very students it is supposed to serve.
This is a problem we can’t spend our way out of.
We can change the culture by embracing innovative disruptors and empowering parents and students with choice.
I think we need to change the conversation from how we invest in schools, and what types of schools we invest in, to investing in students. At the end of the day, if the finest school building with the best teachers isn’t educating all of its individual students effectively, that school is failing those students.
The education debate needs to be student-centric. Period.
As Russ says in his report, choice alone is not a panacea, but there is evidence it works. It works for millions of students, through inner district choice, public school choice, public charter schools, private school choice, and virtual and home schooling.
And it could work for millions of more students if more options were made available.
It is an understatement to say that such a culture shift could be accomplished alone.
If we truly want to improve education for children, we need to come together.
I don’t pretend to have all the answers, but we should not pretend that the status quo is acceptable. Because even one more Michael, one more painful story about the failure of the system is unacceptable. And the reality is there are Michaels in classrooms or Michaels who have dropped out, all across this country.
So I urge us to come together to embrace policies that actually empower parents and give kids an equal shot at the quality education they deserve. It is the right and just thing to do.
“It’s been five years since Tanya McDowell made national headlines after she was charged with larceny for “stealing an education” for her son. Even with some time to think, McDowell believes enrolling her son at a Norwalk Public School was the right call.”
It’s a shame that a mother is charged with a crime for simply wishing a better education for her child. Unbelievable!