Tuesday, July 24, 2012

The power of choice?

As a classroom teacher I always saw an almost magical aspect to offering 6 year olds a choice. Even when asking, "Which area of the room do you want to clean up?" usually yielded more motivated cleaners than when I simply assigned areas. When dealing with children who refuse to comply with directions I often give them a choice, "Carpet or chair?" in order to get them to follow the broader instruction of come sit with the group.

I've been doing a lot of thought on school choice lately. I used to be 100% against it. I believed that we need to fix the schools that exist, not allow the parents with resources to find better schools to flee their neighborhood schools, forcing children whose families can't navigate the system to be left behind. I thought school choice only further created a sense of us vs them- parents who cared enough to make the choice and those who did not.

And of course I still think we need to fix all schools and I hate to think of parents fleeing a school leaving behind only those students whose parents don't have the resources or the knowledge to look for other schools.

But after the last couple years I've started to wonder if maybe school choice wouldn't be the worst thing. It seems that we're dealing with more and more frustrated parents- and not just at the Think-Tank. Teachers I know from all over the country are struggling with parents who, although otherwise rational and caring people, are suddenly making unreasonable demands on their schools.

I love working with parents. I love meeting with parents and I welcome feedback-positive or negative- on how things are going. I am more than happy to listen to concerns about how things are going in my classroom and discuss ways we could make it better.

What I find has been happening lately- and again, not just to teachers at my school but teachers I know all over- is that parents don't want a discussion about what's best for their child. They don't want to express concerns and listen to how we plan to improve the situation. They want to dictate what happens inside the classroom. Despite teachers and principals explaining current research, best practice, and showing data that clearly shows a method is teaching the child to read, a few parents refuse to be open to suggestions from the school. In these parents' minds it seems to have become the school vs the parent and no matter what the school says or does it is not going to change the parent's mind.

Most parents are not like this, of course, and again, as educators we usually love interacting with parents. Even when we're being challenged we can come out of the situation creating a better education for the child. Every parent should advocate for their child.

But a few parents walk into the building already assuming that everything we do or say is wrong without listening or being open to a discussion.

It's for those parents that I wonder if school choice would create a better situation. Not that it would mean that the parents could just leave, but I think the mere concept of choice would improve the situation. Listening to those parents I think that what they are really saying is that they feel powerless. This is their child, their baby. The Mama Bear instinct we all have kicks into high gear and they want to guarantee that they are doing everything in their power for their child who currently spends a significant amount of time away from them. So they stand up and speak out for their child. As they should- as long as it is a discussion where both parties are open to feedback.

I can't help but wonder if these parents had a choice in where to send their children- if they had actively chosen where to send their little ones- would they be more willing to listen to teachers? Would there be more respect for teachers and administrators if these were the teachers/administrators that came with their choice. Would more reasonable conversations and discussions occur since the parents were feeling as though they'd already had a say in the conversation when they originally made the choice?

I have no idea, as I have never worked at a school where parents were able to choose. I can't help but wonder though, if the mere power of choice would create a more friendly teacher/parent relationship.

And since we can't magically create school choice what can we do with parents who feel they are "stuck" in our schools? How can we give them the right amount of choice and voice in our classrooms so that we are able to have conversations around what is best for their child?


Anonymous said...

"I believed that we need to fix the schools that exist, not allow the parents with resources to find better schools to flee their neighborhood schools, forcing children whose families can't navigate the system to be left behind."

This is actually a powerful argument in favor of school choice. In the above statement, you are saying that the current situation is so bad that parents who care about their child's education will flee the public school at the first opportunity. If that is the case, parents and children SHOULD be allowed to flee. I can't see the moral case of sacrificing a child's education to force his parents to fix a school.

It is a different thing to say, someone given a choice will choose my school versus no one has a choice so there are at my school.

Parents understand that if the people in charge are adamantly against choice, it is because the admin/teachers know there is a problem and have little interest in what the parent's want for their child.

organized chaos said...

OK, I can see what you're saying, but that certainly isn't what I intended to imply.
1) I think we need to change the school choice conversation from public vs charter or private to choice within public school districts.
2) Admins/teachers who don't agree with school choice are not just being lazy and trying not to fix the problem. They worry about taking resources away from the public schools, they worry about white-flight and segregation, they worry that the debate over school choice is ignoring real problems.
3) Just because choice exists does not mean that people will always make the best choice.

Anonymous said...

Oh, I definitely see the trend you're talking about! I've taught in a state with public school choice, and I am supportive of the concept... not every school is the best match for every child/family. BUT, I actually think that once parents have CHOSEN a school, they are that much more invested in it and concerned that the school meet their expectations...

organized chaos said...

you're right- and that's what I've slowly begun to realize. Parents would be more willing to talk and discuss things with us if they'd actually chosen us in the first place.

Anonymous said...

First Anonymous here,

I have a hard time seeing another implication to denying parents the ability to choose where their child goes to school.

We are the ones who are trying to raise these children and the ones who have to dry their tears when they face a bad situation in school day after day.

Adults in a free society make choices. The reality that sometimes one makes a poor choice does not imply that the ability to make choices should be taken away.

I also think the "white flight" issue is used to stop the conversation. I know several people of color (how I hate that term) who desparately tried to get their kids out of a school district. Before state law was changed, the district could prevent them from going to another public school. That district prevented people from leaving. One person I know couldn't afford private school, and so her only option was that district.

Another set of friends could afford private school and so their kids went to private school.

How much good will did either set of parents have towards the district that tried to hold them hostage?

organized chaos said...

Totally agree that the ability to make a poor choice should not limit the ability to make the choice. That's another aspect I've come to terms with. If a parent wants a school that is still teaching like we did in the 1950s then by all means, go find it. The parent and the school are not going to get anywhere by debating best practices if the parent is set on a certain type of instruction that schools no longer provide. I think the debate needs to recognize that. As a public school teacher the school choice movement seems to want to attack us by saying "anything is better than a public school." Parents begin to believe that just because a school is a charter school it automatically is going to be better than the public schools themselves.
The debate needs to be a more free-market discussion on what happens when people have the power of choice in their lives instead of district-run public schools vs charter schools (yes, I know charter schools are still public schools, but there is a difference).
When I talk about my school or just talk about education in general people frequently ask me if I work at a charter school. They seemed shocked that a public school would provide the intense support and innovation that my school did. When someone heard I was going to a brand new school they were again shocked that a new public school was opening- they'd assumed I was going to a charter school.
The school choice movement has created a perception that charter schools are inherently better, which isn't the case.
I could go on and on about that, but I won't because that's not the issue here.
What we need to focus on (and what I've finally realized) is that having a choice is a powerful tool to get people involved and empower them. The school they are running from may be fantastic, but if they are not comfortable there it will not be a productive place for their child.
Do you work with my husband? Are you someone I know that is in his free-market world?