“School choice” is all the rage. “Accountability” is all the rage. “Funding” is all the rage. I’ve written before on the more fundamental concerns we should be addressing: Student socialization both prior to and within the school, requiring us to pay more attention to that larger portion of a child’s educational preparation that occurs outside the school building and outside the school year and hours, and requiring us to focus more on preparing students to be students than on seeking superficial panaceas that can succeed without attending to this fundamental challenge.
But there is another dimension on which we are systematically failing to address our real educational challenges: The manner in which students and teachers are placed. “School choice” is based on a notion of educational consumers and providers, relying on market dynamics to discipline schools. “School choice,” however, is a misguided effort to homogenize schools, to set them up to compete for generic clients, rather than to create more targeted educational institutions, in which those students who currently do the most to undermine the education of others are placed away from others where they cannot do so, in highly disciplined environments where they can learn to behave in a manner that does not adversely affect others, and in which all other students are similarly assigned to environments which are specifically tailored to meet their particular needs and to leverage their particular talents.
Neither teachers nor students are fungible; each is unique, and all fall along numerous axes of variation. School reform, and intentional educational policy, has paid little or no attention to the challenge of ensuring that we make an effort to place the right students with the right teachers, that we utilize our human capital to maximum advantage by playing to individual teachers’ comparative advantages, and that we serve students most effectively by assigning them to the teachers and schools that best serve their needs.
There are students currently thrown together in struggling urban schools with very different sets of challenges and difficulties, often exacerbating one another’s problems, feeding into one another’s dysfunctions, and creating unmanageable or difficult to manage chaos together, whereas removing just a few of the students who really need strict military-style discipline from that setting would free the teacher and the remainder of the students to engage in a far more functional and fast-moving educational process. Further, assigning students more carefully according to their strengths, weaknesses, and needs would allow those particular strengths weaknesses and needs to be most effectively addressed. This is, in many ways, the opposite of the direction we have gone in, insisting that students with identified special needs are placed in “the least restrictive environment,” meaning not separated from other students lacking similar needs unless “absolutely necessary” (by criteria of necessity that does not include overall educational effectiveness for all children).
Similarly, teachers with a gift for teaching the highest functioning and most motivated students (highly intellectual college-level teachers with vast enthusiasm and expertise in their discipline and imaginative, intellectually stimulating lesson plans) often find themselves stuck in struggling schools beset by serious behavioral problems, frustrated by the fact that they have no special gift for this job, though they do for another that goes by the same name. As a result, their careers are short and education loses excellent teachers who were destroyed by a dysfunctional system. At the same time, teachers whose subject-area expertise and imagination are less well developed but have excellent classroom management skills are often promoted to teaching advanced courses in pedestrian ways, where the most highly motivated and capable students are deprived of the benefits of more knowledgeable and imaginative teachers.
This is one more dimension to our deep-structural educational dysfunction, along with an unwillingness to tap into, in a very robust way, the community resources available to our kids (i.e., professionals and retirees who would be glad to volunteer their time tutoring and mentoring kids, but are never asked to do so), to broaden the educational mission to include more focused and extensive work with families in order to assist them in assisting their children to become intellectually curious life-long learners, and to engage in programmatic strategies for developing student cultures in which students themselves mutually reinforce educationally productive behaviors and mutually discourage educationally counterproductive behaviors in their peers.
(See the seventh box at Catalogue of Selected Posts for hyperlinks to essays on related education policy ideas and critiques of current popular education reform obsessions.)