Editor’s note: This is the third post in our series on the future of parental choice and accountability.
Like it or not, many cities are moving toward nearly universal school choice. In cities like Detroit, Cleveland, and Milwaukee, nearly all families have the opportunity to choose among district schools, charter, and private options, and few children attend an assigned neighborhood school. Parents are more empowered than ever to actively decide on a school and, hopefully, insist on better outcomes.
But this explosion of choice brings serious challenges. It’s extremely important for schools to be held accountable to families, through the force of the market, but it’s not enough. In “high-choice” cities, parents with the least education and those whose children have special needs are struggling to understand and access their choices. Sometimes each school has different application timelines and processes. Schools aren’t always equipped for, or welcoming to, students with special needs. To make choosing even harder, each of the dozen or so agencies chartering schools in each city has different standards and accountability requirements.
Some neighborhoods have far too many schools, and parents are aggressively courted with cash and other rewards—but academic quality is rarely at the forefront. In other neighborhoods, no new schools want to locate so parents have no real choices.
When choice is unleashed in distressed, high-poverty communities, provider freedom to open schools and parent choice are not enough to accomplish the goals of free and excellent public education for all. Someone must be responsible to create new options for the most disadvantaged, and schools must be called to account when they don’t live up to their promises. That doesn’t happen often enough in places like Detroit and Cleveland, where the many charter authorizers have little incentive to close schools.
This challenge will grow when students are able to use public funding to purchase online courses, take courses in private schools, and spend part of their day in a community college. By 2025, more schools may serve as sites for a variety of online student learning programs rather than places where teachers deliver traditional lessons in classrooms. Learning environments will, hopefully, allow students to move through material as quickly as they can master it, and assessments will keep pace with differentiated learning.
These are exciting possibilities, but it will be all the more difficult to make sure that disadvantaged students don’t get left behind. If we do nothing to rethink accountability, we will move even further away from being able to say exactly what provider is responsible for a student’s outcomes and the less aggressive and knowledgeable parents will be even more lost. I see three main challenges in making sure choice works for all children:
1. Deciding what information matters. Many cities are moving toward common accountability frameworks to make it easier to apply a fair standard to school closures and to give parents a common understanding of school quality. But as schools increasingly differentiate, it becomes harder to find common measures to capture whether or not schools are effective. As online courses and new school options proliferate, we will need a much richer evidence base. We’ll need to know which programs and courses work well and for what types of students. School principals may need to start reporting how each student’s learning accelerates or declines under various programs they engage in throughout the day, especially as grade levels become less meaningful than content mastery.
Also, it’s important to acknowledge that parents look to many other factors besides test scores, like safe and caring environments, when choosing schools. Even if that information doesn’t carry weight in school renewal decisions, government or community groups need to help parents access it.
2. Dealing with multiple oversight agencies. Cities with choice are quickly becoming more like highly fragmented systems of schools than school systems, with schools managed or authorized by a wide variety of entities. Who is to be held accountable for failure in systems that are hardly systems at all? Who is responsible to create options for families in benighted neighborhoods that school providers avoid? Where can parents turn if their children are denied entry to a charter school based on a disability? Who is responsible for ensuring that students of families who don’t choose get assigned to schools that are a good fit? Who will help students who are kicked out of several schools for severe behavior problems?
3. Guarding against unnecessary regulation. Schools of choice will be regulated, because there are real issues that need to be resolved around quality and equity. The choice community will have to fight vigilantly to avoid regulation that re-creates the onerous regulatory systems of the past. But it will also have to work proactively to resolve problems voluntarily before there is need for government intervention.
If we hope to hold schools of choice accountable in a way that doesn’t put them back in a regulatory box or create onerous testing mandates, choice advocates will need to develop:
- Ways to hold schools accountable when students may not be present at one school for the whole day
- Ways to track how students are learning across a variety of programs and intervene if they are going off track
- Ways to create safety nets for students with extreme behavior problems or other special needs
- A common yardstick to compare schools and programs, for both parents and those tasked with identifying low-performing schools
- Online assessments that track student mastery in ways that aren’t burdensome for teachers or students
These next-generation accountability questions will require creative thinking, honesty, and humility about the limits of market-based accountability.
Robin Lake is director of the Center of Reinventing Public Education.
Coming Thursday: Patricia Levesque, executive director, Foundation for Excellence in Education.