President George Bush has seized on the politically appealing but educationally disastrous concept of school “choice” as the centerpiece of an otherwise ho-hum education initiative.
The initiative, announced with much fanfare on April 18, does little to address the crisis in public education in this country, according to a wide variety of educators.
Larry Cuban, professor of education at Stanford University, said that while the choice plan is a “fundamental change,” the overall initiative is anything but the renaissance or revolution that Bush claims.
“It is an attempt to give a new paint job to an old jalopy,” Cuban said.
Key elementary and secondary school initiatives under the plan, called “America 2000,” include:
- Incentives to states and school districts to promote school “choice,” under which public dollars would be used to allow children to go to private schools, including religious schools.
- Money to help design 535 new schools, or at least one for each congressional district, as national models of reform.
- Voluntary nationwide tests in English, math, science, history and geography in grades 4, 8 and 12.
- State-by-state comparisons of student progress.
The Bush initiative rests primarily on rhetoric, not financing. Only $690 million is proposed in new money, much of it to create the model schools. Nor does the proposal bolster federal programs that have a long history of success, such as Chapter 1 funds that provide extra money for schools with low-income children, and the Head Start early childhood program.
The most controversial aspect of Bush’s initiative involves the school “choice” plan, long a dream of religious and private schools. Advocates have dropped the use of terms such as “voucher plan” or “tuition tax credits,” and are clothing the long-discredited perspective in the appealing rhetoric of freedom of choice.
The plan would allow some children to attend private and religious schools at public expense but would do nothing to address the problems of most public school students, in particular poor children and children of color.
The choice plan extends to schools “the concept of a free market system, as if the free market has solved the problems in health, housing and other social areas,” according to Bill Ayers, assistant professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Lola Glover, director of the Coalition for Quality Education in Toledo, Ohio, said she feared the choice system would exacerbate differences between largely minority schools in big cities and mostly white suburban schools.
“We must be realistic,” Glover said. “There’s classism and racism and sexism in our society. Until those don’t exist, the purpose of choice on a national level is mind-blowing — it will create a caste-system and resegregation.”
At issue, fundamentally, is a willingness to abandon the concept of public schools and public education in this country, Glover and others said.
“The minute you say it’s okay to deal in the private sector with schools, some kids lose out,” said C.J. Prentiss, a representative (D-Cleveland) in the Ohio legislature. “You’re disinvesting in our public institutions, which is where we’re supposed to guarantee children an equitable education….
“Parents with the most wherewithal, those who are most educated and most aggressive, will get the best schools for their kids. Then you’ve got a whole other group of parents who don’t know how to negotiate the system. It’s simply going to be a benefit for the haves, and the have-nots will once again lose out.”
National Tests Criticized
Bush’s proposal for a nationwide system of tests has also come under harsh criticism.
“Our schools now give more than 200 million standardized exams each year and the typical student must take several dozen before graduating,” said a statement signed by almost 50 educators and organizations, ranging from the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, to the National PTA, to the National Education Association. “Adding more testing is clearly not the way to improve education any more than taking the temperature of a patient more often will reduce his or her fever.” (See Educators Criticize National Tests.)
Educators fear that national tests would be similar to the standardized tests that are used by most localities and states. And standardized tests often force teachers to teach to the test, rather than help children master the knowledge and critical thinking they will need to survive in the 21st Century.
“Test-driven curricula will inevitably narrow the scope, range, diversity and creativity of school learning,” charged a statement by the Network of Progressive Educators. “Such programs will straight-jacket innovative school reforms, wasting public and private money that is currently invested in reform efforts.”
Mary Diez, dean of the school of education at Alverno College in Milwaukee, said she feared that the call for more tests will merely lead to a proliferation of bell-shaped curve tests. Such tests are designed so that most children are in the average range, and some will always be above average and some will always be below average. When children on the bottom start doing better, the test is redesigned. And this historically works against poor children.
“The kids who score high on tests, by and large, are kids who come from backgrounds that are advantaged.” Diez said. “So what are we testing? We already know their background.”
Diez and others instead call for new ways to assess children’s performance, such as seeing how they work in a group to solve problems, and how well they write essays and stories.
“Testing should be used primarily as a vehicle to help teachers figure out how to intervene and help the student,” Diez said. “But a lot of tests are basically just public relations. And I think kids are too important to be used to get our competitive jollies, that my district is better than yours.”