The Center for Public School Renewal

NOTE: Published in slightly different form as "School Choice: Make Attendance Voluntary" by The Detroit News, 1/14/96.

Original Title:
School Choice: A Fundamental Misconception
by Barry McGhan

All of the recent interest in school choice--charter schools, cross-district enrollment measures, vouchers, etc.--focuses on only one side of the choice "coin." That side is parents' and students' choice of which school to attend. But what about the other side of the coin--the school's choice of which students to work with? It is my contention that this other side--one that is rarely discussed--is the most critical aspect of school choice. Let me give you an example.

Back in the '70's I taught in a public alternative high school called The Schools of Choice. The school mainly served the dropouts and kickouts in the district--kids who had been unsuccessful at the four regular high schools and elected to give us a try. At SOC, two out of three of these students became winners. A key element in SOC's success was its option to drop those students it couldn't work with. This control over the clientele created a purposeful climate that allowed troubled students to finally succeed. In short, the staff had a luxury that's not available to most public school teachers--the power to choose a set of reasonable operational rules and strongly enforce them.

SOC's size varied from 300 to 500 students, with a waiting list of another 200 or so. When students enrolled they agreed to abide by a small set of behavioral rules. Breaking some of the rules, like "no fighting," created an immediate vacancy for someone on the waiting list. Breaking others, like "making progress toward graduation," took longer to create a vacancy because the staff wanted to give as many opportunities as possible before exiting someone from the program. The power to control its internal environment--even with a clientele composed almost entirely of at-risk students--made The Schools of Choice the successful program that it was.

Schools with similar power, such as private schools, mainly appeal to parents because they can set rules and enforce them. It makes a huge difference, and parents know it. They know that a school that can enforce a reasonable code of conduct will protect the learning environment of their children. It's the absence of this protection that is at the root of the public's concern for the efficacy of public schooling.

School choice advocates tout creating competition among schools as a means of improving school performance. But, if these measures don't also give schools the power to enforce their rules by choosing not to work with uncooperative students, we will not see much improvement.

The theory behind the practice has to do with something called a normative organization. Such organizations function best when all the participants cooperate because they share common purposes and goals. They are not like prisons, where behavior is coerced, or businesses, where cooperation is purchased. When persuasion fails, and people refuse to cooperate with the goals of such an organization, its only option is to separate itself from those who won't participate.

Schools are normative organizations because of the nature of the formal learning process. Formal education outside of the home works best when children want to learn because they want to please adults who trust and respect them. Children are in school for a only few hours a day, and are handled in groups rather than individually. Consequently, the school can't have much of an impact on individual learning--unless the children agree to cooperate.

Some will say that schools just need tougher rules; but forced cooperation generally doesn't work. Students become disruptive, and older students skip school. Even submissive children can be a million miles away from the business of school in their thoughts. Others will say that teachers merely need to teach in a more engaging manner, yet such measures only go so far. Some students, at certain times in their lives, are simply unmanageable in a group setting.

Since schools cannot effectively coerce or buy cooperation they are forced to make a number of compromises with certain students and parents. These compromises produce a poor approximation of the behavior needed for group learning. Private schools have the best of the situation since they have the power to expel students who won't or can't cooperate. Their compromise is the decision to lose that student's tuition. Most public schools make compromises that reduce the effectiveness of their learning environment. As society becomes more fractured and fractious, the compromises forced on public schools (at least in some places) will seem increasingly futile.

Perhaps it is time to make all schools "schools of choice" and think about eliminating compulsory attendance laws. Such a change, if it includes reasonable safeguards, would encourage students, parents, and teachers to behave responsibly. Schools would come to be seen as effective. Public education would become the privilege that it is, rather than the burdensome duty it has often seemed.


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