This past weekend, the Metropolitan Nashville Public School (MNPS) system held its annual First Choice Festival. Needless to say, I did not attend despite several invitations from the MNPS Communications department. “You can’t judge it ‘til you see it,” they cajoled. I refused to rise to the bait, responding, “I don’t need to break into houses to know stealing is wrong.” I even found myself in a rare disagreement with one of the voices I most respect in MNPS who believes that the festival serves as a showcase of all Metro schools. But my problem is with the “choice” concept itself and not with the execution of the First Choice Festival. In my eyes, “choice,” and therefore the festival, further exacerbates a vision of winners and losers among the public and works to create greater inequities.
The basic idea with the First Choice Festival is that an annual fair is held to showcase all the schools in Nashville for parents to see the quality options available, which is a noble idea. This presumably enables them to select a school that they would like to send their child to next year. The theme is, supposedly, we want to make all MNPS schools a parent’s first choice. However, that’s not the reality. There are schools whose qualities are not evident by simply visiting a booth on a Sunday afternoon. Some schools have more resources and fewer challenges than other schools. As a parent, why would I want to send my child to a school that has fewer resources and more challenges when the opportunity exists to choose differently?
Two scenarios repeatedly happen as a result of the choice model. Imagine we have two schools, A and B. In the first scenario, School A’s demographics are a 97% poverty level and a 71% English Learner (EL) population in an overcrowded, aging school. Because of these demographics, tests scores are lower. In the second scenario, School B has a poverty level of 50% with an EL population of 40% and has higher test scores. School A, because of its demographics, has to spend a great deal more resources on their EL students than School B. Children in poverty also tend to have a lot more challenges, despite what education reformers assert, so they’re a bit costlier as well. In MNPS, where 72.7% of students are considered economically disadvantaged, this a real issue facing most of our schools.
Side note here: When talking about English learners, the general perception is that we are referring to children who speak Spanish, and therefore, the language barrier is the primary concern. That is a falsehood. In Nashville, we are blessed with children from Nepal, Burma, Ukraine, Somalia, and Sudan, just to name a few. Many are actual refugees. The issues facing refugee children and immigrant children are vastly different. Sometimes language is just the tip of the barrier. With some children, more socialization is required than others. These children may suffer from trauma, PTSD, and so forth. It’s vital that this is recognized so that we can best serve these children. Our accountability should not be limited to performance on standardized tests.
These days, however incomplete and wrong it may be, the primary measurement of a school’s quality is how it performs on standardized tests. Since School B has fewer challenges, they don’t need to spend quite as much time focusing on testing because their kids have more resources, and therefore, are likely to have more kids at or above grade level. This allows the school a luxury to provide extracurricular activities and focus on art, music, and other humanities. The pressure to perform is high, but not unrelenting.
School A does not have that luxury. They can’t rely on parental support at home because parents may be working multiple jobs, home lives may be less stable, language barriers may exist, and on and on. Every minute during that school day has to be focused on upcoming assessments and performing, otherwise they run the risk of being labeled a failure. Pressure permeates the building. Less time is devoted to electives and humanities. Students at School A do not necessarily get the same educational experience as those at School B.
This pressure is there even though, as Kristina Rizga points out in her new book Mission High: One School, How Experts Tried to Fail It, and the Students and Teachers Who Made It Triumph, standardized tests do not give an accurate picture of a school’s success. Just a reminder here that schools like this are labeled as “failing” based solely on their test scores by the corporate reform crowd, but these schools are in no way failing. Step inside one any day and you’ll see learning happening. It’s just that the challenges they face are much, much greater.
Another side note. What we are demanding from our teachers in these high poverty/high EL schools is an unsustainable model. The demands do not allow for teachers to have a life outside the classroom. Between prepping and worrying, it’s a never ending recipe for burnout, causing teachers to leave after a few years. In short, we are creating an unstable situation for those children who require the most stability. Nashville high school principal Dr. Ron Woodard highlights the importance of retaining teachers in his latest blog post and offers insight into possible ways to offset some of the challenges.
Back to our scenarios with School A. If I was a parent who had the time and the means to attend a “First Choice Festival,” because let’s be honest, not all parents have the means to attend, which school do you think I would pick? Odds are, I would be leaving a school like School A behind. That means that School A loses out on parents who could serve as vital resources with the potential to make a real impact. It also means that the demographics will shift again, and School A will now be 98% poverty and 75% EL. This change will cause a further shift in focus, and then guess what? Eventually, we will have schools whose sole purposes are serving our most challenging kids and do not provide the same educational experience as other schools like School B.
“Choice” proponents will say in their most incredulous voice, “You’d leave those kids trapped in those failing schools.” But I’m not proposing leaving anyone trapped. First of all, in encouraging parents to send their children to zoned schools and to get involved, you are providing those schools resources that could potentially move the needle. After all, visit any charter school and a key ingredient in their recipe for success is parental involvement; in fact, it is frequently a requirement. Why shouldn’t public schools try to replicate that in some way? What if, instead, the “First Choice Festival” was the “Get Involved Festival”? Encouraging parents to volunteer and participate in schools.
I challenge you to find me a failing school that has a strong Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). In fact, in many more successful schools, it’s their PTOs who add the additional resources and finances to make those schools successful. Compare what PTOs in our “more attractive” schools raise compared to our “failing” schools. Here’s a hint: some of our failing schools don’t even have parent organizations. MNPS has made a commitment to increasing parental involvement through the creation of the Parent Advisory Committee (PAC), but it’s still a model that needs more direction.
There is also a myth that our “failing schools” have subpar instructors – I even alluded to it earlier. Let me be clear, as someone whose children are enrolled in such a school, nothing could be further from the truth. In fact, to quote a good friend, Inglewood Elementary School parent Jai Sanders, “The quality of instruction often goes a long way to covering up the inequality.” I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about that statement and my own experience has borne it out, but it’s incredibly eye-opening when you start to catch glimpses of the inequality. And once you see it, you realize that it can’t continue unchecked.
Parents really should make it a point to get out into the schools more often to see the inequities and differences that exist. In visiting our local schools, people would see not only the struggles but the good as well – all the learning and positive things that are happening in spite of the negativity that comes with being labeled as a “failing” school. However, I’m going to say something unpopular here that needs to be said as well. I don’t believe that parents have enough pedagogical knowledge to be able to visit a school and determine if quality instruction is taking place. The truth is, there are principals who are ill-equipped to do observations and evaluate the level of instruction they encounter in classrooms. I can see the head shakes right now, but take the emotion out and we know it’s true. I don’t know how many times I’ve come home either critiquing or extolling the virtues of some instruction I’d viewed, only to have my wife, who is a teacher in a school like School A, explain the realities. That’s why it’s important to have teachers at the core of our instructional policies. Still, it’s important to get into our schools and witness what is transpiring.
Furthermore, schools should be about more than just classroom instruction. The goal is to prepare children for the real world and to create lifelong learners. Both my children sit next to children in class who speak no English. Yet they spend a portion of every day finding ways to communicate with each other. That’s a skill that they will use for the rest of their lives and an important lesson in not only communication, but also in empathy and focusing on the similarities and not the differences. Lessons that will improve the quality of life, but will never be measured by a standardized test. In educating children, we must not assign value only to that which can be measured. Empathy, adaptability, creativity, and problem solving are all as important as reading, writing, and arithmetic.
Now let’s look at the scenario with School B. Fast forward to January when school choice selections are announced and troll my social media feeds where parents react to the results. Overwhelmingly, those who did not get their first selection feel like losers and those who did are trumpeting their victory. The losers feel like they are being forced back to one of those failing schools, and the winners feel like lottery winners. Now if you haven’t been declared a winner, you do have some hope, because your name goes on a waiting list, and you can spend the next six months checking to see if you’ve moved up and are therefore freed from a losing situation. Of course, that wait period further reinforces the view that your zoned school, or second choice, is an inferior one.
The other alternative here is to look at other options. Luckily, charter schools like Valor Collegiate Academy, a charter school, are here to make you feel better. You see, even though Valor proudly claims to be a public school, it doesn’t participate in the MNPS choice program. It has an independent application process. Didn’t get your child into that high-performing middle school you wanted? Valor feels your pain and are ready to offer you a solution. One that preys upon the choice system promoted by MNPS.
Yet another alternative is to move to a different county with perceived better schools. This is an option exercised by many parents and has partially led to Williamson County being the fastest growing counties in Tennessee. The educational system is one the main reasons people cite for relocating. With either Valor or Williamson County, once again our zoned schools lose and the self-fulfilling prophecy of “failing schools” continues to be perpetrated.
Everybody likes to talk about having an honest conversation, yet we seldom do. We extol the virtues of a policy while ignoring the costs. We need to recognize the cost of a “choice” system: that our public schools are further devalued, defunded, and labeled as failing, making them not a viable choice. I agree with blogger and educator Peter Greene: parents don’t want more choice, they want more quality. My wish would be that we put as much effort into creating that quality for everyone as we do in creating choice for some. Recent recommendations by Tennessee’s Assessment Task Force are a good start. But we need to go further. We need to increase parental involvement for all schools, increase funding, and take steps to increase teacher retention in all schools. Only then will all our schools become the first choice for parents.