Matt Barnum: Families Don’t Care What Traditionalists Think About Their Choices
High performing charter school have long been criticized for what some consider to be oppressive school discipline and cultures. I’ve noticed these arguments have cropped up again semi-recently, with a post by EduShyster, linked to by Diane Ravitch. Although I myself do not find the KIPP-style philosophy particularly problematic, I’m not going to offer a defense of it here. Rather the more significant point is that the ability of successful charters to implement particularized pedagogies is one of the important benefits of school choice for a simple reason: every student at such charters is there because of an affirmative choice made by his or her parents. There’s almost no doubt that parents know, by and large, what goes on in the school – it’s fair to assume that kids are eager to tell – and yet parents are nevertheless willing choose that sort of education for their children.
According to Diane Ravitch reformers “say that black children need a ‘different’ kind of education, an education where they are taught to obey, to conform, to listen in silence, and to do as they are told without question. [Reformers] think that days on end of test prep is the right kind of education for black children, but not for their own.” Actually, she’s got it backwards. Insofar as the issue applies to charter schools (or any school of choice), it’s not reformers who are determining the type of education “black children need” – it is those children’s parents. Indeed, traditionalists like Ravitch are the ones who are trying to override parents’ decisions and determine the type of education that other people’s children receive. And have been attempting to do so for quite some time.
Let me be clear: I’m not arguing that parental decisions are always good – that’s a separate point – but when traditionalists criticize certain charters’ education model, they’re also implicitly criticizing parents’ choices for what’s best for their kids. That’s fine, but such a view should be explicit. (For an example of this, see Alfie Kohn’s provocative Answer Sheet blog post, in which he argues that parental involvement is not always positive. Fair enough, though his view is really that parental involvement is only good if parents happen to hold the exact same views on education as him.)
Substantively, it’s hard for me to see how questioning parents’ choices makes much sense. Are parents not rationale in believing that a more structured – and perhaps more disciplined – environment is preferable for some children? Maybe some parents believe that such discipline is not ideal, but then what are the alternatives? Aren’t parents in the best position to weight school options for their own child?
Traditionalists, by and large, are not all that interested in offering alternatives to failing public schools (or, as Dropout Nation Editor RiShawn Biddle points out, even interested in giving families the power to transform the very failing schools in their own neighborhoods); instead, they’re more concerned with telling parents that, no, no, don’t worry, our schools aren’t that bad after all, that they can’t really be improved, or that poverty is the problem. To be fair, many traditionalists are genuinely committed to improving neighborhood public schools; others sincerely believe that schools cannot be fixed until poverty is ended; still others raise legitimate questions about the quality of charters as a group. Regardless, I can’t accept glibly dismissing a parent’s choice to send their child to a school that could significantly improve that child’s life trajectory.
I generally view schools choice as a means – a delivery method – to an end – improving educational quality. But there are reasons why choice is good in and of itself. Unlike traditional public schools, a choice system gives parents meaningful options regarding how their children are educated. If traditionalists or certain parents don’t like a “No Excuses”–style philosophy, that’s a powerful argument not for contracting school choice, but for expanding it.