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Philosophical Meanderings

What is School Choice, Really?

This is cross-posted from my Philly Teacher blog. I wanted to extend the conversation to this community of forward-thinking and innovative educators, so I have added it to the Co-op. I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts.

Pennsylvania’s new Governor, Tom Corbett, ran on a platform of school vouchers. He and his neighbor, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie have been pushing for legislation to bring more of them to their respective states.  Most of the arguments I have heard supporting school vouchers is that they support school choice.

This idea that being able to choose from a traditional public school, a public charter, a parochial school or a private independent school is true ‘choice’ is a huge falsehood.

When we talk about school choice, we should be talking about choices in instructional models. We know that not all students learn the same. We know that some students can succeed in the traditional model. We know that many do not. We also know that there are a variety of alternatives to the traditional model.

I recently went to a public gathering focused around the new independent school opening here in Philadelphia called Philly Free School. The founders of the school have spent a lot of time visiting similar schools which are based off of the Sudbury Valley School in Massachussets, a democratic school in which students direct their own learning and make all the decisions in the school through a democratic process.  In the informative literature from the Fairhaven School that they distributed at the meeting, there was a sheet for parents to help them understand and explain the school’s model to others. It was called, “OK, so you’re sort of like…” followed by a list of school models and a comparison between them and the Fairhaven model. Some of the school models on the list were a Montessori School, a Waldorf School, a Progressive School, Homeschooling and Student Governments in traditional schools.

This list shows what true school choice really looks like.

The Philly Free School is an amazing model. It takes a certain kind of student to be able to function there and it takes even that kind of student time to adjust when coming from a traditional school setting. It is not for everyone. Similarly, a Montessori School model might be too open and free for some students (though I would argue it would be too open and free for the parents rather than the student), while another model might be too test-driven for a family.

Recently, I have been reflecting on my own education. I experienced a variety of school models over the course of my K-12 education career, some of which fit me well and some which did not. I started my schooling in a Montessori school. I then entered Kindergarten at a small private school that stressed project-based learning. I spent K-3rd grades tackling a huge, multi-layered project each year.  I also spent my summers exploring beaches, marshes and reading tons of books of my own choosing (some might call this self-directed learning).

As I entered 4th grade in the new district that my parents had chosen to move to due to its high-performing schools, I began my first experience with traditional public schooling. Needless to say, I was miserable. I was placed in a Talented and Gifted program (TAG), for which I was pulled out of class, but school was much, much different. Timed tests, bullying and few projects or student-centered learning.

I spent the rest of my school years in the local public schools until senior year when I applied to Walkabout, an alternative program for high school seniors. During my senior year I completed a 4 week community service project during which I only went to school once a week, went on two week-long backpacking trips, and completed a 6-week internship in NYC that I landed on my own. During my internship I also only attended school once a week.  That year was one of the best years of school I can remember.

One aspect of Walkabout and the private school I attended was that they were selective. There were a limited number of slots in the Walkabout program and the director of the program hand-selected students from the applicants, choosing only those for whom the program was a good fit.  To enter the private school I took a series of IQ and other tests (some which helped me earn scholarship money) as a sort of screening process.

I’m not sure that this means that traditional public schools should be selective, but I think that were there more diversity among public school models, not just climates, resources and performance then school choice would make more sense.  Not all schools work for all kids, so why are we pretending that they do? Rather than offering boot camp ‘reform’ schools for ‘problem children,’ perhaps they just need a school that is more geared toward self-directed learning? Maybe those students who constantly get in trouble would benefit from the opportunity for more flexibility in their day. What about those students who are successful in traditional school but leave without any sense of what their true desires are?

We need to stop thinking about school choice at face value and begin to think more deeply about the choices we are really giving students and their families.


8 thoughts on “What is School Choice, Really?

  1. Wow. This is a powerful piece.

    I thought that the original mandate of the public charters in the US was to be able to provide options like you suggest, but that this has not materialized. I wonder if the policy makers who are implementing charter schools are even aware of non-traditional school models?

    In British Columbia, we have a school called the Windsor House school. It is a publicly funded parent participation democratic school in North Vancouver. We also have publicly funded Montessori schools, IB schools, and a few mini-schools which are all very unique, and sought after. One example of the mini-school is the JO Digital Immersion program, another is the Nootka Fine Arts school. In British Columbia, we have a lot of school choice programs, some of which might be considered “too radical” for much of the US, but which serve a need in our community. In fact, the alternative programs are so popular with parents in BC, they are expanding rapidly.

    These programs were largely developed by parents, teachers, and administrators talking about what the needs of the community are, and trying to meet those needs.

    However what I see in the US is more of a mistaken notion that if we just opened up the market for schools, that naturally all sorts of choices will open up for parents. However that only happens when you have a model for accountability which is flexible enough to accommodate these differences. The top-down inflexible NCLB and RTTT models will never result in the types of innovations we see here in BC. It’s just not possible to create a radically new kind of school when every school is expected to produce a carbon-copy student by the end of the 12th grade.

    Posted by David Wees | May 19, 2011, 9:13 am
  2. Mary Beth, This is a great piece, and I recommend that readers follow your links to see the Fairhaven page that compares various school models, and the description of the Walkabout, just to get informed up about what you are actually describing. Thank you too for the description of your own schooling journey, and the ways in which conventional public school did not fit or foster you as a learner.

    For me what you are describing is very much aligned with the activist work I am doing at IDEA and other places: to try to make a variety of educational MODELS (instructional models, as you say) increasingly available to parents, families, students, and to make them feel and seem VIABLE, not like something “crazy” or “alternative” or only appropriate for “special” children who do not fit into the mainstream public school model. I argue that many–perhaps most (maybe 70%)–of all children do not learn best in the traditional public school model, but it is a monopoly, and it is a monopoly desperately fighting for its life tooth and claw. That is why it fiercely resists all incursions from charters, privates and other educational entities, and in terms of the discourse, often seeks to discredit those who do not enroll in the traditional public school, for a variety of reasons.

    The big piece here, as your post highlights, is that many parents and students to not know that they have choices, or there truly are not affordable educational alternatives to choose from in their neighborhoods or communities. Parents, students, activists need to fight fiercely to provide those choices or seek access to those choices–within and without the system.

    How are you bringing what you learned, from your own range of your educational experiences, into your activist work as a teacher? What are you doing to disrupt the traditional educational model, and to let your students know there are alternatives?

    Thank you,


    Posted by Kirsten | May 20, 2011, 7:48 am
    • thank Mary Beth Hertz! This is a great post. School Choice is not about being able to choose between private, public or charter, but instead about finding a learning environment that helps you grow and development the way you learn.

      My work the last year in developing and studying Human Scale Schools along with my work with IDEA has given me confidence to say we should continue to push for more models of school/learning and support the growth in variety of models.

      The debate gets complex and often confused when funding comes in to it. There is so much misinformation in the media and often with the use of words like charter, choice and autonomy. I wonder if we could help change this, along with working with IDEA to present these models and help like Kirsten said, make them not seem like alternatives.

      What would happen per-say if we give all public schools the freedoms of charter schools? Would the school system fall apart or would it get stronger!? It should not be about giving money to private schools, it should be about providing Individual Education Plans to all children (though I might call them Personal growth and learning develop Journey maps or PGLDJM :))…not just with Academic work or when they fall behind…but from the start and every few years. Instead of a lottery we should be helping students and parents find the schools or learning communities that will help their students grow and develop the best they can.

      I really do think we need more press and help for parents. Many of the schools I visited in the last year… are all doing great work, but often they do not have the energy or funds to do PR campaigns or outreach to help support the diverse populations of their most areas. So often it is the parents who have time and money to do the searching that “win” a chance for their children…to get the right education for them….

      One student said recently “Teach me how I understand”…. this should be the DOE mantra.

      In the process of dreaming up the framework for my own future learning community… I have had the chance to visit and learn about a great number of amazing schools…. there are so many… that I often wonder why…there are not more! … Why are they not the norm…why they often either serve richer children or children rejected or whom rejected traditional schools…. anyway this is basically my thesis…so I will share it later…. but I think we could do more for this cause!

      Kirsten, What is IDEA doing to help families learn about these different models and help school promote themselves?

      How do we provide this type of service?

      Always thinking,


      Posted by dloitz | May 23, 2011, 2:36 pm
      • YES, David! I still don’t understand why we don’t give more local control to traditional public schools. Those that can handle it, leave them alone, those that can’t, give them some help!

        I do think that there needs to be more education for parents and families about true school choice.


        Posted by marybethhertz | May 25, 2011, 10:41 pm
    • Great question, Kirsten. I would say that the number one thing I try to implement in my classroom is choice. I try to let students learn whatever skill we are learning in the lab within the context of their own interests. I also work to make what we do relevant by making connections with students’ own experiences. I also let my students know that I don’t think that rewards and punishments work to help them ‘control’ their behavior (I work with some challenging kids). I try to let kids be themselves as much as possible and we learn from mistakes.

      To be honest, I am also working within a system that I am stuck with (and always have been) as an urban teacher there are certain limits to student behavior that must be handled appropriately or there will be a ‘free for all’ (I’ve witnessed these classrooms…little learning occurs). BUT these are also the students who NEED to be given the most choices and are often deprived of their freedoms.

      What a great question!

      Posted by marybethhertz | May 25, 2011, 9:25 pm
  3. Wow! What an amazing post. You articulated so many points that I’ve been thinking about.

    Thanks! 🙂

    Posted by daretheschool | August 19, 2011, 11:17 am
  4. The reason that we can’t incorporate any real school choice (or very little of it) in public schools is that board members, superintendents, and many teachers seem to be in the business of maintaining the status-quo at all costs. A school that has more autonomy and is different in some way breaks the “rules” for things like purchasing, curriculum, use of technology, roles of teachers, etc. Even unions have a problem with implementing something that is a different model because the time teachers spend teaching in different ways varies from the collective bargaining agreement. In most urban school districts, with less than a 50% graduation rate, have nothing to fear from new instructional models. How much worse could they do?

    I appreciate the insights on the Free School model. Like so many things, we can learn from it and modify it based n what we know today to do great things for kids…if only we can get approval from the “powers that be” – nearly impossible.

    Posted by canwejuststop | August 20, 2011, 6:44 pm

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