A Parents’ Guide to School Choice on Target for the New Administration

December 14, 2016; Edutopia

As the Trump administration takes the reins of government and its Secretary of Education assumes control of our nation’s education policy, will they be ready and willing to examine the evidence of what’s worked and what hasn’t after 20 years of “education reform?”

This transition is taking place after two not-terribly-effective decades of efforts to improve school performance. A recent Edutopia article written to guide parents as they choose the best schools for their children has some advice that President Trump and Secretary DeVos would do well to consider.

Last February, the Century Foundation published “How Racially Diverse Schools and Classrooms Can Benefit All Students,” which looked at what is known about the relationship between diverse schools and educational performance. In the aftermath of a national election season that raised racial division, its conclusions may not be easy to integrate into public policy:

The bulk of the K–12 educational research on the impact of school racial and socioeconomic composition on measurable academic outcomes documents that attending racially segregated, high-poverty schools has a strong negative association with students’ academic achievement (often measured through grade-level reading and math test scores). Attending racially diverse schools is beneficial to all students and is associated with smaller test score gaps between students of different racial backgrounds, not because white student achievement declined, but rather that black and/or Hispanic student achievement increased. In fact, the racial achievement gap in K–12 education closed more rapidly during the peak years of school desegregation than they have overall during the more recent era in which desegregation policies were dismantled and replaced by accountability policies.

Finding that diverse, integrated schools help children learn more effectively conflicts with the current policy context, which is “governed by accountability and legal mandates that give no credence to the educational benefits of learning in diverse contexts.” The market-based philosophy that the incoming administration supports makes working toward more diverse schools difficult. The Century Foundation found:

The public school choice process is complicated by increasing inequality, stark segregation, and narrow definitions of “school quality” that align with demographic characteristics of schools. The unfortunate reality is that even for parents who prefer diverse schools, these structural challenges make finding and choosing these schools very difficult. One upper-middle-class parent we interviewed in our study of segregation across school district boundaries on Long Island noted that even when you want to place your children in racially, ethnically, and culturally diverse public schools, when your choices of schools are all segregated, you choose segregated schools whether you want it or not.

Meeting the challenge of diversity and closing our racial divide is a societal-level challenge. At the classroom level, there appears to be some benefit just in setting the right target for the size of each class. In a paper written for the National Educational Policy Center, Northwestern University’s Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach concluded, “The payoff from class-size reduction is greater for low-income and minority children, while any increases in class size will likely be most harmful to these populations.”

Professor Schanzenbach’s review of the available literature supported the value of investing in more classroom teachers so that classes could be no bigger than 15 students—a significant reduction from the average U.S. classroom of more than 20 students, but a size often found in the “best” private schools.

Adding either of these strategies to our national strategy to improve public education will not come cheap. Reversing the course and making integration important again because it is good for all children will require leaders to confront deep-seated prejudices. Shrinking classroom size requires increasing school budgets and providing the needed resources to local districts that have limited ability to raise new funds on their own. Both will require making the public good more important than individual preferences.—Martin Levine