Choices Not Echoes

, Louisa Tavlas, Leave a comment

Herbert Walberg begins his book School Choice: The Findings by listing some rather startling statistics. These statistics are particularly perplexing for those who were not previously aware of the dismal state of today’s U.S. educational system.

It may not be news to some us that, academically, American students lag behind many of their international counterparts. And it may not come to as a surprise that, despite this, the U.S. is an extravagant spender on education, having the highest per student cost in the industrial world.

But a series of statistics that Walberg reveals in his introduction are even more disconcerting. For example, he notes that reading achievement of 12th graders has steadily declined from 1992 to 2007. The 2006 American College Test indicated that only 51 percent of U.S. students meet basic college reading requirements.

Graduation rates are equally bleak. Only 68 percent of 9th graders graduate high school on time, and of that number, a mere 40 percent enroll directly into college. Due to poor preparation in high school (illustrated by the above ACT scores) fewer than 4 in 10 college students finish in 4 years, and only 6 in 10 complete college in 6 years. In a final wince-inducing statistic, the National Assessment of Adult Literacy cited that, in 2006, a meager 31 percent of college-educated Americans qualify as “prose-literate.” The definition of prose literacy? It is the ability to fully comprehend something as simple as a newspaper story.

Such disquieting facts make fertile ground for Walberg’s subsequent arguments. In the chapters that follow, Walberg justifies his advocacy for school choice. His arguments are strengthened by the findings of numerous surveys. The three choice-driven institutions that Walberg discusses are: charter schools, voucher schools, and private schools. Walberg claims that these schools are successful because of competition, noting that both parental satisfaction and academic achievement in these cases exceed far exceed those of traditional public schools.

The strength of Walberg’s argument is based on his portrayal of education as a service in which, accordingly, the consumer is king. The consumers in this case are the parents and students. In the chapter titled “Customer Satisfaction” Walberg draws comparisons between customers choosing restaurants and doctors with parents choosing schools for their children. “Americans generally choose their doctors, and change them when they wish. Similarly, parents choose charter, voucher, or private schools for their children. Seldom is there a single objective criterion for determining the best decision.”

Such arguments make a strong case for parental choice in determining which school is best for their children. Walberg argues that the state would not dictate which doctor a family should trust with their health, nor in which restaurant to dine. Why then, Walberg asks, should the state mandate which school parents should entrust with educating their child? There are a multitude of restaurants and doctors, which range in terms of quality. Market forces generally dictate that the higher quality of these services will ensure the best customer satisfaction, and remain in business. The lower performing restaurants and doctors have two choices: bankruptcy or improvement. Why then, Walberg asks, should our educational system be any different?

The alternatives to traditional public schools are the said charter, voucher, and private schools. Numerous surveys overwhelmingly show that parents are pleased with both the academic quality and the overall environment of such schools. Charter schools, which are publicly funded yet privately governed and operated, boast academic achievement rates that significantly surpass those of public schools. Eventually, incentive is stirred within nearby public schools to improve. Walberg attributes this added success to his free-market hypothesis. He says that “{charter schools} may provide a competitive tide that ‘lifts all boats”.

A second alternative is educational vouchers. These are grants to parents who lack sufficient monetary means to cover some or all of private education costs. As in his analysis of charter schools, Walberg asserts that the voucher system proves beneficial to both voucher students and to the students who remain in public schools: “{Proponents of education vouchers} argued that competition brings out the best of people and organizations.” Subsequently, public schools are driven to successfully measure up to voucher schools, leading to all-around gains.

Walberg cites “school autonomy” of curriculum as the key to private schools’ success. Private schools boast higher overall test results, percentages of students who will attend top-tier universities, and achievement for minority students. Walberg points out that private schools also instill a stronger sense of community and a higher likelihood of civic and community participation. He notes that voucher programs that grant access into such private schools are heavily oversubscribed; particularly since U.S. voucher programs are generally concentrated in large cities. Walberg suggests, therefore, than an increase of private schools that can operate as voucher schools is in order. The necessity for this is compounded by the overwhelmingly positive parental experiences with private and voucher schools.

Most of Walberg’s arguments are fact-based and sound. His market-oriented approach to the educational system is admittedly convincing. Rather surprising and disappointing, however, is Walberg’s depiction of core constituents of the school system: the teachers. Throughout the book, and particularly in the above mentioned chapter “Customer Satisfaction” Walberg pits teachers against the general public. He portrays them as not only being content with the mediocre to low standards of U.S. public schools, but as actually being the root cause of these conditions.

In Walberg’s eyes, the average public-school teacher comes straight from the pages of Theodore Sizer’s Horace’s Compromise. This book “describes the common pattern of a teacher who gains orderly and easygoing relations with his students by telling them the absurdly easy questions he will put on the test.” Although it is likely that Horace-esque teachers can be found in droves, Walberg fails to acknowledge that educators who enter this profession with genuine and ambitious intentions are equally plentiful. He overlooks the idea that perhaps these are the educational arena’s biggest risk-takers, who volunteer to serve the most demanding clientele: parents, who deposit children into classrooms and expect them to be transformed into responsible, intelligent, and self-sufficient human beings. This can be a rather daunting task, when taking into account the common parental trait of turning a blind eye towards one’s offspring’s shortcomings.

Walberg also refrains from noting the societal influences that largely shape today’s youth. Youth today, armed with ever-present violence in television, video-games, and music as well as (a tired argument, but nonetheless relevant) ready access to drugs, and rampant narcissism (this is, after all, the MySpace age) have all the makings of less-than- cooperative pupils. This is compounded with the existence of the burgeoning reality-show franchise, which predominately showcases non-intellectuals as its stars (America’s Next Top Model anyone?) And don’t even get me started on the plethora of low-life- infested reality shows with which E! Entertainment, VH1, MTV, and other fixtures of adolescent leisure are steadily hijacking the country’s television sets. The popularity and cash flow that stars of such programs receive send dubious messages to today’s youth.

If Walberg expects a typical teacher to single-handedly whip these students into shape, then he places too much faith in the Hollywood-tailored professor who, out of sheer charisma, can coax inner-city children to morph from disrespectful, apathetic, and drug-addled youths into poetry-spewing and competitive-dancing phenomena.

While the scenario of the apathetic child, misguided parent, and martyr educator is not necessarily the norm, it suffices to say that Walberg’s Horace example is not the norm either. Still, Walberg makes convincing arguments for the necessity of school choice. It is difficult to argue with the wide-ranging findings that reveal parents to be more satisfied with charter and private schools, and the academic results that follow suit.

Walberg achieves his main goal of creating a positive view of school choice for readers who may not be very familiar with the subject. Yet it would have been preferable that he had not waged an attack on educators, who, in many cases in the societal scheme (salary-wise and respect-wise included) are given the short end of the stick.

Louisa Tavlas is an intern at the American Journalism Center, a training program run by Accuracy in Media and Accuracy in Academia.