Saturday, April 29, 2017

Choice and Guarantees

You are visiting friends, and at suppertime, they give you two options. "We can go to Restaurant A," they say, "and there will be only one choice on the menu, but I can guarantee you that it will be awesome. Or we can go to Restaurant B where there will be plenty of choices, but it's entirely possible they will all be pretty lousy."

Which restaurant would you select?

Some reformy choice advocates insist that Restaurant B is the better option. These choicers insist that what parents want is choice. I think not. I think what parents (and students and neighbors and taxpayers) want is secure knowledge that public tax money s being well-spent, and that when a student walks into a classroom, that student is being met by a well-trained, capable professional educator who is going to meet that child where the child is, and do their best to lift that child up.

Rick Smith, in a recent conversation with Jeff Bryant, makes the point by talking about health care. If I'm sick or, say, my wife is about to give birth, I don't want a bunch of choices of various hospitals and doctors. I want to know that the hospital I go to will be great. And then Bryant used a word that jumped out at me.

When it comes to schools, people want a guarantee.

Not choice. Not a bunch of bad options. They want a guarantee.

Guarantee is a strong word. We often talk about the promise of public education, and that's a nice word, but a promise leaves an awful lot of wiggle room.

But guarantee. That's strong stuff. No matter who you are. No matter where you live. No matter what your child brings to the table. We guarantee we'll provide whatever is needed to do the job.

A guarantee isn't just a promise that I'll do the job right. It is a promise that if I fail, I will make it right.

There is absolutely no question that there are places, districts, schools that have failed to honor their guarantee. I don't want to minimize that for a second. Some school "failures" have been manufactured by rigging the game and cooking the books (looking at you, test-centered "accountability'). Some school failures have been manufactured by deliberately starving public schools. Some school failures have been deliberate choices to deny Those Children their guaranteed education. And some schools have managed to fail all on their own, through some unfortunate combination of bad leadership or terrible management.

Those failures have provided an opening, a business opportunity, for champions of choice. "Instead of a renewed guarantee for the school you already have," is the pitch, "how about a choice of other schools." And many folks have bit on that offer because 1) their old school really has failed to live up to the guarantee and 2) they hear the word "school" (or in some cases, "public school") and they assume that the choice school comes with its own guarantee. But many charter-choice schools come with no guarantee at all. No promise that the school will do its best to provide a great education to every single child, and definitely no promise that if the school fails, the family has an avenue to demand that the school make it right.

So instead of making a promise good, fulfilling the guarantee of a public school, choicers just offer other unguaranteed, buyer beware, good luck with that options. If the school fails a student, well, there's the door. Except, of course, voting with your feet does not make things right.

To me it is one of the central mysteries of the choice argument-- if a school is bad, why would you start to open other schools instead of fixing it?

I know one answer, which is "we tried and it just didn't work" followed, usually, by blaming that failure on unions or teachers or deficit models of how Those People's Families behave. No. If what you tried didn't work, the most likely explanation is that what you tried was a bad idea, implemented by someone who didn't know what the hell they were talking about (see also, test-centered accountability).

The other answer, which generally arrives in more coded language, is "fixing schools would cost money, not make money, and why would we spend money on Those People"?

What do we need in education?

We need to issue a clear, unequivocal guarantee to every parent, every child, every taxpayer, every citizen, that they will have a locally-run school in their community fully funded, well resourced, staffed with quality trained professionals, and well-maintained, and that every child who walks into that school will be met by caring professionals who will meet the child where she is and help guide her toward her best possible future. And if the guarantee is not being met, there will be a means to make things right.

Yes, it would be expensive. And yes, it would be most expensive in communities where there are the fewest local resources which, yes, means that you'd have to spend a bunch of tax dollars on Those People's Children. Yes, a guarantee would require a commitment. A big commitment. A real commitment. And while that may seem hopelessly huge, we have certainly found the will-- and the money-- for everything from walking on the moon to grin ding away for decades of Middle Eastern military adventures.

Choice isn't about replacing the guarantee or honoring the guarantee. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that our leaders don't have the will to make the guarantee and stand by it. Choice is about masking the unhappy truth that too many of us don't really think Those People's Children deserve any such guarantee (just like poor people don't really deserve health care). Choice is not how we find our way to a Great American Education Guarantee; it is what we do instead.


  1. Peter, I know of one corporate ed. reform group that offers a quote-unquote "guarantee" that they will "transform" your school into a "great school" --- via conversion to a charter school and firing all the teachers --- promising college acceptances and degrees and great careers for all the students who attend this newly privatized, "transformed" and now newly "great school."

    Heck, they even quantify the number of years that it will take to do so. They'll do all this "within three years".

    (I wonder how they came up with that three-year time frame. Why not four or five or more?)

    Watch this video:

    ( 1:06 - 1:16 )
    ( 1:06 - 1:16 )

    LATINO WOMAN: "If you get 51% of the parents at your school to sign up for the Parent Revolution, we GUARANTEE that we will give your child a great school, within three years."

    They've only done this "Parent Trigger" in one school, and according this article, it's a total freakin' fiasco:


    "The former Desert Trails teachers characterize the abundance of public school teaching jobs not as their reason for leaving Desert Trails, but as a means of escaping what they say became an increasingly unbearable and capriciously erratic place to teach.

    “ 'We were always getting conflicting information from our superiors,' Salazar said. 'I was told by multiple different supervisors what things were okay to do. Second grade was told, ‘Do not use Treasures,’ which is the core reading curriculum. It includes phonics, spelling, grammar, writing, components of social studies, science and all of your reading and reading comprehension strategies. So for months at a time, we improvised; we used other support material, we tried to hit every standard to the best possible way that we could without using that curriculum. And two months later, Debra Tarver comes in and says, ‘Oh my god, why aren’t you using Treasures?'

    " ... "

    "Among the most serious accusations are charges that administrative chaos at Desert Trails has resulted in both a stampede of exiting teachers and staff; that uncredentialed instructors have taught in its classrooms; and that Desert Trails had an unwritten policy of dissuading parents of students with special learning needs from seeking special education. The teachers also allege that they had to endure a bullying regime in which, they say, they were continually screamed at, spied on, lied to and humiliated in front of parents and their peers by Tarver and her deputies. Capital & Main spoke with the teachers, four of whom agreed to go on the record for this story. ('The High Desert is a small place and Debbie Tarver has a long reach,' said one teacher who requested anonymity.)

    “ 'Not only was it dysfunctional and unprofessional,' says second grade teacher Renee Salazar, a five-year veteran of Los Angeles’ inner-city public schools, 'it was law-breakingly unprofessional.' ”

    Looks like they're not goint to make their 3-year deadline.

  2. "I'll have what they had." Thanks Peter for another truth meal. It made me hungry.