Wednesday, September 30, 2020

DeVos and the Problem of the "Right Fit"

Betsy DeVos has been talking about the “right fit” for a while now.

In 2017: “It shouldn’t matter what type of school a student attends, so long as the school is the right fit for that student.”

During Charter Schools Week this year: “... to celebrate the millions of students who have found the right fit for their education...”

In her recent letter to parents: “...we believe families need more options than ever to find the right fit.”

In the rhetoric of school choice, “right fit” has become a replacement for the “rescue from failing schools” and “trapped by their zip code.” 

The “right fit” rhetoric has some advantages for school choice proponents. In particular, it lets them target a much broader “market,” pitching school choice to students whose school is well-rated and generally successful. “It’s a great school,” the pitch goes, “but it still might not be the right fit for your child.” Voila—instant expanded choice customer landscape.

But there are reasons to be extremely wary of this language.

First of all, while DeVos likes to suggest that parents know what the “right fit” for their child will be, it is the private and charter schools that will ultimately decide whether or not the child is the “right fit” for their school. Charter schools have a history of pushing out students who are too difficult (Success Academy charters of NYC famously was caught with a “got to go” list). Charters can also avoid costly students with expensive-to-meet special needs by simply not offering supports for those needs.

Private schools can go even further in determining what students they will or will not accept as the “right fit.” In July, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary DeVos visited Thales Academy in North Carolina, a private school that benefits from North Carolina’s voucher program. Thales does not provide its students with transportation to school or lunch during the day; it also will not supply Individualized Education Programs (IEP) or 504 plan support for students with disabilities. And like every other private school, you may believe that the school will be the right fit for your child, but you will fill out an application and the school will tell you whether or not the child is the right fit for it.

“Right fit” has too often been the language of polite discrimination. “Of course you’re legally allowed to buy a house here, but are you sure this neighborhood is the right fit for your family?” Career and technical education has a troubled history in some areas because it was used as a dumping ground for Those Students. And how many bright young women have been told that they should sign up for home economics instead of organic chemistry because hard science wouldn’t be the “right fit.”

There’s no question that education should be delivered to students where they are. One of the many deep flaws of the Common Core is its insistence on one-size-fits-all standards. Actual personalized education (the kind involving persons rather than software) is hugely valuable (and usually available in public schools, without having to change schools every time you change direction).

But we can observe two different philosophies of public education. One is uplift; public education is there to help every student rise and advance. The other is about sorting. The sorting view is rooted in the idea that society does and should have different levels, and that people are happiest when they accept their proper place in the world. Some people are meant to be worker bees, say sorters, and some are meant to be the queen, and if you try to move them out of their proper place, they’ll just be unhappy. This is why some turn up their nose at social activism—it’s just stirring up a bunch of people to be unhappy with their proper place in life. For sorters, the purpose of education is to help prepare people for that proper place, that place in life that is the right fit.

I’m not suggesting that every single person who talks about the right fit for a student’s education is out to discriminate against some families. But “right fit” easily provides cover for bias and discrimination. In education, the words should always make us just a little bit suspicious, particularly when someone is trying to sell something.

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