Resolving Common Education Policy Issues Through Increased Choice



By: Chuck Ormsby – November, 2003 

Society is constantly faced with vexing questions related to public education policies. Should we institute a common uniform for students? Should we spend more on mathematics and science, or on social studies? Should we increase spending on students that work harder and achieve more, or those that fall behind (either because of less ability or lack of effort)? Even if expenditures for all students were equalized, should the learning opportunities afforded some students be impeded if, by doing so, the opportunities, progress, or egos of other less successful students could be enhanced?

There are seemingly good arguments for different answers to each of these questions. For example, common student uniforms arguably reduce competitive/social stresses on students and make it easier for them to focus on academics. Alternatively, one can reasonably argue that, since most families have little choice but to enroll in the public education system and we value individual freedom/diversity, parents/students should be free to dress as they choose (within relatively broad limits set by community norms). Similar sensible arguments can be made in response to the numerous other issues that can be posed. Some will intuitively come down on one side of these issues and others on the other side. Is there an objective basis for settling these issues, other than individual intuition followed by decision of a majority vote?

At the core of most such issues is the freedom of choice versus compulsion. Generally speaking, the United States was founded on the presumption that allowing the greatest degree of freedom of choice is preferable to compulsion. Allowing individuals to choose what they think is best for them (or their children) is preferable to allowing a King/Queen, dictator, or majority to compel a particular result. While the U.S. has not consistently applied this philosophy, it is the chief characteristic that distinguishes our nation from most other countries. It is also the philosophy that is primarily responsible for our high standard of living and for sparing us from the numerous horrors visited on other peoples.

The debate over public education, once considered a settled topic, is now growing. With costs soaring and educational outcomes anemic, many people are questioning whether the problem, at its core, is the result of compulsion and the lack of freedom of choice.

We have lived with the public funding and provisioning of education for so long, that many people cannot imagine a world where choice is restored. Others, whose careers and incomes depend on public education, discourage any public discussion of alternatives, claiming that any deviation from the current public education “monopoly” will harm the children.

I put “monopoly” in quotes because, strictly speaking, public education is not a monopoly. Private schools exist and a growing number of families are choosing private schools for their children. These families take on the burden of private tuition while continuing to shoulder the costs of supporting the public education system for the children of other families. While some families are wealthy enough so that this double payment is affordable (not an excuse to impose it), there are many families who take on extra jobs and suffer significant financial hardships to exercise their freedom of choice in their children’s education (including taking on the burden of home schooling).

Many families are unable to make this sacrifice and have to accept what the public schools offer. These families then attempt to lobby the public schools (through teachers, principals, administrators, or school committee members) to correct or change what is offered, but often are frustrated by the inability (or unwillingness) of the system to respond.

What can be done to improve this situation?

I will spend the greatest portion of what remains of this article on ideas for improving this situation in the context of a public education system but, before doing so, I can’t resist noting that most, if not all, of these commonly-raised issues are problems caused by the widespread public provisioning of education and would disappear if choice were fully restored. If all parents were given the freedom to choose the educational institution where their tax dollars would be spent and where their children would be educated, they could and would settle the issues themselves.

The issues would no longer be subject to public policy dictates. Presidents, legislators, and school committee members would not make these choices. Individual parents would. Elected officials, put in office for a mixture of reasons (from foreign policy positions, to tax policy, to how they comb their hair), would not mandate the ‘one size fits all’ education solution that parents or students are now stuck with. Hundreds of entrepreneurs and professional educators would seek to understand the desires of parents and students and provide the most responsive educational offerings at the lowest possible price. Parents would pick the alternative that is most in line with their preferences. Free market mechanisms, that for hundreds of years have efficiently organized every facet of the process of bringing us a cornucopia of food choices (from manufacturing hybrid seeds, to high tech tractors, to sophisticated distribution channels), can likewise provide the best educational services desired by our citizenry.

For the time being, let’s put aside the more sweeping reforms that educational vouchers would represent and focus on some choices within the public education system that should be considered. Can the public education system provide more choices and therefore be more responsive to the preferences of the educational consumer? I think it can. Let’s consider some of the issues raised in the opening paragraph.

Should we have a common student uniform? We have five elementary schools in North Andover. Why not poll the parents and determine the percentage preferring a school with standardized uniforms? We could then pick the school (or schools) that approximate the needed capacity, assign students whose parents favor this policy to those schools, and institute the preferred standardized uniform policy. 

Should we spend more on mathematics and science, or on social studies and sports? What if parents were able to indicate how they would like to divide available resources? While the aggregate demand would be used to adjust the total number or amount of teachers/classes/materials procured in each area, students would be permitted to consume each resource according to their individual choice. A math/science whiz could take double/advanced classes in math and science nearly every day and attend art or physical education classes only once or twice a week. Alternately, this student (or their parent) could emphasize non-math/science subjects in an attempt to compensate for weaknesses in other areas. Remember, it is the parent’s (and student’s) choice, not a public decision. A gifted musician could take music for half of every day and split the remaining hours across other subjects. Important note: There is an argument for not letting some core academic subjects drop below a minimum proficiency level since the underlying premise of public education is that the public should pay because it will be rewarded with emerging citizens who are sufficiently educated to both support themselves and understand enough about public policy issues to make informed voting decisions. Without this essential result, the social compact between the taxpayers and the education recipients is violated.

Let’s try one more issue. There is a lot of controversy surrounding the policy of grouping students according to their level of proficiency, or whether students covering the entire range of proficiency levels should be grouped within the same classroom. The practice of assigning students by proficiency is typically referred to (in education circles) as “tracking” and is further described as segregating (or tracking) students by “ability”. The implication is that some unfortunate students, having lesser natural ability, are discriminated against by being relegated to a lower, “dummies” track from which they may never recover. Those opposed to segregation by proficiency also seem to believe that it is the right of those with lesser proficiency to be in classes with those with greater proficiency because it will be less damaging to their egos, and because the greater skills of the more proficient classmates might rub off. This issue involves both education policy and freedom of choice.

Make believe you are teaching mathematics. Your first two classes of the day are fourth grade math. In the first class you have students that range from those that are having difficulty with subtraction and who know few if any multiplication facts, to students that are solving problems with fractions and are doing long division. Where do you start? How can you provide an appropriately focused learning experience for all your students? No matter what level you address, many students are either lost or bored. You could give workbook assignments for self-study to some while giving instruction to others, but this is clearly less effective than direct and appropriate instruction for all. In your second class, all of the students share approximately the same proficiency (low, high, or average). Now your instruction can be focused on the entire class with only moderate excursions that remain valuable (either providing reinforcement or being somewhat challenging) for all students in the class.

Clearly, the second class provides a much more efficient setting for instruction/learning than the first. If 120 students are divided into 5 classes of 24 with random assignments (all proficiency levels together) community education resources are wasted compared to a system that groups students by proficiency into 5 levels. In fact, due to the efficiencies gained by grouping those of similar proficiency (they all need to hear the same instructional materials), it may be possible to divide the students into only 4 classrooms of 30 students each with savings going to additional instruction time, better salaries to attract more competent teachers, or other education-enhancing alternatives. No one benefits from inefficiency.

One cautionary note: There is a tendency to challenge students in the lower proficiency classes less than those in the higher proficiency classes thus relegating them to permanent residency in these lower classes. It is reported that we see a net downward migration of students in our High School to lower levels. To avoid this we should set explicit goals for net upward migration and reward those teachers that succeed in preparing the greatest number students (based on objective tests) for moving up. In fact that should be the goal of the lower-level classes: prepare students for the next level up for the succeeding year.

Which brings us back to the issue of choice. What if my arguments regarding greater instructional efficiency don’t convince some (either parents or teachers)? Fine, let the parents decide if their child is assigned to a leveled class (based on their child’s proficiency) or a one-size-fits-all classroom. My guess is that most (and, yes, especially those whose children are more proficient) will choose proficiency-based class assignments. Those who are less proficient (either due to ability or lack of effort) have no right to require that those who have worked harder be relegated to a classroom where they are bored and can’t reach the highest level of academic achievement commensurate with their ability and applied effort.