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Strategies for Change: Giving Students Choice

amanda sarah's picture

Throughout this course, we have read the opinions of many school reformers and learned about many school districts that support providing students in a public school system choice and agency. Superintendents, parents, teachers, and politicians argue that students should be able to choose what courses to take and at what levels, how they will demonstrate what they’ve learned, what they will be evaluated on, and of course, which school they attend. Advocates of choice in a school system often point to charter schools as a solution. While the idea behind charter schools is well-intentioned, there are many ways in which modern charter schools can improve. Additionally, there are other ways besides charter schools that a public school district can provide families with choice, such as allowing high-performing neighborhood schools to have more flexibility, and encouraging all public schools to offer a multitude of courses and levels at which students can take those courses. Finally, it is beneficial for schools to offer alternative programs for students who want to learn in a non-traditional way, or focus on a specific topic, theme, or issue.

One way to provide families and students with choice is to have charter schools, but charter schools should be modified so that they don’t compete with neighborhood schools and they serve all their students equally, regardless of class or ability. The first improvement to charter schools is that they should be transparent about how they use their extra funding, and successful charters should share what exactly makes them successful. In one article that we read for class, Pedro Noguera describes the opacity of charter schools. He argues that charter schools are not fulfilling their original mission to “serve as a laboratory for innovations that would then be applied to public schools.” Instead, they compete with neighborhood schools and end up enrolling more advantaged students (those without disabilities, and those in higher socioeconomic classes). He proposes that in order to encourage collaboration with neighborhood schools, charter schools, like all public schools, should be required to disclose where their funding comes from and what they use the extra money on. This would allow students and their families who are considering charter schools to make a more informed decision.

In addition to being more transparent with how they spend their funding, charter schools should modify the system that they use to admit students. Charter schools are supposed to use a random lottery to admit students, yet many charters end up with a disproportionate amount of students who do not have special needs and who come from higher socioeconomic status than most students in their district. I agree with Noguera that this must be changed, and I think that charter schools can change two things: they should make an effort to advertise more to lower income students and those with special needs, and they should reserve a certain number of spots for these disadvantaged students in their lotteries. Finally, a district should aim to have charter schools with a variety of missions, philosophies, and focuses. For example, in “A big tent for charter schools”, several examples are given of charter schools which are successful because of the unique teaching methods they use and philosophies they have. The author describes Community Roots charter school in Brooklyn, NY, which boasts a co-teaching method proven effective for students with many different needs. The argues against having charter schools with the same “no-excuses” philosophy, and I completely agree that having schools with different goals is a huge improvement. More variety means students have a wider range of choices when it comes to schools, instead of several schools with the same focus and pedagogies competing for the same students.

Another way to give students options is to allow certain high performing public schools to break away from standards and use innovative teaching methods. The Philadelphia superintendent (William Hite) suggested this as part of his “action plan” for the school district of Philadelphia. (“Hite: Money Not Enough”). Public neighborhood schools which are already performing very well could be given more freedom and flexibility in how they choose to educate their students. They should remain neighborhood schools, however; the should receive the same amount of funding as any other public schools and will still be required to share how they use that funding. These schools, along with the modified charter schools described above, can serve as examples for all of the other neighborhood schools in the district; They are actually better models for other schools than the charter schools would be, because they can show the district how they succeed without using any extra funding.

Furthermore, a public school district can encourage changes to be made at the school level to allow students attending that school to have agency over their own education. In a single neighborhood public school, there can be a wide variety of courses to choose from, at many different levels, and different programs that students can choose to become a part of within the school. I have witnessed examples of neighborhood public schools providing  students with choices in a placement I’ve had for another education class, and in my own public high school. We have also read about public schools which give students options for this class. One placement that I’ve had was at a suburban public school, and this school had a special program that seventh graders could choose to join. The program connected many different academic subjects and had a focus on project-based learning and self-evaluation. Students signed up for the program at the end of sixth grade, and there was a lottery if the program was over-enrolled. When I visited the program, students were always working on projects in groups, giving presentations, or having class discussion, and they were very engaged in the class.

Another example of neighborhood schools giving students agency over their education is a program at the public high school that I attended. There, seniors had the option to complete an independent research project or internship during their last semester. They could choose to drop all of their classes except for English (and one additional class, if they wanted), and spend their last few months of school completing unpaid work or researching a topic that they found interesting (and they received academic credit for this project). The students would work to create a proposal for this project with a staff member, and at the end of the project they presented on what they learned, their experience, and whether or not they reached their learning goals for the project. This gave interested students chance to explore a field in which classes weren’t offered at my high school, learn about a career they might want to pursue in the future, or prepare for the freedom and lack of structure that many colleges and universities offer.

One final example of choices being offered in a public school is the example we read about in Improbable Scholars, Union City High School. Union City High School offers a huge range of classes to its students, allowing them to choose specialized classes within the core disciplines (such as science classes like anatomy and biology) and electives such as TV Production and Hospitality management. They offer several AP courses, but also have lower level classes. As a result, the graduates of the high school are prepared for the many disciplines, careers, and areas of study that they want to go into. Union City High is able to produce students who go to Ivy League colleges and universities, but also prepares students who aren’t as academically high-achieving with a solid education and the skills they need to get a job in a field they desire after graduation. The school has a lot of students who live in poverty, and as a result they aren’t the most high-performing school with regards to test scores. However, the school has a high graduation rate, especially compared to other inner-city high schools with as many lower class, non-native english speaking, and special needs students. I believe that the options provided to these students is a big factor in keeping many of them in school and engaged.

All of these changes will give students more options and allow them to be more in charge of their education. This has many benefits. Dropout rates would decrease, because students who were doing poorly in one school would have the option to transfer to another school which better fits their needs, or they could take different classes which fit their interests and their learning styles. Students would be more engaged in the classroom, because they would have many opportunities to choose what they are learning (in the case of a school which offers many elective courses), and how they learn and demonstrate their knowledge (in the case of a school which gives students the option to conduct independent research or participate in a project-based learning program). Students with disabilities would perform better, because they would be able to learn in the environment that best supports them. They could choose a school with a co-teaching model, or be in a classroom which uses project-based learning if their disabilities makes writing papers a more difficult method of expression, or they could find another option that would allow them to receive the necessary accommodations while being in the least restrictive environment for them.



Graham, Kristen A. "Hite: Money Not Enough - Phila. Schools Must Change.", 06 Mar. 2015. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.

Grannis, Eric. "A Big Tent for Charter Schools - Education Next." Education Next., 17 Jan. 2013. Web. 28 Apr. 2015.

Noguera, Pedro. "Why Don't We Have Real Data on Charter Schools?" The Nation., 24 Sept. 2014. Web. 25 Apr. 2015.

Kirp, David L. "Can These Eagles Soar? Union City High School." Improbable Scholars: The Rebirth of a Great American School System and a Strategy for America's Schools. Print.



jccohen's picture

amanda sarah,

Your call for charter accountability is an important one; you focus on the issue of transparency with regard to resource allocation, and a number of educators and policy folks would add other kinds of accountability as well, including criteria for admission and retention.  The issue of fairer admissions is a tricky one, since some of this is about students who have been less successful in school and families where it’s less likely that there will be someone to advocate, help the student apply, and so on.  Your argument for having a variety of school philosophies and approaches speaks to this somewhat. 


Overall, you put forth the intriguing idea that choice of various kinds for students and their families is key to successful teaching and learning.  (Would you say this is particularly true in urban settings, or is it a more general principle?)  It seems to me that the availability and promise of choice are due in part to the way you construe choice as possible at a number of different levels.  And I’m wondering about how we might go about implementing such a proposal; would this begin with a recognition of what charters bring to the table, which would then instigate policy proposals featuring choice?