School Choice: Designed To Fail

05/07/2017 01:43 pm ET Updated May 08, 2017

A recent, comprehensive article in the New York Times titled, “The Broken Promises of Choice in New York City Schools,” was a fine, albeit unintended, summary of the inevitable failure of school reform.

The piece was well researched and fastidiously documented. The central thesis was that despite years of efforts to give middle school students choice and incentives, New York City schools remain deeply segregated and real “choice” has been elusive. True enough. While reading this article one had to be moved by the earnest children and adults who were frustrated and disappointed by the abandoned promises and confusing processes.

The arcane statistical analyses and many colorful graphics lent a certain gravitas to the explication of the problem. But the real problem is not the problem they identified ― data, graphics and all.

The quality of any analysis is dependent on the assumptions underlying the investigation. In this case there are false assumptions that render the exercise both futile and infuriating.

The first assumption is that there are easily identified “good” schools and “bad” schools – or, more diplomatically, “less good schools.” Readers are asked to stipulate, for example, that Stuyvesant High School is a “good” school – a really “good” school - and that Herbert H. Lehman High School in the Bronx is a “bad” or “less good school.” The “good” schools are more selective, whether by entrance exam or grade point average and the “less good” school are less selective, often to the point of being a last resort for students who fail to gain entry into a “good” school.

The assumption is categorically false. Stuyvesant is assessed as “good” on the basis of the relatively conspicuous achievements of its students, particularly as measured by graduation rate and college placement. The further assumption is that Stuyvesant’s faculty and program were the critical variables in achieving those ends. Accepting those assumptions then leads to the final, implicit assumption resting under all this statistical clutter; that exposing more students to Stuyvesant’s faculty and program would bring similar results, thus helping solve the education reform problem.

Stuyvesant may or may not be a “good” school by other, more meaningful measures, but it is certainly not a “good” school because its carefully culled flock performs precisely as the culling process would predict. Many kids who get into Stuyvesant might do quite well if they didn’t go to the school at all.

At the other end of this delusional continuum, Herbert H. Lehman is considered a significantly “less good” school because its graduation rate is about half of Stuyvesant’s rate and its graduates seldom matriculate at highly selective colleges. Herbert H. Lehman may or may not be a “less good” school by other, more meaningful measures, but it is certainly not a “less good” school because its very different culled flock performs precisely as the culling process would predict. I propose that you might take all of Stuyvesant’s faculty members and switch them with Lehman’s faculty members, and the results would not be substantially different.

This meaningless game plays out in the private school world and in higher education too. Highly selective schools attract students who are most likely to succeed, based on factors from privilege to preparation, and the schools are then considered fabulous by virtue of the glittering credentials of the students they selected. Not a dollop of meaning in that self-fulfilling prophecy of pretense.

It doesn’t mean that Choate and Exeter or Harvard and Stanford are lousy. It merely means that they are not “good” just because they admit only the most successful students. As many honest observers note, even within the lofty confines of the most selective colleges, undergraduate classes at Yale are not necessary better than, or even as good as, undergraduate courses at SUNY Binghamton.

The Times article was riddled with this unquestioned and unexamined assumption about which NYC high schools are “good” schools and which are “less good” schools.

When viewed through this clearer lens, the article, and the process, is a farce of Shakespearian proportions. Young children are sifted through a bureaucratic sorter, spilling out in relatively unchanging proportions to the “good” schools and “less good” schools depending on their predictors of success. This process, however earnestly designed or studiously analyzed, simply perpetuates the glowing or dim reputations of the schools where the children are dropped.

This in essence is the mirage of school choice in all its fraudulent glory. By rigging the system, by cruel attrition, by statistical sleight of hand, the choice movement is simply sifting kids through a similar sorter, leaving the false impression that the plutocrat-funded, heavily-hyped charter schools are “good,” and the increasingly deprived district schools are “less good.”

Instead of sifting and sorting America’s least advantaged children through these arcane systems, we should be investing in early childhood experiences, ameliorating poverty, facing racism honestly, and providing generous support to the least privileged among us.

Until we do that we are merely rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic failure of education reform.

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