An uneasy aspect inherent in school choice is knowing how to choose. In Colorado prior to 1994, the government unburdened most parents of the trouble of choosing. The most a person could do in determining their child’s school was to strategically purchase a home in the “right” neighborhood. With bussing, however, even this might have been insufficient as the government’s coercive balancing of the races in public schools took precedence over such achievements as literacy and numeracy. A person might have homeschooled their children despite the government working diligently for years to try and make this a crime. While they were only partially successful in some states, such things remain illegal in allegedly enlightened places like Europe. A parent might also have chosen for their children to attend a parochial or independent private school, but these options were often the reserve of the wealthy who could afford to pay twice over for their child’s education – once in taxes and once more in tuition. As a result of a lot of hard work on the part of private citizens, there is now more freedom in education, but there is also more confusion about how best to make what seems like an all-important choice.
Few people want anything other than the best possible education for their children, but that has never meant that there would be only one correct model chosen by a Plato, Rousseau, Dewey, Adler, or Mann that was simply being refined and perfected over time as we as a society tinkered towards a utopia. Different people hold different views as to the ideal education of youth. Most people would prefer that the values, ethics, virtues, or morals inculcated through education reflect their own. Many people follow trends in global commerce and industry in an effort to predict what skills their children will need to possess in order to be prosperous in adulthood. The resulting factionalism has given way to an educational market in which individuals can choose what works best for them and their children. While it is not yet an entirely free market, and while initiatives like Common Core threaten to smite it, it remains a market. Like any other market, the difficulty lies in understanding the valuation of a commodity. A range of people with a range of motives want to reduce this market to an easily comprehensible ranking so as to make the choice as easy as possible. What is wanted is a Consumer Reports of schools to make selecting a school as simple as purchasing a dishwasher. The problem with the rankings, both as they relate to schools and dishwashers, is that they infrequently explain their methodologies because the methodology is precisely what the consumer hoped to avoid thinking about by searching out a ranking.
To continue the analogy, a dishwasher works the same, qualitatively speaking, cycle after cycle provided the same quality water and detergent are used, and that the dishes are all equally dirty. Those last caveats are what economists refer to as ceteris paribus – all other things remaining constant. It is humorous because it is a condition that almost never prevails in human affairs. In a school, the analogs of the water, detergent, and the cleanliness of the dishes are the students, teachers, and curriculum. If any one of these is constantly in flux, which the students are in an open enrollment school, results cannot be constant. If one were only to admit the same quality of student, the rankings would measure what they purport to measure from year to year – the quality of the teachers and the curriculum. That, however, is not the case. Students at an open enrollment school arrive in different conditions, and different ability levels proliferate from subject to subject, and from year to year.
Elite colleges and universities, the military, and athletic teams are among those that do not operate in such a fashion. They seek to reduce the number of variables to produce the most consistent results. Coaches choose the best players to try and create the best performing team. The military, when it can afford to, works the same way. It attracts the highest quality recruits in hopes of having the highest quality soldier, sailor, or Marine. Private schools work similarly. In public education, everyone is accepted and there is little to do but try to make them as good as they can be. The belief that they will all end up performing equally or that they will be statistically comparable in academic performance year to year is foolhardy in the extreme. Different students will produce different results, and different results will produce different rankings.
To take just one ranking as an example, U.S. News and World Report has periodically ranked Ridgeview quite high. This ranking has driven students to enroll and faculty to apply for teaching positions. A high ranking does many good things for the school, but this past year that was not the case. From the outside looking in, it would appear that Ridgeview had diminished academically in 2015. In reality, the data used to compile these scores reflected how Ridgeview had done in 2012-2013. Moreover, the score was concocted by reviewing reading and math results for grades 9-12 on state standardized tests and then factoring that proficiency against the number of free and reduced (or economically disadvantaged) students enrolled at the school. For the purposes of the study, disadvantaged students included black, Hispanic, and low-income students. These scores were then adjusted according to the number of students who took an AP test and scored a three or higher before or during their senior year compared to the total number of seniors enrolled that year.
If Ridgeview were seeking a way to improve its ranking from U.S. News and World Report, it would selectively enroll high-performing black, Hispanic, and low-income students and teach explicitly to the College Board’s AP tests requiring each student to take the AP test as a condition of enrollment while simultaneously keeping their senior class capped at no more than 50 students. This would assure us an improved ranking with regards to the U.S. News and World Report, but it would likely not yield a higher score according to others seeking to rank schools who use different methodologies. While Ridgeview does not participate in such gimmicks, they are extremely common in charter schools throughout the United States who are aggressively competing for students to enroll in order to keep their schools funded. In locations outside of Colorado, Charter Management Organizations (CMOs) – a sort of McDonald’s franchisee approach to charter schools – explicitly teach to the test because their ability to open future schools depends upon those test results and their profitability depends upon the opening of future schools. At such schools, these and a whole host of other parlor tricks are used to raise ACT, SAT, and AP test scores without fundamentally altering the nature or quality of the education provided. In fact, most of these tricks actually diminish the amount of genuine learning that takes place. Such schools become complicit in the sort of credentialism that American university admission offices are finally waking up to. One account of this can be had in William Deresiewicz’s book Excellent Sheep: The Miseducation of the American Elite and the Way to a Meaningful Life.
The point of any criticism about testing or rankings is not that there should not be any, because there must be an element of accountability, but that individuals in a free market must be prepared to contemplate how such standards were developed, whether they reflect their own beliefs about what students ought to know, and whether they are accurately reflecting the curriculum they have chosen for their children to learn. As has been amply demonstrated across the country by the bizarre mathematics portion of the PARCC examination, a student may know math quite well for their grade level and still not manage to do well on the test. If a third-grade student is taught one way and presented with a question to assess that information in a way that is totally foreign, it is beyond reasonable to expect that they will simply adapt. If we ask whose standards it is that ought to apply, it seems obvious that the assessments should go together with the curriculum. In a sense, asking how well a Ridgeview student does on the math section of a fifth-grade state standardized test is asking the wrong question because the student has been ability grouped as he almost certainly would not have been in a district school. He may have just finished fourth-grade math or he might be in pre-algebra and the material is years old for him. If he is in fourth-grade math, it would make sense to test whether he has learned that material, but the efforts to have common standards demand that he be treated like every cog in the system and potentially tested on material he may not have learned. It could be asked whether most district-school students would pass a Ridgeview history, literature, government, chemistry, or physics test, and the answer would be that it would not only be unlikely, but unfair since they were not provided a Ridgeview education in anticipation of a Ridgeview test. A state standardized test, in short, is perfect for a state standardized school, but it is inherently imperfect for a charter school that prizes its autonomy because it fundamentally disagrees with the approach to education taken by the state and school district.
Ridgeview can somewhat fairly be criticized for celebrating its rankings when it does well and ignoring its rankings when it does poorly, but rankings remain a meager basis by which to decide where to educate one’s children. It would be far better for parents to attend the informational meetings, read through the curriculum on the website, take advantage of the school’s open-door policy and sit in on classes; visit with their children’s teachers to understand what is being taught and what is expected of them, attend the Principal Coffees, and read the Principal’s Perspectives so that they clearly understand what they have chosen and what their school stands for. Ridgeview cannot succumb to the sort of harlequinism of other schools that boast of higher test scores but offer a less meaningful education. We must remain principled in unprincipled times, and ensure that our children know that this matters more than festooning metaphorical sashes with a great many meaningless merit badges. Knowing whether those badges are meaningless is one of the burdens of being an informed consumer in a free market.