Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 4 (A Sociocultural Model of Writing)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 4 (A Sociocultural Model of Writing)

A general disconnect between high school and college instruction is well documented.[1] According to a six-year national study on college readiness from Stanford University, “coursework between high school and college is not connected; students graduate from high school under one set of standards and, three months later, are required to meet a whole new set of standards in college” (Venezia, Kirst, & Antonio, 2003). In the case of writing, one of the central points of disconnect stems from the fact that high school instruction and college instruction typically are based on different models of writing. As a result, students face a different set of expectations and ideas about writing when they enter college, compared with what they learned in high school.      

In the 1970s, advances in writing theory began to move pedagogy from a concentration on the end product of writing to the process of writing. Classroom instruction began to emphasize the “complex of activities out of which all writing emerges” — activities such as planning, drafting, and revising (Bizzell, 1986, p. 49). A highly influential model of writing, developed by Flower and Hayes (1981) in the early eighties, described the process of composition in terms of cognitive functions — the mental processes by which decisions are made, ideas are translated into written language, long-term and working memory are engaged, and so forth (Hayes, 1980). By the 1990s, the process model of writing, grounded in cognitive theory, shaped instruction across primary, secondary, and postsecondary education. Indeed, this model continues to be predominant in pre-college instruction. Applebee and Langer (2011) found that over 90 percent of high school English teachers, when they taught composition, employed process-oriented instruction, teaching specific strategies for planning, organizing, drafting, and revising. (Evidence that these processes are taught using evidence-based instructional practices is mixed, however.)

In higher education, the cognitive theory of writing has been challenged and supplemented by sociocultural theory, a change that has not made its way into most secondary school instruction and assessment. Sociocultural theory accounts for the fact that, whatever cognitive processes are at work in the production of text, writing is always shaped by the particular social and cultural contexts in which it takes place. The writer is always situated within a discourse community, which has its own governing values, shared assumptions, accepted and expected ways of communicating and behaving. In the discourse community of academia, for example, evidence-supported argumentation is a primary, legitimized, and rewarded means for making meaning and persuading others, whereas unsupported opinionating is not. Obtaining an education entails learning to think and communicate in ways established as valuable and acceptable within the academic discourse community.

Each academic discipline, and each classroom, for that matter, forms its own discourse community, while also serving as an instantiation of the larger discourse community of academia. In the most general sense, college equips students for participation in the broader discourse community of educated society, wherein clear, well-reasoned expression and evidence-supported argumentation are effective modes of meaning-making and persuasion.  

The sociocultural or “post-process” model of writing does not necessarily reject the cognitive process model, but rather extends it. That is, evidence-based practices grounded in the cognitive model are taught within a broader conceptualization, wherein writing processes are understood to operate within a complex of external factors relating to cultural identities, social norms, linguistic resources, power relations, and familial and environmental influences. Writing, in this conceptualization, is a situated communication practice learned through socialization, not (or not merely) an abstract skill that follows a natural developmental progression within isolated individuals.       

Socialization into the discourse community of academia is easier for some students than for others . Every student brings to their education particular linguistic resources, background experiences, assumptions, values, and expectations from their own native culture. The degrees of variance between native and academic culture differ widely, of course. Some students are better able to navigate the culture of academics from the start because it is already relatively familiar to them; the vocabulary and values characteristic of college academics are not so far from what they have grown up with. Thus, they enter college already understanding how to interpret what is being said, and how to discern and meet behavioral and performance expectations. For other students, the culture they come from bears little resemblance to the culture of college academics. Thus, if they have no prior exposure to the norms of behavior, communication, and meaning-making in academic culture, then they likely begin their college careers without apprehending how to conform to expectations or what will count as a successful performance. For example, according to Hassel and Giordano (2013), new college students who struggle with writing tend to lack experience writing in formal academic ways; they therefore do not know how to make appropriate choices given their audience and rhetorical purposes, and they are unfamiliar with academic conventions.

The implications of the sociocultural model of writing on pedagogy, compared with the cognitive model, are manifold. For example, the cognitive model tends to position writing as an isolated discipline comprised of a fixed compendium of process skills applicable irrespective of purposes and contexts. The classroom is the place where a teacher dispenses these skills to individual students, who learn and practice them through mental processes that function similarly from person to person. Instruction tends to deemphasize the cultural perspectives and personal differentiators students bring with them to their studies, and to leave unexamined the social contexts for learning and writing.

In contrast, in the sociocultural model, the classroom is a community wherein it is impossible to separate literacy from the external influences of a student’s environment — the cultural, social, economic, familial and other factors that affect them. These influences inherently produce inequalities among students, particularly students from non-dominant backgrounds. Pedagogy within the sociocultural model, then, seeks to recognize and account for these differences, rather than overlook them.

The instructor serves as a facilitator of students enjoined through their writing and interactions in public conversation — certainly among themselves, but also, in a broader sense, with other authors, critics, readers, and stakeholders engaged with their topics of inquiry. Writing is a social practice learned in concert with reading, speaking, listening, and thinking skills. Metacognition becomes extremely important, as students are given to understand that they are engaged in learning the conventions of a particular culture (academics), and that they themselves are situated within that culture in ways that bring to bear their personal backgrounds, experiences, knowledge, identities, and language resources.

While the cognitive model leads toward the production of writing in which the particulars of students’ identities and experiences are absent, their selves evacuated from the texts they produce, the sociocultural model brings their particular identities into play, examining and emphasizing the agency of writers as participants situated within particular communities. Their identities and backgrounds thus become potential resources that they can leverage in the service of contributing their own perspectives and ideas to ongoing, consequential conversations.

Writing is positioned as an empowering tool for pursuing one’s interests and advancing one’s objectives. Pedagogically, this puts a premium on students choosing and scoping their own projects, discovering the topics and issues they care about, and taking responsibility for their own intellectual engagement. But students succeed in leveraging their backgrounds and advancing their interests only to the degree that they communicate in ways that are valued and persuasive within the community — that is, by thinking logically, reasoning carefully, reading perceptively, discussing knowledgeably, communicating clearly — in short, by acquiring and exercising the literacy skills of an academically educated person.

The sociocultural perspective is closely compatible with principles of rhetoric: both situate the writer in a public context and call upon the skills of persuasion operative within the relevant discourse community. Rhetorical concepts and considerations — awareness of audience; definition of purpose; ethos, logos, and pathos — often are taught in the process-oriented instructional model found in secondary classrooms, but they tend there to be abstract and decontextualized. The sociocultural model, by contrast, comprehends rhetors in terms of their particular cultural identities and social situatedness; it configures purpose in terms of agency, audience in terms of discourse community, position-taking in terms of conversational participation, meaning-making and persuasiveness in terms of rhetorical context.

This model of writing facilitates one of the major goals of college-level writing instruction: to equip each student for effective participation within his or her discipline, with its particular text forms, language styles, customs of presentation, and modes of analysis. Where “rhetorical knowledge” and “knowledge of conventions” are invoked as necessary for college-level writing success, they refers to students’ awareness that they are always situated within specific discourse communities (especially academic disciplines), and that effective communication within those communities entails understanding and adhering to community expectations — such as supporting claims with evidence and practicing standards of academic integrity.

How college-ready writing is conceptualized determines how its instruction is strategized. The disconnect between secondary and post-secondary models of writing results in pedagogical differences that can leave high school graduates unprepared for the writing demands and expectations they encounter in college. The theory of writing operative within an educational community shapes not only teachers’ strategies for instruction, but also students’ understanding of what writing is and is for. The disparity between the models of writing at work in secondary versus college instruction contributes to students’ difficulties in producing the kind of academic writing required for success in college. 

College-bound high schoolers need preparation for college-level writing, since writing is a key, foundational skill across disciplines. Most high school classrooms to do not equip students for college writing success, because they do not emphasize extended, research-supported composition, and because their operative model of writing does not align with the concepts and assumptions students encounter in college. Changing the approach to writing instruction in high school to better align with the college writing can help more students prepare for college success.

[1] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013; Venezia & Kirst, 2017.

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[1]  cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venzenia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Spellings, 2006; Perin, 2013.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 3 (Authentic Composition)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 3 (Authentic Composition)

First, students need practice with extended, source-based composition. As shown above, an abundance of research indicates that most student writing prior to college is not rigorous enough to prepare them for the demands of college-level academic work. They are not getting enough experience at authentic academic composition and the interpretive reading, analysis, argumentation, and other higher order skills that go with it.

A primary goal of writing instruction early in college is to prepare students for writing in their disciplines later on . General principles of academic writing that are transferable across disciplines, therefore, are important for students to master in their introductory courses. This kind of writing generally requires students to compose multiple-page essays that engage with other sources . The essay types most commonly required in college are persuasive and informational; comparatively little narrative or creative writing is assigned.

First-year composition and other introductory writing courses ask students to produce research-based persuasive essays because they are an essential type of intellectual work that trains students to think and write successfully across a range of other courses — History, Political Science, Communication, Social Science, Business, Culture Studies, and so forth. Such courses themselves require research-supported essays because they are an effective way for students to demonstrate that they have learned about a content area in depth, are thoughtful about it, and can convey their knowledge and ideas clearly and effectively.

Colleges value good writing skills in part because they recognize that students who write well possess an array of high-level competencies that apply across many varieties of subject matter and types of projects. It’s easy for students to regard composing an academic essay as an isolated exercise that will have little value to them beyond a single English or writing course. Instead, they should understand it as an occasion for developing and demonstrating a constellation of highly valued skills and habits of mind that apply no matter their college major or chosen career.

To prepare them for the demands of college writing, high school classrooms should guide students through the process of composing authentic, extended academic essays. That means teaching them to:

●      Generate ideas and choose their own writing topic, ideally one they personally care about;
●      Identify and clearly define a researchable, debatable issue within their topic, one with a scope that can fit the time and page-length parameters of the task;
●      Research their issue by locating and critically reading relevant, credible sources;
●      Identify and analyze a range of perspectives within the conversation around their issue;
●      Arrive at their own position based on their analysis;
●      Craft an argument in support of their position, one made persuasive through evidence and reasoning;
●      Anticipate and address relevant counterarguments;
●      Skillfully incorporate quotes and citations into their own prose, demonstrating a rigorous respect for standards of academic integrity;
●      Make substantive revisions in response to feedback and their own self-critique;
●      Proofread and edit their work for spelling, grammar, and mechanics, as well as tone, style, and format;
●      Produce a polished, final draft that conforms to the conventions of academic presentation.

Practice at composing an extended, research-supported academic essay provides high school students with an opportunity to learn and demonstrate the full complement of competencies research indicates are needed for college writing readiness. Without instruction and practice at this complex task prior to college, even gifted students can find themselves struggling to succeed.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 2 (What is College-Ready Writing?)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 2 (What is College-Ready Writing?)

There is no universal standard of college-ready writing, in part because there are such wide differences in the academic demands of postsecondary institutions, from open-access community colleges to highly selective universities (Marlink & Wahleithner, 2001; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006). Nevertheless, the large number of sources seeking to define competencies needed for college writing success agree that postsecondary students, whatever their institution, must be prepared to produce extended pieces of writing that critically engage with source materials and diverse perspectives, and that conform to academic conventions of style and presentation.[1]

The “Framework for Success in Postsecondary Writing,” developed by the Council of Writing Program Administrators, the National Council of Teachers of English, and the National Writing Project (2011), stresses that, to be ready for college writing, students need the knowledge and skills that go into composing an authentic, extended academic essay:
●      Knowledge of writing processes: That is, knowing how to plan, draft, revise, and finalize an academic essay;
●      Rhetorical knowledge: Understanding their writing task, their purposes for writing, and their audiences; knowing how to use language and reasoning in ways that are valued and persuasive within college academics;
●      Critical Thinking: The ability to insightfully analyze and evaluate ideas, arguments, and perspectives from other sources, and to contribute their own well-reasoned ideas, arguments, and perspectives;
●      Knowledge of conventions: Understanding that there are guidelines and expectations for how their academic work should be presented; knowing how to produce an essay that exhibits correct grammar, language mechanics, and formatting, as well as effective organization, appropriate tone and style, and careful attention to accurately representing and citing the work of others.

In addition to knowledge and skills, learning to write at the college level requires certain noncognitive behaviors.[2]  Students must, for example, be conscientious in meeting deadlines, must persist at revising and improving their drafts, and must adhere to standards of academic integrity. Appropriate social behaviors are necessary, too, including a willingness to offer thoughtful feedback to peers, and to respond constructively to critiques of their own work.

Successful student writers also exhibit metacognitive awareness.[3] They recognize their strengths and weaknesses as learners, and know what their larger objectives are for acquiring an education. They also recognize how they as individuals are situated in relation to the people, institutions, and society around them.

Unfortunately, research on middle school and high school writing instruction shows that students get little training and practice at the kind of writing that prepares them for college. The vast majority of classroom assignments require little generation of text and no critical thinking. In their analysis of a national survey of high school writing instructional practices, Kiuhara, Graham, and Hawken (2009) report that “the writing activities [high school students] were assigned most frequently by teachers involved little analysis and interpretation,” and that “a sizable proportion of the participating teachers seldom assigned activities that clearly involved writing multiple paragraphs” (p. 151).

A study by Applebee and Langer (2011) found that “. . . the actual writing that goes on in typical classrooms across the United States remains dominated by tasks in which the teacher does all the composing, and students are left only to fill in missing information, whether copying directly from a teacher’s presentation, completing worksheets and chapter summaries, replicating highly formulaic essay structures keyed to the high-stakes tests they will be taking, or writing the particular information the teacher is seeking” (p. 28).

Studies of middle and high school classroom practices further suggest that noncognitive and metacognitive competencies are missing from pre-college writing instruction as well.[4]Accordingly, a great number of students, including gifted students, are not equipped with the full array of abilities needed for successful writing in college. What they learn in high school is not aligned with what is expected of them afterwards.

How, then, might writing be taught in high school to better prepare students for the demands of college?

[1] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Conley, 2003; Harris, 1996; Sparks, et al., 2014; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[2] ibid.

[3] ibid.; also see Zimmerman & Risemberg.

[4] cf. Applebee & Langer, 2006, 2011; Graham, et al., 2014; Kiuhara, Graham, & Harken, 2009; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Troia & Olinghouse, 2013.

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 1 (Introduction)

Preparing High Schoolers for College Writing Success—Pt 1 (Introduction)

Too many students find that the kind of writing they were asked to do in high school does not resemble the writing required of them in college. Their high school classes mostly assigned short answer responses, not full-length essays. If they got a chance to write more extended pieces, most were taught to adhere to a formula, such as the five-paragraph essay, and were rewarded more for their mastery of surface features than for the quality of their thinking.[1]

In contrast, college students are required to produce extended compositions that demonstrate critical thinking and the skilled use of sources.[2] They’re expected to generate their own ideas; find and analyze credible information; consider a range of diverse perspectives; craft logical, evidence-based arguments; make substantive revisions in response to feedback; and turn in a polished final product that conforms to the presentational conventions of academic writing.

The skills and knowledge required to produce a successful college-level essay develop only with direct instruction and lots of practice. Unfortunately, few high schoolers get the instruction and practice they need.[3] Even advanced high school courses do not necessarily align with the approach to writing that students encounter in college; AP English, for example, prepares students for a timed exam rather than for authentic academic composition.

Writing is the academic skill most linked to success in college, across disciplines; thus, whatever their abilities or targeted area of study, students are well served by entering college ready for the writing demands, and the approach to writing instruction, they will encounter there.

In this series of posts I propose an approach to writing instruction aimed at bridging the gap between high school and college writing. First, I draw on scholarly surveys and frameworks for success to describe college-ready writing, then identify two key changes to high school instruction that can help college-bound students succeed: an emphasis on authentic academic composition, and a shift toward a sociocultural model of writing.

[1] cf. Association of American Colleges, 2007; Kirst & Venezia, 2017; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; Shulock & Callan, 2010; Perin, 2013; Spellings, 2006.

[2] cf. Condon & Kelly-Riley, 2004; Council of Writing Program Administrators, 2011; Melzer, 2009; Perin, 2013; Scherff & Piazza, 2005; Sullivan & Tinberg, 2006.

[3] cf. Applebee, Lehr, & Auten,  1981; Applebee & Langer, 2011; Graham, 2013; Greenwald, et al, 1999; Kiuhara, Graham, & Hawken, 2009; NCES, 2012, 2016; Persky, et al., 2003; Salahu-Din, et al, 2008; Santelises & Dabrowski, 2015; Snyder & Dillow, 2011; Troia, 2007.

The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

The School Choice Paradox: Competition vs. Monopoly

Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently released a list of proposed priorities for her department’s competitive grants program. Number one is “Empowering Families to Choose a High-Quality Education that Meets Their Child’s Unique Needs.” In other words—no surprise—school choice initiatives remain at the top of the Secretary’s agenda.

DeVos’s argument for school choice, like most everyone else’s, hinges on a faith in competition to improve education. In an open marketplace full of choices, according to advocates, schools compete with one another to attract students. This competition drives up the quality of education all around, as parents choose only the best performing options for their kids. As in any competitive environment, if a school wants to survive, it had better stand and deliver.

The hardest of hardcore school choicers want to minimize government involvement to the greatest extent possible, leaving it entirely up to the competitive market’s invisible hand to ensure that every child has access to a good education. School choice advocates, including DeVos, who characterize the public school system as a dead-end monopoly, believe that government regulations, such as open admissions requirements, price controls, accountability mandates, and reporting requirements, only impede a dynamic market’s ability to improve efficiency and quality.

But these school choicers ignore the basic truth that unregulated markets tend not toward greater competition but toward monopoly. If we turn our education system into an unregulated market, where government has no role to play in ensuring the public good, then we risk trading one type of monopoly for another. School-choice models counting on competition to improve education undercut themselves if they eliminate the government’s role in ensuring competition through regulation.

It’s not difficult to make the case that a laissez-faire market breeds monopolies and oligarchies. Just look at the robber barons in the days before antitrust legislation. Better yet, consider the current status of the US economy: after decades of deregulation, only a handful of companies now dominate media, telecommunications, finance, tech industries, oil, transportation, defense contracting, agriculture, retail, and other key sectors.

Companies don’t want competition: they want to eliminate competitors and have the market all to themselves. It takes government policy to keep that from happening. From the New Deal to the 1970s—the decades of the U.S.’s greatest economic growth and income equality—the federal government developed and enforced policies to limit the consolidation of competitors, enforce fair trade practices, protect consumers, and otherwise regulate markets to reduce barriers to entry, ensure competition, and discourage the rise of monopolies. Systematic deregulation, which began under President Carter and has continued largely without pause through every administration since, has resulted quite demonstrably not in more competition but in less.

It therefore doesn’t take a great leap of imagination to see the same thing happening in education, if school choice policies premised on the benefits of a free market don’t ensure competition through regulation. School choice champions such as DeVos, who rail against the public monopolization of schools, should be just as adamant about guarding education against the private monopolization so evident in other deregulated markets. If education were to go the way of, say, finance or agriculture, it would be dominated by a handful of private, too-big-to-fail companies with proprietary curricula and an incentive to increase returns to shareholders rather than safeguard the public good. Imagine Pearson owning 80 percent of all K-12 schools, free to decide for themselves what to teach, to whom, and toward what end.

What sorts of policies are required to ensure that the market-based education system we are surely headed towards stays competitive? At the minimum, school choice policies must:

Limit bigness. The consolidation of competitors must be constrained, even at the expense of greater efficiency. Unchecked mergers and acquisitions, justified on the basis of increased efficiency, have been the signal route by which a small number of players have eliminated competition and achieved too-big-to-fail status in under-regulated industries.

Keep public schools competitive. As more private players enter education, traditional public schools will serve as a bulwark against the concentration of private power. Currently, however, district schools often are not allowed to compete on equal footing. For example, in many cases charter schools are free to weed out students who lower test scores or cost more to educate. In contrast, traditional public schools must educate everyone who comes through the door, including the students expelled from charter schools. Little wonder then when district schools look worse both financially and academically in comparison to their competitors. School choice policy designed to ensure competition must make sure that traditional public schools aren’t disadvantaged, with their funding siphoned away to help their competitors, and rivals playing by more favorable rules.

Straighten out accountability. As it stands, both the presence and absence of accountability requirements distort incentives, resulting in a market that is neither fair nor efficient. In states such as Michigan, where there is no strong performance-based accountability for charter schools, the incentive is simply to attract as many students as possible. Charters compete fiercely to fill seats, even in poor urban and rural areas, because each enrollee garners around $7,600 in public funds. Schools are not required to show results, however, and so they are not incentivized to actually deliver a high quality education to their students. As a result, the state has lots of charters, but they rank near the bottom of all schools nationwide.

In contrast, in states where all schools are held accountable by student performance measures, charters have a disincentive to serve populations least likely to generate high test scores—namely, the rural and urban poor. Evidence indicates that “for-profit charters are less likely than other types of schools to locate in low-income neighborhoods and educate low-income students.” In other words, there’s no percentage in the market for poor kids.

Public accountability for publicly-funded schools is an obvious tenet of good stewardship. But in a market-based system, policymakers must recognize and remedy the incentive distortions accountability requirements can create.

Require reporting. The competitive market model depends on parents making informed choices. Policy aimed at ensuring competition must define the information essential for fairly comparing competitors and require that schools report it regularly and truthfully. Parents should be able to compare options based on consistent and reliable criteria.

Pitting schools against one another in a competitive marketplace may indeed be a way to improve education. But if we decide that a market-based model is the answer, then we must also be wise about how that market operates. We have no lack of examples of what happens in markets absent government-enforced restrictions on the concentration of power. If we’re committed to reforming our education system through market-based competition, then we must also commit to government regulations that ensure the market works for the public good.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post has also been published in Age of Awareness.)


When Is School Choice a Bad Choice?

When Is School Choice a Bad Choice?

With Betsy DeVos as head of the Department of Education, it is a sure bet that school choice initiatives will be at the top of national school reform efforts in the coming years. DeVos, a longtime  advocate for alternatives to traditional public schools—including charter schools, vouchers, education savings accounts, online schools, and other ideas—will no doubt support President Trump’s plan to direct $20 billion a year away from traditional public schools and towards school choice programs.

School choice is one of the rare political initiatives that has fans on both the right and left. Unfortunately, there is still no definitive answer as to what kinds of alternatives work best, or even whether policies promoting school choice can improve education nationally. After 25 years of experimentation with charter schools, the results are mixed. Some charters have outperformed traditional public schools, while others have offered no improvement at all. In some cases, charter schools have merely lined the pockets of their founders while failing students utterly. There are similarly mixed results for school voucher programs.

Underlying school choice is a faith in the workings of a competitive market to generate better outcomes. Competition pressures all schools to improve by giving parents, through the exercise of their choice, the power to hold their kids’ schools accountable, so the thinking goes.

The special problem the free market presents in the case of education, however, is that when competitors and experiments fail, children suffer. At stake in a marketplace of education alternatives is not the viability of some consumer gadget, but the life chances of real kids who may never recover from falling behind.

Of course, as school choice champions will be quick to note, children suffer no less tragically when their “monopolistic” traditional public schools fail them, and they have nowhere else to turn.

Education policy based on market principles by definition expects some schools to fail—and, though this point often goes unvoiced, it therefore expects some children to be casualties of those failures. Recognizing this risk, and seeking to mitigate it, is therefore incumbent upon parents, educators, and others, who might reasonably ask: When does policy make school choice a bad choice?

We have enough experience at this point to consider at least a few guidelines:

School choice is a bad choice when it encourages profiteering.

Over $600 billion in federal, state, and local funds go to K-12 public education each year. That’s a tempting pot of public money that many private interests would like to lay hands on. These interests have not been shy about lobbying for models and mechanisms that would siphon some of that money their way, nor in fighting against regulations that would require them to meet accountability standards or make financial disclosures—all in the name of enhancing school choice.

In Secretary DeVos’s home state of Michigan, for example, The Detroit Free Press found widespread abuse, a lack of accountability, and poor academic performance throughout the state’s charter schools, two-thirds of which are run by for-profit management companies.

Online charter schools, dominated by for-profit companies such as Pearson and K12 Inc., have had an “overwhelming negative impact,” according to recent studies, with the majority of students showing “far weaker academic growth in both math and reading compared to their traditional public school peers.”

As with any business, the for-profit entities that contract to run public charter schools have an incentive to maximize revenue while minimizing costs. It’s no surprise then that many seek to enroll all the students they can, while getting by with as few teachers, facilities, and instructional resources as possible. For-profit charters are also motivated to avoid accommodating students with problems or disabilities, since these students can bring down both financial and academic performance measures. When it comes to educating a community’s children with public funds, a for-profit model can conflict with the best interests of students, parents, teachers, and taxpayers.

School choice is a bad choice when it is a tool for advancing ideology rather than education.

In some cases, school choice is promoted by people and entities who see it as but one element in a larger ideological vision for society—a vision in which public services are privatized to the largest extent possible while government is reduced to the bare minimum. When this ideology is the engine behind school reform measures, the goal becomes less about improving education than about devaluing and defunding traditional public schools.

The Mackinac Center for Public Policy, for example, is a Michigan think tank that pushes for deregulation and privatization in many areas of society, including education. The center champions school choice in its rhetoric, but its stated endpoint for education policy is “no government schools,” a stance that favors the elimination of choices rather than their expansion.

Belief in the market is so strong, and enmity towards regulation so fierce in this ideology, that its evangelists resist any sort of government-enforced accountability; for them, “choice and competition engender accountability.” There is no body of evidence supporting this laissez-faire model, only a ferocious faith that it alone can solve the nation’s education problems. There is evidence, however, that school choice without government regulation does not improve education and can harm disadvantaged students

When education policy is set by the belief that any nontraditional school is a better choice than a traditional public school simply because it is not operated by a government entity, then ideology has overtaken evidence-based reasoning. That possibility is worth paying attention to in the current school reform climate, since Secretary DeVos has been a major funder of the Mackinac Center and her husband has served on its board of directors.

School choice is a bad choice when it promotes racial and economic segregation.

In many areas of the country, traditional public school districts replicate entrenched racial and economic divides. Wealthy neighborhoods tend to have well-funded public schools stocked with wealthy kids, while schools in poorer locations are starved for funds and populated mostly by poor kids.

Charter schools and vouchers can help relieve some of the problems of traditional public schools for disadvantaged people, as they have in Oakland and elsewhere. Studies show, however, that charter schools and other school choice programs, whatever the intention behind their authorization, can also reinforce segregation.

A study by the National Bureau of Economic Research, for instance, concluded that “charter schools in North Carolina are increasingly serving the interests of relatively able white students in racially imbalanced schools.” Meanwhile, a judge found that Nevada’s recent experiment with a universal school voucher program mostly benefited wealthy families who already had access to good public schools.

Policies that push for school choice as a means for improving education opportunities need to ensure that mechanisms are in place to make the programs and schools truly accessible to the people who would benefit most. Without an accompanying means of transportation, for example, the choice of a private school on the other side of town may in practice be no choice at all.


While it remains to be seen whether school choice will be a good choice while Betsy DeVos is Secretary of Education, it is worth noting that of the roughly $620 billion spent annually on K-12 public education, less than $60 billion comes from the federal government; the lion’s share of school funding is state and local. Thus, while the proposed $20 billion in federal funds for school choice programs is nothing to sneeze at, its overall impact will be comparatively modest.

The most meaningful choices about school choice will continue to be made at the local and state level. So for anyone interested in making sure that school choice policy in fact leads to good choices, efforts will probably have the most impact closest to home.

© 2017 BetterRhetor Resources LLC

(This post has also been published in BRIGHT Magazine.)