Shifting The School Choice Debate

The decades-long fight over school choice pits two well-worn arguments: “Students, and by extension our economy, are suffering because public schools on the whole are failing” and “Taking money from public schools only will increase the obstacles they face.”

I see choice from a distinct perspective. Throughout my career, I’ve worked with students, teachers, parents and school leaders in all types of school settings—public schools, charters, parochial schools—and a common thread has emerged. It turns out there’s another aspect to the school choice conversation that both camps can support: Empower students to make choices about their own learning, in their own school. One way to achieve this is to expand course selection for students. This kind of change puts students at the center of discussions about choice and empowers them to invest in their own education and success.

Given the right training, support and resources, schools of all kinds can immediately succeed in preparing students for today’s world while also creating more rewarding and challenging choices within the public system. At the National Math and Science Initiative (NMSI), we know this firsthand, as we have seen dramatic increases in course choices and student achievement in more than 1,000 public and charter school partners around the country.

High school presents an exciting shift for American students. After following academic tracks largely determined by adults, students have their first opportunities to make decisions about what they want to study.

A student interested in science, math or technology can take electives in statistics, forensic science, robotics and other disciplines. Students passionate about journalism or music can engage in classes that support those interests.

Some students, though far too few, also have a say in the rigor of the classes they take by way of honors, Advanced Placement® and International Baccalaureate® course offerings.

Success in rigorous coursework gives students confidence and equips them with problem-solving and critical thinking skills they need in college and career. That is why expanding course options is especially critical in urban and rural areas, where students don’t necessarily have access to the same variety of curricular and extracurricular options as those in a sprawling suburban school. We want students attending a 200-seat school in Appalachia to have the option to take AP and IB courses, not only to empower them to drive their own learning, but also to provide families the quality education they deserve right in their own school system.

Increasing access and achievement – and altering the national debate – is not a decades-long prospect.

Based on independent data from the College Board, high schools that complete the first year of NMSI’s three-year College Readiness Program see an increase in qualifying AP exam scores in math, science and English that is 10 times the average annual increase nationally. Increases for African-American and Hispanic students, including those in rural and urban settings, are six times the average annual increase for their peers and the increase is 10 times the national average for female students. Qualifying scores on AP® exams demonstrate a mastery of college-level coursework and make students eligible for course credit at the majority of U.S. colleges and universities.

When we increase all students’ access and achievement in rigorous coursework, we mitigate the need to consider vouchers and other approaches meant to counter the prevailing lack of high quality education across the public school system. And that is key to our national conversation about improving educational outcomes for our kids.

We must not dismiss the importance of the school choice debate happening right now in Washington, D.C. or at our dinner tables. At the same time, we should not limit our view of choice to governance models. Decision makers at every level, including principals, teachers and parents, can make a real difference to ensure students have greater choice, regardless of the school system. Public and private funders play a critical role, too, by extending programs with proven results to schools of all sorts and sizes across the country. Let’s all do our part. Our students don’t have a moment to lose.