New York City has a rich history of school choice, and the expansion of choice in recent years has been a good thing for kids. Among other benefits, it has allowed the creation of small, new district and charter schools that work better for disadvantaged students, offering new hope in neighborhoods where geographically-assigned schools were historically dysfunctional if not corrupt. Yet such improvements do not fully answer what is a key question for any diverse school system: how can we group together students for the sake of effective teaching, without creating tracks that lead some students to an academic dead end?
To find a better answer to this question, New York City should think less about whether to provide school choice, and more about how. I see three key areas for improvement.
First, we need to create many more elementary school options that are accessible to, and effective with, higher-need students. From the acquisition of vocabulary and basic math concepts, to the formation of habits and mindsets, the early years are critical. This work must include looking at the very highest-performing district and charter schools in high-need neighborhoods, and turning over every stone to understand how their success can be replicated.
Second, we need a school choice process that is clearer for families. Few parents have a clear understanding of how to interpret a Progress Report, for example, in large part because it combines information of many different types. The middle and high school choice process is also daunting for many families, and interpretive help from guidance counselors is often in short supply. Improving these choice structures can help make sure the best seats are filled, and not just by students with the most savvy parents.
Third, we need ways of talking about academic performance with candor and encouragement. Since we know, statistically speaking, how many pathways in the school system do not often lead to college and career readiness, we owe it to families to speak plainly and urgently about this information. Even when the truth is brutal, we must not leave these big-picture patterns as the privileged knowledge of academic researchers. Yet those very patterns tell us there will be students who fall (or arrive) very far behind a standard progression toward college readiness, and they deserve school options with meaning and rigor of their own.
School choice is a good thing. It empowers parents, improves outcomes, and makes public education less dependent on top-down leadership. Still, how choice is structured is critical, and we will always need smart leadership for that.
James Merriman, CEO of NYC Charter School Center, is a leading voice and advocate for high quality charter schools and frequently speaks and writes about the actions that need to be taken to strengthen and expand charter schools within the New York City public school system.