Better than no options at all

Better than no options at all
By Martin Morse Wooster
Senior Fellow, Capital Research Center

(originally posted at Philanthropy Daily)

Like most professions, educators love to focus on projects that appear new and exciting rather than old and staid. Since computers are the eternal favor of the month, tech-oriented projects have attracted the attention of educators.

For example, I read in the Nonprofit Quarterly news digest about how some company has come up with an application that will help students who have already figured out what they want to do in life achieve their goals. The idea is that students can, every day, write down their progress towards their goal and then their teachers or counselors can help steer them in their chosen direction.

As a crusty Baby Boomer, I find it hard to imagine that many 16 year olds really know what they want in life. I remember in the battle over the Robertson Foundation at Princeton one student who dutifully went through the Robertson-funded public policy classes and then decided that he would be happier as an oboist in a symphony orchestra. I find it hard to imagine many teenagers today have planned their careers with similar certainty. So this app comes across as tech hype.

Two years ago I wrote about AltSchool, which at the time had only one campus in San Francisco. They have since expanded to Brooklyn, giving the New Yorker’s Rebecca Mead a chance to write about them. They have also gotten some grants, including a large one from the Silicon Valley Community Foundation.

We learn early on that AltSchool isn’t supposed to look like a school. You won’t find a steeple or classical architecture, but “a logo: a light-blue square, with rounded corners, bearing the word “ALT.” It looks like an iPhone app awaiting the tap of a colossal finger.”

Go into AltSchool Brooklyn, and don’t try to find the principal’s office—they don’t have a principal. Don’t ask for their lesson plan—they don’t have a lesson plan. They have a “playlist” of activities.

Here’s a snapshot of what Mead saw when she visited another new AltSchool—the lower grades were entertained by a “startlingly tall blond woman” who was teaching the students about the Russian legend of the Snow Maiden (and who turned out to be a student’s mother). The middle school grades were running a simulation about “a society that is undergoing a financial crisis and ruled by a pair of dictators.”

Who wouldn’t want to go to a school like this? That’s a lot more fun than memorizing multiplication tables!

AltSchool’s founder, Max Ventilla, explained that his goal was to teach skills that would be useful in the workplace of the future. Thus AltSchool students learn some math, at least so they can run their calculators efficiently. He also downplayed the importance of learning languages given how live-translation apps will be more common 20 years from now.

If AltSchool occupies the playful side of education, Achievement First, a public charter school chain with schools in New York and Connecticut, appears to occupy the tough-guy side (according to this Washington Post report by former English teacher Julia Fisher).

When I read Fisher’s piece, I was reminded of a clip shown at Washington Nationals games in which a deranged high school coach, played by Rip Torn, tells his players, “MEAN! The only way to win is to play MEAN!” [1]

Achievement First comes from the time-honored “drill sergeant” school of teaching. Fisher explains that in one 50-minute class at Achievement First Amistad High in New Haven she gave out 37 demerits. The school is so tough that at one point Fisher commiserates with a friend whose schooling was in China. “That’s as bad as Communist China!” she said. “They made us march at recess.”

“I told her,” Fisher said, “that Amistad does not have recess.” They do have a lunch hour, but half of this time is spent in a silent study hall.

According to Fisher, English classes eliminated questions (at least in the tenth grade), and most of the time the students fill out worksheets. Of course students rebel, and Fisher shows how they do so.

But I read Fisher’s piece convinced there had to be another side. Achievement First’s website says little about discipline, and in fact says their classes “have a joyful tone.” I can’t imagine any education professor come up with ways to make students suffer for suffering’s sake. They apparently believe that draconian rules are the best way to ensure that African-American students excel.

While Rebecca Mead gives us a good sense of what AltSchool is like because she saw classes at different schools, and talked to teachers, parents, and the company’s founder, Julia Fisher only provides one perspective. I’d like to hear what students have to say about going to Amistad. Perhaps some of them even like it.

I suspect that AltSchool students need more structure and Achievement First students need more freedom. But the point of school choice is that different styles of teaching are better for different students. Achievement First has been around for nearly two decades, and it wouldn’t have lasted that long if students uniformly hated it.

A vigorous system of school choice doesn’t mean that students always end up in the school that is best for them. But having options among schools is nearly always better than having no options at all.

[1] A friend suggests this is from Dodgeball, which I haven’t seen.

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