School Choice Won’t Solve Anything

School Choice Won’t Solve Anything

Private and charter schools can't fix anything if the underlying problems are the same as those with public schools.

I’ve been teaching for ten years.  I’ve worked in both public, and charter schools, and I’ve been watching this debate for a while.

I remember a few years ago, I was talking with a colleague, expressing some frustration over how much time I have to spend teaching things the students should have learned before coming to me.  I was teaching Precalculus at the time, and many of my students couldn’t do basic algebra.  What I didn’t understand was just how ubiquitous this problem is.  Teachers given AP Calculus spent a lot of time teaching Geometry.  Out of frustration, someone came up with this idea of the End Of Course exams, such that a student couldn’t pass the course if they couldn’t demonstrate that they actually learned the material.

Then somewhere, probably in Tallahassee, the idea got watered down.  This past year, I was given some Geometry classes.  And do you know, that the final grade is 70% coursework, which is the 1st, 2nd, 3rd, and 4th quarter grades, and the midterm exam, and the other 30% is this Geometry EOC.  And do you know, that in the same way Comey described his directive to drop the Flynn investigation as being ‘implied’ or ‘understood,’ I knew exactly what he was talking about because I get to endure the same kind of talk from administrators.  What I was told, implicitly, was to make sure all my students got A’s and B’s, so that the EOC didn’t drop anyone down below passing (remember that 30%).  And when I looked at the grade verification report on the last day before the break, I saw that the teacher who I took over for had given every student an A on the midterm.  Every single one, without exception.

This was not the only school where I felt this pressure.  This was a charter school; the last one was a public school, and it was the same story.

Now this, of course, begs the question of why the students aren’t learning.  To that, I have to ask: why should they?  We talk of teacher accountability, school accountability, but no one ever talks about student accountability.  Indeed, we live in a culture where phrases like “I suck at math” are things to be said out loud with pride.  I remember when I was studying Elementary Education at FIU.  A vast majority of my peers would say such things – “I can’t do math,” or “I suck at math.”  And they would say “me too,” and bond over it.  It’s an accomplishment, evidently.  Many of these people chose their major in elementary education because they sucked at math; they didn’t have to pass anything beyond college algebra with a C (or pay someone else to take it for them).

And these are the people teaching our young children, in public, private, and charter schools alike.

I’ve been in interviews where the AP is complaining to me that their (elementary) teachers reserve math for the last half-hour of the day, only to have the previous lesson go overtime, meaning math doesn’t get taught at all.  I’ve listened to other (math) teachers frustrated over having a meeting with their child’s (elementary) teacher who taught the lesson incorrectly, and upon being corrected by a student, became affronted and punished the student, and in the meeting, being astounded at having to explain such basic concepts as greater than or less than to a grown adult charged with teaching our children things like greater than or less than.

Teachers who are afraid of math can’t teach math.  They either don’t try, or they teach it wrong, or get frustrated.  Either way, that anxiety translates into the students, and the process continues.  Students get shuffled through the system, not really learning the material but being given a passing grade no less, and being asked to learn more and more complex things, the basic requisites for which they simply do not understand.

The solution for this should seem obvious – require a higher level of math achievement for graduates of Education College.  In my program, I went through four semesters of reading education, including a 4000-level mentored field-experience course, but math education was a single, 2000-level course.  We could require, for example, that students entering the College of Education complete Calculus 1 as a prerequisite.  But this is problematic for one simple reason: money.  The bottom line is that if you’re in college trying to decide on a major, if you’re mathematically adept and capable of understanding the higher levels, you’re not going to pursue a career that guarantees less than the national median for the next fifteen years; you’re going to go into something technical.

Regardless of school choice, if we want students to learn, we need better teachers.  If we want better teachers, we have to pay teachers better.  Period.

This brings us back to that panacea, school choice.  Public school teachers make more money that private and charter school teachers.  I’ve seen this in the jobs posted, and in the offer letters I get.  But it’s not just in South Florida, either, it’s nationwide.  And you can trust that teachers know this.  Even in those situations where the private or charter (the ‘choice’ school) pay scale matches the district, the workload is typically harder, and the benefits aren’t nearly as good.  So you can imagine, if you’re an accomplished, experienced teacher who knows how to motivate your students (a dying breed), what kind of school are you going to apply at?

It’s tempting to look at school choice as though it’s going to provide an answer.  After all, when a child is in a failing school, they should have a right to find a better school.  But the reality is that private and charter schools are more often than not, worse than their public counterparts, because the same underlying problems affect them both, and the choice schools have fewer resources to deal with them and less accountability to ensure results.

Michael Patrick Lewis is a teacher, and bestselling author of Edge Of God, and for a limited time, Preferred Rewards is free to download on

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