Having a Path is Better than Having a Choice

The New York Times recently ran an article on New York City’s high school enrollment system. Reporters concluded that, after 14 years of increased choice, students of color are still concentrated in segregated, lower performing schools, while seats in higher performing schools go disproportionately to white and Asian students. That’s how the system looked before the choice initiative launched. So basically, opening up new options has not done much to change enrollment patterns.

Some read this as an indictment of school choice. The headline of the piece, after all, focuses on the “broken promises” of choice. That conclusion feels like a stretch given that, during the period of these changes, graduation rates in New York City rose dramatically — by 20 points — and those benefits have been reaped especially by African America and Hispanic students.

Others see the article as misguided attack on school choice when the real problem is school quality. That is, choice can ensure that each student has better access to the good schools, but so long as there are only a few good schools and a lot of weak ones, there will only be so many high-quality spots to go around. A better solution might be aggressive cultivation of new schools and closure of persistently low performing schools that become the default options for low income students. The Bloomberg administration did that too, and research results for those initiatives have been positive.

I find plenty with which to agree in both the article itself and reactions to it. School choice is sometimes oversold in terms of the magnitude of systemic improvement it can fuel. Choice is better than not having choice, but unless families have good options for schools where they can realistically get a seat, it’s not truly choice at all. And we have evidence from a number of major cities that opening new schools that can apply fresh, dynamic strategies to intractable challenges has led to better outcomes for families; we also have evidence that investing more resources to improve failing schools is not working as well as we would hope.

What we really need, though, is more tools to help families and students build paths to their goals.

We need to help more students find a path

The high school choice system in New York does not feel like it is part of a path. Instead, it’s more like a clearing you stumble into, with many possible ways forward. Students are forced to choose a direction, but based on what? Do they really have multiple viable options? Do they know where their choices might lead them? Do they have a destination?

Rising high school students who are already on a path have a collection of assets they have accumulated over time that equip them to continue meeting each next set of challenges. Their path goes back to when they first started the educational process. They have strong early childhood experiences that prepare them to be confident, consistent readers with deep vocabularies. They have enduring, healthy relationships with peers and adult mentors. They have developed a set of school habits like regular attendance, self-regulation of behavior and attention, and reliable assignment completion. They not only have attended good elementary and middle schools that pushed them with rigorous coursework, but they also have found access to rich summer experiences that keep them reading, exercising, socializing, and growing during off-months when so many students experience atrophy.

Students on a path are ready to make the most of school choice. They are academically qualified. They see purpose in school. They have support systems that will not let them quit when work gets more difficult and there are inevitable setbacks.

Neither school choice nor a higher supply of good schools is a substitute for the long-term work of building pathways. At best, each one is a helpful piece of the puzzle. We can work hard to max them out and we’ll probably see some additional small improvements. But when a student arrives at the threshold of ninth grade, probably at age 14, and has not been on any kind of serious, deliberate academic path going back to birth, we’re expecting a lot if we think offering an array of options for ninth grade enrollment is going to make a big difference. Not only is it getting late in the game, developmentally speaking, but many students by that point are feeling disaffected about school. They don’t see themselves as the kinds of kids who go to college. They may opt for whatever school their friends are going to.

Students don’t get lost in a single step

In the Times story, middle school counselors are overwhelmed by the demands of helping large numbers of students enroll in high schools. One counselor refers to the baffling array of choices and processes as “the beast.” You can tell right away that a lot of students are going to get lost, right at a moment of transition when they are uniquely vulnerable. But is that really when they become lost, or is it the moment when we realize that many are lost already, and don’t have the supports to find their way back?

Choice is an important tool for families, but it’s not all they need—not even close. I would like to see greater investments in family counseling from day one. If you are going to send your child through New York City’s public schools, shouldn’t someone sit you down before kindergarten and explain to you the options for the next 13 years? And the milestones that will open the most doors for you to get the best outcomes from those options for your child? And what steps you will need to take as a parent to prepare for each stage of the journey? You know, plot the path.

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