The connection between choice and humility

Over the past eight years, New Orleans students have achieved what few previously thought was possible. In her recent Atlantic article on charter-school discipline policies in New Orleans, Meredith Simons recognizes these gains, noting that “New Orleans’s graduation rate has surpassed the state’s, growing from 54.4 percent in 2004 to 77.8 percent in 2012.”

Yet Ms. Simons, as well as others, believes that these gains have come at a high cost—that the results, while impressive, have too often relied on discipline policies that “feel at odds with the city’s culture.” In her article, Ms. Simons proposes her own ideal solution for melding our city’s culture with a positive school climate. And, to be honest, her vision sounds great. I imagine many parents would (and do) take pleasure in sending their children to such a school. And I’m thrilled that she and her colleagues have created an excellent school.

However, I do wish Ms. Simons had visited the schools she critiqued, as she might have gained an understanding of why parents send their children to these schools.

Because what often goes unexplained in such stories is this: Sci Academy, the flagship school of the nonprofit of whose school culture has come under attack, happens to be the third-most popular school for ninth-grade enrollees in the entire city.

The school that is supposedly inapposite to New Orleans’s culture happens to be amongst the most in-demand high schools in the city.

The reason for this is simple: Sci Academy is a school where students thrive. It’s a place where a student can go from being functionally illiterate to attending college and introducing Michelle Obama at the White House. It’s a school that combines quiet hallways with a loving, nurturing environment that includes band, football, and dance. In a city still terribly plagued by violence,  parents continue to be drawn to a school with strict discipline policies that help accelerate rigorous extracurricular and academic programs.

So what to make of all this?

My takeaway is this: in education—and in all areas of public policy—we should be leery of adopting worldviews that lack humility.

When you possess such a worldview and you see something with which you disagree, your first impulse is to change it. Likewise, if you don’t like a school’s culture, then the instinctive answer is that the school should modify its culture.

Seeing the world in such a manner implicitly rejects the idea that other people might have different desires than do you, that they might have different needs than do you, or that they might want something different for their children than do you.

The beauty of the New Orleans education system is that parents can choose where to send their children to school. There are dozens of different nonprofits operating schools, and each has their own unique mission, strategy, and culture.

In New Orleans, we no longer have to ceaselessly argue about such nonsensical questions as, “What is the perfect school?” The clear answer is that there is no perfect school. At best, there are perfect matches—situations where a student finds that exact environment where she can thrive.

The ultimate goal of the New Orleans public education system is not uniformity: it is diversity. And to misunderstand this is to misunderstand the fundamental design principle of our system.  

So as we move forward with reform, I think we’d all do well to remember this: knowing what is right for you often affords very little information on what is right for others.

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