Is it intellectually inconsistent to promote common standards while advocating for school choice?

Bruce Baker—Rutgers professor by day, anti-reform gadfly by night—thinks so, and took Fordham to task for either inconsistency between its goals or harboring a “weird, warped agenda.” He explains:

Collectively what we have here is a massive effort on the one hand, to require traditional public school districts to adopt a common curriculum and ultimately to adopt common assessments for evaluating student success on that curriculum and then force those districts to evaluate, retain and/or dismiss their teachers based on student assessment data, while on the other hand, expanding publicly financed subsidies for more children to attend schools that would not be required to do these things (in many cases, for example, relieving charter schools from teacher evaluation requirements).

This is a helpful way to frame it because I think Baker has gotten it precisely wrong.

Adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools.

For starters, adopting common standards does not mean forcing a common curriculum on all schools. And the difference between standards and curriculum is more than mere semantics. Standards define a baseline set of knowledge and skills that all students should learn. How students should learn that content—the curriculum—is up to the district/school/teacher to decide. And suggesting that holding all schools to the same standards somehow limits “any potential for real innovation,” as Bruce does, is misguided. Innovation stems not from different schools defining different ends, but instead from schools reaching those goals in different and innovative ways.

Second, adopting common standards doesn’t mean adopting a one-size-fits-all way to evaluate, retain, and/or dismiss teachers. It’s entirely possible—perhaps even desirable—to be in favor of common standards and assessments, while also giving school and district leaders the autonomy they need to hire and fire teachers.

Third, one of the advantages of common standards is the fact that all schools—traditional, magnet, technical, and charter—will be guided by the same expectations. And, in a choice environment, parents will have a common metric and a common language they can use to judge school effectiveness. That’s not to suggest that assessment results are the only way to judge them, but they are an independent yardstick that can be used in conjunction with other measures that parents use everyday.

Finally, reformers who believe that choice will lead to better educational options simply must acknowledge that choice between low-performing schools isn’t a real choice. In order to ensure that parents have high-quality options to choose from, we need to have rigorous standards to which all schools are held. Low performing schools should be closed. High performing schools should be encouraged to expand. Those in the middle should be improved. And parents should be empowered to choose between schools based on what’s best for their children.

In the end, if the goal is to improve educational outcomes for all students (and that is, in fact, Fordham’s goal), there needs to be some way to evaluate whether schools are adding value. Advocating for common standards and common assessments merely helps give parents the common language they need to understand that information. In short: it’s a way of helping make parents more informed consumers.

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