Richard Therrien Position Paper School Choice and Diversity
My personal administrative position on school choice and diversity:
Although the two topics have some common themes, as a school leader, I feel that the two issues can be dealt with differently and have slightly different implications. Overall, my educational philosophy is that schools are focused on learning. Although it seems facile to state this, a number of schools are focused on other issues as well. The structure of a school, from the makeup of the classroom, to the diversity of the staff, to the interactions among and between the school and local community, all need to be focused towards the improvement of student learning. Diversity is not a goal in and of itself; it is a result of trying to make a school environment that fits students’ learning needs.
Research shows that students learn better when instruction is made meaningful to their environment. I recently read about a former national teacher of the year who had his young adolescent students skip school to find a mentor to help them in a special project or program of study. This is an example of diversity to me. The teacher did not try to be all things to all students, yet was able to find a way to find the resources to help them make their learning meaningful. As an administrator, the least that I would expect from staff is that they be able to integrate their lessons into events, situations, or circumstances that their students find meaningful. If this means video games, rap music, skateboarding, and other popular culture then staff should be aware and responsive to their students’ interests. We have a responsibility to students to make sure that they understand our curriculum and that they can make meaning of it through the lens of their life and culture
I am primarily a constructivist, which means that I believe that students build connections between prior experiences, perceptions, and knowledge, integrate it with incoming stimuli, and build a mental model of the world. We owe it to them to find out what their prior knowledge and experiences are to help make that model. Therefore, to me, the part of the Connecticut Code of Professional Responsibility that states that administrators must “ recognize, respect, and uphold the dignity and worth of students as individuals” means not only that we respect and treat them fairly regardless of race, color, creed, or orientation. It also means that we acknowledge that we have a responsibility to connect our experiences with theirs. I do not tolerate teachers or staff who set themselves as superior to students because of their background or upbringing or personal circumstance. We owe it to students to seek out diversity of cultures and experiences, be it in literature, music, arts, science, geopolitics, or any type of learning. Administrators need to share with the community their goals and desires for a learning environment that encompasses all points of view, and opens students eyes to worlds they have not seen before. The connection to the students’ individual learning and needs must still be made.
Some policy makers favor a core curriculum to be taught to all U.S. students, arguing for the common experience, and efficiency inherent. Others, as described in Fowler’s Policy Studies for Educational Leaders, state that we are “honoring” tradition, by employing diverse materials about different cultures to fit local needs. As a school leader, I reject both arguments, because they do not focus on the school goal of learning. Our responsibility is to prepare students to live their lives in the future. Our future is that of a global economy, worldwide trade, increased information management, technology, as well as an increasing diverse and minority population. Fowler in Policy Studies for Educational Leaders clearly states this shifting demographics in the U.S. and how the future economy will depend on narrowing the information gap. By 2020, non-whites may indeed by the majority of school age population, a great deal will be part of single parent families, and the child poverty level continues to increase. Our curriculum must address all these needs, and if greater diversity helps students learn and make those important connections, then we use it. Diversity is not a goal, simply to be politically correct, or to avoid the appearance of bias. It is a tool and technique to increase student learning. Most school choice and diversity efforts don’t seem to aim at the learning goals I have stated here.
School choice is an issue that I cannot take a strong position on. The impression that students do better in private schools has been shown to not necessarily be the case. A recent poll by Phi Delta Kappa shows over half of the current population is opposed to students attending private schools at public expense, and the majority also favors reforming the current school system. Again, there are those who state that our system of factory education, which traces its roots back to the Prussian era, is not meeting the needs of our students. My philosophy is that schools CAN meet the needs of our students, and one of the strengths is that we have a diverse population and student body. At the learning level, this issue is almost the same as the issue of grouping students by ability. Although there is still debate about this, most of the time grouping students by high, medium, and low levels does more harm than good. If the job of our schools in the United States is to produce citizens for our democratic society, as it states in our Code of Responsibility, then we need to educate ALL our students fairly and equally. The diversity comes in the individual assignments, the group work, the attention to students’ needs and learning styles. So much more can be done with differentiated instruction in the individual classroom before we take the step of removing different ability youngsters into a different classroom, or even a different school.
In Connecticut, we have a unique situation, both because of our demographics, and because of the legal history. Moody describes in the Practical Guide to School Law the history of the issue in CT. The key point is, as described in Sheff v. O’Neill in 1996 is that funding alone does not guarantee equal educational opportunity. Connecticut has had some “choice” for years, including a program called Project Concern. Yet, even the remedies applied by the legislature after 1996 do not address the issues surrounding student learning. State-wide choice programs, magnet and charter schools, and OPEN Choice programs are still subject to the whims of the towns, limitations in size and scope, and still only affect a minority of the intended students. It makes more sense to aim at improving the education of all our students in all our schools.
This might be idealistic, to think that all students can have an equal education. Yet, if we really do believe in the dignity of each child, then we cannot avoid the implications of school choice. If those with more influence, or more money, or a louder voice are able to remove their children from the local public school, then what does that leave? Remember, as stated in the same poll, most people think that their local public school is doing fairly well compared to the nation as a whole. As an administrator, I think the responsibility is to reach out to the community, to reach out to parents, and make sure that the education at the school is valued. In the same way that teachers are expected to reach out to students, we must make the local schools valued enough that people believe and trust in the learning that is happening there. Despite the political system and culture, I believe most parents and students believe that as well.
As an aspiring leader, I hope that I can be clear. My goal for school is that students learn; in a meaningful, purposeful, and useful manner. I believe that diversity: in lessons, students, teachers, ideas, culture and in the entire school environment is a tool that we use to facilitate student learning. If all schools adhered to this ideal and goal, the issue of school choice would not only become irrelevant, but also be viewed as unimportant.
Fowler, F. (2003). Policy studies for educational leaders: An introduction (2nd Ed.). Upper Saddle River, NJ: Merrill.
Mooney, T. B. (2004). A practical guide to Connecticut school law (4th Ed.). Wethersfield, CT: Connecticut Association of School Boards.
Lowell C. Rose and Alec M. Gallup, “The 37th Annual Phi Delta
Kappa/Gallup Poll of the Public’s Attitude Toward the Public
Schools,” Phi Delta Kappan, Vol. 87, No. 01, September 2005, pp. 41-