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Posted at 06:30 AM ET, 06/03/2011

Are we creating dual school systems with charters, vouchers?

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This was written by Bill McDiarmid, dean and alumni distinguished professor of the School of Education at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

By Bill McDiarmid

Recently I participated in a panel discussion following a showing of the film “ Waiting for Superman .” The film is deeply moving. Only a heart of granite would remain unmoved by the plight of the children and caretakers as they learn they would not get into their schools of choice.

In the discussion, Jim Johnson, a UNC-Chapel Hill Kenan-Flagler Business School professor and founder of the Union Independent School in Durham, made a crucial observation. He noted that the debate around public charter schools versus traditional public schools, or private versus public schools, deflected us from the underlying issue: the plight of children who have no adult advocates.

As Johnson pointed out, despite failing to win a place in their school of choice, the students featured in the film all had a least one adult in their lives who knowledgeably advocated for them and cared deeply about their learning opportunities.

Arguably, the success that some charter schools and other independent schools have achieved may be attributed in large part to a common stipulation: that students’ caretakers participate actively in their children’s education. Indeed, the fact that students in these alternative schools have caretakers who actively seek out the best educational opportunity for their charges contributes substantially to the positive outcomes of the schools.

A large body of research reinforces what common sense tells us: The more closely adults monitor students’ academic progress, the better the students do.

A key element in China’s success on international measures of student achievement has been the country’s “one child” policy in which couples generally are allowed to have only one child. As a result, Chinese students typically have at least six adults, in addition totheir teachers, closely monitoring their school performance — two parents and four grandparents.

Research conducted at the UNC-Chapel Hill School of Education has found similar results.

A study by faculty member Judith Meece and graduate student Matt Irving showed that adult supervision of students taking online courses dramatically increases successful completion of the courses. A program designed by faculty member Steve Knotek in which he helps Latina mothers support their children as they enter first grade demonstrates the positive impact the work has on the children’s success in school.

One consequence of the current push to create more charter schools and provide vouchers to subsidize attendance at private schools is that students who enjoy high levels of informed adult support and advocacy will benefit most.

Their peers who lack such support, through no fault of their own, will be left behind.

The concentration of adult-supported students in charter schools and voucher-funded private schools will virtually ensure their success — and enable advocates of these alternative schools to tout their superiority.

On this path, we will, indeed, end up with two school systems.

As the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1954, separate schools are inherently unequal. In this case, the divide would not be explicitly by race but by social circumstances. Students whose caretakers have the time, knowledge, and initiative to navigate the system of charter schools and vouchers would clearly be advantaged. The demographic data — race, ethnicity, first-language, and so on — typically used to contend that charter school students resemble those of local public schools tell us little about the most critical descriptor: Level of adult advocacy and support.

For a variety of economic reasons, many poor families — who are typically as passionate about their children’s success as are middle- and upper-income families — may be unable to offer the same level of advocacy and support as higher income families.

What kind of citizens will dual school systems produce? Indeed, what kind of society?

The early advocates of public education in this country — Benjamin Rush, Thomas Jefferson, the Working Men’s Associations in Philadelphia, Boston and New York, as well as African-American and reformer-dominated legislatures in Southern states after the Civil War — all recognized that for democracy to work, students needed to be educated in environments with children from a range of socio-economic backgrounds.

If we’re going to encourage and fund private and semi-private schools, populated by children who have adults deeply involved in their lives, what happens to the other children?

Do we care enough about our children – and our democracy – to provide every child with the adult advocacy and support that it is our ethical and civic responsibility to provide?

The answer to that question is key to the future of our society.

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