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Posted at 11:11 AM ET, 07/14/2011

The down side of school choice

Our guest columnist today is John Thompson, an Oklahoma City teacher and writer who comments frequently on this blog. He has an unsettling take on the effects of school choice in his city. — Jay

  Since November when the Daily Oklahoman described the violence and the low academic performance of my old school, Oklahoma Centennial High, two more of my former students have been murdered, and testing was interrupted by these killings. The Oklahomannow reports that 80 percent of the students who graduated from our area's schools that fed into Centennial were at grade level in fifth-grade. In 2008, none of the elementary schools that sent students to Centennial had an unsatisfactory test score rate of more than 5 percent.

So, why are we the lowest ranked school in the state? Why did 42 percent of the sixth-grade students at Centennial (which has grades 6 through 12) score unsatisfactory in reading? Are our elementary schools staffed with great educators, while our secondary schools are filled with incompetent ones? Did it only take seven months for Centennial to destroy the kids' ability to read? 

The answer can be found in the low-income neighborhood school that is closest to my home. The majority of its fifth-graders go to a magnet school that has been ranked by Jay Mathews' Challenge Index as high as 14th nationally, a high school that has been ranked 69th nationally, or an enterprise school that has been honored as a National Blue Ribbon School. Only nine students from my neighborhood school went to Centennial.

The problem is the "Big Sort." Families have a choice between magnet, charter and enterprise schools in the Oklahoma City public schools or the other 22 school systems in the metro area. The flip side of the extreme proliferation of choice is that it combines the children who are left behind into extreme concentrations of generational poverty. 

Three years ago, Manuel Scott, a student from the "Freedom Writers," visited Centennial and conducted the standard routine that culminated in students standing if they had attended more funerals than birthday parties. An 18 year-old student who remained standing subsequently started a class discussion that explained how the Big Sort affected us.

He and several other students lived in a nearby Habitat for Humanity addition, which they said meant that they were supposed to be making their families proud. Habitat kids were supposed to being moving up in the world, meaning that they were expected to attend the magnet school or a top-ranked suburban school down the road. It is not legal, of course, for them to attend suburban schools but, as long as they are not discipline problems, Oklahoma City students are welcome.

Several students explained that when circumstances forced them back to Centennial that the suburban principal said he hated to lose them and he would gladly welcome them back. Others admitted that they had no such option because of their failure to meet suburban behavioral standards.

As usual, several students volunteered that they had been good students before being distracted by family problems involving drugs, alcohol and/or incarceration. As usual, the biggest reason why students were trapped in failing schools was that their families were disrupted by cancer and/or heart disease.

If we need to seek blame, then hold our extreme self-segregation responsible. The Big Sort has made it difficult to have discussions such as the one my student prompted. Some politicians label teachers in schools like Centennial as the villains. We cannot make ourselves feel better by blaming teachers in the toughest schools, however, without dumping shame on our most vulnerable children.

By the way, the opposite is also true. Should we not pay equal attention to the majority of our students and their families, as well as their teachers, who are working their way out of poor neighborhoods?
 

By John Thompson  |  11:11 AM ET, 07/14/2011

 
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