"Choice" is a common mantra in school reform today. Some reformers talk as if just letting families choose schools will somehow improve education.
Because school reform is a hard and urgent problem, we look for quick fixes. Some — especially non-educators, who do not know what curriculum, teaching methods or classroom organization would work — ignore the substance of education and focus, instead, on the process of assigning children to schools: replace school system control with parental choice. Parents should be involved in their children's education, but simply letting them choose schools will not produce good schools. And yet we Americans attribute almost magical power to the idea of choice. We talk a lot about "individual rights" and the "right" of "free choice." We imagine that, if only everyone could choose what he or she wanted, then everything would work out all right for all of us.
We talk about individual freedom to choose schools and much else despite the fact that our society and the world are places where we have to cooperate with others to solve problems we face together. The idea of "choice" goes with an old image of education where children are independent, isolated learners, who not only learn by themselves but must know everything themselves. Certainly, each child must become knowledgeable. However, in our increasingly complex world, no one will know everything about any big problem, it will take groups to develop the knowledge to solve problems, and children will need to learn that knowledge is something people possess together. To succeed, children will have to encounter and learn to get along with others who differ in culture, class and identity.
Classmates have always influenced how students learn. What is new is that children need not just classmates who are talented and motivated in order to do well in traditional academic terms. They also need classmates who differ from them in order to learn to get ahead in the diverse world they will live in. The image of independent learners implied by "choice" doesn't fit these realities.
Actually, these are old realities. Baltimore history provides a valuable lesson. In 1954, the Supreme Court ruled school segregation unconstitutional, and the Baltimore school board immediately voted to end segregation. However, the board adopted a desegregation policy of free choice: Students could choose any school, without racial limitations. In fall 1954, Baltimore had about 150,000 students, 60 percent white and 40 percent black. After families chose schools, nearly 3 percent of 58,000 black students were in historically white schools, while only six of 87,000 whites went to historically black schools. Four years later, a quarter of black students were in formerly white schools, while only 58 of 86,000 whites chose once-black schools.
On paper, the schools were desegregated, but in reality whites and blacks mostly still went to school separately. As blacks entered predominantly white schools, whites left for the suburbs or private schools. In 1965, Johns Hopkins University professor James Coleman looked at national studies and found that black children in integrated schools did better academically than black children in segregated schools, and that whites suffered no academic harm from integration. But the findings didn't change white families' choices.
These facts are an indication of what choice can't accomplish. Integration would have served two educational goals. One was putting children in schools with classmates who would encourage their learning. The other was putting children in schools where they would encounter and learn to get along with children who were different. Baltimore's history shows how choice is a poor strategy for both purposes. When families have free choice of schools, no one has any control over who will be classmates, but many parents will try to make choices that put their children with others of the same race, culture, and class — certainly not the mix that prepares children to perform well in a complex, diverse world.
There is an important second way to say these things. Choice puts everything on what individuals think is in their interest. It gives no value to what is in the interest of society. For example, if society depends on having adults who are not only intelligent but able to learn with others when problems arise, and able to get along with people of different cultures, choice doesn't serve society. The cumulative effect of individuals' trying to serve their own interests is to defeat societal interests in developing all children into creative, productive adults. Thus, choice doesn't even serve all individuals. When parents regard certain children as undesirable classmates for their children (because the other children are poor or members of racial or ethnic minorities, for example), parents will choose to keep their children away from these others. The result is that undesired children have few choices. They won't have many classmates with the talents, ambitions and networks that encourage learning and make success likely.
Educational reform is urgent. But education is not about just what an individual can do on his or her own; it's also about creating adults who can learn cooperatively and work with others different from themselves. Schools model society: they show children what the adult world should be. A choice policy that says it's all about the individual, that puts few limits on individual preferences, not only leaves some children behind but teaches all children they have no shared responsibilities. That is a bad lesson.
Howell S. Baum, a professor of community planning in the Urban Studies and Planning Program at the University of Maryland in College Park, is author of "Brown in Baltimore: School Desegregation and the Limits of Liberalism." His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.