One Size Fits One

Among School Choice proponents, the most frequently occurring criticism of the public school system is that it is “one-size-fits-all.” Virtually every presenter at the Oklahoma School Choice Summit last month used this line. You know it’s a talking point when it is repeated in succession as if it is brand new information, some shocking revelation that will end the debate once and for all. Senator James Lankford (OK) used this phrase in a recent Facebook post expressing his support for then Education Secretary nominee Betsy DeVos.

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On the surface, it appears as if Lankford is advocating for local control and less standardized testing. As a public school teacher, I agree 100% with his second paragraph. But, of course, he is not talking about high stakes or A-F. He’s talking about School Choice! The GOP has set up public education to fail and it follows a little something like this: 1. Highly regulate the public school system at both the federal and state level. 2. Criticize the system (that you created) for being one-dimensional. 3. Dismantle and privatize. But what’s more “one-size-fits-all” than the Republican created Oklahoma A-F school report card? What’s more monolithic than the corporate machine that spits out mandated multiple choice tests? It seems that most of the things that make Lankford uncomfortable with the present system are actually residual effects of George W. Bush’s “No Child Left Behind.”

But the criticism goes deeper. In School Choice circles, public schools are often described as “traditional” schools or, even worse, “government” schools. The idea here is that public schools have not changed for decades, centuries even. Nothing could be further from the truth. Public schools are in a constant state of change. Some changes are negative and come from without: teacher shortage, budget cuts, or more regulation. But the majority of change comes from within. Administrators applying new discipline strategies. Instructional coaches innovating with technology. Counselors implementing “wrap around” services. And teachers committed to the success of every student, every day.

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For every legislative mandate of standardization and accountability, there is a teacher and parent driven individualized metric that is entirely student centered. Every public school offers IEPs (Individualized Education Plans) and Special Education services. Teachers are trained regularly in techniques such as differentiated instruction and RTI (Response to Intervention). Pre-Advanced Placement classes are offered as early as middle school. Consistent remediation occurs in co-taught classes, self-contained classes, after school (non paid) tutoring, and special remediation programs in math and reading.

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The most sinister of all the accusations that public schools are “one-size-fits-all” cuts at the very nature of why public schools were started in the first place. Charter school principal and “School Choice” proponent, Dr. Steve Perry, puts it this way:

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This statement is a criticism of the fundamental idea of neighborhood schools. I find two main problems with Dr. Perry’s question. First, as already mentioned, public schools come in all shapes and sizes and there is no “one type” of public school. Second, like so many other school reformers, Dr. Perry presumes upon one major societal factor, the ability of students to access educational opportunities outside of their community. What Dr. Perry calls “separated by zip code,” millions of Americans simply call their “neighborhood.” I have two questions in response to Dr. Perry’s. Why has working, shopping, and going to school in the same community suddenly become a bad thing? Why can’t we adequately fund neighborhood schools to provide a curricular and extracurricular focus that reflects the interests of students and families in each neighborhood?

Which begs the question, what can a charter or private school offer that a fully funded neighborhood school cannot? Many School Choice proponents would like to publicly fund education from a distinct Christian worldview, but that is another post. Otherwise, one question remains, what is “the same school model” which Lankford’s post references? Is it the desks, the bells, or the age based classrooms that are so harmfully uniform? There are many public school educators who are currently rethinking these systems to the extent that legislation allows. Besides, last time I checked, most charter and private schools (with few exceptions like Montessori Schools) also have desks, bells, and age based classrooms.

Rather than being “one-size-fits-all,” public schools are on the front line of innovation in education. The American public school system is the best in the world at educational access. gadflyonthewallblog Public schools teachers are adept at creating a classroom environment where “one-size-fits-one.” And desks are increasingly missing from public school classrooms. I would encourage any education reformer to visit any two public schools, and compare and contrast the experiences.

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