When private schools and common standards collide

A huge part of my educational worldview is “sector agnosticism,” my disinterest in who runs schools as long as those schools are high performing. My new book is built around this philosophy; it argues for a new urban school system that assesses each school based on its performance and then applies strategies to schools based on their performance not on their operators.

Private schools should be part of the urban school system of the future.

Unlike so many others studying urban education, I believe that private schools should be part of this urban school system of the future. Per my axiom above, I don’t much care if an urban school is run by a private or religious organization if it gets great results for underserved kids and adheres to basic democratic, pluralistic principles.

But in the past when the state attempts to fold private schools into the mix via scholarship or tax-credit programs, public accountability is always the major stumbling block. Will participating private schools test students and report results? Will they test just the scholarship kids or all of their students? What test will they use? Will low-performance disqualify a private school from participation?

It has appeared for years that public debate and public policy would be unable to solve this problem. But we may have had a breakthrough.

As Ed Week’s Eric Robelen reports in this fascinating article, more and more private schools are choosing to adopt the Common Core standards. Those moving in this direction appreciate the rigor of the standards, want their kids to be able to compete with students in other schools, see no conflict between the standards and other elements of private education, and so on.

If large swaths of the urban private school community voluntarily move in this direction, it doesn’t take much squinting to see how this facilitates our move toward a sector-blind, city-wide system of schools. If private schools are teaching to the same standards and then use the same (PARCC/SB) assessments and then willingly make public the results, then many of the arguments against scholarships and tax-credit programs vaporize.

I hope, in the not-too-distant future, to produce the outlines of a three-sector accountability system that integrates traditional public, charter public, and private schools. It would bring all city K-12 schools under a single, transparent umbrella while also taking into account and respecting the differences between these different schools. Mark this space.

There are lots of complications to this work; lots to be sorted out. I’ll just mention two issues for the time being.

The first is the waiver strategy pursued by the Obama administration. Despite its weaknesses, at least NCLB created an accountability framework that applied across the board. All schools would be judged and dealt with similarly. ESEA waivers, as I’ve discussed before, allow states to move away from that.

The bad news for advocates of a sector-blind posture is that this new “nimble,” “nuanced” philosophical approach to school performance could serve to frustrate efforts to set firm, ambitious “industry performance standards” for all schools. (This NYT article on the waivers is eye-opening on this score.) I’m inclined to believe that this type of rigorous, transparent, and all-inclusive performance-accountability system is a necessary condition for the system of schools we need.

The potential good news is that increased federal flexibility—meaning greater state authority—might create room for SEAs to develop comprehensive accountability systems that include private schools. I’m very hopeful that a state with a large charter sector and some type of scholarship or tax credit program (like Ohio, Indiana, Pennsylvania, Arizona, Louisiana, or Washington, D.C.) might do something along these lines.

The second point relates to homeschooling. Some parents, those who are especially sensitive to educational conformity, have seen the private school sector as a refuge for generations. If a growing proportion of these schools take part in common standards and assessments, such parents may be attracted to homeschooling, which will give them the separation they crave. This recent article by the Washington Post’s Jay Mathews is definitely worth the read—big takeaway: Our misperceptions about the homeschooling community are probably causing us to underestimate its growth potential.

A three-sector accountability system that is too rigid and forces participating schools to homogenize might, unwittingly, become homeschooling’s greatest accelerant.

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