Commentary | Education

Lessons—The Other Side of Choice – After Top Students Leave

These pieces originally appeared as a weekly column entitled “Lessons” in The New York Times between 1999 and 2003.


The Other Side of Choice: After Top Students Leave

By Richard Rothstein

Chicago — A new federal law allows students in low-scoring schools to transfer out. I have little doubt that students who are motivated to switch will benefit, partly because in their new public schools they will befriend youths whose ambitions and enthusiasm for learning are strong.

But advocates of school choice, an approach already in place here and in other cities, have argued that it is also a boon for those who remain in failing schools, because fear of losing even more students will make principals and teachers try harder.

That argument probably does not hold up, because peer influences work in both directions. In high-scoring schools, where good students are often admired, others feel social pressure to achieve. But in low-scoring schools, students feel pressure to dampen their efforts, so they can blend in; this harmful peer pressure accelerates in low-scoring schools as motivated students transfer out.

So choice may be a zero-sum policy: those who leave low-scoring schools gain, but those who stay are harmed.

In practice, the harm frequently begins even before a freshman class is formed. Here in Chicago, every eighth grader can apply to a specialized high school. Ambitious students take exams for selective schools or attend those with academic themes. Students who don’t make choices go to neighborhood schools.

Paul Robeson High School is a neighborhood school in the low-income and sometimes violent Englewood community. The school is deemed failing, with only 12 percent of its 1,000 students reading at national norms. But this is no wonder: over half the eighth graders in Englewood select other schools. Of those who remain, 30 percent are in special education, and the rest are mostly failing students who create a low-performance ethos that teachers have to fight.

James Breashears, the principal, guesses that if he could enroll a representative group of neighborhood students, 40 percent would enter at national norms. Mr. Breashears, proud of his faculty, believes he could lift that number to 50 percent.

Mr. Breashears was once a faculty trainer for a nationwide school improvement group, so his talent is not in doubt. At Robeson, he tries to overcome an anti-academic culture by keeping the school bright and orderly and recruiting highly qualified teachers. But the fight is uphill.

Although most good students in Englewood go elsewhere, not all do – at least not right away – and Mr. Breashears struggles to keep his few stars from bailing out as well. He offers such students a specialized environment, separating them from the rest in small “academies.” One focuses on math, science and technology, and another on foreign languages; a third is a general “scholars” program.

With one-fifth of Robeson’s enrollment, these elite classes allow motivated students to pressure one another to achieve. But because they are separated from the majority, the more able ones cannot serve as constant role models for the rest.

Jessica Smith is a student in the scholars group. When she missed the application deadline for competitive high schools, her mother insisted that she get into a Robeson academy, where she could associate with high achievers.

In the fall, a boy in the scholars class taunted Jessica, saying he could beat her on a college entrance exam. She reacted to the dare by working harder, she says, and scored above the national average.

Another scholar, Cornelius Reese, says his friends compete for academic “bragging rights.” Cornelius recently won a regional science prize for a project on the variability of plant seeds. He admits having been inspired by wanting to show a girl in class that he could do it.

Such peer pressure is more common in suburban schools, but absent in Robeson’s regular program. Even if students like Jessica and Cornelius were spread though regular courses, there are too few of them left at Robeson to create a schoolwide academic culture. It is hard to see how a policy that encourages students like them to leave can help the school raise its scores.

Choice programs like Chicago’s concentrate low scorers in neighborhood schools and then label those schools failing when their students continue to get low scores. As advocates of choice claim, fear of losing better students helped spur the creation of academies at Robeson. But failing students, who caused the school’s low rank, are not helped by those efforts.

This doesn’t make school choice wrong. Better students, both those who transfer and those who remain (with special programs), can benefit. But choice is no unmixed blessing. Its costs can be counted in the two- thirds of Robeson’s entering freshmen who fail to graduate, having lost access to role models – not only the successful neighborhood students who left, but those like Jessica and Cornelius who stayed.

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