Natural Selection, not Lottery

Written by

Scott Carroll
Scott Carroll Scott Carroll is a writer in Baltimore City. He is a published ghost writer of narrative nonfiction. His op-ed articles have also appeared in the Baltimore Sun and on The Health Care Blog. Following a several-year stint as business/technology consultant in the Los Angeles office of the world’s largest consulting firm, he returned home to Baltimore where he continued his comprehensive tour of the non-administrative side of the American education system, this time as a teacher, while pursuing his development into a writer. The child’s experience was both the Baltimore City public elementary schools and the premier private schools of Baltimore County, his secondary education a product of the city’s prestigious public engineering high school. The young man was Ivy League and HBCU educated at the engineering schools of Columbia University and Morgan State University, respectively, the latter of which bestowed his B.S. in Industrial Engineering. As a teacher he was a substitute for two years in one of Baltimore’s underperforming neighborhood high schools that was concurrently featured in an HBO documentary about the country’s failing schools. His experience teaching algebra and pre-calculus at one of the city’s lower-performing magnate schools rounds out the comprehensive tour.

The secret to the great success of American industry and innovation throughout the country’s short history, to its now default position at the forefront of the world economy, is also the missing link in the mystery of the country’s failing education system. Imagine the proposal to make college admissions and corporate and industry personnel decisions on a basis not of individual merit but the results of a random lottery; and yet, this is exactly the latest new thing in education at the lower levels of our education system.

While the effectiveness of charter schools in general is up to debate, there is no debating that some charter schools well-out perform their “zone-school” counterparts. In New York City the demand for these schools is such that every year there are many times more students applying than there are seats available. Within this context of a system of charter schools generally accepted as higher-performing than their “zone-school” counterparts the prevailing argument against these charter schools—that resources and therefore quality of instruction should be distributed evenly across the entire system—this argument fails because no proponent dares suggest that he can achieve on a system-wide basis the academic outcomes observed in the charter schools. We cannot help but support the idea that of course there should be a better school wherever a better school is possible. But the question becomes, how can this be fair? New York City’s answer is a random lottery. Not only the road to Hell, it seems, but the road to mediocrity as well is paved with the best of intentions.

For many decades now, over a century in the case of my own alma mater, Baltimore Polytechnic Institute, we have easily accepted the important role played by magnet schools providing a rigorous academic environment to the cream of a city’s crop of students chosen according to academic performance and often the results of an admissions test; the next step is to embrace a performance-based placement of students throughout the education system. In short, the better student gets the seat at the better school, and no student is left out of this top-to-bottom competition driving students onward and upward at every wrung of the educational ladder—high school as the opening gates to this competition is too late. Yes, my second-grader’s Bs to your second-grader’s Cs gets my kid into this school that I want!

When I hear eminently degreed liberal cable talk show pundits say that the problem of income inequality, which, of course, cannot be separated from educational inequality, is not at all cultural, that it is entirely a matter of public policy, I cringe at such shortsighted simplicity. A child’s education is at least as much a matter of culture as it is a matter of schooling. How much has the child been read to throughout his youngest years? observed a parent in regular silent reading? How many hours have parents spent with the child on his homework? What level of discussion has the child been privy to on a daily basis at home? How consistently an appropriate bedtime is the child prescribed? And on and on…. Obviously, the educational problem is indeed largely cultural.

In 2011 in my hometown of Baltimore, according to the US Census Bureau, the city spent on education $15,483 per student; New York City and the District of Columbia spent a whopping $19,770 and $18,475, respectively. Still we find ourselves invariably debating, whenever we debate education, funding equity, and the equally important teacher performance and enhanced curricula. But the long-standing missing variable in this formula is the student body and what our students are bringing and not bringing to the educational table. Right now, through whole segments of the population, in maybe a majority of the population, parents and students view education as something that is done to them as opposed to something that they do as a vital interest in their daily lives. Making education a competition from the earliest years could just possibly wake people up to the very effort-intensive, all-encompassing daily undertaking that the education of a child really is.

Why should the rush and bravado of competition be only a matter for basketball courts and football fields? Want to bring some of that excitement and interest into the classroom? want to get boys in particular engaged and impassioned in their studying? then make school placement a matter of student performance. Do away with residency considerations inside the municipality and open up every school down to the elementary school level to applications at large: a free and open competition, and to the student with the better grades, maybe even the better interview, goes the wanted seat. New York City’s public school system, in which thousands of students apply every year for thousands of available seats at 183 charter schools, demonstrates the capability of today’s information technology to handle so daunting a potential logistical data mess.

Are there troubling aspects inherent to this theory, notwithstanding the certain distastefulness of the thought of third-graders being judged like high school seniors applying to college? Indeed. The conscientious parent of an underperforming student, a parent putting forth great effort to their child’s education, frustrated with what they see as inept teaching at the heart of their child’s poor performance, such a parent might be only more disadvantaged as a result of this proposed new emphasis on student performance. The whole idea that these young students still at such a malleable stage are largely a product of whatever environment in which they are placed is valid. Probably any student would experience a net benefit being placed in a higher-achieving environment. The question is how should such decisions be made: by lottery?


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