Guest: Reforms like charters confront the law of unintended consequences

Shouldn't we care about those hurt by "reforms"?
Shouldn’t we care about those hurt by “reforms”?

Much has been written about the inability of some to be able to foresee the potential downsides of a decision. Psychology and business publications abound with examples of cognitive dissonance preventing us from truly looking at all possible implications of a decision.  What I am exploring is somewhat more specific to decisions made in education.  More specifically, it is about how a decision affects those who are NOT the target of the particular decision.


There are a couple of decisions in schools I worked in that illustrate this. At my former school, half the students were white and the other half African American.  There was consternation that there were very few students of color in the National Honor Society (NHS).  The cutoff of 3.9 (out of a maximum 4.7) covered about a quarter of the student body.  The decision was made to drop the maximum to 3.6 to allow more students of color to apply for NHS.


On the surface, the decision was quite successful in meeting its aim.   The number of students of color increased from a handful to around 30 students.  The percentage of minority students in NHS more than doubled.  So what could be wrong with this?  The problem is with viewing the problem and the solution solely from the viewpoint of the membership of NHS.  The consequence of lowering the GPA threshold not only brought in about 25 new students of color into NHS, but it also brought in about 100 new white students.  Now, almost half the students in the school were eligible for NHS.


The greatest impact of this decision was not in the composition of the honor society; it was in the composition of the non-NHS pool. With the 3.9 GPA cutoff, the non-NHS group was pretty evenly mixed between white students and students of color.  With the 3.6 cutoff, the non-NHS group became mostly students of color.  With all good intentions, this decision created a virtual caste system in the school.  Students who were not eligible or accepted into NHS were relegated to a pool of students who were predominantly black and of a lower socio-economic status.


At my present school, there is another decision equally pernicious in its effect.   Teachers, supervisors, counselors and parents have been asked to be on board with getting more students to go into honors and AP classes.  Teachers were told that supervisors would be looking at their course recommendations for their students to make sure they were recommending students for a higher level.  Counselors were given incentives based on the number of students they were able to get to enroll in honors and AP courses.


It worked marvelously. In some subjects, the number of students entering honors and AP courses doubled.  And not only that, like NHS in the example above, the number of and percentage of black and Hispanic students increased significantly.  Unfortunately, the A level classes (non-honor) became predominantly populated by students of color, students in need of remediation and special education students.  Prior to this, the A level classes were an acceptable alternative for a wide variety of students.  The classes were highly mixed by income, race and ability.   Now, with the much academically weaker population of students in these classes, as well as their lack of diversity, we again have created a caste system where one did not exist before.


In education this seems to be the norm. Well meaning educators created select charter schools or small learning communities in schools that leave the non-participants behind.  In cities with a large number of charter schools, many doing wonderful things, the remaining students in public schools are disproportionately students who are in special education, who have behavioral difficulties or who are English Language Learners.


Almost all new administrators see themselves as agents of change. Whether that is productive is open to debate.  But what is certain is that looking at a change only in respect to the desired outcome on the goal of the change, ignoring the impact on those not the target of the change may make the school, the students and the institution worse off in the end.


The writer is a guidance counselor at a traditional public high school in New Jersey.

  1. I’d submit that problem/solution issue raised in this piece might be extended to the 25+ year cycle of the standards/assessments “solution” to the “problem” of student under performance. Could we conceive of the possibility/probability that the problem lies not only in unintended consequences of solutions, but also with inadequate attention to problem analysis?

  2. The problems are poverty and institutionalized racism.

  3. Charter schools in themselves are not the issue. They are being used as a convenient vehicle to destroy public education and with it the tradition role and pay scale of the teacher. It’s really about saving money and increasing power for the political elites. It has nothing to do with educating children.

  4. It is interesting that while funneling all the special needs and difficult children away from the charter schools into the non-charter schools, NPS is not even attempting to provide services and mandated support for these children.
    That’s how much they care about the education of Newark’s children.

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