Think about how many different kinds of students there are in your local public school. Reading is a challenge for some and a breeze for others. Some students do well in a “traditional” classroom, and others would do better in “alternative” environments. We could go on and on.

This is the single best argument for school choice: it accommodates diversity, allowing individual schools to offer different products and allowing families to find the one that best serves their needs.

Usually, the focal question in the school choice debate is: does it work? To find out, researchers pore over performance data, usually test scores, graduation rates, disciplinary reports, and how much each type of school is spending per pupil. This is obviously an important debate to have and one where valuable evidence can be adduced.

Testing School Choice

But data such as standardized test scores can only tell us so much. For one thing, children are not standardized in how they learn.

For another, testing often measures how good students are at taking tests rather than, say, how deeply they have learned or whether they’ve learned in a way where they will retain what they’ve learned.

And yet folks who normally criticize standardized testing will rely on its data when they think it shows their favored type of school to be superior.

This focus on what standardized tests say about school choice often overlooks a potentially more powerful question: which system can do a better job of accommodating for diversity? I do not just mean the diversity of students, which I mentioned above, but the diversity of ways schooling and educational services can be offered.

Standardized Schools

To illustrate, let’s look at a few persistent features of the US public school system, and indeed many private schools. Schools are age-graded: students are separated by grade level roughly coordinate with age. Students move from one grade level to the next by showing the school that they’ve mastered the work at x grade level enough to move to y.

This process is associated with another feature of schooling, the idea that students will be given a certain amount of time — the traditional school year — to progress enough to move from one level to the next. The pacing isn’t up to students; students who make quick progress must wait until the end of the year to go to the “next level,” and students who needed more time will, at the end of the year, fail and have to spend an entire additional year repeating their current grade level.

There are reasons why these two features have existed for so long in every public school system in the developed world, but those reasons usually have to do with organizational ease than about how kids learn best.

The larger a school is and the more students it has, the more it makes sense to put 20+ kids in a room with one teacher. Doing that, though, means that we need to make sure all of those students are at the same “level” so that the teacher can teach all of them the same things at the same time. Allowing everyone to go at their own pace makes that sort of structure difficult to impossible.

Or does it? I spend so long explaining why we have age grading because it seems so natural to most anyone who’s been through school, yet there are a number of private schools (and in fairness, some public schools) doing things differently.

Most notably, Montessori schools not only produce remarkably individualized learning (where students progress by doing projects tailored to their own interests and aptitudes), but allow students to progress at their own pace. And as far as schools grouping students largely by age, more and more research is coming out describing benefits of mixed-age grouping.

Here are some more features of the public school system that might not fit all students.

We divide curriculum in certain ways (for instance, we separate subject areas like math, science, and history).

  • We have similar early-morning-to-mid-afternoon daily schedules.
  • We instruct and assess students largely in the same way (class lecture, individual activity, individual tests and quizzes).
  • We have very similar protocols on how to handle discipline.
  • We almost all use the same familiar A-F grading system.

When one provider attains a disproportionate share of the market (as our public school system has, virtually by law), the product tends to look largely the same. Unless there is reason to think that all students benefit from this one model, I’d suspect that many families would have a better chance of finding a type of school that best works with their needs in an environment of school choice.

Diversity in and beyond Public Schools

Can a public system provide this type of diversity? I suspect it could but to a very small degree (offering some modicum of, say, public school choice by open enrollment). But public school systems are quite centralized, where directives come from the top (the State Department of Ed, or the school district) down to individual schools.

With something like a voucher system or educational savings accounts, while the state might regulate certain things, schools could be individually free to experiment with different designs to see what best attracted and retained customers.

Questions about whether public schools do better or worse than private schools as measured by things like standardized test results and graduation rates are important. But if we value diversity (of students and ways to offer educational services), I urge that we not overlook the important arguments about the important role school choice could play in accommodating that diversity.