The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the Interest of Families and Schools
reviewed by Charles L. Glenn - 1997
Title: The Impact of School Choice and Community: In the Interest of Families and Schools
Author(s): Claire Smrekar
Publisher: State University of New York Press, Albany
ISBN: 0791426149, Pages: 204, Year: 1995
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Fundamental to the case for allowing parentsand teachersto choose is a belief that schools can be distinctive in ways that do not simply reflect the social class of their pupils or the resources provided, and that such distinctiveness can be of educational value. If effective schools are characterized by clearly defined missions, and if the professionalization of teaching requires that teachers be allowed to make important decisions about how to educate (as the 1986 Carnegie Report A Nation Prepared urged), then it seems to follow that effective schools will come to differ through a school-level process of mission-definition. If the school is freely chosen by parents, there is all the more scope to differ from other schools.
Not a great deal has been written about how schools become distinctive through the process of parental choice, or even about the dimensions of school distinctiveness. There is of course an extensive literature describing bad schools, especially those in the inner city; the intention of these studies, by and large, has not been to capture their individual distinctiveness, however, but to offer them as dramatic illustrations of disparities between the opportunities provided to poor and minority pupils and those provided to middle-class children.
There are also descriptions of categories of good schools, as in the recent literature about Catholic secondary schools, of which studies by Coleman and Hoffer (1987) and by Bryk, Lee, and Holland (1993) are notable examples. One of the most interesting studies of how categories of schools differ is that by Hill and his colleagues (1990), looking at high schools in New York City. They found that Catholic and public magnet schools resembled each other and differed in significant ways from public schools drawing their pupils from an attendance district. What they call "focus schools" "have a strong commitment to parenting and aggressively mold student attitudes and values," while nonmagnet public schools "see themselvesprimarily as transmitters of information and imparters of skills" (p viii, emphasis in original).
Claire Smrekar has studied one elementary school from each of these three categories, using interviews and observations, with a primary focus on the type and quality of interactions between school staff and parents. She asks whether the decision to choose a particular school increases commitment to the schools mission, and whether a functional community of parents and teachers then develops in a way that supports the accomplishment of that mission.
She found that "parents from the Catholic school and the magnet school invoked a far different language to suggest overarching commonalities which transcend individual differences. In sharp and striking contrast to the parents whose children attend the public, neighborhood school, these parents identified processes which create a widespread sense of social cohesion and community among a collection of differentiated members" (p. 145). In general, then, her findings are consistent with those of Hill and his colleagues (1990), whose study she unfortunately did not draw on.
The public magnet school comes off very well in Smrekars account, as a "community undergirded by a sense of shared values, solidarity, and commitment" (p. 145). She places particular stress on the schools requirement of forty hours a year of parent participation, creating many occasions for communication between parents and teachers and among parents of different social classes, and on "the facultys unity of purpose and social cohesion" (p. 145). She notes that "rather than matching parents particular expectations for a school," the magnet school "helps define and develop them" (p. 147, emphasis in original). This is consistent with my and my graduate students research for the Center on Families, Communities, Schools and Childrens Learning on "schools of choice" in Boston: Educational distinctiveness, we found, is a consequence rather than a cause of being chosen by parent (Glenn, Altman, Trice, & Weiss, 1995).
Smrekar is much less sympathetic toward the Catholic school in her sample, attributing to the fact that parents pay tuition a sense of "heightened expectations [that] engender an increased level of responsiveness and concern" (p. 150) and thus of tension between parents and teachers. This seems to conflict with her finding that parents are "extremely satisfied with the academic program" at the Catholic school (p. 54). It is with evident unwillingness that she acknowledges their high level of participation, and she minimizes the role of religion in creating a sense of shared values.
The districted public school comes across as lacking social cohesion and community, despite extensive efforts by the staff to provide vehicles for parent participation. Parents of children in all three schools are described as overstressed with work and other obligations, but Catholic school parents take the trouble to be involved in a process that they are sacrificing to pay for, while magnet school parents have agreed to a "contract" requiring their participation and support of the schools mission.
"Magnet school teachers," Smrekar concludes, "perceive parents as committed partners; Catholic school teachers see parents as meddlesome intruders; and the neighborhood school teachers view parents as distracted absentees" (p. 153).
Readers may finish Smrekars book wishing they knew more about the education provided by the three schools, and how effective each is with children from different backgrounds, but she has illuminated a neglected dimension of school studies and her book will be welcome to the growing number of reformers who are concerned to involve parents more effectively, and especially to those who believe that choice has an important part to play.
Bryk, A. S., Lee, V. E., & Holland, P. B. (1993) Catholic schools and the common good. Cambridge: Harvard University Press.
Coleman, J. E., & Hoffer, T. (1987). Public and private high schools: The impact of communities. New York: Basic Books.
Glenn, C., Altman, K. Sithole S., Trice M. & Weiss, A. (1995). Choice and school distinctiveness. Boston: Center on Families, Communities, Schools, and Childrens Learning.
Hill, P. T., Foster, G. E., & Gendler, T. (1990). High schools with character. Santa Monica: Rand Corporation.