Education Reform

Mercedes Schneider Reviews a Book about Competition and Choice

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Mercedes Schneider reviewed a book about “competitive school choice.”

Kate Phillippo, associate professor of cultural and educational policy studies at Loyola University Chicago’s School of Education, published a book in March 2019, entitled, A Contest Without Winners: How Students Experience Competitive School Choice.

In her book, Phillippo offers details from the experiences of 36 Chicago Public Schools (CPS) eighth graders who attended one of two middle schools and who were vying for acceptance in a CPS high school of their choice.

Phillippo’s term, “competitive school choice,” is apt for two reasons: 1) the most prestigious and most preferred schools tended to be selective admissions (SA) schools, and 2) in general, CPS does not have enough places at schools that its eighth-grade students would actually choose to attend.

Let the games begin. (Indeed, one student likened CPS’ high school choice to “The Hunger Games.”)

In this “contest without winners,” students’ high school fates (and possibly, subsequent college and career fates) depend heavily upon their test scores and core subject grades from their seventh-grade year. If a student has an maturity/responsibility awakening in eighth grade, it is too late.

As it stands, Phillippo discovered (confirmed?) that with CPS’ high school choice demand, eighth graders were being asked to navigate a complex process of forms, meetings, and deadlines that was far above their developmental capabilities; students almost certainly needed some invested adult to effectively engage in CPS’ competitive high school choice process. However, that adult was unlikely to be a classroom teacher since teachers– to whom students often turned– felt the pressure to remain neutral in advising students regarding their choices due to the potential of being held liable if the student or parent were dissatisfied with the choice outcome.

Eighth graders who had an engaged adult available to help with the high school choice process definitely had an edge, as did students whose families had the means to devote resources (time, effort, money) to the process.

Too, Phillippo discovered that the competitive environment created a “me-first,” self-preservation attitude that negatively affected civic engagement among students. Though students might be learning lessons about civic responsibility in their classes, when it came to the pressured reality of securing that preferred CPS high school, application of civic responsibility was cast aside for the all-too-real lesson of “every eighth grader for him-/herself.”

Think of competitive school choice as a lesson in civics. Everyone for himself or herself. You are on your ow. There is no such thing as the common good.

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