Principal Networks and School Choice

Parents aren’t the only ones who make choices


The calculus justifying the school choice movement is rather simple. Parents have the ability to select the schools their children attend, so of course they will choose the schools that offer them the qualities they are looking for. Presumably the best way for parents to make such decisions is the school’s test scores, but parents may also look for specialized curricula, teaching strategies, student/teacher ratios, etc. Schools that show the best results will thrive, while schools that do not serve the needs of their students will falter and eventually close. It then becomes incumbent on the schools to improve the quality of their student outcomes. Hence, schools improve and a quality education is ultimately had by all.

Critics have, since the beginning of this movement, suggested that the above assumption is not quite that simple. Applying free market dogma to education may force schools to improve how they market themselves. Marketing, however, does not necessarily translate into a better quality product. Of course, anyone who has ever seen a cool commercial knows that buying the $150 sneaker will probably not make you a faster runner than the $20 sneaker.

The bottom line is that education is a complex institution that cannot be reduced to a simple arithmetic for success. In any school system there are at least thousands of individuals (in some of the larger systems, like New York City, it’s a safe bet to suggest there are millions of individuals) involved in the choice process. Yes, parents play a potentially huge role in school choice, but so do students, teachers, administrators, politicians at every level, community stake holders. Countless and unaccountable variables come into play with regard schools, school success and the choices made with regard to education. Consequently, it’s impossible for a simple formula of choice to define the direction of school reform.

This truth is elaborated in part in an ethnography conducted by Jennifer L. Jennings in Sociology of Education. In her study, School Choice or Schools’ Choice? Managing in an Era of Accountability† Jennings describes how and why school principals access their professional networks to manage the choice process. One principal in her study focuses on “protecting her stats.” This protection, however, does not infer that improving the quality of instruction is the sole means by which this administrator protected those stats. But we have to ask ourselves if we are really talking about education when the emphasis is on protecting stats.

“Performance statistics could be managed and subsequently repackaged as sound bites, and she [the principal] saw the production of good performance data as necessary to receive the political benefits associated with Renaissance Schools.” (236)

Notice how the principal is concerned about producing performance “data,” not necessarily performance. And in this you really cannot blame the principal. She is doing exactly what she should be doing under the prescribed rules of education as they exist today. She is protecting the integrity of the school and maximizing her ability to access resources for her students. To not play along with these distorted rules means setting up your school, as well as your staff and student body for failure, a failure that they surely do not deserve.

Other principals approached their jobs from a different perspective, what Jennings refers to as “sensemaking.” According to the author, another principal did not recognize her sense of agency in “managing” the outcomes for her school. She accepted the accountability standards as a form of constraint. She recognized that “excessive attention to them would impede her ability to do her job as an instructional leader…Nonetheless, she accepted that her job evaluation would depend on these numbers.” (236) Another principal accepted the accountability targets as legitimate. Indeed, these three different frames for understanding their roles in the school system influenced the outcomes for the schools regardless of the quality of teachers or aptitudes of students.

These principals did not just develop school protocols consistent with their particular philosophies, but accessed professional and political networks, or failed to access such networks. Principals who understood that they had to “manage their stats” were more likely to utilize their networks to manage their populations despite the prohibition against “screening” students. “Principals talked about the selection of students as a matter of organizational survival.” (240)

Signaling: One technique for managing the student population was through signaling, or “sending signals to parents and students about what kinds of students were a ‘good fit’ for the schools.” (237). One principal was informed through her network that she should not produce a brochure in Spanish for the school choice fairs, as this would attract the wrong kind of student. (237) Of course, what school would want to take on the responsibility of teaching Spanish speaking students or students who speak English as a second language when such students will surely lower the school’s test scores. Yet the argument could be made that these are exactly the students who are in the most need of a good education. Similarly, a principal informed parents of special needs children that her school did not have the resources to serve such students. Principals also included questionnaires and other requirements of students and parents during the application process. These requirements may have been designed to discourage less involved parents from choosing the school, parental involvement being a key indicator of academic success.

Using Data from the Department of Education’s Application System: Despite the fact that principals were not allowed to use such data to screen students, it was understood that such prohibition was loosely enforced. Principals accessed the networks to gain valuable information about a student’s status and attendance before accepting applications.

Forming alliances with Junior High Schools: One principal learned that certain “feeder” schools were better for sending higher performing students. By forming alliances with these select schools she could bypass the potentially risky business of screening students and relying on signaling during school choice fairs for applicants.

Fending off “Over the Counter” Students (OTCs): OTCs are students who were new to the district, perhaps even the country, or were otherwise not placed in a high schools. These students were the wildcards. They were more likely to be lower achieving students, less proficient in English, or behavioral problems. Principals who understood their role as managing their student populations did everything they could to minimize the available seats for OTCs. “If schools’ registers fell below their capacity the central placement office could send them OTCs. Schools that were not selective at the front end of the process…were particularly vulnerable.” (241) Such strategies included keeping already transferred students on the roster to hide the number of available seats. One principal was able to use her political networks with a local councilwoman to arrange placement for a child in exchange for removing two lower performing students.

Counseling out “problem students”: Keeping undesirable students out of the school was only the “front end” of the selection process. Once a student was identified as “ruining our stats” (242) the game was on for getting rid of that student. This could involve manipulating parents into believing that the child could no longer attend that schools (a power which principals did not have), or using some exaggerated behavioral pretext to have the student removed. (242) Sometimes even direct confrontation was used to encourage parents to pull their child voluntarily. (243)

If the above methods sound like gaming the system, you are correct. It’s more subtle than we are used to seeing in the news with stories of teachers teaching to the test and even changing test scores. Managing populations is one of the most effective ways of ensuring positive outcomes—without actually having to improve the quality of the education. This is not unusual. In one school in which I worked the principal explained during a staff meeting that, “we have to attract higher level readers so we can improve our test scores.” Of course the flip side to that coin is discouraging lower level readers who reduce our test scores.

“The problem with using only quantitative indicators is that it forces people to do unethical things. They feel like they don’t have any choice but to do that. It’s not that they’re bad people—they’re put in this position. There’s tons of evidence from the business world that this is what happens when you use only one indicator.” (239)

In other words, the strategems noted above are just par for the course for an educational system based on singular standards for accountability. Jennings ends her research with some policy advice for stricter regulations and oversight of the school choice process.

I would take this another step not suggested by Jennings (to her credit, as such was outside of the parameters of her research). The description above is not just descriptive of accountability regimes, but also of competition. Think of the above strategies as steroids for the educational system. If success is driven by the stats, then the stats become the singular focus of the organization. Any scheme for improving the stats becomes a defacto good. After all, the principal has a responsibility to the staff of the school and she has her own career to consider. She is also certainly and legitimately looking out for her students. After all, better stats mean more money, which translates to more or better teachers, technology, textbooks, environment, etc. With a limited pool of resources from which to draw, one could argue that the principal is justified in doing whatever can be done to ensure that her school comes out ahead in the competitive marketplace that is school choice.

However, when individual schools are on their own, in competition for scarce resources, the consequences are disastrous for those students who do not make for “good stats.” Regardless of the political rhetoric, these kids are surely left behind. The record so far with regard to accountability, competition and standards based school reform is pretty abysmal. It appears the critics were right, and some erstwhile supporters of the current regime are now admitting that they were wrong and that another way must be made to improve American education. School choice looks good on paper, but it is not reform if by reform we mean serving the needs of all students, not just those who produce good stats.



†Jennings, Jennifer. 2010.
Choice or School’s Choice? Managing in an Era of Accountability.” Sociology of Education 83(3): 227-245.



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