With the Star Tribune series “Students in flight” (Sept. 17 and thereafter) showing students exercising school choice, and an editorial concluding that the competition can cause school districts to improve their schools, it feels as if the policy discussion about public education has crossed a watershed.

The series was picked up nationally, its authors interviewed by the radio service of the Education Writers Association.

This transition in thinking is leaving behind the notion cherished by districts that students are “our students” and education funding is “our money.” It’s a notion still evident, though, in the description of the students exercising choice as “fleeing.” (Did people “flee” from landline phones to cellphones?)

Yet the new thinking is leaving behind the public-utility model of public education that Albert Shanker, former president of the American Federation of Teachers, called “a system that could take its customers for granted.” Also left behind is the inequitable arrangement in which choice was available only to those financially able to buy into the district they wanted.

We’re probably also leaving behind the traditional model of standardized school. (Not without reason were teacher-training institutions long called “normal” schools.)

It’s clear now that public education is a multisector system. Choice is free, and here to stay. Districts have to persuade their students to come.

A member of the St. Paul school board told me they knew a third of resident students were not choosing the district schools. “It’s an open system,” he said. “We have to make our schools attractive.”

For a time choice will produce, in the charter sector, a few single-race schools. These are not “segregated” schools. Segregation was about people in power telling people of color they were assigned to separate schools. We can tolerate some first-generation Americans — Asian and African — making this choice for themselves.

The acceptance of a multisector system is difficult for some, practically and ideologically. But as the editorial said, competitive pressure can be positive. Districts that make their schools engaging can do well. The key is to personalize learning.

“Any successful effort to improve student learning will begin by improving student motivation,” Jack Frymier said, out of his long experience with teaching and learning. Motivation is individual. It’s the teacher’s job to adapt to the differences among students.

It will be a challenge for districts to do what has so long been advised: to make the school the unit of improvement. It is just that, in Minnesota’s charter sector, and there is much districts can learn by looking there. But boards and central offices have difficulty letting schools and teachers vary the learning practices. The problem will be to overcome the powerful pressures inside for “sameness.”

The state can help. It now has districts locked into a standard model of organization, which neither the board nor the people of the district can modify. It is a centralized corporate model, obsolete, blocking the changes in schooling that it’s now clear the districts need to make.

Back in 1998, three superintendents — Don Helmstetter, Jim Walker and Tom Nelson — urged their associations to ask the Legislature to give districts the flexibility to compete in the new choice environment the state had created. Their plea fell on deaf ears: The associations did nothing. Still, Nelson says today, boards never ask: “Are we organized right?”

The question has to get asked. The district sector cannot succeed unless it develops the organizational flexibility to compete successfully.

 

Ted Kolderie is the author of “The Split-Screen Strategy: How to Turn Education Into a Self-Improving System.”