Are magnet schools cheating students out of a good education?

My son is 3 and a half years old, which means it's long past time for me to be obsessing over his K-12 education. We got lucky with his daycare/preschool; it happened to be the first one we looked at and there was an opening, so we pounced on it. And it's awesome. But increasingly I'm hearing parents talk about moving their kids to a "real" preschool, whatever that means. My kid's learning his letters and colors and some great songs. Does he really need kindergarten prep?

Maybe. A couple years back there was an uproar about cosmopolitan kids whose parents "redshirt" them for kindergarten, holding them back from entering the public school system until they're six years old. And every year we hear of parents camping out to secure their children spots in their schools of choice. Many of these schools are charter schools or magnet schools, and there are frequently fewer seats available than there are parents clamoring for them. Take a look, for example, at students' chances of landing at their (parents') school of choice in Jacksonville, Florida.

But are magnet schools really the unqualified good that gathered throngs of parents seem to suggest they are? I'm not convinced--even though I benefited from magnet schools for much of my public education.

My sojourn through magnet programs began innocently enough, when a first-grade teacher was concerned with my frustration over a simple worksheet. Specialists were called; tests were taken. And suddenly I was enrolled in a class for "gifted" children--which, it ended up, was my largely unquestioned ticket to the highest-quality education available to students in my large urban school district. From 1989 to 1993, I attended one of the best gifted magnet programs in the country. It was at Snoop Dogg's alma mater--because when the program was set up in the 1970s, it was meant to draw more suburban (read: white and Asian American) kids to the inner city. It was about integration. And maybe there was some other social justice thinking at work: with these gifted-identified kids come parents who will push for more resources for their kids and, by extension, the campus.

Indeed, a recent report (PDF) from the Civil Rights Project highlights the origins of magnet programs and schools:

Magnet schools are the largest set of choice-based schools in the nation and today enroll twice as many students as the rapidly growing charter school sector. The intent of magnet schools was to use incentives rather than coercion to create desegregation. Magnet schools, then, represent a compromise between individualism (choosing one’s school) and achieving community goals (diversity). Magnet schools were originally designed to incorporate strong civil rights protections (such as good parent information/outreach, explicit desegregation goals, and free transportation) and most were designed not to have selective admissions processes. This differs from more recent schools of choice that have been designed without these mechanisms. Today, in the aftermath of federal court decisions limiting race-conscious efforts by school districts, magnets comprise a diverse set of schools serving a variety of functions. Many have lost their desegregation mechanisms, which, as we will show, have made a difference in their racial diversity.

However, magnet schools don't necessarily distribute resources equitably, as I first learned when I took mainstream classes and learned again when in my first year of college I returned to my high school to be a teaching assistant and tutor to the school's "lowest-achieving," "at-risk" students. English classes barely had class sets of books--let alone copies the students could take home with them--and the books they did have were packed with uninteresting stories illustrated by cheap watercolor sketches. These kids were being denied interesting, challenging literature because teachers felt they couldn't handle it. Years later, in my first year teaching literature to college students, I saw some of these students, young men from Flint, Michigan who were very bright but also very jaded about school--one admitted to me he hadn't finished reading a book (it was, fittingly, Lord of the Flies) since eighth grade.

So this is what happens, sometimes: school resources are drawn toward magnet programs, while mainstream students and students who should be identified as special needs (but who haven't been because of budget constraints) suffer. Or--arguably worse--the best students are drawn away from a neighborhood school, leaving few resources in their wake. This process of skimming off the "cream of the crop" students has come to be known as "creaming," and it's done by magnet and charter schools alike, even though charter schools typically choose students by lottery rather than by test scores.

In a guest op-ed in the New York Times last week, Victor Harbison, a high school civics and history teacher in Chicago, asked whether magnet schools do more harm than good. The core of his argument is this:

When educational leaders decided to create magnet schools, they didn’t just get it wrong, they got it backwards. They pulled out the best and brightest from our communities and sent them away. The students who are part of the “great middle” now find themselves in an environment where the peers who have the greatest influence in their school are the least positive role models.

Schools adapted, and quickly. We tightened security, installed metal detectors, and adopted ideas like zero-tolerance. And neighborhood schools, without restrictive admission policies based on test scores, quickly spiraled downward — somewhat like an economy. Except in education, we can’t lay off students who have a negative impact on the school culture. That is why adopting such a business model for the educational system has been and always will be a recipe for failure.

What should have been done was to pull out the bottom ten percent. Educational leaders could have greatly expanded the alternative school model and sent struggling students to a place that had been designed to meet their educational needs. Now, hundreds of millions of dollars later, we are no closer to meeting the needs of the struggling student, but the system has created collateral damage, namely the great middle, who are forced everyday to go to class in a school that is more unchallenging, unwelcoming and dangerous than it has to be.

Wow. There is an interesting idea: place resources where they're most needed instead of where they're most asked for. Fix the broken wheel instead of greasing the squeaky one. It's certainly worth a try, though bloggers offer some cautions.

Can Sar asks a number of good questions about such a plan:

Would this work? I think that tailoring curriculum to help get underachievers up to speed and to provide them with additional and specialized resources would definitely be a good idea. Furthermore, taking the worst performers out of most schools might free up additional teacher time for the remaining students and also stop distractions from such students.

On the other hand, would lots of underperforming students make these schools exceptionally hard to manage? Would it be difficult to get teachers to work in these more difficult schools (Teach for America is a good indicator that some teachers would like the challenge if given the support)?

Furthermore, what about the top performers - aren’t they a big part of creating the kind of innovative research and companies that help move a country forward? Would they be worse off if they have to continue to study with more average peers? Or would interaction with more average students give them a better understanding of the wider populace and allow them to create things more targeted and useful to more people?

What troubles me is that programs designed to desegregate schools and thereby provide greater equity in educational resources have in many cases apparently ended up drawing resources away from the schools and students who most need them. Harbison's suggestion of plowing resources into the educational soil most in need of supplementation--by reverse creaming--is but one method of restoring racial, ethnic, and socioeconomic equity to K-12 educational opportunities in the U.S. These students not only need the better teachers typically given the plum assignment of working with the "best," most motivated students but also the arts, technology, and music programs frequently offered at specialized magnet schools but also frequently denied to mainstream students thanks to No Child Left Behind's insistence on reading comprehension and basic math skills over critical and creative thinking.

Want to read more? Check out these related resources:

The U.S. Department of Education has a report packed with tips on developing a successful magnet school. (Don't forget to check out the case studies. Also, this report includes this interesting stat: "By one estimate, the number of magnet schools tripled between 1981 and 2002." Wow.)

Lauren Young's post at Business Week's Working Parents blog: "Magnet or Mainstream Schools: Which is the Smarter Choice?"

Philissa Cramer's piece on whether KIPP schools cream students. See also Elizabeth Green's review of a book about KIPP charter schools.

In some places, magnet schools and charter schools are competing for district space. Which do you think should take priority?

Definitely take a look at The Integration Report, which provides biweekly updates on the status of integration in U.S. schools. From the current issue:

Each year since 1991, when the first of three Supreme Court decisions authorizing the rollback of federal desegregation orders was handed down, African American students have experienced rising segregation levels. Today, the average black student attends a school where just 30% of the students are white, compared to 35% in 1988-89. The percentage of African American students attending intensely segregated schools in 2006-07 – hyper segregated schools where 90-100% of the students are from the same racial background – now hovers around 40%. Twenty years ago, 33% of black students went to school in hyper segregated settings. These numbers are accompanied by rising poverty levels in segregated schools. In 1988-89, black students attended schools where 43% of their classmates lived in poverty, a figure that has increased sharply to nearly 60% in 2006-07,the most recent year for which data is available. These patterns are very similar for Latino students.

What are your thoughts?

Leslie Madsen-Brooks develops learning experiences for K-12, university, and museum clients. She blogs at The Clutter Museum, Museum Blogging, and The Multicultural Toybox.

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