Pathways in Education Needs to Remain an Option

School choice has gained ground in the eyes of education advocates over the years. Charters and vouchers remain a topic of debate but they are far less contentious than they were even a couple of years ago. However, there is one frontier of school choice that remains relatively unexplored and controversial: Schools that serve non-traditional students. Such is the case with Memphis’s Pathways in Education.

Pathways in Education is a non-traditional charter school that primarily serves students that for whatever reason didn’t succeed in a regular classroom setting. Many of the school’s students have children or other obstacles that prevent them from regularly attending school. Pathways enables those students to complete work online and come to school once or twice a week. Many of these students admittedly would otherwise drop-out or fail to graduate.

The problem that the school is facing is that according to the measurement system the state uses to grade schools, Pathways in Education is not a good school. Only 6 percent of students were on grade level in English Language Arts according to the state test last year. Other metrics were similarly bad.

But this is not a fair way to look at this school. Most of the school’s metrics are purely a function of the students that choose to attend the school in the first place. Obviously, a school that caters almost exclusively to students far behind academically or at-risk of dropping out would have lower scores. Those students wouldn’t be at the school if they were thriving in regular educational environments. This means that comparing this school’s results to another traditional school is at-best misguided and at-worst intellectually dishonest. We often default to comparing charter schools to traditional public schools, but as we push the boundaries and scope of choice-education, we will find that those comparisons don’t always make sense. And this is a clear-cut case where those comparisons don’t make sense.

The original purpose of school choice is to enable students and families to find a school that works for them. Given the anecdotal experiences of those involved with the program, it’s safe to say that Pathways in Education is working for some students. Those students should have the option of a learning in an environment that serves their needs.

Pathways is not a school for everyone. It is not meant to replace traditional public education schools and it certainly isn’t out to compete with them. It’s a school for the students who have been left behind and underserved in those environments. If we are truly ready to embrace the different types of schools that come out of school choice, then we have to be ready to embrace different types of evaluation as well. Let’s be honest, Pathways in Education isn’t going to be the primary option for most students, but it’s an option that needs to exist for some.


Want Choice? Choose Excellence!

I chose Memphis.

I say that with all sincerity, understanding that a choice involves a desire, a want that is present when there are other options. When you actively choose something, you value it and  treat it differently than something that was forced upon you. A choice involves knowledge of the differences that exist and an intentional decision to decide what is best given the alternatives.

As a parent and Memphian by choice, I recognize the importance of choosing the best education that fits my child. There is tons of research that proceeds the first day of school, from word of mouth referrals to scouring websites, articles and other information on the web. Prior to this year, some parents staked tents outside of the Board of Education for days in order to be able to provide their children with the opportunities that result from a solid educational foundation.

Before I moved to Memphis, staking out in tents to be among the first in line to exercise my “right” for school choice was foreign to me. Being from Chicago, quality schools were plentiful, a standard present in almost every neighborhood within the city and in the suburbs. Naively, I thought that existed everywhere.

If we identify choice as the ability to decide what is best given equal options, then no, parents don’t have “choices” in Memphis.

Shelby County Schools recently released a tool to provide parents and other stakeholders the opportunity to measure the quality of education their students receive.  The 5-point scale score is made up of 3 categories for Elementary Students and 4 Categories for High School Students.

  • Academic Performance – 40% (35% High School)
  • Academic Growth – 40% (35% High School)
  • School Climate – 20% (10% High School)
  • College and Career Readiness – 20% (High School ONLY)

Both Academic Performance and Growth are important factors in the overall performance of a school – especially those who lie on opposite ends of the spectrum.  If a school has been an improving school or been on the Priority List, their Academic Performance score may be lower; however, it’s important for their Academic Growth score to be high(er) to show consistent improvement. Conversely, a school with consistent proficient Academic Performance may have lower Academic Growth scores, as those students are performing at or on grade-level already.

For example:

The Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, that opened just 4 years ago, is a middle school that has received the Tennessee Reward School for 2 years in a row for performing in the top 5%.  They have great data especially for academic achievement.

  • Overall – 4.03

  • Achievement – 5.00

  • Growth – 2.75

  • Climate – 4.67

Memphis Delta Preparatory School, a newly opened elementary charter school, painted a different picture with their scores.

  • Overall – 1.63

  • Achievement – 1.00

  • Growth – 1.25

  • Climate – 3.67

These scores suggest the climate of the school is “good” but the academics need significant improvement.

Typically, charter schools in Memphis were present in neighborhoods that were previously saturated with schools that were traditionally and historically under-performing. Neighborhoods such as Frayser, North and South Memphis and even Hickory Hills have both Shelby County authorized charter schools and those were authorized by the Achievement School District (ASD), but the ASD charter schools were not included in this school scoring tool.

Unfortunately, from reviewing several school scorecards from various neighborhoods across Memphis, it can be concluded what is missing is a plethora of high-quality schools in ALL neighborhoods for ALL students!

The tool reveals “pockets” of success, with isolated schools showing good improvement and consistency.  This is not bordered by poverty or a particular group of people.  Soulsville Charter School, a middle and high school in South Memphis, for example, has better scores (Overall, Academic Performance and Academic Growth)  than Mt. Pisgah, a school in the Houston Levee area and the school my daughter is zoned to for middle school.

Do I choose to send my daughter to her neighborhood school or exercise my “choice” to find an alternative school in another neighborhood?

Living in Memphis, I have realized that the majority of families are transient due to their choices in schools.

  • A “great” neighborhood doesn’t equal access to great schools

  • A feeder pattern of high-quality schools is a rarity (from elementary to high school)

  • Exercising one’s “choice” is limited to transfer requests, optional programs and waiting lists

The tool released by Shelby County Schools has allowed parents and stakeholders the opportunity to be more informed and aware of how schools measure up. Yet, what good is the information if I am not able to choose equally?  When the standard of education is not high-quality and excellence for ALL, is there real “choice”?

Are there neighborhoods that are under-served and impoverished? Yes! But there are also students who have great schools in their backyard in those areas as well. The bigger issue is the lack of a standard of excellence and high-quality education present district-wide, not just for “optional” schools or traditionally high-performing schools.  

As a parent in Memphis, I find myself making decisions around my child’s education that my parents didn’t have to make with me. I recognize how blessed my parents were in deciding my education – especially when their choices were “best” and “best”.  And they didn’t have to move across town or sit outside in tents to make those decisions.