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.