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High-choice, high-status school districts

Posted by on Wednesday, February 14, 2018 in News, TIPs 2015.

Written by Kristin Baese, EdD (Peabody College, 2017) and Eve Rifkin, EdD (Peabody College, 2017)

Eve Rifkin (left) and Kristin Baese.

Dr. Eve Rifkin (left) and Dr. Kristin Baese present their research.

One of the major approaches to school reform being promoted across the nation is school choice. This approach states that parents should be able to choose the school that represents the best fit for their child, and that an increase in competition and market-driven enrollment will lead to greater quality and innovation in schools. This type of reform is often promoted in predominantly low-income communities or in school districts in chronically underperforming areas (often emphasizing the constraint of options available).

But what about school choice enrollment policies in suburban and affluent areas? What happens when students have many resources and supports available to them, as well as many public schooling options? This type of high-choice, high-status environment is precisely what exists in Douglas County, Colorado.


A Douglas County elementary school at the foothills of the Colorado Rockies displays its community garden.

As part of the Sterling Ranch TIPs program, Peabody graduate students Eve Rifkin and Kristin Baese engaged in capstone research projects investigating education models of the future. Because of the TIPs model, we were able to collaborate with students from all levels of study across multiple colleges to gather data on the Douglas County area – widely considered one of the most innovative school districts in the nation. Along with our fellow student researchers, we conducted surveys, led focus groups and had several immersive field experiences to better understand what happens in a high-choice, high-status environment such as Douglas County.

What did we find? High-choice, high-status environments offer many unique opportunities as well as some potential challenges. In this context, students have a wide range of schooling options that allow them to tailor their learning experiences to their individual preferences and needs. Students with an affinity for outdoor education can enroll in schools focused on experiential, nature-based learning experiences. Students who prefer a more traditional approach can enroll in schools that mirror their own pedagogical and philosophical preferences.


Students at a STEM school get first-hand experience with the tools and practices of engineering.

Furthermore, opportunities for innovation are abundant. With so many options, schools try new approaches or promote new programs that may only suit a few students. As a result, schools are able to engage in progressive approaches on a smaller scale, providing students the resources and opportunities for radical schooling models.

Perhaps the most notable aspect of the Douglas County educational landscape is the degree to which the school district serves as a facilitator of choice-making. In many cities, charter schools operate independent of the constraints of the school district. They are often authorized by a separate agency, and parents are left on their own to make choices. Douglas County School District, however, is the authorizing agent for charters and maintains a comprehensive website on all schools (charter and district) within the district’s boundaries. This helps parents find the right choice for their children.


Flexible seating options are a signature piece of school design.

One challenge is the natural outcome of competition. Under high-choice policies, schools are forced to compete for student enrollment – which is often directly tied to school funding. Without sufficient enrollment, schools may face tough decisions about cutting programs or reducing support from year to year (as enrollment fluctuates).

Another potential challenge stems from the influence of community preferences in a high-choice context. When students are able to enroll in any school, schools must remain highly responsive to the desires of the community and the preferences of families in their area. This may create pressure on the schools to choose between their professional judgment and the preferences and priorities of families who choose to enroll in their school.

Ultimately, school choice is not going away. As our educational landscape continues to implement various approaches to school choice, it will be important for policymakers and system-level leaders to learn from the many models that already exist, such as Douglas County, and continue to ask questions about what it is intended to achieve and what the implications are for students, teachers and schools.

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