Mythconceptions about the purpose of schools

(The mythtake would be thinking that these puns ever get old…)

So there’s this new, poorly argued, platitude-ridden, bit-o-pablum opinion piece by Paul Farhi in the Washington Post this morning: “Five Myths about America’s Schools”.   Consider the source and the title and the article can probably pretty much write itself in your head.  I had initially intended to blog about the article, but I got sidetracked by something I found myself writing.  Part of Farhi’s argument about why Charter Schools aren’t great runs thusly:

Credit for (the academic success of some charter schools’ students) may rest solely with the students, however. Charter school students are among the most motivated, as are their parents, who sought an alternative education for their children and mastered the intricacies of admission.

And siphoning off those better students through choice may create the same disastrous effect as de facto segregation through the geography of poverty — it leaves behind those least able to advocate for themselves and most susceptible to falling through the cracks.

Now in the first place, Farhi’s not thinking clearly.  Credit for something as complex as a student’s learning outcomes cannot — pretty much by definition — go solely to the student.  Even if the student learns to duck from walking into doorway, the doorway deserves a little bit of the “credit”.   So let’s stop with the “sole” responsibility bullcrap.

But this really got me thinking about “credit”, and about necessary and sufficient conditions for learning outcomes. It may be that schools not only don’t deserve sole credit (which seems obvious), but even that they don’t even deserve chief credit.   What is the purpose of a school, after all?

“TO EDUCATE STUDENTS!” is the universal reply.

And it’s probably true, but only at an extremely general level of description.  What’s the purpose of a carburetor?   “TO MAKE THE CAR GO!” might be the response.  And that’s true, too, as far as it goes.  But the purpose of the carburetor is, more properly, to create an admixture of air and fuel in preparation for combustion.

The education of students is no less a complex thing (and may be more complex) than the operation of an automobile.   The role of the school in this process (and here we’re talking solely about the “learning” side of schools, not the containment or the certification side) deserves some elaboration, I think.  One way to think about this is to identify the components of the process:

  • The school (that is, the teachers, the buildings, the various media, and the administration)
  • The student
  • The student’s support network: family, friends, etc.
  • The student’s physical resources: his home, books and other media, school supplies, etc.
  • Widespread social pressures and customs

That may just be a partial list.  I was trying to aim for “broad” components: there’s no need to discuss every screw thread in the carburetor, after all.  I’m also only including the parts of a successful education, a functioning education.  Education (like most things) can go wrong in two ways: internal failure or external attack.  A car can break down, or it can get invaded by cable-eating engine weevils; a student’s education can break down internally due to component failure, or it can be destroyed by incessant bullying.  I’m not saying that we shouldn’t think about the external things that can interfere with education, I’m just not dealing with them right now.

So what’s the school’s role in all this?  I want to float the idea that the purpose of the school is to create a fully supportive environment in which learning can take place, and to exclude external threats.  This does NOT mean that the school is required to fix the other parts of the process that go wrong, although perhaps it can attempt to mitigate their failure, just as a properly functioning steering column can mitigate the disaster of a brake failure in some situations.

Education can take place with the following sufficient conditions:

  • Student wants to learn.
  • Student has access to a book with the stuff he wants to learn in it.
  • Student can read.
  • Student has time to read.
  • Student actually chooses to read.
  • Student understands the book.

It’s not clear to me, though, that any of these are really necessary conditions, except maybe the last two.  And they aren’t necessary in their specific forms, but in terms of more general principle:

  • The student chooses to learn
  • The student understands what he has attempted to learn

That the other conditions aren’t necessary seems obvious.  You can learn without wanting to, for instance.  I learned about how to handle the death of a small child in the family a few years back.  I didn’t want to learn that.   Had I been given a choice, I would have walked away immediately, saying “Screw this.  I don’t want to know this.”  But there it was.  So desire isn’t necessary to learning.  We taught unwilling recruits how to be soldiers all the time back in the day, and people have been doing it for centuries.  And you might think, based on these examples, that there’s no way to gently teach someone who doesn’t want to learn, and so that our schools do require a desire to learn if they are to avoid resorting to extremely unpalatable methodology.  Maybe.  But that’s not really my point.

My point is that if you take the things that are actually necessary to education, and you ask yourself, “What role does the school have to play in these?”, it seems that the lion’s share of the “credit” for education belongs to the student.  The school, it seems, exists primarily to provide facilitation for learning.

And if that’s the case, then we might have really excellent schools doing exactly what they are supposed to be doing in order to create the conditions of successful learning, but whose students are nonetheless failing to learn, but through no fault of the schools, just as every non-functioning car isn’t the result of the engine’s going out.  Sometimes the ignition system doesn’t work, sometimes the wheels get stolen, sometimes the tranny falls apart.

Apropos of the Whitehead discussion below, I think that part of a school’s job is probably to accentuate the ways in which education is “relevant” to the students’ lives; it is in this way that I think schools can influence (though in no way take “credit” for) whether a student actually chooses to learn.   You might also think that student desire can be influenced less subtly than through full-blown coercion: gold stars, certificates, displays of love and affection, etc.   But that sort of cajoling isn’t really education — it’s just part of what goes into establishing one sufficient condition, and it has its own moral problems as well.

Anyway, I think we pretty much stink at that — at making education relevant, at bringing out desire.  Schools pretty consistently fail at this, and it’s for many of the reasons that Whitehead (and Rousseau, and Dewey, and others) describe, not least of which is that it’s fundamentally up to the student to decide what he or she wants to do.

But maybe that’s just not a school’s job.  Maybe we expect too much.

Comments

  1. You make a very important distinction between “wanting to learn” and “choosing to learn.” Two very different things, frequently confused.

  2. Stuart Buck says:

    Charter school students are among the most motivated, as are their parents, who sought an alternative education for their children and mastered the intricacies of admission.

    I wonder about people who say stuff like this. My children have gone to a public charter school, and are currently at the traditional public school down the street. In both cases, the “intricacies of admission” were exactly the same: filling out a paper form. That’s it.

  3. Stuart Buck says:

    And the “motivation” argument (one of Ravitch’s favorites) is without evidentiary support. On average, kids come into charter schools with scores the same or lower than their public school peers (we know this from multiple studies). There is no evidence that charter school students overall are “motivated” in any sense that would give the charter schools an unfair advantage, as anti-charter ideologues want to suggest.

  4. My comments are random; my response to the post as a whole is good lord, get over yourself. You’re either wrong, obvious, or obviously wrong.

    Even if the student learns to duck from walking into doorway, the doorway deserves a little bit of the “credit”.

    What moronic drivel.

    And in fact, most education isn’t “relevant” to kids without the cognitive ability to manage it. You can’t genuinely make the quadratic equation “relevant”. Schools didn’t use to have to make learning relevant, because kids who didn’t care could leave. It’s not school that has changed, but the population. Which means you took a whole bunch of words to state the manifestly obvious–when you weren’t spouting drivel, that is.

    It’s not clear to you that the ability to understand isn’t a necessary condition? Good god.

    And a whole post on schools and students without a single mention of cognitive ability.

    In fact, the point of schools is to educate those who can’t or won’t learn by themselves. And we could do it much better if we understood how much cognitive ability plays a part in outcomes.

  5. CarolineSF says:

    I have to make the same rebuttals as usual to Stuart Buck’s same misleading claims.

    At least in my district and I believe in most, students are enrolled in a school by default. My district is an all-choice district, which means that families may choose a public school (and be in a lottery for the spot if there are more applications than openings) — but even if they don’t apply for any schools or hit the lottery for those they applied for, the family will be assigned to a school in the district by default.

    The charter schools set their own admissions criteria, essentially overseen by and accountable to no one. The most successful charter high school (actually the only successful charter high school) in our district has a 13-page enrollment application that requires multiple essay-length answers by the parent, an essay from the student, teacher recommendations and more. The other charter high schools just have a brief application — but I know a family whose daughter had been expelled from a private school, and one of those charter high schools refused to accept her application until threats of complaining to the school board appeared. That’s just one that appeared on the public radar. They do what they want.

    So, students are assigned to a public school by default, even if the family does nothing at all. Families must learn about a charter school and specifically decide to apply, and then jump through whatever hoops the charter school operator wants to impose, because charter operators are free to impose hoops, and they do so.

    If students come into charter schools with lower scores than their public school peers, that makes sense, as the scores of their public school peers include those who are doing well in public school and are uninterested in seeking out a charter. By definition, in many cases, families are seeking out charters because they are not satisfied with the current schools. However, the low-scoring students whose families are not equipped or motivated to seek out a charter are not going to apply to the charter. The low-scoring students who apply to charters are those whose families were equipped and motivated to seek out the charter. Those are two different subsets of low-scoring students.

  6. Stuart Buck says:

    OK, so now we know that charter enrollment can be very different, as is public school enrollment (no one in my state is enrolled “by default,” whatever that means — you most definitely have to fill out forms, prove that your kids are immunized, prove that you are a resident of the zone, etc.). Until someone does a systematic survey, there is no basis whatsoever for claiming that the charter school enrollment process is any different from other public schools (on average).

    And if kids are coming into charters with lower scores, what’s the point of all the incessant griping about some sort of unfair charter school advantage? (“Oooh, I’m so peeved when a school gets to educate the better of the below-average students, as opposed to a mix of bad and good students.”)

  7. tim-10-ber says:

    I call the the zoned schools “default” schools as those are the schools students are put in who have no choice. My district will soon be all choice.

    Second, the vast majority of kids in our charter schools are one or two grade levels below the grade they are “in”.

    The charter school parents realize the default schools have failed their kids — either the teachers did not care, could not figure out how to connect, the curriculum was weak or all of the above…

    The default schools become the schools where kids lose hope as they know all that could have left…have left. This is where teachers need to step in and make learning exciting and the kids believe they can excel…

    Soon our district will be all choice — at least the high school will be –hopefully the elementary and middle will be too.

    Making a choice to attend a school seems to help with the ownership of education…at least that has been my experience…

  8. CarolineSF says:

    There’s a lot of back-and-forth in my community on that, Tim-10-ber — the neighborhood schools advocates say that going to school close to home promotes more ownership; the choice advocates say that choosing a school promotes more ownership. I went into it without a strong viewpoint either way, but the fact is that our SF schools have improved in myriad ways during the time the district has been all-choice, so the reality has been clear.

    Stuart, sneering doesn’t really make your case. I think it’s quite valid that a school will “do better when it gets to educate the better of the below-average students, as opposed to a mix of bad and good students.” in your words. To be clear, however, the charter that “gets to educate the better of the below-average students” is leaving the really problematic of the below-average students at the public school, to which it then proclaims itself superior, for which it is further rewarded with showers of money.

    If all this could be done in the open instead of being shrouded in constant dishonesty, and if the public schools weren’t harmed by it when they’re the ones accepting the more challenged kids, that would be OK. But it’s not, because of the constant deceit.

  9. either the teachers did not care, could not figure out how to connect, the curriculum was weak or all of the above…

    hahahahahaha. Yeah, those are the only possibilities. Couldn’t be that the kids weren’t capable of doing the work.

  10. Stuart Buck says:

    To be clear, however, the charter that “gets to educate the better of the below-average students” is leaving the really problematic of the below-average students at the public school,

    What’s the evidence for this? Think of it in percentile terms. The average at a public school district (within that district) is the 50th percentile, by definition. Charter schools on average might be pulling kids from the 45th percentile compared to the district or school they came from.

    Now as a bit of spin, one could try to argue that the charter schools take ALL their kids from the 25th to 45th percentile (let’s say), and somehow exclude the very worst of the worst. And this (supposedly) is just a huge outrage for some reason.

    But what’s the evidence that this is happening anyway? Not anecdotes, mind you: systematic evidence that this is the typical result. Maybe this happens on occasion, but charter schools are so diverse across so many states and districts that it seems pointless to try to generalize one’s grudges.

  11. CarolineSF says:

    It is self-evident that if there’s a hurdle across the track, only the people who can make it over the hurdle will finish the race, Stuart Buck. Self-evident. Blustering “where’s the evidence?” is pointless.

  12. Allison says:

    Is it about learning, or is it about teaching?

    Is education about supporting learning–where the main responsibility is on the student and their family, and therefore, it’s the student’s fault if something is wrong–or is education about teaching students, where the main responsibility is on the teacher and the school for ensuring that for nearly everyone who walks in their door, they will teach them a year’s material in a year’s time, and do whatever it takes to make that happen, regardless of what happens outside of school?

    Ed school now teaches theories of learning. By and large, ed school philosophy is that education professional are there to support learning, facilitate learning, but not take responsibility for or accountability for what a student knows.

    How many courses in ed school teach theories of teaching? Why is “Teach Like a Champion” a book that needs reinventing like the wheel? How much practical knowledge of teaching do newly certified teachers receive? Almost none. But it doesn’t matter, because teachers and schools are merely facilitators.

    This is utterly unlike medicine today. In medicine today, doctors, nurses, and hospitals take in patients and see their role is to cure or heal the sick to the best extent they possibly can, regardless of what happens outside that hospital. They don’t say “gang-banger got himself shot, we can’t be expected to save him.” They recognize that they can’t control a patient’s behavior or compliance with a given regimen, diet, or treatment, but they still see their job is to heal or treat the sick and injured. They don’t say their job is (merely) to support health.

    As long as the main theory of education is that it’s about learning, not teaching, we will continue to fail a large swath of students. Schools need to ask whether or not they–their bosses, employees, stakeholders–believe that nearly everyone can be taught a year’s material in a year’s time. If the answer is that they believe that, then they need to execute on that and do it. If they don’t really believe that, we should ask what stands in the way of their really believing it, and if they are willing to articulate to their stakeholders those reasons so everyone can see them.

  13. Allison:

    The difference is, teachers are expected to educate both the gang banger who got shot, and the gangbanger who shot him, in the same classroom. When neither gangbanger is interested in being educated, and is busy conducting his business instead of paying attention.

  14. Schools need to ask whether or not they–their bosses, employees, stakeholders–believe that nearly everyone can be taught a year’s material in a year’s time

    Only if the student is willing to be taught.

  15. self-evident does not mean proof by assertion, CarolineSF.

    In our area, the charter school criteria are provide your name and address, just like the public school enrollment. the data here shows that most high school charters have the same mix of kids, educate them to higher levels on less money. The ones that don’t close rapidly. But your mileage may vary.

    It’s generally easy to defuse “parent bias” red herring as “oh, are you saying that parents who know better are selecting the charter?” then the bluster goes away and the useful data comes out.

  16. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Allison saith:

    Is education about supporting learning–where the main responsibility is on the student and their family, and therefore, it’s the student’s fault if something is wrong–or is education about teaching students, where the main responsibility is on the teacher and the school for ensuring that for nearly everyone who walks in their door, they will teach them a year’s material in a year’s time, and do whatever it takes to make that happen, regardless of what happens outside of school?

    (emphasis added)

    This reflects precisely the sort of thinking that I’m trying to bring into question. You might as well ask, “Is making the car run about the engine running properly, in which case if the car’s not running it’s the engine’s fault, or about the wheels turning properly, in which case if the car’s not running it’s the transmission’s fault?”

    I am suggesting that it’s a mistake to ascribe total responsibility to anyone if the process breaks down, but rather to focus on discrete parts of the process. In other words, we need to ask in each case exactly where and why the breakdown is occurring (assuming that there’s some sort of problem) and then ask who’s responsible for that specific thing that’s going wrong.

    If the “problem” is that the student isn’t choosing to learn, then we need to ask who’s responsible for motivating that choice. If the “problem” is that the materials provided are insufficient, then we need to ask who’s responsible for providing the materials. If the “problem” is that the student is getting traumatized every other day by visions of alien killer swallows, we need to ask who’s responsible for watching over the child’s mental health and taking care of deficiencies.

    But I feel like everyone — parents, teachers, politicians — is running around screaming “Something’s gone wrong! FIX IT!” at whichever person or institution they’ve decided is to blame. But the thinking that says, “There’s a problem with the learning process, and the success of a student’s learning in toto is the responsibility of person or institution X” is just starting to seem like lazy, sloppy thinking to me, the type of thing one thinks when casting about for a scapegoat rather than when one is searching for a solution. I guess what I’m doing is suggesting that we take a serious look at functional responsibility rather than rely some universal accounting system of blame-laying.

    And I’d also suggest that this sort of thinking may be leading to problems all of its own: persons and institutions are being put into situations where they are being held publicly “responsible” for things that they aren’t suited for, and it may be substantially interfering with their ability to actually perform the things that they really are responsible for.

    I’m not 100% certain about any of this; I’m at the “floating ideas” stage in my thinking right now. But I wanted to make sure that I distinguished what notion I was entertaining from the two options that Allison was putting forth in bold, above.

  17. If it were just a factor of parental motivation, then there would be no discernible difference in results between the students who win the charter lottery and those who enter but lose. The fact that the students who are able to attend the charter do better than those who get stuck on the waiting list shows that the charter actually adds value.

  18. Stuart Buck says:

    I’m not sure what you think is self-evident here:

    It is self-evident that if there’s a hurdle across the track, only the people who can make it over the hurdle will finish the race

    What hurdle?

  19. If it were just a factor of parental motivation, then there would be no discernible difference in results between the students who win the charter lottery and those who enter but lose. The fact that the students who are able to attend the charter do better than those who get stuck on the waiting list shows that the charter actually adds value.

    The added value being the abscence of the kids whose parents simply don’t give a shit about their child’s behavior and education.

  20. I don’t know what automatic enrollment would look like. Until you tell the school that you have a kid, and that kid is coming their way, they don’t know that the kid exists. If you show up at the door with the kid, you’re going to get handed some forms. When we enrolled our daughter for our neighborhood public pre-K in Washington, DC, there was definitely a fair amount of paperwork involved (immunization, etc.). I remember sweating over those forms.

    Now that I think of it, an additional hurdle for standard public schools is the residency requirement. For a standard public school, you need to demonstrate that you are a resident in the neighborhood boundaries and your child has the right to attend.

  21. Stuart Buck says:

    Well, this is San Francisco we’re talking about; maybe they have embedded computer chips in everyone’s brains whereby they can track all children’s whereabouts at all times, and then automatically download the information to the local public school.

    But everywhere else, people do have to fill out forms to enter a public school. That’s a hurdle, mind you, and where there’s a hurdle, people have to scale it somehow, and this means something or other.

  22. For the charter debate in the comments:

    Not all charter schools are the same. I work at a high-performing “successful” charter school. Do we only take the top students? No. We do have a reputation that we require lots of work and yes, you the student will be doing homework and probably showing up on Saturdays sometimes. I can only imagine that this reputation results in many students fighting to stay away from the school. Parents who want better and students who also want better tend to find the school. Many students at the school brought the school to the attention of their parents. I’m pretty sure students who do not want to do the work will not tell their parents about the school.

    That was a lot to say, yes, there is can be an advantage to being a charter. I do not compare my school to the normal, take-all school down the street.

  23. Good post… that Farhi article has been getting blasted

  24. Stacy in NJ says:

    Stuart Buck said..
    “Well, this is San Francisco we’re talking about; maybe they have embedded computer chips in everyone’s brains whereby they can track all children’s whereabouts at all times, and then automatically download the information to the local public school.”

    No. they embed the chips to track the number of Happy Meals they eat.

    Keep in mind that families who have the means have been fleeing San Fran much like Jody Foster’s character from the Accused fled the bar scene. After reading CarolineSF’s comments, I can understand why.

  25. Genevieve says:

    I would think the difference in enrollment between a charter and a neighborhood school would be partially dependent on how popular a charter is. If a charter has to hold a lottery because there are more applicants than spots, then opportunity for enrollment must close before the lottery takes place. On the other hand, there are families that wander into the neighborhood elementary schools after school has started. For the most part, the neighborhood school has to enroll them (registration rules do seem to vary based on locality). Generally speaking, if a family can’t get it together to enroll their students before school starts (and I’m not talking about families that move) they are usually going to have some major issues.

    I could see a situation where a charter that has openings would also take students throughout the year.

  26. The problem is that the reformers’ solution—more testing, more testing, more testing—moves things in the exact opposite direction of presenting education as more relevant to students’ lives.

    Kids aren’t stupid; they can figure out that to policymakers, principals, and increasingly (with the rise of merit pay and other forms of teacher evaluation that rely on testing data) their teachers, their entire school year is bound up in whether they’ve filled out the right bubbles on a scantron—not whether or not they’re more knowledgeable, more creative, more capable, or happier than they were a year ago.

    They see school as an arbitrary exercise designed to benefit or punish other people, not themselves. What do they get for filling out the right bubbles? Nothing at all. There’s no reward for them for doing well, and it certainly doesn’t make their lives any better if they do. That’s what standardized testing does—make every school year into a short-term game of whether or not students can fill out more bubbles correctly this year than they did last year. Kids are smart enough to figure this out.

    Want to make education relevant again? Dump the standardized testing regime, particularly in poorer schools, and free teachers to encourage their students to put together portfolios or work on big projects, to follow their passions and learn about what they love. That’s already what’s happening in the suburbs. Don’t poor kids deserve that kind of education too?

  27. James,

    What you refer to as simply “filling out the right bubbles” I think of as an objective way for a student to demonstrate his/her knowledge and proficiency. Standardized tests may not be perfect, and there may be too many tests given in the course of a given student’s career, but they are not meaningless. It is very difficult to compare Student A’s portfolio to Student B’s when trying to make an admission decision (into a school or an honors program within a school, for example). Standardized tests are objective, and therefore comparable. You can supplement them with student portfolios and interviews and GPAs and whatever you value. But it is nice to have one measure that is objective across schools and teachers.

    I don’t think it happens often that teachers are surprised by their students’ scores on standardized tests. The best students–no matter how you choose to define that–tend to score near the top. The weak students tend to score near the bottom. So, I think it’s a little more than just artfully filling in irrelevant bubbles.

  28. Michael, maybe you should use puns which haven’t been in print for 25 years. ;-)

  29. Dump the standardized testing regime, particularly in poorer schools, and free teachers to encourage their students to put together portfolios or work on big projects, to follow their passions and learn about what they love.

    I think someone flunked Late 20th Century Education, History of.  That is exactly how we got to the point of “students” being awarded diplomas they can’t read, because they never studied anything including reading.  A “portfolio” including posters of mathematical formulae and dioramas of Archimedes drawing in the sand has little to nothing to do with learning calculus and geometry.

    Filling in the correct bubbles on the Scantron means squat.  Knowing what’s necessary to figure out which bubble is the correct one… that can mean quite a bit.  In my case, knowing which bubble was the right one on some Scantrons got me the bulk of 20 credit-hours credit at Big Ten University (money, time), and saved me a lot of burnout.  The same knowledge I used to find the correct bubbles has served me well over the decades since.

    Those kids making dioramas to illustrate stories instead of writing book reports, and posters instead of learning arithmetic and algebra and trig?  They’re the ones who are in low-paid fuzzy subject jobs if they’re lucky, and saying “Would you like fries with that?” if they’re not.

  30. Roger Sweeny says:

    Kids aren’t stupid; they can figure out that to policymakers, principals, and increasingly (with the rise of merit pay and other forms of teacher evaluation that rely on testing data) their teachers, their entire school year is bound up in whether they’ve filled out the right bubbles on a scantron—not whether or not they’re more knowledgeable, more creative, more capable, or happier than they were a year ago.

    But students have always taken tests, in the cities and in the suburbs. Sometimes the classroom teacher makes up the test, sometimes a group of teachers does. Sometimes it comes from a “test bank” provided by the textbook publisher. Some of the questions are multiple choice, some are true/false, some fill-ins, some “open response.”

    Very rarely do students anywhere follow their passions or put together creative projects that they are truly interested in.

    Most students see school as somewhat arbitrary, a game of memorizing and getting grades. The reward is that schooling is one of the few ways that employers can discriminate between job applicants. A potential employer can’t make someone take an IQ test but she can require them to have a high school diploma.

  31. Michael E. Lopez says:

    Wow. I mention charter schools as a springboard and the comments go wild.

    Anyone got popcorn?

  32. Given the high mobility of poor families, it seems like a charter school may be more suitable for them than a traditional neighborhood school. At a traditional public school, it is generally understood that if you move between neighborhoods in the middle of the school year, you legally have to switch schools, no matter how impractical or dumb that is. To be able to move but legally hold onto your child’s old charter school could be a big help in maintaining some stability in a child’s life.

    (I was talking to some public school moms a few weeks ago about residency requirements in our part of Texas. Apparently, the truancy officer in their rather ritzy suburb brags about conducting 6 AM raids of homes that are suspected of being fictitious addresses for children who actually live out of district.)

  33. CarolineSF says:

    Stacy in NJ, thanks for giving your analysis of mobility patterns in San Francisco from 3,000 miles away. If you check our housing prices you’ll see a slightly different picture than “families who have the means … fleeing San Fran.”

  34. Stuart Buck: “But everywhere else, people do have to fill out forms to enter a public school. That’s a hurdle, mind you, and where there’s a hurdle, people have to scale it somehow, and this means something or other.”

    Doesn’t the height of the hurdle matter?

    I can only speak semi-knowledgeably about how the process works in New York City’s public schools, but between the highly developed network of universal pre-K/Head Start programs, DOE outreach, and other overlapping social services, New York City parents in at-risk districts are, at the very least, getting plenty of active assistance with enrolling their children in kindergarten. And these agencies will ensure that the children of even the most passive, uninterested, and low-information parents will be registered for their neighborhood school.

    Registering for a charter lottery may involve a relatively small or similar amount of actual physical paperwork, but the parent has to A. be aware of the existence of charter lotteries and B. care enough and know what it means to enter them. The student populations at New York City’s top-test-scoring charter schools have fewer free-lunch eligible students and far fewer ELL students than their home districts (one notable exception to this trend is the fourth Icahn school). It isn’t rational to me to think that the parental willingness/awareness effect isn’t influencing those results.

  35. Stuart Buck says:

    Registering for a charter lottery may involve a relatively small or similar amount of actual physical paperwork, but the parent has to A. be aware of the existence of charter lotteries and B. care enough and know what it means to enter them

    Well, yes, by definition people who end up in a charter school must have figured out that there’s such a thing as a charter school. What isn’t “by definition” true is that this makes any difference worth fretting about.

  36. Roger Sweeny says:

    Tim,

    Does “the highly developed network of universal pre-K/Head Start programs, DOE outreach, and other overlapping social services” actively withhold information about charters from NYC parents?

  37. Fleeing is too strong a word: so CarolineSF is right … yet Stacy in NJ correctly eyes a marked difference in % of school age children for each age group >5, 5-9, 10-14, 15-19 when comparing San Francisco with San Jose, San Diego, Sacramento or LA

    SF ~4% http://sanfrancisco.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm
    SJ ~ 7% http://sanjose.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm
    SD ~7% http://sandiego.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm
    LA ~7% http://losangeles.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm
    Sac’to ~7.5% http://sanjose.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm

    Obviously there can be other demographic differences in the SF larger 25-34 age cohort: 23% vs 15-18% is all the other metros.

  38. Stacy in NJ says:

    CarolineSF,

    From the San Fran Examinier….

    “Despite efforts to stem the tide of family flight, the population of children in San Francisco continues to ebb.

    Families that remain in The City are bucking the trend that has plagued San Francisco for years as the number of children — defined as people up to 17 years old — has dropped from 181,532 in 1960 to 107,524 today, according to the latest U.S. Census Bureau figures. The 2000 census counted 112,802 youths.”

    Read more at the San Francisco Examiner: http://www.sfexaminer.com/local/2011/03/san-francisco-becoming-child-free-zone-youth-population-declines#ixzz1NJ9tapsN

    But don’t let census data or facts interfer with your narrative.

  39. CarolineSF says:

    What a bizarre line of argument. Stacy, I live in San Francisco — I was born here and have lived all my life in or near the city — and am very familiar with the mobility patterns. I admire your chutzpah in pronouncing from 3,000 miles away just what the situation is.

    The piece you got wrong is your jump to the conclusion that families leave the city as soon as/because they can afford to leave.

    Actually, real estate here within the San Francisco city limits is costlier per square foot than real estate in all but the very most exclusive suburbs (Ross, Belvedere, Atherton, Blackhawk, Saratoga). So when families leave the city for the ‘burbs, they get a lot more house and land for the same money. Families who need more space find it in the ‘burbs (that’s why my former next-door neighbors regretfully moved from their 1,300-sq.-foot home to an East Bay bedroom community when they discovered they were having twins instead of just a second child). And young families, and low-income families, who are moving up in socioeconomic status can move into a single-family home — whether rented or purchased — by moving to the less-glitzy of the Bay Area while they could only afford a small apartment here in the city.

    So while it’s true that San Francisco is losing families with children, it’s a certain economic segment who are leaving — the moderate-income who can’t afford our city’s sky-high real estate prices. (The very-low-income in subsidized housing tend to say in the city too.)

    Here’s Zillow on my attached rowhouse on a 25×100-foot lot in a quiet, unglamorous San Francisco neighborhood:
    This is a 1293 square foot, 1.0 bathroom, single family home. … Lot size: 2,439 sq ft / 0.06 acres … Year built: 1947 … Zestimate®: $762,000

    San Francisco does have its urban challenges. But I don’t think most people who’ve visited our city — which is a popular tourist destination, in case you hadn’t heard that — would agree with you that it’s an unpleasant place where only poor people who can’t get out would stay put.

  40. Stacy in NJ says:

    CarolineSF, what a strange line of reasoning you engage in. One isn’t capable of understanding demographics unless they are part of that demographic? You’re quite the Little Englander.

    Every city in the USA has experienced the same phenomena as you describe: expensive real estate, high taxes, middle class flight to suburbs. I lived in NYC for 10 years and now live in a suburb of it. Only San Fran and Detroit have experienced the most extreme family flight over a long period of time. Public policy matters.

  41. But Stacy, you originally said that families who have the means are fleeing San Francisco. The article you linked to does nothing to support that claim. San Francisco is frighteningly expensive–not only real estate, but also energy, food, child care, the whole nine yards–and that is the obvious prima facie explanation for the declining family population (and the article also says that the trend has slowed quite a bit from the 60s and 70s).

  42. Roger: “Does “the highly developed network of universal pre-K/Head Start programs, DOE outreach, and other overlapping social services” actively withhold information about charters from NYC parents?”

    I’m not sure what you’re asking here, but on an individual basis, I’m sure there are preschool teachers/directors and social agency workers who will recommend charter schools to parents, but ultimately it is up to the parent to summon up the initiative to enter the lottery.

  43. CarolineSF says:

    This is so absurdly off topic, since Stacy’s only point was to back up Stuart Buck’s attempt to divert attention from the credibility of my actual comments by poking fun at my city’s “land of fruits and nuts” image. I’m not even sure what her rationale is.

    But Tim is right. The claim that “families who have the means are fleeing San Francisco” is just wrong. Families who have the means are more likely to STAY in San Francisco. The exceptionally high family flight is due to our exceptionally high housing (and other) costs and the fact that those costs are lower outside the city.

    And Tim is right about this too: “…ultimately it is up to the parent to summon up the initiative to enter the lottery.” And it IS more than just entering the lottery. For example, KIPP schools give tests to applicants. I don’t know if all KIPP schools do, but some do (I applied to KIPP San Francisco Bay Academy for my daughter myself just to see if that was the case, and yes, it is — prior to the alleged “lottery”*). hat means that, for one thing, the student has to be compliant enough to cooperate in taking the test (we’re talking about 5th-7th-graders, kids easily old enough to resist); the parent/guardian needs to go through the scheduling process and get the kid to the test site; and realistically, the parent/guardian is more likely to do this if he/she feels confident that the kid will perform well on the test .

    *Asterisk on “lottery” because this particular KIPP school has empty seats and does not actually need to hold a lottery, though they still claim to.