Same schools for all?

Upper-middle-class parents aren’t rallying to reform the schools, writes Lewis Andrews in The American Spectator.  Affluent parents are getting the schools they want, responds Mike Petrilli.  The question is whether they’ll support reforms to help other peoples’ children. If those reforms — think test-based accountability — hurt their own children’s schools, they’ll resist, he argues.

Some high-spending districts get mediocre results, Andrews writes.

Affluent parents, confident their own children will do well academically, may not care about rigor, writes Petrilli.

 . . . I bet that many upper-middle class parents want to reach for something more: Emotional, spiritual, and physical growth, especially. And thus the frills that Lewis derides (like all manner of extra-curricular activities and “specials”) become quite important. And as for the test scores–well, who cares if they are really, really high or just really high?

Low-income and working-class parents have different priorities, Petrilli writes. Their children need a different sort of school.

So am I saying that we should provide one kind of education for the rich and another kind for the poor? That affluent kids get to develop their bodies, minds, and spirits, while low-income children suffer through endless weeks of test-prep?

Not exactly. The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students’ development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress. These elements would be overkill in many affluent schools. One size does not fit all.

It’s useless to debate whether students have too much homework, he writes. Which students? The ones who go to “hothouse schools in upper-middle-class enclaves” may be working too hard, while low-income and working-class students may not be challenged at all.

The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn’t due to concerns that the law isn’t working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it’s helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make affluent public schools worse–or at least worse in the eyes of their customers. If a principal asks a beloved teacher to scrap her favorite unit on dinosaurs or poetry or jazz or whatever in order to make room for test-prep, you better believe the affluent parents are going to be mad. As well they should be. Mandating statewide, test-based teacher evaluations will only make the situation worse.

Smart policy would focus on troubled schools and offer “benign neglect” to those that are meeting students’ needs, Petrilli writes.

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Comments

  1. Great point. I think it’s worth adding that very few parents in general are fighting for school reform, because study and study has shown that the vast majority of parents across all income levels believe THEIR childrens’ schools are fine.

  2. I thought the article was interesting. I’m not sure I agreed with everything. My children go a higher poverty, more diverse school in a district that overall is quite affluent, has a lot of well educated parents.

    What I find interesting where I live is that the school board seems to have a very hard time saying no to the wealthiest “stakeholders” in the district, but has little time for parents of children in the poorer schools.

    We have had a long and bitter redistricting debate in our schools. I’m simply amazed at how much time our board has spent placating parents who don’t want their kids shifted to schools that might be slightly more diverse. It has gotten to the point that many in our community think a new high school should be built to accomadate this group of parents.

    One thing that does go on in our district that I would like to see further research about, is the extent that many parents go to, to “afterschool” their kids, or take them to tutoring when the curriculums are marginal.

  3. I’d be interested to see those studies, Angela. I’m not sure every parent really believes their school is fine….they just aren’t sure that there is a better alternative to the public school system.

  4. I’m an upper-middle-class parent and I do *NOT* see my district offering the kinds of programs parents like me want. There is a wonderful Montessori charter program in my area that receives far more applications than there are slots available. There is also a private Classical model school that again receives far more applications than there are available slots. It seems to me a no-brainer for the district to offer a magnet Montessori and/or Classical program (I’d love something similar to the Ridgeview Classical schools in Colorado). Seems to me like it would be a win-win situation because the district would get extra money for each student who chooses to enroll in a magnet school rather than a charter, private, or home school.

    Just this morning there was a discussion on my town mother’s club e-list about whether it makes sense to move to a neighboring town with better schools. The district could likely keep many of these families by offering good magnet programs.

  5. Oh have you hit a sore spot with me! I live in affluent Scottsdale, AZ and parents love “traditional” schools here that focus on “back-to-basics,” testing, and “rigorous academics.” I think it’s because they like to be able to brag about how well their kid is doing. They hire tutors so that they can ace the AP tests and so that they don’t “lose ground” over the summer. I actually overheard a parent in a conference concerned because “Johnny” was only getting a 96 in the class!

    Meanwhile, I have two boys who did Montessori in Seattle. They are sensitive, artistic, challenging, creative and don’t do well in the schools here AT ALL. It drives me crazy that many of the “alternative” programs are focused on low-income kids (not that they don’t deserve it, just that there are all kinds of kids that need something different).

    I was just getting ready to write a blog post on this very topic. I think the most important thing we can advocate for in education reform is VARIETY and INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING PLANS. To say that poor kids need one kind of school, black kids need another, latinos another, upper class another, etc. is ridiculous! We need to look at kids as individuals and not just part of some group they can be categorized into.

    But you’re right, many affluent parents like things the way they are. That’s why you won’t find any project based learning, individualized instruction, whole child environments, etc. in Schnottsdale.

  6. I am a middle class parent in a diverse city, with some districts more middle class than others (and I live in one such). I have sometimes found that other middle class parents are more focused on protecting the arts component of the curriculum than on increasing the strength of science and math instruction. As for the “whole child”, mostly, when schools attempt to attend to the spiritual and emotional growth of the students, it is embarrassing and icky. On the other hand, I do think that cookie cutter curricula, whether for reading, math, history or science, are often poorly implemented by teachers who don’t really buy into what they are teaching.

  7. There’s a difference between “traditional” and “rigorous” and what needs to go on in schools with a high percentage of low ability kids. You want touchy feely fluff? Don’t go to a high achieving school. Go to one of the suburban charters, like Summit, that sees itself as progressive but doesn’t have great test scores.

    I’m simply amazed at how much time our board has spent placating parents who don’t want their kids shifted to schools that might be slightly more diverse.

    You can’t be serious. You’re surprised that school boards want to placate parents who will move or send their kids to private school–or at the least, spend more money on tutors than on school donations? Really? And why they are more worried about these parents than the parents whose kids will, on average, cost far more in services than the parents will ever donate–and whose parents are unlikely to go somewhere else (but will, in many cases, require expensive truancy services just to get their kids to school)?

    This comes as a surprise to you? Do you need flashcards?

  8. I think the most important thing we can advocate for in education reform is VARIETY and INDIVIDUALIZED LEARNING PLANS.

    I have 35+ kids a class, six classes a day (we are on a 7 period schedule), and four subjects to teach.

    Just how in the hell do you expect me to come up with 200+ different lesson plans…let alone teach them?

  9. the vast majority of parents across all income levels believe THEIR childrens’ schools are fine.

    The vast majority of parents have no idea what is going on in the schools.

  10. palisadesk says:

    The vast majority of parents have no idea what is going on in the schools.

    Sadly, neither do most reformers that I come in contact with. Fervent tilting at the windmills of 1990′s school issues is not going to lead to productive change.

  11. Smart policy would focus on troubled schools and offer “benign neglect” to those that are meeting students’ needs, Petrilli writes.

    NCLB defines a school as “failing” if it has any significantly-sized population of minorities which performs too badly, does it not?  Given the disparity in performance between Europeans and non-asian minorities, this pretty much defines “troubled” as “not rich enough to keep statistically significant numbers of minorities out”.

    I’m simply amazed at how much time our board has spent placating parents who don’t want their kids shifted to schools that might be slightly more diverse.

    Not at all hard to understand, if those schools use heterogeneous grouping or differentiate discipline to meet e.g. racial quotas for suspensions.  Even one year stuck in classes taught well below their level or being harassed (let alone beaten) by kids who act with impunity (because the “civil rights” apparatus requires proportional numbers rather than equal treatment) can put these kids behind or leave them with PTSD.  Worse, it might give them “racist” attitudes which will jepoardize their prospects almost anywhere.

  12. Cranberry says:

    The American Spectator article was…strange. He wrote: Parents are incented to grant educators excessive compensation and lax work rules-by far the largest cost drivers of local budgets — in return for a wide range of benefits with little relationship to the curriculum.

    Please, tell me in which district parents have direct control over compensation? In our district, the parents can vote for or against school board members. Every voter in town has the opportunity to vote for or against the entire town budget, and for or against any overrides. It’s like stating that city inhabitants like potholes. Huh?

    And, In states where suburban schools are funded primarily by property levies, for example, a family paying $10,000 in real estate taxes and sending three children to public schools with an average per pupil cost of $9,000 nets a yearly windfall from the community of $17,000 in educational services, a subsidy that is largely treated as what it is — other people’s money.

    Well, no. The average per-pupil cost does not mean your child receives $9,000 in educational services. Some students receive much more. As it’s all one budget, that means others receive much less. Increased payments to health benefits, retirement funds, and insurance does not increase the value of “educational services.”

    If your children arrive in September above grade-level, your school may not put much effort into teaching them. You may find your children tutoring others, or acting as unpaid babysitters for the recalcitrant.

    If any force has the potential to reform the traditional public school, it is the righteous indignation of a rudely awakened upper-middle class. It’s fascinating that the article ends on this sentence, and even mentions tutoring, but the author doesn’t seem to realize that suburban education is often a zero-sum game. The parents are tutoring to improve their kids’ standing relative to other students in the school. GPA, honors classes and class rank matter for college admissions.

  13. And as for the test scores–well, who cares if they are really, really high or just really high?

    That’s the philosophy held by the administrators of my own affluent suburban school district.

    Unfortunately, selective colleges don’t share it.

  14. Edgar99 says:

    Interesting comments. Common thread seems to be one size does not fit all. Perfect argument for vouchers.

  15. Slightly off-topic, but apropos I think: every year, my high school distributes articles and memos criticizing the SAT, and our superintendent and members of our school board have publicly dismissed the annual list of average SAT scores published by a local magazine. One of the guidance counselors refers people to the Fairtest website.

    The SAT scores, we’re told, are meaningless and are being dropped by colleges.

    Imagine our surprise when our son reached junior year and began receiving marketing literature from colleges that says: “We’re contacting you because of your high scores.”

    Recently my son received an email that included a merit aid calculator. When he used the calculator, he learned how much aid (aid, not loans) he could expect over the next four years purely on the basis of his scores, which is all that college knows about him.

  16. Mark Roulo says:

    Just how in the hell do you expect me to come up with 200+ different lesson plans…let alone teach them?

    Look, with 200 different lesson plans you only have about 1½ minutes per kid. How difficult can it be to come up with a 1½ minute lesson plan? It isn’t like you can teach very much in that time, so how hard can it be :-)

    [sarcasm off]

  17. Richard Aubrey says:

    I see that “diverse” suffers from being thought a euphemism for your kid should get a lousy education and suffer from physical attacks. Actually, it’s not a euphemism any longer. That’s the definition.

  18. Elizabeth says:

    Affluent parents are not rallying for reform because a large proportion have either moved to good public school districts (yes, there are lots), send their kids to magnet-type schools that offer IB etc in large urban districts or send their kids to private school. Many parents don’t care what color (white, black, purple or green) their kids classmates are – as long as the parents share roughly the same socio-economic status and values. “Diversity” is seen as a code word for high-poverty/disfunction. While I genuinely feel sorry for kids raised in such environments, I don’t feel the need to sacrifice my kid in the name of fairness or equality. Many parents feel the same way. Unfortunately, many in the educational establishment really don’t understand this simple fact.

  19. I posted earlier about our redistricting being a bitter process. One of the more contentious items is about changing the high school attendance boundaries so that a few kids would be going to a school that would be as I mentioned before, is slightly more diverse…maybe a couple percentage points difference.

    The parents that have fought the most actually live closer to the slightly more diverse high school. The alternative that these parents want is that a new high school be built…something that probably won’t happen for 10 year down the line.

    What has been most interesting in the whole process is that our community views itself to be very liberal and progressive.

  20. As far as the remark about parents having no idea what goes on in schools, it seems like that is how our school district likes to operate.

  21. In theory, you can put all kinds of kids in the same building if, once they are there, each child gets the education he or she needs. Of course, that is much easier if all the kids need more or less the same thing. But that would be a rare occurrence. So the default is that we give schools that are mostly low-income a back to basics approach (frequently with full approval of parents) and upper-income kids a combination of “creative” on-grade and above academics plus great extracurriculars. What this does is to ignore the lower-income kids who already know the basics, and also ignores the upper-income kids who need a structured approach.

  22. Richard Aubrey says:

    Elizabeth. They do understand. They can’t afford to admit it.

    Kate. Liberal and progressive ideas are supposed to apply to others. When they complain, they’re racists and haters and what not.

    Edsall and Edsall wrote a book about liberalism so long ago that Teddy Kennedy’s run for pres was still in most people’s memories. They thought, short precis, that liberalism needed better marketing.
    But they did acknolwedge that various folks–the single mother whose kids are bused to distant and unfamiliar schools, the white cop passed over for promotion by a black cop with lower scores, the night-shift nurse raped by a convicted rapist let out early, the early commuters riding the subway with the threatening deinstitutionalized demented–hadn’t yet seen the benefits of liberalism. It goes without saying that liberalism’ s promoters aren’t among the folks menitoned. And society has developed mechanisms for keeping them from complaining (RACIST!).

  23. Go to one of the suburban charters, like Summit, that sees itself as progressive but doesn’t have great test scores.

    To which Summit charter school are you referring? The only one of which I know has sky-high test scores (top 10% statewide and top 10% when compared with schools with similar demographics). It was among Newsweek’s top 10 high schools in the state.