Tiger Moms vs. Koala Dads in the suburbs

School choice isn’t just an escape hatch for urban kids assigned to low-performing schools,  argues Fordham’s Mike Petrilli in The case for public-school choice in the suburbs. Even in upper-middle-class communities with high-scoring schools, parents want different programs for their children. He sees three groups:

Tiger Moms (and Dads) . . . want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. . . .

Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. . . .

The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school.

What’s a good school for some students will be too pressured or too hang loose or vanilla for others, at least as their parents define their needs. Let new charters spring up to serve unmet needs, Petrilli writes. “If one-size-fits-all doesn’t work in the city, why does it work in the suburbs?”

School districts can’t meet every need and desire at the same school, but they can offer choices.

My daughter went to Palo Alto schools, which had plenty of Tigers, Koalas and Cosmos. The district’s choice program includes a “structured” school, which is wildly popular with some parents, and a “progressive” school, even more popular with others. It created a dual immersion Spanish school and, since my time, has added a Mandarin immersion program.  In middle school, parents can choose direct instruction or an interdisciplinary approach in which “a ‘village’ of teachers, students, and parents within the larger school community focuses on interactive, project-based, experiential learning through hands-on experiences and field trips.”

Affluent parents won’t lead the charge for suburban charter schools, predicts Ed Sector’s Kris Amundson. “For them, choice is already a reality.”

About Joanne


  1. Crimson Wife says:

    I’m not convinced that the Tigers and the Cosmos are distinct groups. There seems to be a lot of overlap in my social circle. I would say the 3rd group are the jocks- those parents for whom the main point of middle and high schools seem to be providing a venue for athletics. The Tigers and the Koalas either are anti-sports or place a very low priority on them.

  2. Reality check. Here in the real world, informed and empowered suburban parents* know charter schools will harm their school districts, and don’t want them for that reason.

    This is a huge issue in New Jersey’s high-end suburbs. NJ Gov. Christie and education czar Cerf (a veteran of failed Edison Schools who inexplicably is still viewed as employable — but I digress) are big on promoting charters; and charter operators see that the riches are to be found in the ‘burbs, not in the ghettos of Newark and Trenton. So there’s a big push to open charters in the ‘burbs, and the parents are fighting back.

    And without Googling to confirm my memory – Joanne, wasn’t the Mandarin program in PA proposed as a charter, and didn’t the citizenry fight back?

    Similarly, a stone’s throw away in Los Altos Hills, there is an existing charter, and it has ripped the families of the school district apart. The charter is now making a grab for the facilities of an existing school, which may be forced to close. Hostilities are sky-high.

    In my home county, Marin, there was a move to charterize a public school in the rural Lagunitas School District that already offers a Waldorf-based and a Montessori program. It caused intense controversy and divisiveness, and the would-be charterizers dropped the proposal. Here’s an entertaining music video made by anti-charter parents in that brouhaha, urging signers of the charter petition to rescind their signatures:


    School districts that have the resources can create flexible schools. The Lagunitas district’s Waldorf-based and Montessori public programs demonstrate that, as does the urban public arts high school from which my kids graduated, which was founded in 1982. The options provided in high-wealth Palo Alto schools further bear that out. It’s not necessary to take on the divisiveness and unaccountability that charters bring; what’s needed are sufficient resources.

    *I know the pro-“reform” PC police are geared up to “gotcha!” me for referring to suburban parents as informed and empowered. In high-end suburbs, parents are obviously likely to be highly educated and to have ample resources, and yes, those characteristics correlate with being better informed and more empowered overall than struggling low-income families. I’m stating the obvious as it wouldn’t be a sincere “gotcha!,” but there it is.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      “School districts that have the resources can create flexible schools.”

      Sure, they CAN but they typically don’t. Few suburban districts offer any type of choice program or magnet schools. The school boards are typically stacked with members bought and paid for by the teachers’ union and the parent advocate candidates get way outspent by the well-funded union stooges. I’ve seen it happen time and time again, and it is horribly discouraging 🙁

      • Preach it. 🙂

      • I hate generalities and your post is full of them. In my district, the teachers union has been in full support of the various magnet school that our district has created. What we may resist in the district’s attempt to undermine working conditions in order to save a buck or two. However, don’t just ASSume that teachers unions are against innovation, especially when it comes to providing better opportunities for the students we serve.

  3. And I agree with Crimson Wife about the overlap and the jocks. I have characteristics of all those groups, personally. Here in San Francisco, the jocks will be found at Sacred Heart and Archbishop Riordan.

  4. dangermom says:

    My small CA city had a nice range of elementary school choice for quite some time. There was Academics Plus at one school, Open Structure at another, GATE at one, Spanish immersion at a couple of them, and so on. And yep, after-school Mandarin! As a result, charter schools and homeschooling were not all that common, and parents were mostly happy with the system. For the past few years, as the schools have gotten more crowded and budgets have been cut, it has become much harder to get in to the programs. We’ve seen a corresponding rise in charters and homeschooling.

  5. Cranberry says:

    The categories aren’t mutually exclusive. I know Tiger/Cosmopolitan parents and Koala/Cosmopolitan parents. I agree with Crimson Wife that the Jock parents are a group unto themselves. The Jocks are firmly in control of our local pubic school district.

    In the “leafy, suburban” districts, this isn’t a problem. The Tiger parents are bought off by dint of honors/AP placement for THEIR kids, whether or not the kids actually merit such placement, and whether or not other children might also merit such programs. The Koala parents are channeled into fiscally supporting art & music programs, and the Cosmopolitan parents raise money for elementary foreign language programs.

    IF a suburban family isn’t satisfied with a district’s offerings, they can either 1) go private, or 2) move. Both methods work, which is why “one-size-fits all” works in the suburbs. Dissatisfied parents have choices. They aren’t provided at public expense, but the choices are available. Most parents are satisfied with the school’s offerings. There isn’t a critical mass of parents willing to stick their necks out to criticize the district.

    • Genevieve says:

      I wonder if the changing demographics of the suburbs will change this. The largest suburban district near me has wonderful offerings for some students: Grammy winning music program, wonderful drama program, many AP classes, foreign language starting in elementary school.

      However, there is a growing group of students that can’t or won’t take advantage of these opportunities. There has been a growing group of students that live in poverty and/or are learning English. While these students’ are probably better off in this district compared to the urban schools, many children are struggling. The alternative school for the district is growing and growing. At some point I wonder if parents will start demanding something different for their children.

      • From what I have read about what has been happening in our old district (Montgomery County, MD), their prized socioeconomic integration program (which had begun while we lived there, but has expanded since) has changed some of the options, especially at the ES level. (HS still does have lots of honors and APs, with honors prereqs for APs and I think MS still has honors) ES kids used to be grouped by academic level, but I think that’s changed, at least in some schools. When almost all the kids were of similar SES (mostly white and Asian but significant #s of Hispanics and blacks), the grouping was socially/politically acceptable. With the addition of disadvantaged kids (likely ELL and black), their disproportionate presence in the lower groups appears to have resulted in the removal of leveled grouping. Of course, there’s also the full-inclusion issue, which didn’t exist when my kids were there. Given the number of Tiger parents in our end of the county, I’m thinking the same thing about parent pressure to return to leveled grouping and more upper-end options. BTW, I mean SERIOUS Tiger parents – the parents of one of my kids’ friends told him not to come home if he got a B (HS junior, all academics at honors/AP level, never had a B) in AP Spanish. Maybe they didn’t really mean it, but the kid thought so – asked his friends if he could stay with one of them for a few days until he found a job and place to live. Yes, he was Chinese, came here in 3rd grade.

  6. Genevieve says:

    My smaller urban school district (around 30. 000 students) offers choices: Montessori, Traditional, IB and a project based school. One of the traditional schools also offers some of the Core Knowledge curriculum.

    However, there is no transportation and waiting lists start at one for schools with preschool and three for schools that start in Kindergarten. As such, the demographics of these schools don’t mirror the district at large. There is also far more demand for these schools than there is space. Some of this is because it is a way for parents to avoid the neighborhood schools that are high poverty, high ELL, high minority, etc.

    Despite waiting lists, the district doesn’t open up more schools (and we have empty school buildings and over crowded neighborhood schools). I’m not sure charter’s are the answer (I don’t think we have the human capital or philanthropic support), but what is happening isn’t really working. Families with resources that don’t get into these special schools are leaving the school district and even more families don’t even consider locating in the city. The demographics of the school district have changed considerably (especially since desegregation, but again in the last ten-fifteen years).

  7. I don’t entirely disagree because I believe kids should be able to choose their school – which is why I like that Colorado has open enrollment statewide. However, when you expand to private schools you must acknowledge the reservations. I don’t have a big problem with the religious angle – but you can’t endorse vouchers for private schools that don’t have to meet basic public education laws. As long as the school allows regulation and total transparency, and as long as it can’t refuse to provide services to all students, his argument is valid. But if the school refuses state assessments and refuses to provide special education services and refuses to provide transparency and regulation that district schools do, then I fundamentally oppose the use of public funds. I hope Michael does, too. And, Michael, should have mentioned that the private schools must be accountable in all the same ways.

    And, you cannot make Jay P Greene’s argument that our best schools “trail the world.” Because they don’t. If you remove all schools that have poverty rates above 15-20%, then in TIMMS and PISA, the United States schools rank number one in the world. Michael needs to concede and acknowledge these realities. Otherwise the arguments are not credible to people who actually know the facts. And he is, subsequently, just misleading an uninformed US public.

  8. Gregg Roberts says:

    Please check out what Utah is doing! They have launched a legisative funded, state educational agency supported Dual Language Immersion program, and most schools are in the burbs. There will be 78 schools in the program an all but 2 are school district schools, not charters. In fact, there are 25 Mandain Chinese DLI schools in Utah, which is 1/3 of all elementary Mandarin immersion schools in the US. Utah’s goal is to have 100 state supported schools with 30,000 students by 2015, and the ultimate goal is to mainstream DLI. Please see this video for more info: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hTG0YFU8vWA

  9. My school district, San Francisco Unified, also offers an impressive array of language immersion programs, mostly Mandarin and Spanish.

    All the comments here — including from voices that normally disagree with me — bear out what I said. Districts that have the resources can offer an array of choices — the barrier to doing that is the lack of resources.

    Come on, Joanne, admit that that your own district fought off a charter and opened the school they wanted as a public school.

    • Crimson Wife says:

      It’s not a lack of resources but a lack of the political will. Primarily caused by the stranglehold that the teachers’ union has over the school board. The union opposes magnet schools because of fears that the students with the best test scores will all choose them, and under NCLB, the other schools will be punished for not making AYP. There has got to be some way around this objection- maybe by allowing the scores to count for the home school rather than the magnet.

  10. All of this talk is well and good, but in an area like my, we don’t have the population density to have multiple schools at each age level. Perhaps we need to concentrate on fixing public education, as that is available in all areas?

  11. The tiny Lagunitas School District, which I mentioned in a previous post as successfully fighting off a charter assault, has three programs in one small school — Montessori, “Waldorf-inspired” and one called “open” about which I know nothing. That undoubtedly takes a lot of resources, but with those resources they do manage it with very low population density. So where there’s demand and where there are resources, it is being done, and without the charters that parents don’t want no matter how much money the so-called “reform” sector spends telling them that they should want.

  12. Cranberry says:

    A suburban school which doesn’t offer Mandarin Immersion isn’t “failing.” Almost all parents will not pull their children from a safe, orderly, good-enough school for a Mandarin Immersion program. They might choose to switch schools within a district, or to send their children to a Mandarin Immersion charter school in their immediate area, but there isn’t the absolute desperation one witnesses in the families whose children attend the so-called “dropout factories.”

    Most of the categories Petrilli lists aren’t parent groups who will desert their local schools for “choice” schools. It’s much less expensive, and more convenient, to raise money to support a Mandarin Immersion program (etc) within one’s district, than to send a kid across the district, or to go private.

    Likewise, the “cosmopolitan” group kinda falls apart. I know people who pay for regular tutoring in foreign language, and send their children to summer experiences abroad–Chinese, Russian, etc. Again, it’s much less expensive to pay for a tutor and summer camps, than to “go private,” or deal with losing one’s social circle and the transportation issues inherent in sending a child to a magnet school or charter.

    School Year Abroad isn’t limited to particular schools. http://www.sya.org. Much, much better to spend time abroad than to fake it by limited foreign language instruction. So, there’s no need to change schools to be “cosmopolitan,” if that’s your definition of a good education.

    The “Tiger Moms and Dads” are the least likely to desert a functioning suburban system. As long as their kids are at the top of their class ranking system, they would be foolish to change schools. Admission to a top college is the goal. The top few percent in a large, strong suburban district are much stronger candidates for admission than the kids in the middle of a small charter.

    Notwithstanding what I’ve written above, I do think suburban systems could offer strategically placed specialty high schools. The traditional division of Math & Science Vs. Languages Vs. Music/performing arts might be a good model.

    • In places like the school(s) I mentioned above, the potential issue is more likely to be ES, and possibly, MS. By HS, the kids of Tiger parents are likely to be securely on the all-honors/AP track and getting an excellent education. The major problem is the ES, where there is likely to be weak-to-flawed curriculum, ineffective/inefficient instruction and heterogeneous grouping that prevents the kids at the top end from being challenged. That’s where I think lots of parents would like to see a Core Knowledge or classical option, which many would like to see combined with serious foreign language study – continuing through MS. It could be done by the school/district, of course, and even be an option within schools.

      • Cranberry says:

        Curiously, I feel it would be wrong to set up tracked elementary schools. The criteria for G&T entry are simply too easily manipulated at that age. (See the many published reports on the state of New York City’s gifted program, particularly the “tutoring” sessions for preschoolers, which aim to prep them for the supposed intelligence test. Such prep work, from people who have administered the same exams multiple times, would render any exam result invalid.)

        The later the entry point, the more one can rely upon selecting a high-performing student body. Many private schools with kindergarten entrance counsel out kids who entered in kindergarten, but can’t keep up with the academic pace.

        The demand for tracked elementary schools is also blatantly unfair, in that it would concentrate the less academic prepared students.

        What would be possible are schools on the same model as the BASIS schools, which resemble a very successful charter school in our area. Admission is open-enrollment, with lotteries if there are more applicants than spots. It is not an exam school, but students who can’t keep up are not promoted.

        • Crimson Wife says:

          Test prep can only move kids up a few percentage points. It might be enough to get the kid who would otherwise be in the low-to-mid 90’s percentile to squeak by the 98th percentile GATE school cutoff. But it isn’t going to be able to take an average ability child and suddenly make him/her GATE material.

          Are there test prep companies in NYC making a boatload of money touting test prep for toddlers? Absolutely. But the families who are paying for these tutors primarily have kids who are on the high end of cognitive ability to begin with.

          • Cranberry says:

            Normal test prep, sure–for the SAT, for example, in which the knowledge the exam covers is gained over a dozen years of education and experience.

            This isn’t that type of test prep. But copies of this test are obviously floating around. Skylar’s mother, for instance, says she was offered a copy of the WPPSI by a fellow mom. Type a few key search words on Urbanbaby.com, and within 30 seconds you’ll find this post: Have WWPSI-III to sell. Excellent condition. Complete set. E-mail me if you are serious and discreet. No questions asked. Cost is $3,000. (An e-mail address follows.) This past fall, a parent admitted to a psychologist who administers SB-5 tests for Hunter that he’d purchased a copy of the exam right off the publisher’s website. http://nymag.com/news/features/63427/index3.html

            Even if the authorities choose different tests, there’s just too much money floating around New York City to guarantee that all people who have access to the tests will behave ethically. Private school tuition is now reportedly $40,000 for day schools in NYC–and rising.

            Coaching young students from actual exams, or materials based upon such exams, is not equivalent to SAT test prep.

            But the families who are paying for these tutors primarily have kids who are on the high end of cognitive ability to begin with.

            Reversion to the mean. It’s very flattering to believe that the suburbs are Lake Woebegone, where everyone’s above average. It’s very hard to be the average child of super-achievers.

          • Crimson Wife says:

            Only a bright child will be able to memorize and accurately recall the correct answers to an IQ test even if it is provided to them. Ability to memorize information is correlated to “g”. I find it extremely unlikely for a kid with an average IQ to somehow memorize enough of the test to make a 98th percentile GATE cutoff.

  13. If Mom, or Mike Petrilli, thinks that the states will allow rich and middle class parents to set up charter schools as another way of tracking, they’ve been smoking too much weed.

    In fact, I very much doubt that charter schools will ever be allowed to set up mandatory criteria that will leave out blacks and Hispanics. They will be politically pressured not to or, as Caroline points out, the parents who don’t want mandatory Mandarin but also don’t want bleedoff of other Kids Like theirs, will simply forbid it.