At My Real Job: Education and Entrepreneurship

May2014HeaderAt this month’s Cato Unbound, we’re talking about school choice, markets, and democracy – with none other than the League’s own Conor Williams.

I don’t have a lot to say. I do find it fascinating, though, that each of the four participants endorses “school choice,” and each sees a role for educational entrepreneurs. But then each supplies a slightly (or radically) different meaning for the words.

Karl Popper made it a practice never to argue about words or their definitions: That kind of thing is the groundwork, which we should take care to tidy up before the conversation even begins. After that comes the heavy lifting.

Let’s say, then, that all involved support school choice, after a fashion. The range of choices is, roughly, as follows. Lead essayist Kevin Currie-Knight supports public funding but private provision: Vouchers would be greatly expanded, and presumably many new types of schools would arise. Response essayist Deborah Meier supports small, local, democratically self-governed schools of choice, both publicly administered and publicly funded, in part to serve the communitarian end of teaching democratic values. Conor’s approach is — well, I’ll let him speak for himself, and do the same with Marcus Winters of the Manhattan Institute. Whose approach is best, and why?

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85 thoughts on “At My Real Job: Education and Entrepreneurship

  1. I didn’t read all of this, but I did skim Connor’s piece. I’m going with:

    None of the above.

    Soution: End public education completely.

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      • @saul degraw

        This is not MY problem. I didn’t bring them into the world, I’m not responsible for educating them. Just because 90% of Amercians attend public schools doesn’t make it “good” or “correct” or “right”. And frankly, the quality of public schools is not why I’m against them, although it is a minor factor.

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      • This is such an utterly selfish and short-sighted way of viewing the world that I am not sure how to respond. No man is and island and all that.

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      • @delta-devil

        Saul, Society is nothing but a group of individuals. I AM utterly selfish but not short sighted. I concluded long ago that it was a waste of time and effort to paddle against the tide…now I’m just watching it circle the drain.

        Delta, of course OPK’s can become my problem, ie, when they try to victimize me. I’m not saying that that’s not the case. My point is that those who have kids have the responsibility of raising them-that includes paying for their education. I am NOT my brother’s keeper or his kid’s keeper.

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    • Why do you think this is a good idea?

      90 percent of Americans attend K-12 public school including the majority of people who attend the elite private universities. Our public schools are not as bad as people think they are.

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      • Most, in fact, are quite good. But the really bad ones are atrociously bad. Strangely, the really bad ones all have one thing in common: The students that attend them are crushingly poor, whether rural poor or urban poor.

        It’s almost as if there’s some weird connection between the quality of a school, the quality of the education a child gets, and the outcomes of that education — and the socio-economic status of their parents.

        So far, ‘school choice’ seems a great way to cherry pick out those relative few kids living in crushing poverty whose parents can spare the energy to worry about their kids education, but that doesn’t so much solve the problem as rescue a handful of kids born to the right parents.

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      • I like the use of scare quotes around school choice. Even if you characterization is correct, how is that not an unambiguous good? Right now there are parents who want to better for their kids, but cannot. That sounds like a problem that does need solving. Is there something that we gain by keeping those parents powerless to have a say in where their kids go to school?

        This is the sort of logic that we would not apply in almost any other situation. If you give a dollar to one charity, that is a dollar that you can’t give to all the other charities. Is that a problem? Is there some moral compulsion to only help people when you can help all people?

        If there was a house burning down with ten people inside and three of those people were somewhere easy to get to while the other seven were trapped on a higher floor, would you demand that those three people stay put until you can figure out a way to rescue them all?

        If a boat sank with a hundred people on it and a rescue boat came along and started plucking people out of the water, would you ask that they stop rescuing people until they could devise a plan to rescue all hundred?

        If you want to argue that vouchers and charter schools won’t solve all of our education problems, I’m a hundred percent in agreement. So what? One solution to a specific set of problems doesn’t have to be the solution to every problem.

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      • They weren’t scare quotes, they were there because the term “school choice” is a particular turn of phrase, one that means different things to different audiences and should be highlighted.

        My sole problem with school choice is that, when it comes to “failing schools” (note quotes), at best it rescues a relative handful of students yet is often sold as a panacea for the rest. (And the students it rescues are, by and large, the ones rescuing themselves already).

        It general terms, it seems to offer results little better (in either outcomes or costs) than the average public school, and a number of them seem to be outright frauds.

        Some are successful, some fail, some offer basically the same results (or not quite as good) as a magnet school — which many of them are, whatever they call themselves. And again — some are outright frauds, and I find the repeated lack of oversight with public funds on that count quite disturbing.

        Education is weird. For all the crap teachers take, it seems the people who really buy in (and with tons of public money) into education snake-oil are administrators and elected officials. I’ve seen so much money wasted on crappy consultants peddling obvious BS, generally over the objections of educators (derided as dinosaurs for their objections), that I’ve become entirely cynical the whole charter and voucher movement.

        Especially when it’s cast as basically the holy grail of education, that which will save us from failing schools — including all the schools that aren’t failing.

        I mean that’s what really gets me. Us public education is failing? What, in all 50 independent states (the big kurfluffle now is over Common Core, the state-pushed initiative that’ll actually unify education standards among many states. For once). For each of the hundreds or thousands of mostly independent school districts under them?

        And this new theory or concept is going to fix it all? This one thing? Can you blame me for defaulting to “snake oil”?

        Because it’s like someone claiming their miracle drug will prevent all ailments. ALL of them. From AIDS to arthritis to rabbit fever. Sure, it’s possible — some practically magical alien nano-tech or something. But “what ails me” might be one of a million independent thing, and 99% of me is operating just fine, so why would I think your very expensive, for-profit, miracle elixir is legit?

        Case by case, school by school — a given charter or private school or particular educational concept or type of staffing or whatever MIGHT improve a school. It might do nothing. It might make it worse.

        But, heck, take HISD (Houston Independent School District). One district, schools ranging from excellent to hell-holes. I don’t think there’s a single, magic bullet for HISD. Heck, half their schools don’t need one. And the ones that do? What makes you think they all need the same thing?

        This debate always sums up the entirety of K-12 public education in the US as being one thing (generally failing), done one way. It’s NOT. If you can’t even accurately describe the reality you’re trying to fix (in which most schools do just fine, and wherein each district is quite independent and each state is even more so from the others and in which national standards are barely existent, and national control non-existent) — how can I trust your solutions?

        So I can buy ‘school choice’ as a solution to THAT district’s problem with THAT school. Or charter schools for this OTHER district and other school. Because, by and large, they’re pretty freakin independent.

        But as a cure-all? No. Snake-oil. There’s a ton of money in public education, so obviously it’s gonna attract sharks. I’m just surprised at how little skepticism there is from people that know better. (Like, for instance, people whose children attend perfectly excellent public schools who lament the failing US education standards, apparently every school BUT theirs is failing…)

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      • that doesn’t so much solve the problem as rescue a handful of kids born to the right parents
        &
        at best it rescues a relative handful of students yet is often sold as a panacea for the rest

        This is a key point. I mean, honestly how much can a school hope to do for any given kid if the kid has A) parents that don’t care, & B) lost all self-confidence in their ability to succeed at school. A kid with A or B, but not both, can be saved, since someone is likely willing to do the work needed to succeed. But if it is A & B, I honestly don’t know how anyone expects the public school system to do anything substantial.

        You can’t save someone who doesn’t want to be saved. I don’t know how we can expect institutions to change that.

        I guess we could make more of an effort to pull the A & B kids out of their bad homes before it’s too late, but is that really a path we want to travel?

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  2. How does one prevent vouchers from becoming like the student loan debacle for higher education? Private and public colleges have jacked up tuition at least in part because of the free money they get from student loans. They have used this money on gifts for themselves. Unless governments engage in price negotiation, something that is unlikely, private schools are going to do the same with vouchers.

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    • This is a good point, and one of the reasons I moved away from my Free Vouchers support several years ago. I don’t think that price negotiation is actually all that unlikely, though. It would need to be insisted upon.

      In any event, I have become more solidly in favor of charters as the middle ground. (Relatively freely granted charters, though, but with specific and ironclad requirements involving admissions, expulsions, etc.)

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    • The situations are different. First, the monetary value of a college education can vary widely based on the prestige of the college, so prestigious colleges can jack up the price and still have a good value proposition. This generally isn’t the case with primary and secondary schools, except at the very high end. Primary and secondary schools also won’t get students from all over the country bidding up the price, because children almost always go to schools their parents’ homes.

      Furthermore, the open-ended nature of student loans is a big part of the problem. You can borrow whatever it takes. With vouchers, many parents simply won’t pay anything out of pocket, so schools can either charge what the vouchers cover or leave that money on the table. Somebody’s going to pick up that money.

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      • These are factors that might limit the tendency of vouchers to end up like the student loan debacle but it won’t get rid of the possibiltiy entirely. If the population of a given area is large enough like one of our major metropolitan areas than the elite and even not so elite private schools can still engage in a bit of price jacking. Even in smaller areas, price jacking is possible because the few private schools might be the only game in town and they know it and will act accordingly. If your in a Bible belt area but want a secular education for kid and there is only one completely secular school in the area than that secular school has it made if there is enough demand for it when it comes to tuition.

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      • Today, a private school costs X/year, paid out of pocket. Tomorrow, we introduce vouchers worth Y. The school can immediately raise its price to X+Y without becoming any less affordable to current parents or any more affordable to the indigent.

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      • The “elite schools can charge more” angle would have more resonance if tuition rates were significantly lower at non-elite schools. You still have an ongoing battle for the most preferable students which involves stretching budgets for Nice Things (among other things).

        You are right that these vouchers wouldn’t be open-ended. That brings another threat, though: a clarified and more delineated economic stratification. Now, one could argue (as I would) that it would actually be hard for it to be worse than the current system, which bundles education with housing, but it could. Or, alternately (and this is more my fear), it would defeat the purpose for a whole lot of supporters. You may not care about this, or see it this way, but they would. So I’d argue that it is something that would have to be contended with.

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      • Mike, pretty much explains how the non-open ended vouchers wouldn’t necessarily make private schools more affordable than they are now for most people. You simply raise the annual tuition to be X plus the voucher.

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      • The only counter I have to Mike’s point is that other private schools would open to fill the gap running on smaller budgets. And some, for whom exclusivity is not a prime selling point, wouldn’t actually raise their prices by Y. I think there is some truth to both of these, but it would still represent some fundamental problems, not the least of which is a huge subsidy to either posh private schools or parents already sending their kids to posh private schools.

        Means-testing is a way around this, though. Or selected vouchers (you’re eligible for vouchers under certain circumstances, unlikely to align with the sorts of students PPS’s are likely to pursue. You’d have to think through all of the unforeseen consequences on that, though.

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      • Will, programs in the United States and elsewhere have demonstrated that the most durable forms of public welfare are the ones accessible to everybody. If you exclude middle and upper income people from a program than that program tends to be unpopular and poorly funded. I don’t think that means tested vouchers would receive adequate funding.

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    • You are right that an increase in demand, given a fixed supply, will tend to put upward pressure on prices. There is, however, no reason why the supply needs to remain fixed. It’s much easier to open a grade school or even a high school than it is to open a college.

      Also, because of the importance of college rankings and reputations and legacies, the demand for existing colleges will always be higher than the demand for new colleges. There is no reason to believe that this would be the case for grade schools and high schools. In many places, you’d probably have a much higher demand for the new schools.

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      • I still maintain that one reason why we are having our college debacle is that the number of students eligible for the elite schools has risen since the end of of World War II but the number of elite, desirable schools have remanined basically constant. If your an elite college or university in 2014 than you probably were also one in 1945.

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      • the number of elite, desirable schools have remanined basically constant.

        As importantly, the number of slots hasn’t increased accordingly. Even a Harvard West and a Harvard South would help. A SuperHarvard in Massachusetts would help even more, of course.

        While this has no doubt had an effect on the costs of college, I am skeptical that it has played as big a role as some suggest. Even third-tier schools far out of the orbits of these schools have had skyrocketing costs.

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      • A few years ago, Harvard’s President said in an interview that they enough applications to fill five or seven Harvards a year. The only reason Harvard and other eltie schools remain is to protect the brand name and elite status. Its an artificial scarcity of goods.

        Kolohe, true but they aren’t enough. If fewer elite students can get into elite schools than they will turn to non-elite schools kicking those students down the latter, etc.

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      • Rice and Stanford were both already elite colleges in 1945, and neither has significantly expanded to my knowledge. We’re still dealing with a very limited number of slots that hasn’t really kept up with population growth. Pointing to Lee’s comment about limited number of slots for more students that would have been eligible a long time ago.

        Public universities have done a better job of growing. There was an interesting article a while back on the University of Texas’s decision to become either a very large school with increased inclusivity or a somewhat more modest size university with a higher level exclusivity. They chose the former course, but even UT can only become so big and there are limits to the extent that they can slap the “UT” label on San Antonio Tech and have it have the same effect. But private schools haven’t even done that, for the most part.

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      • “The only reason Harvard and other eltie schools remain is to protect the brand name and elite status. Its an artificial scarcity of goods.”

        I’m not quite following this — or if I am, I’m not sure about its relevance. Isn’t every brand of everything everywhere trying to protect its brand and perceived status? Are you arguing that Harvard (and other similar schools) should somehow be the single thing that shouldn’t be allowed to give a s**t what people think of it?

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      • Tod, Harvard and other eltie schools can do whatever they want. That doesn’t mean others can’t point out the problematic naturte of their actions and how its hurting everybody else.

        Increasing the number of eltie schools or slots at eltie schools would probably not effect tuition that much at eltie schools. However, with fewer eltie students being forced to non-elite schools, non-elite schools might remain more affordable for students from less wealthy backgrounds.

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      • I don’t see how you can franchise Harvard (or Stanford or Rice or Oberlin or Harvey Mudd) without somewhat reducing quality.

        And, of course, that assumes that any and all elite private schools are somehow ineffably better than elite public schools – because even in the largest public university systems, there are ‘flagship’ schools and then all the rest, and everyone knows this.

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      • Reducing quality compared to what? A Harvard twice the size that it is now would not be the same as the Harvard that is now. But you wouldn’t be reducing quality compared to what Harvard has historically been because you’re dealing with a much larger pool of qualified professors, students, etc.

        Harvard West still wouldn’t be Harvard, of course. But it would be a closer second tier than currently exists. It would expand the pool of Really Great Schools… to the point that kids who were eligible for RGS’s 50 years ago would still be eligible today.

        SuperHarvard would be better still, as far as that goes, but HWU is a middle ground.

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      • “But you wouldn’t be reducing quality compared to what Harvard has historically been because you’re dealing with a much larger pool of qualified professors, students, etc.”

        But that’s the rub, no? Is Harvard elite because they have access to some super duper teaching formula? Or is Harvard elite because they’ve been that way for a long time and the elite gravitate towards the reputation – which of course, sustains that reputation.

        Does anyone really think the folks that are near-misses in the Harvard selection game are actually ill-served by the current educational system? Or that it is even a fraction of a percentage point on the roots of inequality in America and the world today?

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      • Does anyone really think the folks that are near-misses in the Harvard selection game are actually ill-served by the current educational system? Or that it is even a fraction of a percentage point on the roots of inequality in America and the world today?

        I’d argue that these students might be better served by attending Harvard South than dispersing among Rice, Tulane, Duke, etc. I think they would likely see it that way, because it may not be Harvard-Harvard, but it would bear the Harvard name and employers would know, instantly, what sort of caliber of students they are dealing with. Some who turn their nose up at other great schools might be less inclined to do so with the Harvard name.

        This would all go to pot if the name extended too wildly. But I’m talking about, at most, the sorts of people that Lee cites as being Harvard-ready but that there simply isn’t room for.

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      • “employers would know, instantly, what sort of caliber of students they are dealing with. ”

        You are giving employers far too little credit. One, for thinking that most of them would only hire a Harvard Alum and not one at a regional so-called Public Ivy, and for two, thinking that they wouldn’t being able to see the asterisk on a non-Cambridge Harvard diploma.

        On the other hand this has been a thing for a while now – take a good chunk of your undergraduate curricula at less prestigious, but also a lot cheaper, institution, then transfer to the flagship elite school to finish up and get the maximally marketable credential. *That* would be transparent to most employers.

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      • Oh, they’d see the asterisk. But… names matter. Affiliations matter. Harvard South would not only be a better credential than Rice University, if done right it would be a better school. You might be surprised how many people outside of their respective regions realize just how competitive Rice and Harvey Mudd are. In the former case, a lot of people think it’s “like Tulane and SMU.” Wouldn’t be an issue for Harvard South. But that’s secondary to the main thing that it would house a greater concentration of talent that is current dispersed to more places (which is also the thing that makes me a bit uncomfortable about it, frankly – but then I think we might be better off if Harvard didn’t exist).

        All contingent, of course, on it being done really well.

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      • When I was a kid, Vanderbilt used to have “Harvard of the South” t-shirts. If I understand correctly, this nickname came about because the initial endowment was granted with the explicit purpose of creating a Harvard of the South. Southerners who want to be President or on the Supreme Court or captains of industry or whatever still go to Harvard, Yale, or Princeton, though.

        Rice only has like 6k students, and isn’t a strong research university with a bunch of quality graduate programs like Harvard. Great undergraduate school, though.

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      • Rice is actually a Carnegie VHR school, one of a hundred or so in the country. Not Harvard, obviously, but still pretty impressive for such a small school. Bet they could get more and better research grants if they were Harvard South!

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  3. I only read Conor’s, though I thought his had some really great points about simplifying and streamlining the process to increase participation of parents with less education or time to go through the applications wringer. I’ll read and comment more as time permits.

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  4. I’m a little over the public/private debate, which I think is one we have because it feels so comfortable. The inherent flaws in each don’t disappear when expanded or contracted. Any system that has to cater to kids of all abilities, incomes and family support are going to fall behind those that get to cherry pick; groups of people that want their kids to be part of separate “elite”will find ways to circumvent any clever legislative trick to make sure they they are. I kind of wish we’d stop framing every freaking conversation about education this way.

    Here’s something I never hear anyone talk about, ever (and now, after having one kid about to graduate from HS I wonder why):

    Why not change the system so that what and where you learn is based on ability rather than age? The system we have now seems designed to bore and hold back our brightest students while not actually educating the ones that most struggle.

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      • “First question: How is ability determined?”

        What someone is able to demonstrate they know, and which skills they are able to demonstrate they are competent in?

        I mean, it seems like we pretty much do this already with grades. It’s just that we consider the grade (in both senses of theta word: score and age group) as the end all be all. Students that can learn quickly are asked to hang around doing busy work, kids that struggle are pushed up and through the chain when they clearly haven’t mastered what we hoped they would.

        I mean, in theory you advance kids a grade or you hold them back, but this almost never happens. You’re in 6th grade? You read Diary of a Wimpy Kid and learn basic multiplication.* You’re reading and math levels are way past Diary and multiplication tables — or you really aren’t ready for them yet? Tough tithes. You’re in 6th grade, and that’s what 6th graders do.

        *(or whatever).

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      • When I was in elementary school, they had us read these things called SRAs. Couldn’t even begin to tell you what SRA stands for, but basically it was reading materials that were color coded. There were a variety of each, and when you were able to self-test on three from any color you were given access to the next level/color. When we moved to another part of LA mid-elementary school, I ended up in a non-SRA class, where we all read the same thing.

        Here’s what I remember about that experience: I was very engaged with SRA, because my reading skills were pretty advanced beyond most of my peers. My interaction with teachers dying the reading/testing time was pretty much nil. because they were working with the kids that were having a harder time advancing through the colors. When we switched school, my grades dropped considerably, because I was pretty bored, to the point where I stopped paying attention in class.

        I’m not sure why such a thing couldn’t work in a greatly expanded way – -especially in this age of technology, when you could have an SRA test taken by computer that your teacher didn’t have to take the time to score.

        I agree that correct assessment becomes very important if you’re kicking a kid up a grade to be locked in with older kids. But if you’re simply teaching a kid something slightly more advanced in amore fluid fashion (like we did with SRAs), I don’t know that it’s that damaging if you move them up too quickly. The kid can self-correct.

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      • I’m pushing back (and not all that strongly, really) because there are some real practical impediments. You are also going to have parents trying to game the system, either by pressuring teachers/schools or attempting to individually tutor their child to the assessments.

        There is also a lot more to education than reading, writing, and ‘rithmetic. Social/emotional education — which gets increasingly short shrift because of the extra emphasis on “measurables” — is going to track more closely with development than academic/cognitive skills (though even those are typically going to track with development more often than not).

        You also risk overtaxing teachers.

        I agree that one-size-fits-none is a problem and that more individualization is better than the status quo. But there are limits to how effective it is.

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      • There is also a shared experience in education that is value. My school benchmarks students in the early grades and they pull IRB (independent reading books) from different bins based on their level. However, the assessment is done by the teacher and needs to be because it is about comprehension as well as decoding. Shared reading experiences are typically done via read-a-louds. In older grades, those shared reading experiences are still desirable but are going to take place with independent reading (e.g., every 6th grader reads “Diary of a Wimpy Kid” or whatever). It is not just about reading the words on the page, but participating in the discussion and follow-up activities. Those kids still have IRBs which may or may not be leveled. But 24 kids doing 24 different things is not without its own shortcomings.

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      • When I was in elementary school, they had us read these things called SRAs.

        I remember those. “I’m on the dark greens!” For us, they were just things you did when your regular work was done, like being free to read a book.

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    • Tod,
      Most schools do this to some degree or another.
      I know someone who was in AP Physics while still failing Algebra 1
      (yes, he was actually still acing physics).

      A lot of schools have limited tracking, and will let kids proceed on to harder things if they’re ready for them.

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    • Carries a lot of the same issues with it as tracking. It doesn’t have the “can’t jump tracks” problem, but exacerbates the problem of “Is 18 and in the equivalent of the 9th grade.”

      There are also maturity issues in K-6 or so

      I tend to favor tracking, myself, although with better track-hopping mechanisms. I kind of got screwed by our school’s tracking program, and almost got screwed by a lot more. I find myself sympathetic to the notion regardless.

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      • I think we could do a lot more to understand who doesn’t need a teacher, and focus the teaching effort on the kids who do — or otherwise focus on the areas a person needs.

        I can do grammar and vocabulary in my sleep — I didn’t need a teacher to teach me any of it, just a few solid books to read.

        Communicating coherently? I’m still pretty weak on that — but the teacher didn’t focus on that much in my English classes.

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      • I think I follow what you’re saying, but I still see “in the equivalent of the 9th grade” a problem. Namely, you need to get to English Level VI in order to graduate, as well as Math VII… which some kids will burst through by the time they’re sixteen, but others aren’t getting past English Level III.

        This is a problem in any system, including the current one. But your system makes this problem more evident, which is itself a (political) problem.

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  5. A few observations:

    1) since the Columbine shootings, our public schools have become fortresses keeping the public out. To volunteer in a school now, you have may well have to go through criminal background checks. This separation between the community in the school — all in the name of protecting the children in the school — is not a healthy thing to my mind.

    2) In the interests of keeping property taxes low, school districts and consolidation merits consideration. All around my state (mostly rural small towns), as districts were formed, the trend was to keep k-5 or k-8 in individual towns and centralize the middle and/or high school. The result is that the town with the high school remained a small service center, but the other communities pretty much lost their villages; so I’d make the analogy that school consolidation is akin to a big box store moving in. I don’t suggest it’s good or bad, so much as it is, and merits consideration.

    3) Private schools (and we have two in our pubic school district, my husband used to work at one) further erode the engagement of community in the school. Why invest in the public school when your kids are not part of that community?

    So it really becomes a question of community and how we want to define it. Are your physical neighbors and fellow property-tax payers your community? Your church? Your school? Because when it comes to how we educate children, I think that this matters.

    I also want to note that compared to the educational failures in this nation, we spend almost no time at all celebrating our educational successes. We send a lot of competent, well-educated young adults out into the world, and I don’t think our children hear this enough; they hear about our failing schools, and then they go to school. I wonder why we should expect them to succeed when we constantly tell them how awful their schools are.

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    • #1 is a really good point.

      #2 seems to mostly be a rural issue, or maybe a regional one. I favor very large high schools over smaller schools and think that bigger districts are better than smaller ones, generally (in urban/suburban zones), but the preference I see seems to be towards siphoning off and areas trying to break free of districts, rather than district consolidations. High school sizes are trickier, because then sports and programs become involved (the larger the schools, the more programs). In any event, economies of scale don’t seem to actually work for school districts. Most of the debates I’ve seen tend to focus more on other issues. Anti-consolidation folks wanting more local control and often to keep their schools separated from… other schools. Pro-consolidation folks looking at tax-bases, programs offered, etc.

      #3 I saw this at work when I was substitute teaching. A local big-wig donated a million dollars to St. Matthews. I found myself wondering how much more that money could do for the school district, for kids whose parents can’t afford the private school.

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      • My experience with larger schools is that they forced kids to concentrate on a small subset of extracurriculars. My tiny high school had everyone who wanted to do something given a chance with as many things as they wanted to do (a lot of my AP Calculus peers were on the football team. And Quiz Bowl team too).

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      • High school sizes are trickier, because then sports and programs become involved (the larger the schools, the more programs).

        Emphasis mine. In many cases, the larger the school the more elite the programs become. A large high school with a shot at a state title is much more selective about who makes the football team and who gets cut. Same for band, and drama. It’s nice that a big school can have a French Club, and more sports; not so much that kids who might be in band in a mid-sized school are crowded out at the big school.

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    • “since the Columbine shootings, our public schools in white bread suburbia have become fortresses keeping the public out. ” perhaps?

      My understanding that it has been this way in “The Wire’ world since the mid 80s.

      (also, criminal background checks have been required for any volunteer work that involved kids at least back to the early 90s, as I saw personally when I was working with my college campus’s Student YMCA group)

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      • I don’t think that is quite true.

        I went to high school from 1994-1998. My high school and middle schools were connected by a hallway via the cafeterias. When I was a freshman in college, I was able to park and walk through out the middle school and visit old teachers without anyone making a fuss or asking me to sign in somewhere.

        Sometime after Columbine, they developed all sorts of sign in procedures and the front doors might be locked and now non-students need to be buzzed in. We had student IDs but they were really only library cards when I went. I think they came to serve a more severe function.

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      • that’s a good question (white suburbia), and I don’t know — I live in a rural area, and am mostly suggesting this because of what I’ve seen here, seen in Metro Boston area, and read.

        Most particularly, in Brookline, we had one of the most diverse school populations in the country (Vikram’s kids went to the same system,) but probably one of the most highly-educated parent bodies, too.

        I have only what I’ve read of inner city schools in poor neighborhoods. And there, I simply do not believe schools alone can solve the problems of disadvantage those children face. I believe in integrated communities where people take care of each other. Yesterday, I spent most of the day working at the local food pantry, something that takes a good deal of my time, and I’d posit that poor children, even in excellent schools, face struggles that make it difficult for them to have inquiring minds, the one pre-requisite education requires.

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    • “1) since the Columbine shootings, our public schools have become fortresses keeping the public out. To volunteer in a school now, you have may well have to go through criminal background checks. This separation between the community in the school — all in the name of protecting the children in the school — is not a healthy thing to my mind.”

      FWIW, this is not the case where I live. People can (and do) volunteer pretty regularly.

      Until pretty recently, in fact, at my own kids’ magnate school each parent had to commit to some amount of volunteer hours during the year. The school board did scrap this a couple of years ago, but it wasn’t for school lock-down reasons. It was because it was determined that requiring that parents volunteer put lower income students at a disadvantage for qualifying for the program.

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      • You have to get fingerprinted and have a TB test and a background check at PUSD, which basically consists of making sure you’re not convicted of sexual predation.

        It’s not terribly time intensive, but it does provide a barrier to volunteerism.

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    • 3) Private schools (and we have two in our pubic school district, my husband used to work at one) further erode the engagement of community in the school. Why invest in the public school when your kids are not part of that community?

      This seems like one of those assertions that flow from backward rationalization. Why is engagement with a public school an obvious good, while engagement with a private school is not. People who go to, or send their kids to, private schools are still part of the community.

      Also, is there any empirical proof that this is the case? I did a quick search for studies and came up mostly empty. I did find a study that found that graduates of Catholic schools are statistically more likely to vote as adults (http://www.hks.harvard.edu/m-rcbg/youngfaculty/papers/catholic0303_Thomas_Dee.pdf). My guess would be that there are any number of factors that influence civic participation (and any number of ways to measure civic participation) and that the effects of private schools (either going to them or sending your kids to them) is ambiguous at best.

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      • jr,
        you aren’t familiar with a lot of ghettoized communities, are you?
        Kids get sent to Chinese School, to Jewish School… not all communities are going to be very broad. If your yeshiva is fighting with the one down the road, your community is very, very small.

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  6. I am still weary of vouchers and privatization as solutions.

    1. 90 percent of American students attend public school for some or most of their K-12 education from what I hear. The privatization calls are like Damons and radical, impractical, ideological, and cruel. This includes many people who attend top private colleges and universities. 60 percent of my alma mater attended public school despite perceptions in the popular imagination as being filled with students at Day and Boarding schools.

    2. No one seems to focus on the fact that private schools succeed for the same reason top private universities are elite. They can select their own students largely and weed out anyone who needs extra aid or looks like a disruption. Public schools take as is as they should. So I wonder if voucers and school choice would just create more discrepancies and public schools will simply be filled with the students that private schools do not want from a very early age on, etc.

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    • No one seems to focus on the fact that private schools succeed for the same reason top private universities are elite. They can select their own students largely and weed out anyone who needs extra aid or looks like a disruption.

      This. Also. You surrender your rights to due process at the door.

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    • Being able to weed out disruptions is a valuable tool for any school, public or private. Some public systems have good systems for this, too. It would be nice if it weren’t necessary, but it is. Not all private schools make their grade by weeding out the bad kids. I hear a lot about how kids at private schools would do just as well if they attended the local public school. I only see those words tested when the public school is a good one.

      My kids attended public school, but I had the means to be sure they went to a good one. When we lived in Louisiana, we planned on Catholic school.

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      • There’s no earthly reason we can’t roll out ways to control problem children.
        Yes, it may be a combination of training and good teaching, but there are approaches that seem to work where they’ve been tried.

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      • Maybe. If sticking them in a Bunny Colvin classroom works, then I’m all for it. Most of what I hear is that they’re waiting to leave, though. I want to save every blessed child, but the first priority is to save your own.

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      • There are public schools and there are public schools. I went to a suburban public school system in an upper-middle class suburb. The kids in my town would do just as well at any private school and private school kids would thrive in my public school. But the public school system needs to still be able to handle people who might be late bloomers academically in ways that private schools did not.

        I wasn’t a bully or disruptive. I just did really well when I cared about a subject and not so well to average when I did not care about a subject. Private school can weed out the students like me as far as I can tell and just produce the Woebegone effect of having all children be above average.

        That is all I meant. It is easy to be a top-tier school if you are only admitting the super precocious from Day One. Let’s try Dalton or Horace Mann with the partially precocious.

        From what I hear, peers in my generation (upper-middle class with college educations and higher) are choosing to stay in the city when they have kids instead of moving to the burbs. These people are also choosing to enroll their kids in the public school system (especially the notoriously chaotic NYC system) instead of private school or moving to suburban Westchester. Anecdotally I’ve seen people rave about the experiences their kids have in NYC public schools but I still wonder about what will happen for middle and high school.

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      • And there are private schools and there are private schools. I’d wager not many would actually want to kick you out except the elite ones where public and private don’t hold much difference. That’s not really the object of my concern. Neither was it a concern where my kids were educated, which is why we felt comfortable sending them to public school. Where I was raised, though, it’s still a concern. It’s also still a concern in places I might have wanted to live, but didn’t partially because of schools.

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  7. There is another dimension to schooling which makes it… well, tricky.

    This is the fact that school is doing more than just providing an education. It also provides the fellow humans which your child socializes with. It provides the peers so important to their development. This is critical in various ways.

    First, parents are really, really worried about who their kids socialize with, and the research shows the concern is well grounded. (See JR Harris)

    Second, the peers determine the bar that the class teaches to. Parents of smarter kids are very afraid to allow their child to languish with less intelligent or behaviorally troubled kids. On the other hand parents of troubled kids may prefer to have better socialized and smarter peers for their child.

    Third, better teachers and administrators would probably prefer to be with the driven kids, thus further complicating matters with selection biases.

    In the world we have now, parents who are both concerned about their kids and financially able, move to more expensive neighborhoods which are made up primarily of fellow parents thinking much like they do. Complicating the feedback loop is the fact that the kids of succesful parents with longer time horizons are more likely to themselves be prone to success and longer time horizons. This leads to snowballing effects of fantastic schools and terrible schools often separated by just a few miles. Even assuming they had the same budgets (they often don’t) they are fundamentally different.

    And I am not even touching how race and class perceptions could impact this.

    Food for thought…. We need to find ways to save the kids abandoned by the vivacious feedback loop WITHOUT causing harm to the kids getting good education with more desirable peer groups. Simply stating vouchers or choice doesn’t solve this situation. It is more complicated than that.

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    • I agree with just about everything you’ve just said. I’m trying to think of something meaningful to add, but I’ll just make do with a +1 for now.

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      • Thanks, one follow up comment is that this implies there is a VALUE to a good student. Parents of good and not so good students want their kids surrounded by good peers. This is creating really weird and unintended effects.

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      • Roger,
        hmm… a market for good students! That would create some pretty good market forces to get people researching how to make good students out of the lousy ones.
        (There’s a problem of critical mass, still, but that’s sorta fixable, I hope?)

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      • Roger,
        Ideally, it leads to targeted programs to create “good students” (at first defined as “not behavioral problems” and then scaling up to “better learners — and teachers”).

        Not that it would work in America. Our population is too fragmented, and the “good students” have too many avenues to avoid the bad students currently.

        Still, I’d love to see it implemented in a couple of big cities.

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    • I continue to think that there are ways that we can eliminate schooling, and instead use other forms of training to provide folks with a more equal footing.

      And that some classes are much more conducive to “learn it yourself” than others.

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      • Not sure if equal is the appropriate word. I would argue that we need to provide optimum educations for all.

        Oddly, I am not sure if this is equal. It might mean more resources go to troubled kids, or more to those who capitalize most upon it.

        This is a tangent, but I would argue that my neighbors ability to get an education ten times better than my kids would still be better in utilitarian terms than one where his kid got an equal one. I think the positive externalities within an open market economy would lead me to assume equality is oddly not the optimal consequential outcome.

        This idea would of course cause a progressives head to explode. It is a politically incorrect thought to say the least.

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      • Roger,
        Well, I certainly like the idea of optimal schooling. One might even suspect that there are training camps devoted to such things (in other countries, of course. experimenting on kids in America is likely to lead to legal problems).

        Programs aimed at increasing intelligence and creativity are likely to trouble many liberals [human nature’s not nice and friendly, and the tools we have for motivation involve our baser instincts].

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    • Parents of smarter kids are very afraid to allow their child to languish with less intelligent or behaviorally troubled kids. On the other hand parents of troubled kids may prefer to have better socialized and smarter peers for their child.

      I’ll just note that this is a failure on the part of a lot of parents of smarter kids, given the right teacher*. Less intelligent or behaviourally troubled kids are an opportunity for leadership, for learning through teaching, and of course there’s also the fact that learning to tolerate and compensate for people that don’t think like you is kinda an important life skill.

      * this is very important, though.

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      • Yeah I strongly agree there is an opportunity here as well as a threat.

        Remember though, it is not a given that the smart kid is the one with prestige. I guess it is nice to imagine our child will be above being socialized by their peers, but it is not a risk I recommend we take lightly. There really are neighborhoods with gangs, violence, anti-learning environments, and a culture where crime is routine.

        These neighborhoods really do need an influx of “good kids” to change the culture. But as a parent would you offer up your kid knowing the risk? Many parents spend hundreds of thousands of dollars answering no to this question.

        It is a perverse system. People buy access to their child having good peers. Those who can’t afford to buy good peers take whatever is left over.

        If charters or vouchers are to be part of the solution, they will need to address this issue. Parents will logically and compassionately use “choice” to actively avoid letting their kid be around certain types of kids. That is a major part of what they are choosing.

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      • And the parents who care will be a lot more likely to figure something out for their kids. The kids who have parents who don’t care (or don’t know how to care about this particular topic, anyway) will have to rely on luck.

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