Blaming Parents For Inequality in Schools

In education circles, pundits are currently making two arguments simultaneously that don’t sync up.

First, school choice advocates have pointed towards Democratic political candidates who send their own kids to private schools, while publicly opposing charter schools, and accused them of hypocrisy. Elizabeth Warren, for example, sent her son to a private school in Texas.

You can’t have both – private schools for your own kids and public schools for everyone else — conservatives say. The left says, let’s ignore the choices of these political candidates, because these people are parents first, politicians second. It is possible to do the right thing at that moment for your kid, while advocating for better schools for everybody else.

Second, several articles lately have said that parents who use rating systems, like the Great Schools website, to help choose their homes, are… well… let’s just say it… basically racist. Great Schools evaluates schools based on state standardized test scores, number of kids taking AP classes, SAT scores, teacher-student ratios, and some other publicly available data. Then it assigns the school a grade from 1-10. The 10 schools tend to be in more affluent, white neighborhoods. The lower scoring schools tend to be in low income, urban areas.

In the old days, real estate agents used to steer white parents towards white neighborhoods and black parents towards black neighborhoods in a practice known as redlining. I’m not sure if I’ve written about this on the blog, but when we were little, and my parents moved from an apartment in the Bronx to our first home, my dad forced his real estate agent to show us a home in a neighborhood that had been redlined for black families. He bought the house, and we moved into a home next a lovely African-American family. The dad was a hotshot at IBM. But mostly stories like that didn’t happen.

Redlining was vilified, and the practice ended. Well, sort of. Now, parents self-segregate into towns that have people with similar incomes and use websites like Great Schools as a shortcut, when making those decisions. It’s de facto segregation, rather than de jure segregation. Still, not wonderful, but de facto segregation always been tolerated in our society, because of argument #1 above, which states that parents have to do what parents have to do. Also, it’s a matter of freedom, a value that is highly prized by Americans.

We moved to our current town about nine years ago, primarily because we were seeking better schools for our kids. We didn’t need a website to tell us that our town had a good school system, because anybody who lives in Northern New Jersey can tell you exactly which schools get their kids into college and which ones don’t.

Of course, there are limitations to those ranking systems and reputation. We’re in a town with very large schools, so that meant that oddballs like Ian are lost in the shuffle. Our school now ships him off to a smaller public school about 30 minutes away, where he is thriving. I think Jonah might have done better in a smaller school with less stress, too, but he survived.

Schools aren’t the only reason that we moved to this town. We like it well enough that we will probably stay here, after Ian finishes school. But schools were a major factor in our original decision to move to this town.

By moving here, it meant that we’re not in a school that could benefit from me — I’m a big mouth at school board meetings, and I volunteer a lot, too — and that my good test taking kids aren’t boosting test scores for that hypothetical town either. But, like Elizabeth Warren, I had to do what was right for my kids.

Now, I would just like greater consistency in edu-punditry. If we give Democratic politicians a hall pass for choosing private schools for their kids, then we can’t vilify middle class parents from making those same choices. Rather, I think we should look at ways to make schools in poorer neighborhoods more desirable, to offer parents positive reasons — better school facilities, higher quality teachers, unique school offerings — to move to low income, urban areas.

But we’re entering a dark time for schools. It’s clear that no more money is coming. Reforms aren’t working. Reformers are walking away. When that happens, parents who make rational choices for their kids become the bad guys. That’s just not cool.

Apt. 11D Gift Guide 2019 – Steve's History Book Selection

by Steve, blog husband

For Father’s Day, Jonah got me a video game I’ve had my eye on for some time:  Total War – Three Kingdoms. I’ve been a fan of the Total War series for years.  This new game, however, was to be a departure from the rest of the other fightin’ and buildin’ games in the series.  This one was to focus on characters and their relationships with each other. Good friends help each other out. Two characters who hate each other, you can’t get them to cooperate.  How does a motley crew of random personalities turn into a harmonized team?

Which leads me to the only book I recommend this year.  It is the best I have read in a very long time. Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the Chinese classic.  And for good reason. Lots of action, heroes and villains, drama across generations.

Romance takes place at the end of the Han Dynasty.  China is disorganized, warlords run amok. The brute Dong Zhou.  The mighty Lü Bu. The crafty Cao Cao. The loyal Lord Guan. The virtuous Liu Bei.  The brilliant Zhuge Liang. And the victorious Sima Yi.

They all have their weird quirks.  Cao Cao would ask his advisors for ideas and advice, and when one of them suggests something particular insightful he would exclaim “Just what I was thinking!”  That cracked me up every time. Liu Bei’s strict morals drove me nuts; always falling short of greatness because he would not sacrifice his better nature. No Machiavelli he.  I was actually sad for half a day when Lord Guan was captured and executed. Xiahao Dun, shot in the eye, pulls out the arrow and swallows his eyeball. Yikes! I’m still thinking about that.

Is it history?  Sort of. It is somewhat historical, based upon annals written during the era, with a lot of literary license taken by author Luo Guanzhong.  And the end product is so much the better because of Luo’s artistry. Rather than a chronology of who did what to whom, here is a ripping good saga, complete with tales of honor and treachery, not to mention quite a few tips on how to best manage people.  How does one balance differing personalities? What motivates a team? There is a reason why people still read this book 700 years after it was written.

Romance offers the reader a lot to digest (including Xiahou Dun’s eyeball!  Sorry, couldn’t help it). Read the Moss Roberts translation, it flows naturally yet is still direct, plus it includes notes and commentary.  Other translations are stilted, too literal, out-of-date. I will continue to turn to this classic for years to come.

Apt. 11d Gift Guide 2019 – Older Teenager Edition

I love kids. I especially love them when they are past that horrible stage between ages 13-17 years. Those four years are the stinky underbelly of childhood, but I survived! Nevermind them. It’s all about me. And now the much nicer kids gave me some suggestions for gifts. The girl gift suggestions comes from my influencer niece, Erin. The boy gifts suggestions come Jonah.

Erin sez:

Jonah sez:

More coming soon. Including Ian’s video game selections and Steve’s history book selections.

More on Charter Schools

Here’s an excerpt from yesterday’s newsletter (sign up, folks!)…

This week, I’m juggling three or four different articles, which range in quality from really rough to really, really rough. Next week, I’m going to focus on the article that is merely really rough and get it out the door. It’s about high school marching bands, and I’m having a lot of fun with references to Ester Williams musicals and such — references that will be certainly cut by a wise editor down the road, but for now, I’m amusing myself, so don’t judge. 

One topic that I’m not writing about is charter schools. Which is weird, because I’ve been studying charter schools since the mid-1990s. I put myself through my PhD program working at a policy institute at CUNY Grad Center. There, the director (and my dissertation advisor) got some nice sized grants from the Ford Foundation, which she used to employ a small crew of students to travel around the country and find answers.

Looking back on it, we were given an insane amount of responsibility and had some incredible experiences. We traveled in groups of two or three around to the roughest parts of Chicago, Philadelphia, Austin, Boston, and talked to community and education activists. Then we wrote it all up and gave presentations in an modern glass building on the east side of the New York City. If we weren’t so poor and so stressed out about finishing our dissertations, I might have enjoyed it more. 

Anyway, one of the topics that we looked at was charter schools. I talked to everybody about them. Those activists in those rough spots of Philadelphia and Chicago liked them. They also didn’t have very nice things to say about the teachers’ union.

Somewhat simultaneously, I spent two years studying school voucher politics in Ohio and Pennsylvania as part of my dissertation. On one memorable trip, I waddled (I was was eight months pregnant with Ian at the time) around Philadelphia and Harrisburg by myself. And those activists told me that they would happily take vouchers, charter schools, ANYTHING, but their local public schools, which sucked terribly. Their kids didn’t have time to waste in those schools, while reformers spun their wheels. 


In early 2018, Cory Booker started thinking about running for presidency, but he had to deal with some skeletons in the Newark closet first. His career so far in the Senate has been short and uneventful. The lion share of his political experience comes from being the mayor of Newark. What was one of the biggest things he did as mayor? He instituted a pretty ambitious education reform, which included a plan to streamline the application process for charter schools in the city. Parents could much more easily apply for a charter school in the city, including the KIPP and Uncommon Schools.

Those two charter schools have hit it out of the ballpark with getting kids into college and then getting them through it. They do some super incredible stuff, like placing staff on college campuses to help get those very vulnerable first generation kids through college. Those programs cannot be scaled up and only help a handful, but their successes are amazing just the same. And the parents in Newark all know it. That’s why 1/3 of the parents in Newark choose to send their kids to a charter school. 

Now, you would think that this would be something to brag about. A feather in his cap, right? But no. There was a book that came out about five years ago that pointed to problems in Newark’s reform effort. The author said that the community wasn’t involved enough and that outside consultants squandered money. When the book came out, Booker didn’t address the controversy, but when he started thinking about running for office in early 2018, he needed to deal with it.

He brought me down to Newark and told me about it. And then I wrote about it. In our conversations, Booker said pretty clearly that he was agnostic about the forms of school — public or charter — he just wanted schools that worked for kids. Which was basically the same message that activists had told me back in my grad school years. At that time, Booker was mostly concerned about pointing out that Newark reform was a success. We didn’t talk THAT much about charter schools, because they didn’t feel that controversial at that time.

But then, just a few months later, the mood around charter schools changed. Around the same time as the Democratic Primary began — it sure feels like twenty years ago, doesn’t it? — education reporters who spent a year covering teacher strikes heard nothing but bad things about charter schools, and published articles to that effect. Suddenly, charter schools became toxic. Booker was on the defense about them for months in Iowa. Nobody cared whether Newark was a success or not. They only wanted to talk to him about charter schools. 

But then things changed again. 

There was a great article in the NYT by Erica Green and Eliza Shapiro last week about how the large base of support among African Americans for charter schools. You know who is “meh” about charter schools? Suburbanites. You know why? Their schools are decent. I wrote a quick article in The Atlantic about that awhile back. The NYT article put charter school critics on the defense. 

Then there was a lot of chatter about how voters were looking for a more moderate candidate than Warren and Sanders. So, Booker wrote an op-ed in the NYT showing his support for charter schools

Meanwhile, Warren, who had taken a very strong stance against charter schools, is now taking some major hits. Turns out she sent her own kid to a private school and then wasn’t entirely super open about that fact. And just the other day, she gave an interview with the NEA that said that parents should do something about their broken and crumbling schools. Charter school advocates said she was blaming the victim. 

So, in an election that is growing increasingly pointless and depressing, suddenly there’s a small skirmish about charter schools. But I’m writing about marching bands instead. Don’t ask. I can’t explain it. 

SL 679

Busy day here. I’m juggling five different essays/articles right now. I really need to just finish one of them and get it out, instead of tinkering on all of them simultaneously. I have to get some real xmas shopping done, order cards, and usher a group of high school boys with Aspergers around town for the tree lighting.

After of a couple of years of solid anti-charter school activism, there is suddenly a backlash from the charter school advocates. The fact that a majority of African-Americans like charter schools is a real vulnerability. Elizabeth Warren is suddenly on the defense, because charter school advocates showed that she sent her own child to a private school. There’s a lot of chatter on twitter about her recent interview with the NEA.

The outcome of this impeachment thing is predictable and depressing. It’s pretty clear that our tacky president is a buffoon, but the Senate is going to give him a pass. I don’t see anybody watching the hearings, other than geeks like me. Nothing has happened will change anybody’s mind. Nothing that has happened in this full year of the Democratic primary will change anybody’s mind; Biden’s got it. I thought that Mayor Pete had a shot last week, but now I’m recanting.

Here’s a lovely profile about a lawyer in Cleveland who sent away for his birth certificate to learn about his birth parents. Turns out he knew his father.

(Series of pictures taken by Jonah, when we were in an outdoorsy shop in Scotland this summer.)

Apt. 11D Gift Guide 2019 – Food

I usually have the TV on in the background as Steve and the boys get out of the house in the morning. Lately, Dan Buettner, the National Geographic writer, has been talking up his new book, The Blue Zone Kitchen. When he comes on the TV, I usually stop putting away dishes and organizing my daily to-do list, and watch the segment.

Buettner has made an entire career around looking at the five areas of the world where people live the longest — Sardinia, California, Japan, Greece, and Costa Rica. His questions are always the same: What are those people doing right? What can we learn from them? The answers are clear. It’s lifestyle.

People in those areas have a life purpose that doesn’t end when they turn 65. They don’t immediately retire from a job, plop down in front of a tv, and remain there until heart disease and loneliness destroys them. The grandmas take care of grandchildren. The men keep fishing and providing for their families. They walk everywhere. They eat communally. All good stuff.

Now, he’s focusing on the foods that they eat. What are the commonalities? The answer is low meat consumption, lots of beans, vegetables, and fruit, low dairy. It’s interesting because so many of the fad diets put lots of those foods, like beans and squash, on the no-no list. Because we eat a pretty standard Mediterranean diet here, I am a fan of Buettner. In fact, this book is the only cookbook that I’m interested in right now.

We eat a lot of vegetables. At Sunday’s farmer’s market, Steve and I load up on at least four bags of vegetables. It’s fairly random. I grab whatever looks happy that day — leeks, cabbage, lettuce, corn, beets, radishes — and then figure out recipes later. The Sunday before Thanksgiving was the last day of the market until May, so I loaded up on squash, potatoes, carrots, and onions — items that would last in the bottom shelf of the pantry for a couple of months.

Because I work from home, I’m able to experiment with cooking. I probably spend more time in the kitchen than most people these days. If I was working in an office in the city, I might maintain our diet by planning ahead and cooking bigger batches of food every three days. But right now, I do this in my own disorganized fashion starting at 5:00 every day.

I do all this, not because it’s super healthy, but because it tastes good. I like the challenge of turning something humble and even ugly, like a turnip, into art. Because I was raised by the Italian side of the family, I associate food with love; it’s how I show my family how much I love them.

So, let’s talk equipment. What is in heavy rotation in my kitchen these days? What needs regular replacement?

The key to cooking vegetables properly is knowing how to clean them and cut them up. Everything else is simple – you roast them, sauté them, steam them, stir fry them, eat ’em raw. But you can’t get past square one without the prep work. Mostly that takes some practice, but good equipment is also important. So, you need the following items: three or four great cutting boards, an excellent set of knives, a colander, and a sharp peeler.

I like to pile up my cutting boards on the counter, because the wood is a nice accent in my white kitchen.

Another important, but often skipped step to cooking dinner is to transfer the food from the pots on the stove into serving bowls on the table. I know a lot of busy parents skip this step and just serve the food out of the pots on the stove, but that simple transfer of food from pot to bowl is essential. It keeps the food from over cooking. It makes everything look more appetizing. Somehow that two second step turns dinner time into an event.

I’m lucky enough to have a new kitchen with deep drawers where I pile up my various serving platters and bowls. I heavily rely on a set of really basic white bowls from Crate and Barrel, as well as some super colorful bowls from Le Souk. I just picked up an inexpensive set of three nesting bowls from IKEA that I’m using a lot.

We finally got an Instant Pot, but that’s Steve’s baby, so I can’t talk about it much.

Alright, this post is long enough. My running buddy is pinging me to meet up with her.

Apt. 11D Gift Guides 2019: Camping and Travel

We love camping. We have a large shelving unit in the basement filled with equipment, so we can take off for a weekend trip on a moment’s notice.

Here’s a blog post of one of our trips this summer and another post with products that we use and love.

REI is having a big sale right now. I like their men’s base layer crew top, sleeping pads, women’s jacket, and pullover.

At Amazon, check out the headlamp, tent, sleeping bag, lantern flashlight, stove, and a rooftop car carrier for all the crap.

This year, we traveled to North Carolina, England, Scotland, Toronto, and Chicago. Next year, we’ll do more, because travel is something that binds my family together.

Our current suitcases are ten-year old Samsonites, which I purchased at Kohl’s using Kohl Bucks. I’ll probably upgrade next year. I do love Tumi, but they might be a notch too high of a price point for me. Maybe we’ll do a TravelPro.

As I’ve said before, I love packing for travel. This year, I used a universal adaptor, a travel pillow, travel backpack, packing cubes. I’m looking around for the best travel jewelry case, but haven’t decided which one I love the most.