Rich Schools

Kitchen Table Math has a long excerpt of an Elmore article on high performing schools. Elmore says that many high performing schools aren't all that great. They are in wealthy districts where the parents supplement their kids' mediocre education with a lot of tutoring. Elmore said that a select group of schools in poorer districts actually have better practices.

Amy P sent that link my way, and these topics are often discussed by other moms that I know. I am not all that surprised and alarmed.

First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids teaching them random things. If Jonah's doing his homework, I will be there in the room using the homework as a jumping board for my own lesson. If he does sloppy work, I make him redo it. I reteach the math lessons. We'll go up to the computer to look up a country in Africa. No school does this.

Secondly, the parents in the rich schools aren't all that upset. They can afford the tutors. The reputation of the school is enough to get their kids into Dartmouth. And that's all they care about.

Third, the schools, by whatever method, are getting the kids into college. My high school (ranked top five in the state) sent 90% of the student body to a four year college. The top 20% went to an Ivy League school. So, it's hard to get all that worked up about the average instruction in these districts. If I have to get upset about something, I choose to get upset by the 90% dropout rate in some schools in Philadelphia.

Still, Elmore's article and Catherine's commentary is interesting and worth a read, because it shows the limits of schools and the impact of money.

UPDATE: Harry at Crooked Timber says that these poorly performing, high performing schools are a problem. They eat up a lot of resources and neglect average students. Megan McArdle says that we should care because "those schools are often the model for schools in poor districts.  The
affluent assume that what works in their school district, for their
children, must be what works, and vote, and donate, accordingly."

36 thoughts on “Rich Schools

  1. A great piece. Elmore is very good.
    Two things. First, there is a reason to be outraged — these schools are wasting taxpayer money that could be better spent elsewhere. They are typically very well funded, their teachers very well paid; we should, instead, be rewarding the less well funded schools and well paid teachers in the high performing schools with low income students he refers to.
    Second, with demographic change, these schools sometimes get significant numbers of poor students leaking in. Those students are then in close to the worst possible environment, because the schools see them as a problem and their parents cannot play the role that the school expects.

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  2. “If he does sloppy work, I make him redo it.”
    My school did that to me quite frequently. Didn’t take, but now that I’m older I appreciate the effort.

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  3. Math education in K-8 is astonishingly bad. The textbooks are awful and the level of instruction varies dramatically based on the instructor. None of my kids’ teachers in the whole K-8 sequence have, as far as I know, taken a single university-level math course (stats, which is required for the B.Ed., doesn’t count) and many appear to be math-phobic. Can we be surprised that their ability to teach some subjects just isn’t there? (They’re almost all English or history majors which is great for writing, but not so good for the other parts of the curriculum.)
    So, yeah, I teach math to my kids after school and on the weekends. I build up their confidence that they can do well in math, just as their parents did. And then I show them how to address the problems in multiple ways, until they find a technique that “connects” for them. (After that, I show them how to answer the problem in a way that will satisfy the teacher who won’t give points for alternate methods.)
    I agree with you that I’m more worked up about schools where so many students aren’t being served at all. I do resent, some days, having to spend hours after school re-teaching my kids some math or science concepts that their teachers failed to impart. But at least I have the time and tools to do so — not every family is so fortunate.

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  4. “And then I show them how to address the problems in multiple ways, until they find a technique that “connects” for them. (After that, I show them how to answer the problem in a way that will satisfy the teacher who won’t give points for alternate methods.)”
    My kids’ math curriculum *requires* them to address math problems in multiple ways (which is kind of annoying because I always like the easiest/shortest way, and Soph seems to be similar). My son, in 1st grade, actually isn’t doing much math yet, mainly word problems involving addition and subtraction, but we’ve been teaching him a little multiplication and fractions because he listens in on his older sister doing homework and he asks questions.

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  5. My daughter’s (rich) middle school has 800 students and just one certified math teacher. The Ed Schools play a role here — ours still recommends that prospective middle school teachers get a generalist k-8 certification rather than the 6-12 certification recommended under NCLB.
    Can I just add another reason for worrying about this. Where are the teachers for the schools with low income schools going to come from? They are going to come from lower echelons of the rich schools. KTM also links to a great article by Paul Attewell arguing that many kids in these rich schools are quite ill-served by them, and these ill-served kids are the ones who are not high-flyers, and are more likely to do socially valuable things than the high-flyers after college. We want to invest more, and more efficiently, in them.

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  6. “The Ed Schools play a role here –ours still recommends that prospective middle school teachers get a generalist k-8 certification rather than the 6-12 certification recommended under NCLB.”
    I think middle school would be an excellent subject for discussion. I’m not there yet, but my impression from hanging around KTM and from other sources is that middle school is a strange, muddled place, not academically strong, but at the same time lacking the sort of nurture and support that we expect from PK-6. I remember seeing an article in the WaPo several years ago that said that in choosing a school district to live in, you the parent can compensate for a poor elementary school, there aren’t any good middle schools, but a good high school is crucial. I thought it very interesting at the time that the reporter thought that basically all middle schools are lousy.

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  7. Every now and then I mischeviously suggest to a legislator that they should abolish middle schools. They look at me first as if I’m crazy, then as if I’m brilliant, and finally with disappointment as they realise there is no way of doing this. No-one likes middle school. Except my daughter.

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  8. Then I must have done O.K. with my school’s set-up. With one exception (who was the worst teacher I had), all of my middle school classes were taught by the same people who taught high school. For example, after sixth grade, my math classes were all taught by the same guy and his goal was to get as many kids as possible to take pre-calc. But, I went to a very small school where middle school was only 7th and 8th grades (i.e. about 50 kids).

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  9. I guess I haven’t been paying attention, but I thought that ‘middle school’ and ‘junior high’ were the same thing. But, yes, we called it junior high. The only downside was that we had lunch with guys who were twice our size.

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  10. Junior high, back in the early 1980s, was 7th to 9th; middle school was 6th to 8th. I went through just as my school district was changing from the former to the latter. Couldn’t tell you why, except that it probably had to do with race and desegregation. Like pretty much everything else in the system at the administrative level, as far as I can tell.

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  11. Janice, aren’t a lot of school teachers just plain old Education majors?
    When I taught college, the students majoring in an Education subspecialty (only) were some of my dumbest. The ones double-majoring in Education and something else were some of the smartest. I’ve always wondered if requiring the latter would be useful.

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  12. Marya, I believe my state (Maryland) requires both– I think you have to have a major in addition to Education in order to graduate with an Education degree, but my info may be misguided.
    Middle schools are certainly the weakest link in many educational chains. Here in Baltimore, a notoriously troubled public school system, we’ve had a new reformist chief of schools come in, and the system has made gains in test scores in elementary schools and in reducing the dropout rate and increasing the graduation rate, but middle school? Still kind of a wasteland. What you end up with is most of the kids from high-performing elementary schools going to private/parochial middle schools and then sometimes going back to public high schools, if they can get into one of the magnet schools. One of the ideas that has been put into motion here also is the idea of converting to K-8 schools, to ensure more continuity for the students and other benefits, but it’s so recent there’s not much data on success yet.

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  13. I was in one of the last classes in my district to attend junior high (7-8) at the high school. After that, 7th and 8th grade were shifted into a middle school with another younger grade or two. There was massive renovation involved in the project. Creating middle schools was just really trendy 20 or so years ago. I believe there were a lot of reasons discussed in my town at the time, one of them being the need to keep 7th grade girls from “going out” with high school upperclassmen.

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  14. One thing is that I think people have a rough idea of how to transform elementary and high schools, but middle is much harder for various reasons (that is, even harder). The transition from 8th to 9th grade seems to be a big problem for low achievers (the gap between high and low achievers widens gradually over the whole period of k-12, but seems to widen faster in that transition, and not because the high achievers are accelerating. Even good high schools have a big problem articulating with their middle schools.
    Jackie: here’s the secondary education certification requirements for Maryland. No need for a joint major. (I’d be surprised if any state required that; to require it would take enormous work in changing the behaviour of ed schools, which would resist fiercely):
    http://www.dsd.state.md.us/comar/13a/13a.12.02.06.htm

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  15. At the Maryland college I attended, there was no Education major; you had to major in an academic subject and then minor in Education. Jackie perhaps went to the same institution (and thought it was a state rather than a school requirement), or maybe a number of the more acadmically rigorous colleges followed the same model with regard to an Ed. degree.
    Having just completed a Masters in Education, Adolescent/English–grades 7-12–I can say that no one (in my program at least) seems to know what to do about middle school or about educating teachers to teach that grade range specifically. The prep for teaching it (as distinct from overall good teaching practic) is spotty–it’s sort of an aside. Middle school is mostly treated as a sort of hallway where kids hang out between elementary school and high school, but a lot go astray in there.
    6 to 8th grades is a delicate time for a lot of kids, socially, which weaves into the academic difficulties. It’s an age at which a lot of kids (especially boys) move away from wanting to please the teacher and parents and more toward wanting to please/impress peers, which removes a lot of the motivation teachers rely on throughout elementary school.

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  16. I guess I’m just triaging my educational worries. For me, the problems in Cleveland and Philadelphia and Baltimore are more worrisome than the problems in wealthier communities. Yes, it is bad that kids are falling through the cracks in wealthy districts. I’ve seen it happen. But I choose to first focus on Cleveland before I think about Scarsdale.
    Still, point well taken, Harry. I guess it is possible to worry about both. There are huge repercussions for equity that come out of mediocre schools in wealthy districts. I actually spend a lot of time trying to gently get my school district to do simple things like align their curriculum with state standards.
    My kid starts middle school in September. I went to the orientation meeting on Monday night. Scared out of my mind.

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  17. School is daycare then? I thought you opposed that view, but I can’t find a search feature on your site!
    The daycare aspect is the most attractive aspect of school to me (I homeschool). If I’m going to educate them anyway, then I don’t want to have to jump through the hoops, I don’t want them to have to jump through the hoops, and I especially don’t want to have to enforce the completion of stupid homework (although I’m not saying that it’s all stupid).
    And then there’s a whole other argument about the kids and the effect of public daycare/education on them.
    And on a different tack — have you seen the argument that a motivated child can learn K-6 math in twenty contact hours http://www.besthomeschooling.org/articles/math_david_albert.html? So what are the seven years for?

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  18. My daughter is currently in middle school and loves it. She has a fantastically good math teacher (the only certified one in the school) who is perfect for her — highly motivated, but not gifted, and willing to study. A bit more than half her time in school is an academic wasteland (the music class with a teacher who cannot play an instrument, the language class with a teacher who cannot speak the language, the health class in which they learn how to make hot chocolate from a packet). The science, language arts and social studies are fine. Her academic challenge comes from math and one after school activity (Future Problem Solvers), and her homework (she’s 12 and averages 2 hours a night, perhaps more — the teachers are not allowed to require or grade homework, so this is in one sense entirely voluntary). The failure to use instructional time to instruct is what really bothers me. None of the kids benefits from it: it deprives the motivated children of leisure time after school, while shortchanging the unmotivated children.
    Alison: I’d like to see some sort of controlled study before I’d put much faith in that one. he says the kids were 9-12. They’d never encountered any math before??? Given they were attending a very expensive private school with a distinctive ethos I’d be surprised. There’s no need to make the claim that it can be done in 20 contact hours in order to persuade me a lot of time is wasted.

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  19. harry b,
    I think I would be especially ticked off by the language class, since your initial language class is where everything is fresh and new and exciting and you have a chance to really bond with the subject before getting bogged down in sticky grammatical issues in the 2nd or 3rd year. Really, it would be better to just offer a study hall instead rather than kill interest in the subject.

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  20. Funnily enough its the health class that really pisses me off. But yes, I agree that the language class is probably worse. I think I’m going to send her to Paris on her own for a month when she turns 14.

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  21. “the language class with a teacher who cannot speak the language”
    That was a Simpson’s joke. The pre-school we’re starting our son in this fall teaches French, though I would have preferred Spanish as I know a bit, our son knows a bit from Diego/Dora, and I’m generally suspicious of the French.

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  22. harry b,
    I’m beginning to be really curious about that health class. How do you spend 50 minutes of class on making instant cocoa? Or is it part of a larger lesson in which you make instant pudding, cup-of-noodle, and (for the really advanced children) instant mashed potatoes.

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  23. When I was in college, I’d make instant mashed potatoes and instant gravy for dinner. The one day it hit me that I was using an extra step, so I just poured both powders together before adding water.

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  24. I think Megan McArdle is on to something with her point that “those schools are often the model for schools in poor districts.”

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  25. Amy P — I don’t think they ever get as far as instant pudding. We are in the midwest, in which I suppose hot chocolate is sort of valuable for a few months. In one of the high schools the chair of the health department (its called FACE, Family and Consumer Education) is a gourmet pastry chef, so the kids in that school learn something genuinely valuable, from a master. Unfortunately its not the one my kids will attend.

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  26. First of all, you should not rely on your schools to educate your kids. I spend a lot of time with my kids teaching them random things.
    I’ve just discovered the various discussions going on about Elmore’s paper, which captures my experience living in an affluent school district I can’t afford.
    Haven’t read the thread yet, but I must take issue with the observation that one shouldn’t rely on schools to educate our kids!
    The fact is: I can’t teach high school biology, high school chemistry, or high school physics. When my son was in 8th grade, I almost managed to teach both Math A (algebra & geometry) and Earth Science. Each night I worked the algebra problem set myself (which I had to do because the school refused to give students or parents the answer key), corrected my son’s math homework (which I had to do because math teachers in my district don’t collect or correct homework), and had him re-do problems he’d missed.
    Then I stayed up ’til 1 a.m. reading the Earth Science textbook so I could teach Earth science. When I didn’t understand the textbook, which was often, I posted questions on ktm & people helped me out.
    My husband handled writing instruction.
    I ended up handing off the Earth science reteaching duties to my good friend K, who had taken Earth science in high school & was reteaching her own son. I’m going to be grateful for life.
    I can’t teach AP statistics or economics. My husband, being a historian, can handle high school history, so we’ve got that covered. Except that he’s not home a lot.
    As to math, I’m maxed out.
    I can’t teach Latin.
    I can probably handle Spanish, but, again, not well.
    English literature….not really. I’d have to teach myself in order to teach my son.
    This is why my husband and I are now paying tuition to a Jesuit high school.
    Our son goes to school in the morning, comes home in the afternoon, happily does his homework without help. Gets good grades & has developed fantastic work habits — so good he’s now giving me advice on how to do my work instead of writing comments on education blogs. (For Mac owners: Freedom.)
    It’s true that we can’t rely on our public schools to educate our kids.
    That is the problem.

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  27. Catherine, that was a great post that spawned a lot of good discussion in the blogosphere. Thanks for writing it.
    I clarified myself in the comment section and in the following post. I agree that our kids aren’t getting a great education. We’ve considered Catholic school, too, but we want to give the system another try. I’m just not sure what we can do about it. I’ve met with resistance in the blogosphere and from school administrators. My solution has been to just do it myself.

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  28. “The fact is: I can’t teach high school biology, high school chemistry, or high school physics.”
    A possible stop-gap (not a perfect one) is to try a community college course.

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  29. Laura – your second post is FANTASTIC! It’s going to be a classic.
    I’ve met with resistance in the blogosphere and from school administrators. My solution has been to just do it myself.
    Yup – that’s where we all end up.
    The problem is that you hit the wall somewhere in middle school (earlier if both parents are working around the clock or if you have a lot of kids….)

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  30. Community college is a major option.
    My sister finally gave up on her public school & put her 15-year old daughter in the local community college. It’s been great.
    (She lives in CA.)

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  31. I now believe the public schools can’t be ‘reformed’ — but, at the same time, it’s also apparent to me that we do have some good public schools. So….
    So I don’t know what that means.
    In my own case, I’m politically engaged in trying to improve my own school district.
    I’m curious whether Richard DuFour’s professional learning communities approach can work.
    However, unless parents & citizens at large gain some power over what is taught in our schools (and perhaps over how it is taught as well) continuous improvement could mean continuous improvement in teaching 21st century skills.

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  32. Just to add one “however,” Catherine. You live in a certain Bergen County town that begins with an R and ends with a d, right? Well, I taught a local college around here and the kids that came from that school district were much better prepared than kids from other school districts. They wrote better research papers and breezed through the exams.

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