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.

57 thoughts on “Blaming Parents For Inequality in Schools

  1. A balanced approach about the choices parents make. I think the rational choices parents make to protect their own children make shouldn’t be vilified. For me, a test is how i feel about religious schools that are not inclusive and charter schools. Both are options that I disapprove of and that aren’t right for my family. But, I avoid judgment on parents making the best decisions with the options available for them.

    But, I do judge parents who can’t see beyond their own children’s needs, wants and desires, who are, to quote John Allman (Trinity head) when he wrote “consumerist families that treat teachers and the school in entirely instrumental ways, seeking to use us exclusively to advance their child’s narrow self-interest.”

    The NY Times article (https://www.nytimes.com/2017/09/22/nyregion/trinity-school-letter-to-parents.html) that describes the letter goes on to talk about the false world families can come to inhabit in certain rarefied environments, where they are so enmeshed in a small segment of society that that many people are invisible to them.

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  2. Just one thing I want to speculate on about Alex, Elizabeth Warren’s kid who attended private schools. He is 43 and a computer person. Needless to say, my instincts are screaming “spectrummy” (his father was a mathematician/computer person). So, there are a few issues there. First, private school might have been a choice to address special needs. Second, Alex seems to value his privacy, so if he is spectrummy, he may not want that in particular to be publicized, which would again explain why Warren doesn’t elaborate that much. Third, ADA was only passed in 1990, when he was about 14, so if he did have any kind of spectrum issue, he would not have had good access to in-school services at a public school.
    Just some thoughts….

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    1. Wendy,

      It definitely jumped out at me that he was singled out for private school while his sister (I believe) wasn’t. Parents wouldn’t normally different school systems unless there was a good reason.

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  3. When I first got on the internet (1999), one of the weirder communication barriers for me was re-learning what “middle class” meant. On the internet, “middle class” means rich. The emerging term for what used to be called “middle class” is low-income earners. And the first adopters of this use of “low-income” were colleges and education researchers/pundits. That’s…pretty damn telling of a lot of things.

    Education “reforms” aren’t working because you’re looking in the wrong direction. Because something like this: better school facilities, higher quality teachers, unique school offerings — to move to low income, urban areas. isn’t going to happen because the people in those areas are not valued. Not the parents, not the children. Education “reforms” aren’t working because current U.S. society is the sociopathic brainchild of Ayn Rand and John Birch.

    We are a two class society that won’t admit it. Most of all, education “reformers”. We live in completely separate worlds. Rich parents (or in internet-speak, “middle class”) are jockeying for their kids to enter the most prestigious, expensive, “connected” colleges. The rest of us just want our kids to be able to end up at Directional State after a stint in community college or the military, because our endgame is just for them to be able to live as independent, functional adults. And we know we can’t earn enough to support them into adulthood, particularly as we get older.

    Education isn’t separate and apart from any of the other forms of what is euphemistically called “resource allocation”. It isn’t separate and apart from the stagnant wages/purchasing power the average person is dealing with. It isn’t separate and apart from abandoned neighborhoods, cities, geographical regions. All it is, is a more naked nonverbal admission that children are worthless, too—not just their parents. The gloves are off and the ref went home. Now, just like in my great-grandparents’ day, children are fair game for being told “fuck you”. None of my great-grandparents had an elementary school education. They all had to drop out and work. Two of them were completely illiterate. That is more likely to be the future of U.S. education.

    “Higher quality teachers”? How is that possible when most aren’t earning squat? And the push is on to abolish pensions? What kind of Magic Fairy Dust is going to attract people to that line of work?! “Better school facilities”? What does that even mean? Or more accurately: to whom? Because while some folks are thinking “LEED-certified, architecturally gorgeous”…I’m thinking (based on my own daughter’s experience) how working toilets and adequate toilet paper would be nice, and so would heat in the winter.

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    1. Lubiddu said,

      “Rich parents (or in internet-speak, “middle class”) are jockeying for their kids to enter the most prestigious, expensive, “connected” colleges. The rest of us just want our kids to be able to end up at Directional State after a stint in community college or the military, because our endgame is just for them to be able to live as independent, functional adults.”

      Where do flagship state universities fit into that scheme?

      There are some important regional differences here.

      For example, my sister is very, very well off, but she and my BIL wanted to send their kid to Directional Washington State because they thought it would be the best option for him, not as distracting and huge as Washington State. A lot of very well-heeled members of my extended family have sent their kids to Washington State and/or have done stuff like have kids who do ROTC, Marine Reserves plus college, etc. I believe the equivalent path would be unthinkable in the NE.

      With regard to the question of wealth, bear in mind that NJ income levels are very high on average compared to the rest of the US.

      https://www.deptofnumbers.com/income/new-jersey/

      Median household income in NJ is something like $80k, whereas median family income in NJ is an astonishing $97k (which means that half of NJ families make more than that). So, yes, if half of NJ families are making over $97k a year, families can be genuinely middle class in NJ while having incomes that would qualify as rich in your home region.

      “None of my great-grandparents had an elementary school education. They all had to drop out and work. Two of them were completely illiterate. That is more likely to be the future of U.S. education.”

      Good news! Almost nobody wants to hire 10-year-olds in the contemporary US, so your nightmare scenario is very unlikely. Heck, they barely want to hire 18-year-olds…

      ““Higher quality teachers”? How is that possible when most aren’t earning squat? And the push is on to abolish pensions? What kind of Magic Fairy Dust is going to attract people to that line of work?!”

      If the US is the sort of jobless dystopian hellhole you describe, K-12 teaching is actually very attractive in terms of pay compared to, say, unemployment or minimum wage. Of course it should be possible to attract lots of bright, hard-working people to teaching if the economy is bad. From what I hear, the Depression was an amazing time in terms of attracting talent to the profession.

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  4. I’m not sure if this makes you feel better or not, Lubiddo, but I have the same worries for my kids. Jonah will be okay. He love restaurant work enough, that even if he doesn’t finish college or find a good job after graduation, he could support himself. He had a rough transition to college, and his state college does a pretty terrible job at supporting students. He should do well this semester, but it was touch and go that first year. His classmates have tons of problems finishing college. There’s a friend of theirs who doesn’t have enough money for rent/dorms, so they let him sleep on the sofa in exchange for an occasional pizza.

    And Ian. Well, he’s got his issues. I worry that if Steve and I suddenly die, and Jonah flakes out, he would end up as a homeless man in NYC. He just took his PSATs. His scores was good for a special ed kid. It will place him out of the entrance exams and remedial classes at the community college. But that number won’t get him into a fancy private college for sure. And more importantly, he doesn’t have the social/emotional maturity to handle a college like that anyway. Because he was trapped in special ed classes for so many years, inappropriately as it turns out, he was never taught skills, like writing 5 paragraph essays.

    What happens to kids like Ian? I don’t know.

    Our plan is that we’ll make the schools keep him for another year after high school. They have an 18-21 program at his current school, where he’ll get job training at the local supermarket and help taking one or two community college classes. We’re calling it a gap year. Then he should be able to get into a special program for autistic kids at a local college that offers a computer science degree. It’s super expensive and there’s no guarantee that he’ll get in, but that’s our hope.

    If Ian can’t manage the unstructured world at college and get the computer science degree, then he’ll end up stacking boxes at the Amazon warehouse an hour away, where he’ll make less than minimum wage and live at home until we die.

    Even if he gets the computer science degree, his OCD and anxiety and social skill problems may mean that he’s unemployable, so we’re also looking at that Amazon warehouse job future.

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    1. Restaurant work for your older son is a great back up plan. Most people I know have had gaps in their “career” employment and those who had backups were in a much better space to weather recessions. I also have friends whose children moonlight waiting tables while doing unpaid internships.

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  5. You changed your design scheme! There are too many changes around! :-).

    I think more people are becoming aware of the bimodal (at least) distribution of opportunity. In my most recent personal example, our extended family has four people who started college in 2019. Three are traditional freshman, all going to private universities, with costs paid by their families (though some have merit aid as well). The third is a 30 year old, who is first generation, from a rural area, whose family does not understand college. When she graduated HS, she paid to get an associates degree and then spent years working as a paraprofessional in her rural HS town. She is thrilled to talk about college with people who believe in college when we get together — she starred in her college musical, is getting a chance to hear and learn from great musicians (while still thinking career wise, of a major that will pay her way). I see how much joy she is getting out of learning and college and the opportunity she didn’t have when she was 18 and know that there is no reason why she shouldn’t have had it (or that she wouldn’t have gotten as much out of it) as the other three.

    I also worry, though, in the advice I give — she is 30, potentially thinking about having a family, and does not have the time of the other three to explore (and, they are exploring, with a creative writing, dance, and non-STEM major in the group).

    The world looks so different for them, and, the differences, as far as I can see, depend on their families of origin.

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  6. And I know I’m celebrating a certain model of college, as a place to learn and grow (rather than learn skills that improve economic outcomes). But, the inability to have that experience is one of the prices of the lack of opportunity, too.

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  7. It is the benefit of having the resources to weather risk, to fail, and not hit bottom (as, say, the analysis showing that startups are funded by people who have money to start out with, because, Bill Gates, could risk the Harvard degree, knowing that he could go back, that there was a basement to live in, friends to rely on.

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  8. I guess there’s a stage in the Young Wonk lifecycle, when one has finished graduate school, gotten married, but not yet progressed to having children and buying a house. Thus, the bond between parents and children is entirely theoretical, not subject to measurement on spreadsheets. When they reach the child-rearing stage, I really doubt they will voluntarily subject their children to schools in which less than 10% are reading on grade level. (oh, and note to young adults: Would it kill you to make your online wedding registries private after the fact? You really should, you know.)

    I believe the NCLB test results encouraged parents to buy homes in districts that were overlooked in earlier years. The test results did increase the number of schools perceived to be good by home buyers, especially families. The SAT score of my parents’ hometown has shot up by 100 points, due to an influx of middle class families willing to take a risk on a school system that was not on anyone’s list of “good school districts.”

    By the way, all home buyers care about school quality, not just families with children. There’s usually a trade-off with getting to work. Retired people, on a fixed income, often like to sell their homes in the good school district to move to areas with lower taxes. I know of a number of families who sold their houses in the good school districts to their children.

    Beyond that, every citizen has a right to know if the schools in their towns are educating their children. In our internet connected world, nothing is private. It may be an interesting thought model, but trying to hide data from voters and taxpayers is not a good idea.

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    1. Totally right about the young wonk cycle. When I started doing this, I was already old by their standards — in my 30s with kids. Now, I’m a geezer. Whew!

      And, yes, some people are suggesting that that that information should be hidden from parents or that different measures should be used to prevent self-segregation.

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    2. Cranberry said,

      “I guess there’s a stage in the Young Wonk lifecycle, when one has finished graduate school, gotten married, but not yet progressed to having children and buying a house.”

      Funny!

      May I add the stage 6 years later where one writes the evergreen “My kindergartner’s public school is awesome” article?

      Here’s another thought (not really related to yours but I didn’t want to post yet another comment after posting a bunch): there’s also the much cruder option of just assessing neighborhoods based on price per square foot. They can’t hope to keep THAT secret, can they?

      Also, letting people know test scores (which would be FOIA fodder anyway–lots of luck keeping that secret) keeps them from using race and income as a proxy for test scores.

      Middle class families are using the test scores as a proxy for school quality, not using test scores as a proxy for race. They can look up the racial breakdowns and number of kids on free lunch on Great Schools or just see who leaves the school at the end of the day. School demographics are not some sort of Manhattan Project level secret.

      My oldest did one year of pre-K at Hyde Elementary in Washington, DC. It’s 34% black and 10% Hispanic and is rated 8 on Great Schools. That’s in Georgetown. Elsewhere in the neighborhood, Duke Ellington School for the Arts is a 9 on Great Schools. It’s 77% black and 11% Hispanic. Given that DC has historically had such a terrible reputation for schools, Great Schools helps raise the profile of schools like this that have substantial minority enrollment and are academically acceptable. (Duke Ellington is good enough that I believe families from MD fake DC residency for their kids to get in.)

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      1. Sorry everybody for being a thread hog, but I wanted to add that anybody who thinks that they can keep school test scores secret and that that will ameliorate school quality is a) is unaware of FOIA, the First Amendment, and the internet b) is showing no awareness of how middle class parents go about choosing schools and homes.

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  9. Where did Laura suggest hiding data? Pointing out that the available data so closely parallels race that one might get the same effect by merely using race is a valuable point to be aware of.

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    1. Laura didn’t; Chalkbeat quoted others who at least implied it.

      from the article: It’s a legal gray area,” said Morgan Williams, the general counsel for the National Fair Housing Alliance. “I would discourage real estate service providers from providing information that may be used as a proxy for the racial demographics of a neighborhood.”

      (Spokespeople for both Zillow and GreatSchools said their respective sites encourage families to look at multiple factors and visit schools in person; a spokesperson for Realtor.com said the ratings are among many data points it offers to homebuyers.)

      Yet even some critical of GreatSchools say it would not serve parents to eliminate or obscure data about school performance.

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      1. It’s bad data so if it isn’t hidden we need to make it clear that Great Schools ratings are basically meaningless.

        We’re in an urban district and my kids’ elementary school is rated a 6 on GS. The elementary school in the wealthy suburb next to us is rated an 8. Our school has consistently higher test scores than this higher rated school. So what exactly are we rating here? I mean I know what “factors” are in play here but let’s just honest about it.

        Instead of relying on shady and completely made up ratings like GS it is much better to point parents to their state education website. Most of those sites will provide actual data not some goofy index cooked up by a software engineer.

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      2. scantee wrote,

        “Instead of relying on shady and completely made up ratings like GS it is much better to point parents to their state education website. Most of those sites will provide actual data not some goofy index cooked up by a software engineer.”

        That is a very fair point–that the need is for more transparency and more information, not less.

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  10. “I would discourage real estate service providers from providing information that may be used as a proxy for the racial demographics of a neighborhood.”

    This is not the same as hiding data — it suggests that real estate agents might want to avoid being the ones who direct customers to the data. Given the history of redlining and the role that real estate agents played in that process, that might be prudent advice.

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    1. Have you ever met a real estate agent?

      I think the Realtors of America’s lobbyists would be quick to point out the first amendment issues in trying to forbid them from talking about the Main Selling Point of any property.

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      1. Have complaints ever been filed under the act?

        Well, somehow, Great Schools is offering licensing deals to realty firms: https://www.greatschools.org/gk/licensing/

        Local real estate firms link to the websites for local school districts.

        This is a real estate firm in the area: https://www.goodschoolrealtyinc.com/. The name is kind of a hint.

        At any rate, as the state files piles of data online, freely available to anyone, it’s quite paternalistic to believe that modern home buyers are relying only on their realtors’ advice to discover data on school performance. My impression is that relocation buyers hit the ground running with information about likely school districts they’ve found themselves from across the country or from other countries.

        Other sources of information include the local newspapers and magazines. The “best schools” listing is a perennial for Boston Magazine. There are also now local listservs and apps like Nextdoor and Patch.

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      2. Cranberry said,

        “At any rate, as the state files piles of data online, freely available to anyone, it’s quite paternalistic to believe that modern home buyers are relying only on their realtors’ advice to discover data on school performance. My impression is that relocation buyers hit the ground running with information about likely school districts they’ve found themselves from across the country or from other countries.”

        Right.

        Going back to Great Schools and similar, I’d say that the biggest beneficiaries of those ratings sites are people who are new/marginal/not plugged into local social networks. People who are local and plugged in “know” a lot about the schools without looking at stats or doing formal research. (I believe Laura has mentioned being in that position.)

        On the other hand, that kind of local knowledge is very likely to reflect stereotypes or outdated images of particular schools. The stats may catch changes in school quality before the reputation on the street changes much and may indicate that a school is being unfairly stigmatized because of demographics or past reputation.

        (I just heard that one of my 9th grader’s private school classmates is transferring to the 2/10 rated 10% white city public high school. I don’t know the kid, but I feel really, really sorry for her.)

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      3. Has making it illegal for realtors to say something made a difference? I don’t think so. It seems like the way that is enforced and wanting to make school data harder to get is all about punishing middle class parents (by making them work harder) than it is actually fixing schools. I hear a lot of talk about reform, but it does nothing bu rearrange deck chairs. The actual way schools are organized and kids are taught doesn’t change.

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  11. The reverse can also be true. Our town is very diverse racially and pretty diverse economically (no super wealthy, no destitute). The schools, however, rate high: the HS is a 10, one grade school is a 9, the rest are 8’s and 7’s, with the Middle Schools 6. These numbers may attract families who would otherwise be doubtful about a school that is 40% African-American, or 20% ELL’s.

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    1. EB said, “The reverse can also be true. Our town is very diverse racially and pretty diverse economically (no super wealthy, no destitute). The schools, however, rate high: the HS is a 10, one grade school is a 9, the rest are 8’s and 7’s, with the Middle Schools 6. These numbers may attract families who would otherwise be doubtful about a school that is 40% African-American, or 20% ELL’s.”

      Right.

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  12. Laura wrote, “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.”

    Riiiight.

    It’s especially annoying from anybody who a) hasn’t ever had any kids in school or b) last had kids in school over a generation ago.

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    1. “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.”
      Hold my beer and watch me! Or, “Alice laughed. “There’s no use trying,” she said: “one can’t believe impossible things.” “I daresay you haven’t had much practice,” said the Queen. “When I was your age, I always did it for half-an-hour a day. Why, sometimes I’ve believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast.”

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  13. I’ve been finding the Refinery29 money diaries enlightening, especially as they have expanded into other cities (Fort Collins, Seattle, DC were profiled recently) and income levels (60K-800K in the last diaries I read). I realized that these money diaries are qualitative data, the idea of which I have in the past scoffed at, but now I see what this kind of data gives the reader — a broader understanding of the decisions and thoughts behind the numbers.

    It’s not their marketing niche, and I don’t see it happening, but it would be fascinating to see similar diaries from people from a broader range of ages and families and lifestyles and demographics. Though they’ve broadened (say, the surgeon & lawyer earning 800K), they are still in the young “wonk” niche (meaning urban, young, family free — except for their families of origin, many of whom still provide significant support).

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  14. Something I’ve started noticing more and more is that these days “fixing the schools” is regarded as being 90% the responsibility of middle class parents and children.

    I am increasingly annoyed at the idea that it is the god-given vocation of middle class parents (but not anybody else) to give a kidney for schools that serve low-income kids.

    When did we sign up for that? Was there some hospital paperwork that I missed during checkout when I had my babies?

    If it’s shirking not to put your kid in a low-income school, why isn’t it shirking to choose to raise no kids at all and to send no kids to any kind of school?

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    1. Or heck, why isn’t it shirking to just have one or two kids? Why don’t middle class couples owe it to low-income schools to provide a whole basketball team of shiny, magical middle class children per couple?

      This is all very silly, but it’s what happens when we start thinking of families as existing to serve the school, rather than school existing to serve families.

      There is some point to the focus on parents–namely that parents are closer to school and kid realities and may actually develop some expertise the more time they spend working alongside the school system. But that’s a reason to listen to parents of school age children, rather than talking over them and treating their kids as essentially spoils of war, to be divided up by the victors.

      A couple more points:

      1. My kids go to a small private school with a few dozen kids per grade. It’s not perfect, but it functions as a sort of very large extended family, and I know that if I speak up, I’m going to get a respectful hearing-out, even if the administration chooses to go in a different direction than I would have. It would not surprise me at all if that’s what a lot of charter parents like about their charter schools, even if they are academically problematic. The charters that parents like may offer them respect and a place at the table–things they may not be able to get at their district schools.

      How hard would it be for conventional schools to offer that? I realize that there may be major institutional obstacles to offering parents respect and substantial input in public schools–but then that’s something that conventional public schools need to look at.

      2. My kids’ private school (which is located in our downtown) has a sister public school a couple miles away that hordes of the upper school students and local college students go volunteer at. The teacher who is in charge of Honor Society at our school created this as a service opportunity and she oversees tutoring programs and after school clubs at the sister school.

      I think that creating local school partnerships is an excellent idea, because it helps focus efforts and makes it possible to make visible differences in a small area.

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    2. 3. Speaking of parental expertise, I suspect a lot of us find ourselves with a lot of it, just at a time when it’s not very relevant to our families anymore.

      I have a big spacing between my older two kids and their little sister (who was born when the big kids were 10 and 7), so I’m on my third run through 1st grade. Our youngest has had some problems with reading, math and handwriting this year and it looks like she’s ASD/ADHD. On the one hand, my hands are pretty full right now (so I’d give a big, hearty “Bless your heart!” to anybody who tells me that I need to fix our local public schools by sending my kids there), but on the other hand, having older kids at the same time that I have a little kid offers perspective and opportunities.

      For example, when I was travelling over Thanksgiving, I came upon some books from this series:

      https://usborne.com/browse-books/catalogue/series/1/698/wipe-clean-learning/

      I bought several different ones for our 1st grader for handwriting practice. The dry erase is less effortful than pencil and paper (you know how BAD little kids are at erasing?), it’s reusable, and these particular books are a very appealing, colorful, creative take on the traditional workbook. I had our 1st grader working on it this morning, and at some point a light bulb went off in my head and I suddenly realized–our 1st grader is not the only kid in town who could benefit from this particular product.

      So, I’ve marked it down on my to do list that after Christmas break, I’m going to offer samples to the kindergarten teachers at our school’s sister school and query them as to whether they’d like a box of the books. Heck, I should query my school’s kindergarten teachers, too.

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  15. I don’t think most parents and/or policy makers who encourage parents to enroll their children in public schools with non-trivial numbers of students who are lower income or non-white are arguing the extreme case: i.e. choose a very low-income, very challenged school for your kids. They’re just saying don’t rule out a school because it has some African-American kids or some kids whose parents are low-income or immigrants. In other words, don’t aim for the whitest, wealthiest school district or school you can possibly manage. This caveat applies to white parents, but also to middle class or wealthier parents of all races.

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    1. EB,

      I believe that “most parents and/or policy makers” are as sensible as you describe…but there’s a pretty vocal minority that consumes a lot of oxygen that isn’t. And it’s not just internet chatter–NYC is not being run under the reasonable principles you describe. From what I’ve read, it’s a much more punitive model, with middle class families being treated as the bad guys.

      I question the idea that typical middle class parents are consciously going for the “whitest, wealthiest school district or school” that they can afford, in the absence of other considerations. I also note that that description erases Asian families from the racial equation, when they might be a considerable portion of the population in certain schools. Bronx Science is technically 3/4 minority–but it is something like 63% Asian.

      In the real world, there are might be a lot of other issues:

      –Is the neighborhood convenient and “nice”?
      –Do I feel safe there during the day and at night?
      –What will our daily work and school commutes look like? Is this reasonable?
      –Are there other kids in the neighborhood? How freely can kids safely come and go without adult supervision?
      –Do I share enough values with the other parents?
      –Will my disabled kid be well-served at this school?
      –Are there enough extracurriculars?
      –What are the team sports like?
      –How many AP classes are there?
      –Is the academic level high enough/a good fit for my kid?
      –Does the community college teach courses there?
      –Are there enough representatives of my ethnicity there? (I know an Asian family that left our small private school for our nicest suburban district partly because they wanted their kids to be around more Asian kids. Their oldest is an Ivy League freshman this year.)
      –Etc.

      We ourselves chose to continue in a small private school with limited AP courses and limited extracurriculars rather than moving out to the fancy suburb with a squillion sports, extracurriculars and APs that our Asian friends chose. If we were trying to produce Ivy League kids, that would probably have been a bad idea, but our high school senior has gotten into Hometown U., which is our goal for our kids. We will (if all goes well) be able to minimize college costs and we continue to enjoy a life with minimal driving, easy access to various city and college amenities, and a morning walk to work for my husband.

      There are a lot of competing values, and I think that school choice almost invariably involves a lot of compromises. Also, I think that that formulation (“the whitest, wealthiest school district or school”) suggests that average parents have a much bigger range of choices than really exist. For example, in our area of TX, the fanciest suburban public high school (an 8 on Great Schools) is 56% white. I haven’t looked up the other schools’ stats recently, but technically, that could be the richest, whitest school in the county (it’s definitely the richest)–but that’s objectively not very white.

      My sister lives in a different state and operates out of two towns that are a fair distance apart. She’d love to put her youngest in school in our rural hometown–it would make her life much simpler. Unfortunately, sis has already tried this experiment with an older child. They ultimately bought a house in a nice suburb in the other town that they work out of and my bigger nephew did really well in school and had a very good peer group. But sis isn’t even willing to try the experiment on the younger child of starting at our hometown school. Been there, done that, etc. She and I were talking about it over Thanksgiving, and she said that the problem was the absence of a critical mass of parents in our hometown who want what she wants from a school. Sis has also said that our hometown school is so catastrophic that she’s known of at least one family that has enrolled kids in a local Indian reservation school to avoid the town elementary (not sure how they pulled that off).

      There really are a lot of situations where the available options are “trainwreck” or “basically OK,” and I think that that is the range of choices that middle class parents are typically choosing between, rather than “functional, but lots of immigrants and minorities” versus “whitest and richest and highest achieving”.

      Like

  16. “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. ”
    How about if we shift the descriptor to ‘classist’, and acknowledge that class correlates to race. Are white prosperous parents going to flee if the Obama children, or Deval Patrick’s kids are in their school? No, they are going to brag about it! Are they going to flee if trailer park resident whites some of whom have lost parents to Oxycontin are in their school? Betcher ass they are! Is it good for the trailer park kids to be in school with kids whose parents have higher aspirations? Probably, almost certainly. Is it good for the prosperous parents’ kids to be in school with Oxycontin orphans? I kind of doubt it, and I’ll bet money most prosperous parents won’t believe it.

    Like

    1. ds wrote, “How about if we shift the descriptor to ‘classist’, and acknowledge that class correlates to race. Are white prosperous parents going to flee if the Obama children, or Deval Patrick’s kids are in their school? No, they are going to brag about it! Are they going to flee if trailer park resident whites some of whom have lost parents to Oxycontin are in their school?”

      Right.

      Like

    2. How about if we shift the descriptor to ‘classist’, and acknowledge that class correlates to race.

      This is indeed more accurate and reducing these things to race are unhelpfully reductionist. On the other hand…

      Are they going to flee if trailer park resident whites some of whom have lost parents to Oxycontin are in their school? Betcher ass they are! Is it good for the trailer park kids to be in school with kids whose parents have higher aspirations? Probably, almost certainly. Is it good for the prosperous parents’ kids to be in school with Oxycontin orphans? I kind of doubt it, and I’ll bet money most prosperous parents won’t believe it.

      I am sure that most upper and middle class parents wouldn’t want this. I know I wouldn’t. But I dispute that our public schools should be set up to so easily give them exactly what they want here, as opposed to setting up schools that provide a decent quality education for everyone. These aspirations are *not* the same.

      It has been shown time and time again that schools will accept a certain level of poverty without becoming dysfunctional. The rich kids don’t really do any worse and the poor kids do much better. Past a certain point, everything blows up and goes to Hades. The key is to, as much as possible, spread the oxy kids around so they are not concentrated at a few sinkhole schools. There are limits to this, of course, in that we are not going to bus kids from rural Indiana to Northern Virginia, but we should at least do less of setting up the situation we have now by design.

      And yes, there are some parents who will be so squeamish about sending their kids to school with even one poor black or oxy kid that they flee to a private school. That is what it is. You can’t and shouldn’t stop parents from making this decision. What you can and should stop is the money following them out of the system from the public schools to the private, which is why vouchers are such an abysmally bad idea.

      Like

      1. Jay said,

        “It has been shown time and time again that schools will accept a certain level of poverty without becoming dysfunctional. The rich kids don’t really do any worse and the poor kids do much better. Past a certain point, everything blows up and goes to Hades. The key is to, as much as possible, spread the oxy kids around so they are not concentrated at a few sinkhole schools.”

        Do the numbers allow that, though?

        https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program.aspx

        About 30 million kids get free or reduced price hot lunches, out of about 50 million public school kids. (This comparison may be slightly misleading, depending on how many private schools do free or reduced hot lunch, but let’s say that 3/5 of public school kids are poor or poorish.)

        Meanwhile, public schools in the US are now majority minority:

        https://www.publicschoolreview.com/blog/white-students-are-now-the-minority-in-u-s-public-schools

        Combine the poverty figures and the ethnic/racial stats and it becomes very difficult to achieve a Goldilocks school that is white enough (but not too white!) and rich enough (but not too rich!).

        Like

      2. You know, “majority/minority” is a ridiculous term. You actually mean what the title of the article actually says, which is that white students are now a minority in US public schools (though the article then goes on to make the term even more ridiculous by stating that white (non-hispanic, I think, though they don’t state that explicitly) are a minority, and then graphing the white population in contrast to the “minority” population (which, I guess appears to be synonymous with non-white).

        Yes, the demographic trend is that white children will be a minority in the US (and, already are in California). In 2015, when the numbers were graphed in the NYTimes, they are also a minority in 4/8 of the Ivy League universities and all of the UCs (and, not a plurality in all but 2 UCs).

        That’s the new reality, that in many places, non-hispanic white children will be a demographic minority, So no, majority white schools can’t be an expectation in many places.

        Majority poor schools might be undesirable (and difficult to engineer against), but, the solution to that problem is less poverty, as af suggested at the beginning of this thread.

        I have no concerns about the fact that white children will be a minority in the US, but it is horrifying that the majority of children are poor.

        Like

      3. bj said,

        “I have no concerns about the fact that white children will be a minority in the US, but it is horrifying that the majority of children are poor.”

        It does make plans to spackle over school quality problems with white kids less and less feasible.

        You can see this very clearly in places like NYC or DC, where there just aren’t enough middle class white kids to go around. (NYC public schools are about 15% white and DC public schools are about 10% white.)

        https://council.nyc.gov/data/school-diversity-in-nyc/

        https://www.dcpolicycenter.org/publications/landscape-of-diversity-in-dc-public-schools/

        Related: This has some implications for immigration. The more low-income and/or low-English kids there are in US schools, the more schools are going to struggle.

        Like

      4. Do the numbers allow that, though?

        https://www.ers.usda.gov/topics/food-nutrition-assistance/child-nutrition-programs/national-school-lunch-program.aspx

        About 30 million kids get free or reduced price hot lunches, out of about 50 million public school kids. (This comparison may be slightly misleading, depending on how many private schools do free or reduced hot lunch, but let’s say that 3/5 of public school kids are poor or poorish.)

        Again, I wonder whether you actually read the things you link to and if so, if you actually understand them.

        The numbers you post for FARM students are correct, although you ignore the 6-7 million or so private and home school kids. But the cutoff for FARM is actually pretty expansive, going up to 185% of the poverty line. For a family of four that is around $50K and for a family of six it is over $60K. Some of the FARM kids are living in genuine dystopian poverty but many, many, more are otherwise stable lower income working class families and, often, are largish religious lower income families. You can argue that in a conservative paradise these families wouldn’t have access to FARM (although I think it is good pubic policy to underpin the food security of these families) but to argue that this is the criterion by which you should exclude these students from your otherwise good school because you don’t want your kids to rub shoulders with these people is not only elitist but also lacking in civic virtue.

        So yes, I think the numbers work out so that we could spread many more of the truly impoverished students around than we otherwise do. Not all of them, especially since we can’t do this for rural schools at all, which is a large part of where the poverty exists, but some.

        There was an article in the Washington post today about an attempt to do this in Memphis, by merging the two school districts in Shelby County into one countywide district:

        https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2019/12/16/lines-that-divide-school-district-boundaries-often-stymie-integration

        There is no reason this should not have happened. And while the response of the suburban districts was legal and probably could not have been stopped, in a universe where public policy wasn’t set up for the upper and upper middle classes to game the system, when they did this there is no reason why they should have been allowed to take the county tax revenue with them. Want to set up your own schools? Fine. Just leave the money…

        Like

      5. Jay said, “The numbers you post for FARM students are correct, although you ignore the 6-7 million or so private and home school kids.”

        I wrote, “This comparison may be slightly misleading, depending on how many private schools do free or reduced hot lunch, but let’s say that 3/5 of public school kids are poor or poorish.”

        So, yes, I explicitly noted that I wasn’t including a number for private school kids. I can’t find a number right now, but a lot of private schools do not participate in the federal hot lunch program. (I know ours doesn’t.) I also mentioned that the reduced/free lunch kids are not necessarily kids in dire poverty (“poor and poorish”). If it makes you happier, let’s say that at least half of public school kids are poor or poorish.

        Where do homeschooled kids get their federally provided hot school lunches, by the way, if they’re not going to school? I understand that they could go to summer lunch programs, but it would be a bit awkward showing up for lunch at the local public school during the school year if they’re not enrolled. Kind of a pain in the neck for the parents, too, given that different grades eat at different times…

        Jay said, “to argue that this is the criterion by which you should exclude these students from your otherwise good school because you don’t want your kids to rub shoulders with these people is not only elitist but also lacking in civic virtue.”

        I don’t think I said that.

        What I was trying to say was something more like–if there are a lot of poor or poorish kids but the plan is to “fix” the schools using kids with better demographics, how do you do that with a limited number of solidly middle class families? My rural hometown district back in WA was just barely tolerable when I was in high school, but it has more or less collapsed under the impact of going from being a predominantly white, fairly prosperous blue-collar town to being half blue collar white, with a lot of kids from very poor, often very illegal Central American families (Guatemalan Indians, El Salvadorans, etc.), combined with the demoralization of many local blue collar whites (i.e. dave s.’s scenario). The elementary school has no rating, the high school test scores rate a 2 on Great Schools, and while I can’t find a drop out rate right now, in the past it’s been about 1/3.

        “Not all of them, especially since we can’t do this for rural schools at all, which is a large part of where the poverty exists, but some.”

        Yep. The demographic solution is a non-starter in low-population areas.

        “There was an article in the Washington post today about an attempt to do this in Memphis, by merging the two school districts in Shelby County into one countywide district”

        “There is no reason this should not have happened. And while the response of the suburban districts was legal and probably could not have been stopped, in a universe where public policy wasn’t set up for the upper and upper middle classes to game the system, when they did this there is no reason why they should have been allowed to take the county tax revenue with them. Want to set up your own schools? Fine. Just leave the money…”

        You make this sound like a heist, whereas they presumably are providing the tax revenue that they are spending on their local schools.

        Also, this isn’t “gaming the system.” This is the system.

        Like

    3. Why can’t we just shift the descriptor from race to class? because race and socioeconomic opportunity and results are inextricably linked to race in America for systemic historical reasons that stem from the initial embrace of the white Americans of enslavement of black Americans, economically, institutionally, and politically. We (including those of us who did not come to the country until long after and who are not white) will be responsible for righting that wrong or a very long time, if we do not want to be complicit in the wrong.

      Like

      1. bj said,

        “Why can’t we just shift the descriptor from race to class? because race and socioeconomic opportunity and results are inextricably linked to race in America for systemic historical reasons that stem from the initial embrace of the white Americans of enslavement of black Americans, economically, institutionally, and politically. We (including those of us who did not come to the country until long after and who are not white) will be responsible for righting that wrong or a very long time, if we do not want to be complicit in the wrong.”

        It’s getting more complicated though, especially given African and Caribbean immigration and biracial kids. Like, if Meghan Markle and Prince Harry were to settle in the US, how would you feel about giving their kids affirmative action? At some point, class does trump race, especially given US “one drop” practices.

        Here’s an old NYT story:

        At the time of the article 15 years ago, only about 1/3 of Harvard students had all four grandparents being black descendants of US slaves–the bulk of black Harvard students were from West Indian and African families and/or were biracial.

        My 1st grader has two girls from Nigerian families among about 30 kids in her grade (one with a single mom, but one one with a married doctor mom). Nigerians are a really interesting immigrant success story, given how new they are to the US.

        Like

  17. I am currently right at the age of contemplating a move from New York City to the suburbs, largely because we need more space. I spend a lot of time talking to neighbors, realtors, and people who recently made the move.

    AmyP: “Middle class families are using the test scores as a proxy for school quality, not using test scores as a proxy for race.” This. All the UMC parents I know looking to move care about school quality.

    Cranberry: “At any rate, as the state files piles of data online, freely available to anyone, it’s quite paternalistic to believe that modern home buyers are relying only on their realtors’ advice to discover data on school performance. My impression is that relocation buyers hit the ground running with information about likely school districts they’ve found themselves from across the country or from other countries.” This too. Every parent I know who is or has moved told the realtor the town/school districts they were interested. Depending on the family and budget, maybe the realtor asks if they’re interested in the somewhat more expensive town next door, or cheaper, in this sentence very much code for better schools – but the buyer says where they’re looking and that’s what the realtor shows them. No one actually learns anything from the realtor about the schools, the realtor just says to look it up.

    Around here, it seems madness to think parents will stop trying to discern school quality. Make the test score data harder to find and they’ll use another one.

    Like

    1. MichaelB said, “Every parent I know who is or has moved told the realtor the town/school districts they were interested.”

      Yeah. Heck, when we were house-hunting, I’d just give them a list of the houses I was interested in seeing. In fact, (and I realize this makes me sound nuts!) every six months or so, I used to leaflet the small neighborhood I was most interested in, explaining that we were a family with kids looking for a house. (Ultimately, we wound up buying a house from somebody we already knew with no realtor involved, so I suppose that the leafleting was unnecessary, but it did turn up some other options.)

      I also have a long game going where (as older neighbors go into assisted living), I try to get people we know and like to move into our neighborhood. I have two sets of friends currently living in the neighborhood, and I can’t even tell you what a boost in quality of life it is.

      Like

    2. I have no expectation that parents, middle class ones, or others will sacrifice their kidney (or even less likely expectation, their child’s kidney) for another population. What we need to work towards, all of us, the middle class parents as well as the rich parents, is solutions that don’t require that sacrifice from anyone.

      One aspect of that solution — and here I can see my fellow parents — who, are in the upper 5% (even in my in-city public school) is that they support good enough solutions for their children. So there will be some “sacrifice”.

      No one should have to chose the train wreck.

      Like

    3. You should read 11D on the topic — I love the history as a contemporaneous account of decision making, and I am not even making any similar move (nor have I ever, having never lived in NYC).

      Like

  18. While I’m thinking of it, I think it should be said explicitly that looking for the “richest and whitest” public school is not a terrible rule of thumb for parents of special needs kids.

    I know a number of parents of disabled kids who go to our fancy pants suburban public elementary and are very happy there. (It’s about 2/3 white and 35% low-income.)

    Another issue–racial and ethnic mixes vary immensely by region in the US. So, in our part of TX, this is a “very white” school, being 17% Hispanic, 9% black and 4% Asian.

    Like

  19. My kids went to elementary and middle schools with a Great Schools rating of 2. Our high school has a Great Schools rating of 3 or 4, depending on the year. In our experience, those ratings mostly correlate to the demographics of the student population more than anything else. (yes, our schools are high-poverty schools.)

    The majority of our neighbors go private or open-enroll to other schools. So, we’re outliers. But we’ve had fabulous experiences. Our kids’ test scores didn’t go down. They got into college just fine. For us, the benefits of an education in a diverse environment far outweigh the costs of not attending a richer, more segregated suburban school.

    I think a lot of people look at those ratings and assume a school is a “train wreck” – without actually visiting or attending the school. We’ve not found those ratings to be an accurate measurement of our experience at our schools, at all.

    I find the work/writing of Nikole Hannah Jones fascinating on this topic.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. kristennel,

      One of the things that Great School does that is helpful is break out performance by race. So, for example, one of our local city high schools that is a 2 or a 3 generally performs as a 6 for white students.

      Another issue is the TX top 10% rule, which makes it (at least in theory) appealing to put your middle class kid into a low-performing high school, in the hope that they can earn automatic admission to a TX state college. (It’s top 6% for UT Austin.)

      Like

  20. I’m starting to notice a dispersal of a small section of families to rural areas. In my parents’ town, a number of families have built houses in the woods, and/or bought houses in new developments. The SAT scores for the town have just made a huge jump, and as far as I can tell, the schools haven’t made a miraculous transformation. However, I think it’s quite possible that it’s healthy for a school system to have a certain number of Pushy Parents paying attention to the school system. So, it’s good to cross a threshold of middle class parents.

    The families probably come from: Professional families making longer commutes to work, the growth in certain industries (tech, mostly) in the area, and, maybe, local kids who have used their education to become office workers, who are returning to their hometown. They may very well be prepared to supplement any local school offerings through outside activities.

    The region just showed up on zip recruiter’s “hot jobs market” list, so the increase in the school test scores may reflect the growing economy.

    Like

  21. A few more (late) thoughts:

    –I believe the consensus is that large public middle schools are usually bad, and that even a large high-income public middle school can often be a miserable experience for children and families.
    –As I’ve mentioned, my kids go to a small private school. While there have been times where it’s felt too small (12th grade mostly), it was a really amazing experience to have kids go through 6th, 7th and 8th grade without enormous amounts of misery. I was so surprised to talk to my oldest when she was an 8th grader and she said that she was friendly with everybody. EVERYBODY? How is that even possible? Where is the angst, the anomie? But then my middle child went through those same years and had a similar experience.
    –I think that middle school, as a concept, is one of the worst things to ever happen to US education. It’s just nuts to think that we ought to take kids on the cusp of puberty and stick them in a new school with half a dozen or so teachers per day (each for 50 minutes) and hundreds of strangers and hope that that goes well–and it would be nuts no matter what magic was going on in the classroom. It’s just a bad, developmentally inappropriate format.
    –It’s also kind of nuts unless there’s a lot of tracking going on. If everybody is taking mostly the same classes as other kids in their grade, there’s no need to have a massive middle school. It’s not like high school, where they might legitimately be a lot more specialization.
    –I don’t love the idea of monster high schools (my under 400 kid high school felt plenty big when I was a teen), but they don’t seem to be as socially and emotionally damaging as monster middle schools.
    –I have seen a lot of traffic between school systems. On the one hand, a lot of kids seem to do our private school up to 6th grade (that seems to be a local Korean strategy) and then transfer to the fancy suburban public middle school. Or else later on, they start struggling academically or their parents can’t afford it, and they wind up transferring to either a city high school or the fancy suburban high school. But on the other hand, a lot of kids also transfer in from the public schools. For example, I know a solidly middle class black family where the mom said that her son (who had ADHD) was “falling through the cracks” at his suburban elementary school, and they wound up transferring in to private school when the kid was in 5th or 6th grade. I haven’t pried, but presumably a lot of former public school families who transfer in have similar stories–there has to be a reason why some people choose not to send their kids to the highly rated fancy pants suburban school that has a squillion APs, sports and extracurriculars and is FREE (with the purchase of one $250k+ house).
    –It can be really hard to achieve a good school fit (and the school that works for one family may not work for another), and when you do have a good fit, you hold onto it for dear life.

    Like

    1. “I think that middle school, as a concept, is one of the worst things to ever happen to US education. It’s just nuts to think that we ought to take kids on the cusp of puberty and stick them in a new school with half a dozen or so teachers per day (each for 50 minutes) and hundreds of strangers and hope that that goes well–and it would be nuts no matter what magic was going on in the classroom. It’s just a bad, developmentally inappropriate format.”
      Yes to this. Isolation from adults and younger children is NOT the way it’s been for tween kids for the last fifty thousand years, it’s not surprising they’re not built for it to be a good and wholesome thing. Being quite a long ways towards the ‘determinist’ area in my beliefs about human nature, I think it’s a goddamn miracle we do as well as we do in conditions so very different from those in which our ancestors developed. Middle school (for me it was junior high school) is one of the worst institutions. It works for the way we have organized society, with few useful tasks for tweens to do and a need for highly trained and educated adults emerging in their late twenties from very high level of concentration on abstract knowledge areas. But it’s not emotionally or socially good for the kids.

      Like

  22. ds said, “It works for the way we have organized society, with few useful tasks for tweens to do and a need for highly trained and educated adults emerging in their late twenties from very high level of concentration on abstract knowledge areas.”

    I don’t think I’d even give it that.

    Like

  23. I was just reading this, by a mom blogger I follow:

    https://thepracticalconservative.wordpress.com/2020/01/07/the-low-investment-high-return-myth-of-education/

    “While it’s extremely easy to immediately trip over examples all over the right, there is not a shortage of this myth being propagated by people who have kids and also lefty tendencies. It’s the myth that if you just live in an 80%+ white, already-high scoring suburb or exurb, then you don’t have to do anything and you will immediately be provided with a pleasant environment for your kids to attend school in from K-12. The high levels of volunteering and the extensive fundraising habits of such districts are airily dismissed as women being too control-freakish when they “really don’t need to bother, it’s not a ‘diverse’ district!””

    “But fundamentally, there is no plug and play school world anymore because there’s no culture of acceptable educational “losses”– that is, a belief that it’s ok for some people’s kids to not finish high school or college because they can earn money instead of a more uncertain payoff from additional education.”

    My formulation of this is that school is a reenactment of the “Stone Soup” story. The villagers in the story think that they are going to enjoy soup made from boiling a stone contributed by an outsider…but in reality, the deliciousness and caloric content of the soup come from all the other things (the meat and various veggies) that the villagers themselves put in.

    The average of what people get out looks a lot like the average of what people put in.

    Like

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