40 Proof or Stronger
Okay, here’s a point where my circumstances get in the way. I’ll have to give a lot of context for everybody to understand where I’m coming from. If you want to skip all this, jump down to “Here’s where I come back to Ethan’s quote.”
I live in a historical district in Pasadena, California. The neighborhood got its “Historical District” designation back in the 1980s, when developers were starting to tear down the 1910-1940s bungalows and build mid-density apartment buildings on the fringes of the neighborhood. At the time, the neighborhood park wasn’t great, there was a decent amount of graffiti, lots of drugs in the park, etc. With the historical designation came cachet, and slowly the neighborhood started to turn over. By the late 1990s, almost all of the houses were owned by middle-to-upper-middle-to-lower-upper class people. In the late 1990s, there began a second wave of turnover. Some of the wealthier people (who had restored their houses) and some of the remaining poorer people (who decided to cash in on the elevated property values) started selling to new families.
Pasadena has a long and for a while very bad relationship with public schools. Bussing led to white flight, which persisted for a long, long time. From the late 1980s until nearly 2000 it was just understood that the public schools in Pasadena were terrible, and you don’t send your kids there.
In the late 1990s and early 2000, the school system started making very excellent strides, however. Some late 20-somethings and early 30-somethings started putting off sending their kids to private school at Pre-K to save money (the dot-com bust probably helped quite a bit), and they found that they liked their teachers and they liked their principal and hey, all those minority kids weren’t really scary when you worked the classroom.
Anticipating the question: which came first, the chicken or the egg? Wrong question! The right question is, “Who in their right minds would try and start a poultry farm with one chicken or one egg?”
Active PTAs with money started springing up. Volunteerism in the classrooms started going up as mothers and fathers who would have worked in the Mothers’ Guild or the Parents’ Club at the local Catholic school started spending time in the public school classrooms. People who worked at JPL or Caltech started volunteering more to teach Science courses.
Ethan says, in his piece:
Benedikt is under the illusion that engaged parents is one of the major resources that “good” schools have and “bad” ones don’t.
The way this is phrased, it seems obviously boneheaded, right? However, I don’t know that “this” is an illusion. More on that in a minute.
Back to the me-context part:
I went to private school almost exclusively from grade 1 all the way to graduating college. In my personal experience, I saw a lot of the things that parents complain about as being deal breakers for public school… “You can’t get rid of bad teachers!” or “You can’t get bad egg students out of the classroom” are the two biggest ones. The worst two teachers I ever saw were both private school teachers whom *nobody* liked, and they weren’t going anywhere. The worst students I ever saw skewed pretty highly towards legacy family folk who could get away with anything just shy of murder because their fathers and grandfathers and uncles were all current or former presidents of the Booster Club or whatever. I never bought into these things being deal-breakers for public school, because guess what? They’re not a public school phenomenon. They’re a school phenomenon. Hell, they’re a “human organization” problem.
The next biggest complaint about public school is that the quality of education is poor. Now, I know a lot of teachers who have worked both in and out of the public school system and generally speaking the public school teachers have more training, more current educations, more mentoring support while they’re learning the trade. This applies to the teachers who teach at the inner-city schools, too. They’re no less or more likely to be gliding along on the back of tenure than private school teachers are likely to be gliding along on the back of “I’ve been here for 20 years and nobody is going to fire me”.
All that aside, I’m a pretty bright dude and my wife is no slouch. If we wanted to homeschool, our kids would certainly come out the other end with a decent education. Heck, I have more than a little training, I’ve taught workshops and classes and substitute taught and I even took some education courses back when I was an undergrad. Kitty taught labs when she was in grad school. Unlike many successful homeschooling parents, we’d be going in with some experience.
So, I must be honest, we could have all marginally passable teachers and I wouldn’t consider that necessarily a deal-breaker. When people freak out too much about teacher quality the thought that is always creeping around in the back of my head is, “Wait a second, aren’t you planning on being involved in your child’s education anyway?”
As long as the kids aren’t getting beat up, and they don’t feel physically threatened, and they’re not being actively dissuaded from learning, they’ll probably turn out okay wherever they go. I’m lucky, both of my kids are bright, but they’re not so extraordinarily gifted that they’re bored all the time in class to the extent that it ruins their willingness to be there.
Sudden side note: in Benedikt’s original piece, she wrote:
But many others go private for religious reasons, or because their kids have behavioral or learning issues, or simply because the public school in their district is not so hot. None of these are compelling reasons. Or, rather, the compelling ones (behavioral or learning issues, wanting a not-subpar school for your child) are exactly why we should all opt in, not out.
I realize that this may not be the case in your particular state, but here in California, people who have children with behavioral or learning issues or even physical disabilities don’t send their kids to private school. They typically send them to public school, because the public school system is legally required to provide them advanced support private schools don’t have to offer.
End side note.
Jack and Hannah both go to public school. It’s our neighborhood school. While we live in a fairly well-to-do-enclave here in Pasadena, the neighborhood right next door has a lot of assisted housing and is much more likely to have police interventions than ours. The police helicopter does do-dos often enough that you don’t notice it, and those kids who live in that neighborhood are also in our neighborhood school. Our overall demographics are tiny% white, slightly more than that African-American, a huge Hispanic population and some hodge podge. 70-80% of our kids are on free/assisted lunch. We’re a minority-majority, largely economically disadvantaged student population.
In spite of the fact that the vast majority of our kids are the same kids who get the short shrift when they’re going to schools in some inner city neighborhoods, the fact that there are maybe 20% of the parents in middle/upper middle class makes a huge difference.
Here’s where I come back to Ethan’s quote.
It’s not that middle/upper class parents are “better”. It’s not that they’re more engaged (bad parents can be engaged, and make things worse, poor parents can be engaged, but lack time). It’s not that they have more spare time (they typically have more discretionary time, but that doesn’t mean they use it wisely, poor parents might work double jobs, but still come up with time to volunteer). It’s not that they have more money (although more money always helps). It is all of those things, intertwined.
Given a school population of 500… where 99% of the kids and 99% of the parents are at or below the poverty line, the relative probability that you’ll get engaged, available, thoughtful, dedicated people with extra time AND extra discretionary income is pretty close to zero. You have 5-10 people who might have discretionary income and time. The odds that they’re all also SuperParents is laughable. Hell, maybe you get 1.
Sometimes, 1 is all it takes. Don’t think I’m disparaging the 1, or the possibility of what the 1 can do. Don’t think that I think that one of the parents below the poverty line can’t be ExtraSuperParent. That happens too, sure.
Who in their right minds would try and start a poultry farm with one chicken or one egg?
I’m not talking about those outliers, because they’re outliers.
Given a school population of 500 where 80% of the kids are at or below the poverty line… well, now all of a sudden you have 100-200 parents who might have time and/or discretionary income. Hey, even if only 5% of that 100-200 are SuperParents… that gives you a rotating group of 5-10 PTA presidents and officers pulling off the SuperParent gig.
The funny thing about ground-up organizations is inertia. It takes a lot of pushing to get one of these things to move. Once they start moving, they draw in all sorts of people. Humans are social animals, it’s easy to contribute an hour or so of your time to work at a parent-staffed event even if you’re strapped for time.
It’s not easy to set up and coordinate a parent-staffed event unless you’re willing to spend a lot of time, and sometimes a fairly decent chunk of change.
You don’t need completely integrated schools. You probably don’t need schools with half-and-half disparity between people with income and people without it.
But lemme tell you, 20% makes a big damn difference.