What’s in a School?
It would seem that Kiersten Marek has misunderstood my impetus for considering private schools for my children. Citing a study by the Center on Education Policy that finds “no evidence that private schools actually increase student performance,” she notes:
Over at Anchorrising.com, self-declared union-hater Justin Katz is wondering if he should send his children to private school. This study would suggest that perhaps he should save his paycheck for other things.
The post of mine to which she links describes the atrocious behavior of a group of unionists who are well compensated by any standards — even more so in relation to Rhode Island’s behind-the-curve economics — and are tangibly harming the community of Tiverton and its children because they think the money-strapped town ought to fork over an even greater increase than is on the table as a matter of course. My confidence in that group of unionists is not, let us say, of the highest degree that they may unreservedly be trusted with those other areas of influence that are generally considered to accrue to men and women in the role of teacher. Any student, for instance, who had attended the last school committee meeting — or even who is sufficiently interested to follow the controversy in local papers — is at risk of learning a very detrimental lesson from them. I’m not at all persuaded, that is, that there aren’t other benefits to the private-school environment.
To be honest, I’m not even persuaded that the argument of equivalence with respect to academic achievement is more than a numbers game. Studies achieve this end by controlling for such factors as parental income and involvement; in the succinct phrasing of Center on Education Policy President and CEO Jack Jennings, “private schools simply have higher percentages of students who would perform well in any environment based on their previous performance and background.” But is it reasonable and fair to treat these factors as background noise when judging schools (especially from a parent’s perspective)? Is that use of the word “simply” appropriate?
In some respects, I may be pulling the carrots out of the stew, here, but I can’t help but recall in this context a study that the NEA’s Bob Walsh cited in a comment to Tom Wigand’s recent Anchor Rising post that found that the “very lowest- and very highest- achieving students fared somewhat worse on standardized tests in unionized schools.” Being as objective as I’m able, the chances that my own children will be in the latter category are sufficiently good that it would be worth a modest investment to avoid such worsening, especially if the worst-case academic scenario is that the private school would do no worse than no better.
That sort of assessment from a personal perspective opens up another range of aptitude for discussion: I simply don’t buy that children on the higher end of the “average” group don’t benefit significantly from their placement among “higher percentages of students who would perform well in any environment.” (One would expect all children to benefit from such company, of course, but with declining returns as one drifts down the scale of potential.) Controlling for self-selection, in other words, controls for a central benefit that private schools offer to the majority of their students.
I don’t doubt that there are likely correlations between parents’ inclination to be involved with their children’s development, parents’ wealth, and children’s native intelligence (or raw potential). Such qualities would seem naturally to flow from certain biological advantages. Still, it strikes me as prima facie foolishness to discount peers and the school environment that they create — and that is created with them in mind. I’m about as egalitarian as they come with respect to each individual’s inherent worth and am heartily skeptical about the ability of wealth, per se, to create happiness, but the sort of children — the sort of families — with whom one’s progeny interact certainly has an effect on their development. Furthermore, it isn’t classist to suggest that one’s children are better off learning the habits of the group that is more likely to have children in private school.
As the product of public schools, myself, as a former dock worker, and as a carpenter, I do know the value of diversity in acquaintances. I also know that even the lives of the young encompass multiple environments. Within the school setting, I’d suggest that diversity’s all well and good, but isn’t necessarily desirable for its own sake. In a group that is homogeneous in some important respects — such as motivation and mutual respect — then it’s good. If it comes with sheer difference, it has the potential to corrupt or even to reinforce bigotry.
The striking thing about the public school versus private school debate is the tacit premise that the tendency to become involved in a child’s education — to be self-selecting — is a sort of demographic quality that people either do or don’t possess. If the critical element of a private school education is that the children are there with a sense of purpose, that would seem to be a quality that the public education system ought to emulate. The most straightforward way to accomplish such a goal would be to facilitate parents’ becoming interested and involved by allowing them maximum opportunity to choose the schools to which their tax dollars allow them to send their children.
I’ve drifted, though, from my intended point, which is that there is more to a school than curricula and academic opportunity. The attitudes creating the learning environment matter. The company that the children chance to keep matters.
Upon first reading a letter to the Providence Journal by Dean Fachon of East Greenwich, my reaction was that his school committee meeting experience sounded familiar:
At an East Greenwich School Committee meeting — attended by 200 or more people — fully 90 percent were teachers. The committee allowed 15 minutes at the start for public comment, and several people stood to speak on behalf of the teachers.
“They’re only asking for an average increase, in keeping with the private sector.” “Let’s give the teachers what they want; they’re marvelous people and do a terrific job for our kids.” Comments like these were greeted with thunderous applause.
When a few brave townspeople stood up to express different opinions, the clapping was brief and sparse, and in one case there were nasty catcalls and hissing from the pro-teacher crowd. …
One gentleman at the school-committee meeting was brave enough to suggest that it’s difficult for one party (the school committee) to negotiate an equitable deal with another party (the union) when the other party holds all the cards. That brought forth the aforementioned catcalls, and no one came to this man’s defense. It sure looked like a stacked deck to me.
But the following Web Words letter from A Medeiros in the Sakonnet Times led me to consider the differences between my town and Fachon’s:
I can’t help but contrast how nasty and disrespectful the negotiations have become here in Tiverton to the on-going contract talks in Burrillville and East Greenwich. Negotiations there also involve union folks from up-state (including Mr. Crowley). But the actual representatives from the towns — the school committee, superintendent and teachers — continue to demonstrate professionalism and devotion to their students by not making the conflict personal or lashing out in the press. Perhaps our school committee and superintendent could learn something from these folks on how to act like professional adults when faced with difficult circumstances.
A. is clearly advocating on the teachers’ behalf, and it’s important to note that the Tiverton teachers are not blameless. The most visceral hostility that I’ve personally observed has come from them. Moreover, if I’m not mistaken, the East Greenwich teachers have not flipped the work-to-rule switch, as the Tiverton teachers have done.
On the the other hand, I haven’t seen any opportunity for “public comment” in Tiverton. That mightn’t be a school committee dodge, however; I’d be extremely surprised to learn that anywhere near 10% of the audience that attends its meetings are parents or members of the public. In a crowd that’s 99.9% teachers and union members, a public comment item on the agenda would simply become an opportunity for them to attack the committee, an opportunity that they snatch for themselves already.
Two comparisons occurred to me after a tour of a private-school campus today. The first was that I’ve never seen nor heard of such a tour of a public school. The open houses that I’ve attended were more like “meet your teacher” events, nothing like the room-to-room stroll with the vice principal that I had this afternoon, giving plenty of time for questions to form and for the full breadth of the educational environment to seep in. Public schools have no reason to develop sales pitches — no reason to walk parents through the services that they offer.
The second thought was that a meeting of interested parties during any sort of employment dispute would be entirely different with a private school. The parents would probably match or exceed the teachers in attendance. More importantly, they’d have something to leverage: namely, their willingness to pay tuition. Can it be doubted that involvement would begin to expand were public-school parents given similar leverage? At the very least, I suspect that the teachers would not be so apt to disrespect the townspeople and the parents through their elected proxies were the funding not guaranteed.
The bottom line of my experience with public schooling is that I don’t care who’s to blame for acrimony. The more involved I become and the more I learn, the less enthusiastic I am about my children’s sharing my public-school background. Even if a private school can promise nothing but some insulation from the looming collapse of Rhode Island’s public sector, schools included, then it may very well be worth treating as one more of the many excessive burdens that a family must shoulder in order to live in this state.