Saturday, June 6, 2009

On Overrated Rich Schools

Via the "Kitchen Table Math" blog, I came across an interesting debate about "nominally high performing" schools. That is, schools located in affluent neighborhoods that score reasonably well on standardized tests because of their demographics but in reality are actually mediocre. Like the one my own children are zoned to attend, which is ranked in the top 10% statewide but the bottom 20% when compared to other schools with similar demographic profiles. I was especially struck by the following:
"Parents and school boards in affluent communities may not want to hear that the teaching in their schools is mediocre. The accountability system does not call attention to the problems of instructional quality in these schools, nor does it reinforce efforts to solve them....Unlike low-performing schools, which may be galvanized by external pressure to improve, so-called high-performing schools must often swim against a tide of complacency to generate support for change."
I get so frustrated at the perception gap in my town. "We're a California Distinguished School!" the school boasts. "We moved here because of the good schools!" beams an acquaintance. I just smile politely but inside I want to scream, "wake up and smell the coffee, people! Things aren't as hunky-dory as you all seem to believe they are!"

Laura McKenna over at the "11D" blog takes a more blase view of the problem of underperforming affluent schools:
"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."
If a parent has to "afterschool" in order to make up for the academic deficiencies of the school, then what's the point of enrolling the child in the first place? Why not just homeschool and free up the child's afternoons for enrichment activities and unstructured play?

Laura follows up with a post detailing a number of the things she dislikes about her kids' school:
"Jonah's teachers have been terrible about math. They don't do enough repetition of math facts, and they just explain things really badly.

They don't do handwriting anymore, because the teachers tell me that all work will happen on laptops in the future.

Their time in specials (art, library, computers, health) is a complete waste of time.

They don't do enough writing.

They are not preparing the kids for good colleges. In fact, the head administrators seem to think that college consists of kids working in groups on laptop computers. They aren't preparing the kids for big lecture halls and blue books.

They assign book reports that consist largely of art projects that the parents complete.

They assign stupid homework like word searches and crossword puzzles."

So again my question is- if the academics are so lacking, why bother sending her kids there in the first place?

Is it "socialization"? I discussed that issue a couple weeks ago. Also, just today I was reading the newsletter from my town mothers' club when I came across a humor piece in written by a woman whose oldest child is a kindergartner. Here is an excerpt from it:
"They say a parent's influence only makes a difference for about the first seven years of a child's life. Well, make that five years. As soon as they enter the stream of public education and co-mingle with the throngs, they soak up everything like a sponge: the latest YouTube videos, the trendiest fashion fads, the most in-vogue vernacular. Soon you'll find yourself made obsolete as the go-to source of all things hip and happenin' and you feel as redundant as yesterday's newspaper (wait, make that newspapers, period)."
Yeah, I think I'll take a pass on this kind of "socialization" of my kids.

Now, quite possibly Laura is employed outside the home and is looking to her kids' school to provide childcare while she is at her job. I don't know her situation so I'm not going to make a judgment about that one way or the other. But for me personally, I'm a full-time homemaker and (God willing) plan to stay that way for a while. So that's not a reason for me to put my kids in a subpar school. I'm only going to enroll them in a school that would do a better job educating them than I can do myself. And that's definitely not my local government-run school...


christinemm said...

How do you get figures for the wider demographic comparison?

I'd love to see how my public school system shakes out.

Crimson Wife said...

California publishes the information as part of its "Academic Performance Index" profile. I've got my issues with certain other portions of the API (such as how it uses an arbitrary number between 200 and 1000 instead of listing the percentage of kids meeting grade level proficiency), but this is one feature I really like.

Dan Nagle said...

I respect your decision to home school and I think there are a lot of positives to home schooling. I am glad there are parents like you who are so dedicated to their children.

However you seem bitter, judgmental, negative, and partisan in regards to public schools (and the public in general). Are those Catholic doctrines?

I am not advocating that you should be sending your kids to public schools but I doubt if you, or those who agree with your negative public school sentiment, have ever even heard an argument in defense of public schools.

Please go to this link and do some reading.

Crimson Wife said...

Actually, I graduated from a government-run school and feel it did a pretty good job from an academic standpoint. In general, I was well prepared for the coursework I encountered at a top 5 university. It consistently ranks in the top ten (numerical not percentile) in the state on the standardized tests and is frequently the highest scoring non-exam school.

One of the reasons I'm so frustrated with my local school is that I know it could be so much better. It's not a question of money, because the per-pupil spending is at a similar level (both around $11.5k). It's not demographics either, as those are similar as well. There is nothing that obviously jumps out at me to explain why the school for which my kids are zoned underperforms.

Crimson Wife said...

After glancing at your site, I think you and I are in agreement about many things. See a post I wrote back in December of 2007 entitled "Are Today's Students Less Well-Educated Than Their Parents?"

Dan Nagle said...

Your post from 2007 had many interesting facts and opinions.

Throwing money at schools is not a solution. Trying to fix schools in poverty stricken areas without fixing the poverty is like trying to clean the air on one side of a screen door. I have no ideas for fixing poverty and I am not sure that in an economic system like ours that it can be fixed. All I know is that blaming schools for the dysfunctions caused by poverty does nothing but demoralize educators who are doing the best they can. If your immediate response is to think that educators do not do the best they can, then, if you could, please read a very short article (Yes We Can?) at this link:

and you might see what I mean.

Scroll down to the second article on the site.

Crimson Wife said...

I agree with you that poverty is a *HUGE* issue in this country. However, it doesn't explain underperforming schools located in affluent neighborhoods like mine. With a median family income in the six figures, a student population that is only 3% low income, and 70% of the parents holding a bachelor's degree or higher, one cannot blame the middling test scores on poverty.

I do believe that many classroom teachers are doing the best they can given the circumstances they find themselves in. Sure, there are "bad apples" but that's true of any profession. It's very unfortunate IMHO that the unions spend so much time and energy protecting the minority of bad teachers since that gives the profession as a whole a bad name.

I place a much greater share of the blame for underperforming schools on administrators, bureaucrats, teachers' unions, and ed schools.

Dan Nagle said...

You are quite thoughtful and reflective and I appreciate that you put my comments on your blog.

You mention "under performing schools" like yours and my first reaction is - are they really under performing? I have seen data (like NAEP for instance) so often slanted to make schools look bad that I have been trained to be skeptical. Not saying that good data is not there, I just wonder. Go back to my blog and see what NAEP standards are and how they are formed.

Then your last comment ends with blame for administrators, bureaucrats, teachers' unions, and ed schools.

Education, like dysfunction, begins at home. I would love to know what these under performing affluent students do in the 87% of their waking hours when they are not in a classroom (Time, 2/13/05). My guess is texting (maybe sexting), cell phoning, computer gaming (95% of teenage boys and 67% of teenage girls regularly play video games – including the best selling Grand Theft Auto, where players gain points by murdering cops and beating prostitutes to death with bats (Sept. 2003, USA Today.), TV watching, DVD watching, etc. etc. etc.

By age 18 students have spent only 13% of their waking hours in a classroom (Time, 2/13/05) so hopefully, as I have heard from others, you do not think it is the public school's obligation to come up with strategies to override the affects of students immersed in popular culture America. Public schools' duty should be to improve society, not rescue our children from it.

It's a numbers game. For the past 10 years or so I have averaged 30+ students per class (middle school/U.S. History). Kids who come from families that instill proper values and kids who somehow get those values on their own I can reach. I try to reach those who do not have such values. Certainly some kids are left behind.

Our compulsory laws drag kids to the loading dock (school) but no law can make it compulsory for kids to load. One has to choose to get on board if one does not want to be left behind.

Teacher said...

I had to laugh when I read "They are not preparing the kids for good colleges. In fact, the head administrators seem to think that college consists of kids working in groups on laptop computers. They aren't preparing the kids for big lecture halls and blue books."

Went back to college a few years ago for a master's, after having received my bachelor's in 1990. Kids working in groups on laptop computers (or home alone on laptop computers) is EXACTLY what my more recent college experience was. No blue books, no large lecture halls.

In fact, the last time I saw a large lecture hall was my freshman year in 1982-1983. Never saw one again during 8 years of higher education.

Crimson Wife said...

To Teacher:
I think it depends on the college/university. My husband was in grad school from 2003-2006 and most of his classes were largish (~90 students) lectures with traditional exams. He did have some seminars with final research papers in lieu of exams. But really the only group work he did that made up a significant portion of his final grade was in an investment management class where he & 2 classmates ran a mock portfolio.