Who I am: Chris Lehmann
What I do: Principal of the Science Leadership Academy in Philadelphia, PA (Opening 9/06).
What I did: Technology Coordinator / English Teacher / Girls Basketball Coach / Ultimate Coach at the Beacon School, a fantastic progressive public high school in Manhattan.
Email: chris [at] practicaltheory [dot] org.
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Tuesday, December 28. 2010
I spent the past several days in Lynchburg, VA where my wife grew up. We saw a bunch of her old friends from (public) high school, and what struck me was that not one of them send their children to public school. These were middle and upper-middle class families who were all the products of public school. All of them spoke well of the education they received in Lynchburg public schools, and all of them spoke of the difficulty of the decision to send their children to private schools. We heard several reasons, and among them were:
And it struck me - how long does this last? If more and more families who can, choose to opt out of the public system, how long will be have one? With so many families making major financial decisions to send their children to private schools and so many more families sending their children to charter schools that do not typically think of themselves as "public school families," how long will we have a public school system that educates the majority of Americans?
It is why I think we will see more and more legislation for voucher programs in the coming years, and while they have mostly been focused at the state level, I think we will see federal legislation for vouchers within the next couple of years. And sadly, I cannot imagine a better way to move Americans toward wanting one than the current national dialogue about school.
We have undermined support for one of the longest standing public institutions we have, and I worry that we are on the verge of replacing it with a franchise model of education where Americans will take their tax credits and shop them to whomever will accept their child. Families of means will take their credit and happily subsidize their children's private education. Families who cannot will take the monies - minus the necessary cut for oversight of this new system - and find the best schools they can. And the best of the democratic ideals that our public schools were built on will be further eroded in favor of "the market."
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Here a link to an interactive census map showing a region where 45% of elementary students go to private school in Lynchburg, VA - http://t.co/a4IH3tn
There are regions in NJ and NYC where over 90% of elementary students attend private school!
Where in NY/NJ is there 90% private school attendance? That seems impossible to me, but I remain open-minded.
Isn't this what has already happened to inner-city schools as people with means move out to the suburbs and "better" schools? I know the school district is a major factor in where my wife and I choose to live.
You hit upon something that many of us are seeing. The "perception is reality" is what I believe the edreformers are gearing up to mulitply. NYC hiring an unqualified chancellor with a background in print media, and the outgoing chancellor going to a media position is just one of many approaches to develop the message that will be spoken over the next few years.
So here is my question. We see this coming. What should we do? I'm serious...what should we do? Do we create a pre-emptive strike and develop our own Charters before they are the true norm? Do we try to battle with billionaires to get a different message to the public?
I am beginning to think that instead of fighting what appears to be inevitable, it may be better to beat them to the punch and create the charter/private schools and build a reputation before the public receives vouchers and makes bad decisions on where to send the children...test-prep factories instead of places for learning.
I think you're spot on about the snowball effect. And I fully agree about the effects vouchers will have on both our public school system and our society as a whole (or, more accurately, as parts).
I'm not sure about your take on the history of public education, though. My sense is that the history of public schools isn't as deeply rooted-in-all-things-good as most folks think. I'm definitely not hugely versed in this history, but this article (not that there aren't others to refute it) confirms my general notion: http://www.servintfree.net/~aidmn-ejournal/publications/2001-11/PublicEducationInTheUnitedStates.html
According to that, in 1900, only 6% of Americans graduated from high school. Not that 100 years is nothing, but I think it's important to keep that in mind.
Also, plenty of the motivation (as I understand it (last of the disclaimers--I'll just trust you to know I don't feel like I know all of this history)) was about educating kids so they could work good solid factory jobs--I don't know that there have been too many decades in which the market was so far from the heart of public education.
In NYC, as I know you know, there are really interesting thigns going on in the public schools--lots of them are getting worse, but the number of good and great public schools is definitely higher than it was 30 years ago. Sort of a bifurcation within a bifurcation. I suspect this will continue for quite a while, too, as non-wealthy but highly educated folks who live in urban areas continue to push for their public schools to be better.
Dialogue is good, but it's gonna take some serious action to keep mediocre public schools from getting much worse over the next decade or so.
I suspect this "franchise model" is precisely what some of the most vocal critics of public education would love to see: consistent, predictable results on a mass scale.
I personally get queasy thinking about the possibility that we'll end up with Wal*School, where you can walk into any school in the country and get an identical experience with identical curriculum delivered (not taught) by identical "educational service associates". How incredibly sad would that be for our students?
The cruel irony is that there is little if any evidence that such "franchise" schools are capable or producing anything close to "consistent, predictable results on a mass scale."
It's fortunate, then, for those seeking to "reform" the public schools that evidence isn't a prerequisite for dogmatic adherence to a point-of-view, isn't it?
I attended public schools, taught in public schools, and ultimately sent my younger son to a private school. My older son went to public school in an affluent suburb of New York where discipline and safety were not really an issue, but large groups if students would routinely get caught doing drugs on school trips, education was not really a priority, and many of the things I learned as an immigrant to America, like a certain degree of affection for the country and its traditions, were certainly not part of the academic agenda. We found a school which hewed closer to our values and couldn't be happier.
I think that as the country has become more affluent, parents who can afford it start to make choices for their children's welfare that may not have been feasible a generation earlier. Unfortunately for the public school system, in many cases it is essentially chasing out precisely the students/families it most covets --- otherwise, we would all shrug our shoulders and say: no great loss.
My decision to "opt-out" of public schools had nothing to do with the quality of schools in my area or my desire for an elite private school environment. My husband and I decided we wanted to raise our children in a Christian environment where you could celebrate Christmas (not a "winter holiday") and you didn't need to worry if you told a friend that you would pray for them if their family was in crisis. It was a HUGE financial sacrifice to send them to a parochial school but now that I see them at 21 & 24 - I am so happy we did. They were surrounded by teachers who REALLY cared about them - and not just their academic achievements but their personal and spiritual health too. Learning that they are part of a bigger community and they have something to give and learn the blessing of serving others is a gift that will last their whole lives.
Parents have always had the right to send their children to religious schools when such education was desirable. I don't think that's the phenomena Chirs is discussing.
My point is that we don't always know the real reason why some folks "opt out" of public schools - statistics can't explain it all.
I know they'll never admit to it, but how many of your the folks you mention send their kids to private schools so their kids don't need to be with "other people's children?"
It wasn't so long ago that Virginia closed public schools to avoid integration.
It's even in their state test-prep curriculum
Nationally, private school enrollment has declined over the last five years. More people are moving from private to public than the reverse. http://www.slate.com/id/2246417/
And they were all families who would have sent their kids to public schools in the past. And none of them were, mostly because of policy decisions our nation has made about public schools in the past decade.
I suspect you are being too kind here.
Schools have changed, but not so dramatically that you would opt out of public schooling if public matters to you.
If you expect your school to vault your child into the social stratosphere, well, then, public schools fail, as they should.
If you want a child who can function in a democratic culture, exposed to a variety of ideas and cultures, and you intend to be a good parent, public education trumps any gated community.
You want a real community, you have to work to create it. It amazes me that those who want what's "best for their children" go out of their way to minimize the children of others.
The reason it's often a difficult decision is because it is the wrong decision, destructive to both our communities and our children.
We reap what we sow.
If you want a child who can function in a democratic culture, exposed to a variety of ideas and cultures, and you intend to be a good parent, public education trumps any gated community.
This is opposite my experience and observation. Private schools have a lot easier time being open to discussion and debate over different ideas, in general, than most public schools. Sure there are dogmatic, usually religious but occasionally far left, public schools that are particularlly closed minded but the system in public schools means that the easy way out is not enforce of mono-culture of ideas.
In my part of the world where diversity often means some are protestant and some are Catholic, private schools tend to be more socially, ethnically and culturally diverse than public schools.
I visit public (and sometimes private) schools all over the country. It's a real mixed bag. I visited a public "vocational" high school in NJ recently that I would pay out of pocket to send my child to. It was amazing. Quality teachers, equipment, students, and results. Not a neighborhood school though. I've visited some neighborhood schools in Texas that I think very highly of though. But some others? Not so much. The same is true of private schools though. The Philips Acadamies (there are two) and similar schools cost like college and give results like college. But some private schools are just a way to avoid mixing of some sort and are really poor. So I don't see one as automatically good or bad.
We tried the local public school for my son. Gave it a whole year even though it seemed clear after half a year that it was wrong for him. Private schools the rest of the way. And now he is working as an assistant principal in a public school trying with all his talents and training to make a difference in the world. My wife also teaches in public schools BTW. There are great teachers in many "poor" schools. But if the environment, at home and in the community, is not supportive the best teacher in the world can only make so much difference.
Maybe those schools your friends went to still have great teachers and great facilities but is the environment the same? I don't know but perhaps that is the telling feature.
The attraction for many who select private schools, and yes even special public schools like SLA, is that there is a whole educationally supportive environment. Teachers, students, parents all with a commitment to education. That doesn't happen everywhere.
These are precisely the waters which my family (3 boys, ages 10, 7, and 4) navigates (and has been for the past 10 years, and will be for the next 12 years, at least). Our 2 older sons attend elementary school in the Providence (RI) Public Schools. The littlest is likely to join them there next year. Much of my free time is spent engaged in some form with the Providence Public Schools, sometimes directly as a participant in my own kids' education, often as an advocate for all of the 25K kids enrolled in PPSD, and frequently as an ambassador in our neighborhood (East Side, wealthier/whiter/better educated/more fully employed than our city's average) to families to invite them to consider options other than independent school for their families. I go on and on about this in my blog, in posts such as this (http://providenceschools.blogspot.com/2010/12/what-happened-at-school-today-question.html) and more, so I'll spare your readers, Chris.
Your comment about perception becoming reality observes a phenomenon that's accelerated when folks drop out of the public system. The chances that families who have chosen not to send their own kids to public school will enter or stay in the public school dialogue goes way down once they no longer have skin in the game. They've become trash talkers from the sidelines, for the most part - not necessarily intentionally, but it's how it tends to go, which raises a real question about how to keep such folks in the conversation in constructive ways, if we can't keep them--and their kids--in public schools per se.
All families come with their own perceptions and capacities for influence, and all public school systems differ in their interest, willingness and ability to connect with families as partners in their school systems' planning and operations. When those families that seek a more engaging, personalized, less test-driven experience depart, the demand lessens and others (who likely want the same or similar for their own kids) are left to fend for themselves.
I'd love to talk with your wife's friends in Lynchburg to find out whether they are in fact acting solely on perception or whether they've spend real time as a partner to their community's public schools, and real time investigating public school options for their kids. If so, then kudos to them for choosing what's right for their children, and they're fortunate to have the means and options to make a choice. If not, then who knows what opportunities their they and their kids have missed to participate in defending/creating great public schools and keeping those road clear for others.
Happy New Year!
Of course I agree 100% with you and applaud your efforts on behalf of your own kids and public schooling. I too am a fervent advocate for high-quality public schooling.
So, bear with me as I play devil's advocate/critical friend just a bit. I'm trying to make sense of this issue too.
I'm concerned by the "partner with schools stuff." What does that mean? Does that tacit requirement further marginalize students from low-income households who find it difficult to be a partner?
When did the need for partnering begin? Why is it necessary? My mother was "class mother" and my parents attended back-to-school night, but that's where their involvement ended. Were there great calls for parental partnership in bygone years? Where does partnering end and school takeover or "unqualified is the new qualified" schemes like TFA begin?
My own three kids went through an incredibly mediocre public school district here in California. They're doing OK now. The schools they attended wanted me as a parent to fill two roles:
The school wanted parents to enforce school rules at home and report infractions back to the school for punishment. AND they wanted us to write checks - with increasing frequency as the years went on and the budgets went down.
That's it. Neither the administrators or teachers wanted us anywhere near the holy compound. Parents were treated like members of Al Quaeda if they set foot on campus or dared question a policy.
Each year at back-to-school night and at parent conferences I offered my help, the expertise of my partner, access to my educational materials and library - even computers for use by teachers who interrupted their recitation of gum rules only long enough to say that the new math textbooks were purchased without manipulatives. We'd offer to buy the manipulatives or lend teachers stuff from my personal stash.
With three kids over twelve years, not a single teacher ever took us up on our offer. After more than a decade, the administration of the Torrance Unified School District indicated that they were fans of the monthly magazine column I wrote in which probably 1/3 of the articles were critical of practices within their district (anonymously until now). They never once asked me to share my concerns with them directly, help address the issues or even lead PD for free - which I would have done.
I know this is rambling, but I guess there is a message of knowing what help (partnering) you really need and knowing how to seek it. Along the way, we need to be vigilant in ensuring that kids are not penalized for the volume of partnering engaged in by their parent(s).
I opted into the public school system (inner city San Francisco CA) and it was the best decision for our family. My kids are thriving and our district has a strong chapter of Parents for Public Schools www.parentsforpublicschools.com Public education should be a viable option for all - and there needs to be some serious lobbying and sharing around what is working in public education instead of always what is wrong - what reforms in public schools are successful and how are they being replicated? Organizing families to send their kids to public schools and advocating for the parent voice in school reform is one of the most valuable educational reforms a community can take on - demanding excellence and access for all in a public school system that is good enough for all our children is what will ensure change. When the pressure is there - change does happen. Vouchers are a scam.
I've been real worried about this issue for a few years now. Two years ago I attempted to get a school district-sponsored charter school within a school(s) started that would partially address this issue while providing opportunities for students not within the capacity of the traditional structure (project-based individualized learning, flexible schedule, etc.). Such an arrangement would allow the school district to utilize charter law to protect itself from other charters moving in and taking their students since the state (MN) will not approve a charter school application if a similar program exists within a certain geographic distance of the proposed school site. I had many people on board and energized about this idea, it seemed like a win-win. Then, when it was time to make a final decision the whole enterprise was shut down because one board member said it didn't look like school to him. After some silence in the room they moved on and never voted one way or another.
I think this problem is beyond just us (the public) vs them (the reformers/private school folks/voucher supporters/charter advocates/etc.), in many ways it is an us vs us issue. The problem I encountered is the same one you observed. The very thing that is tearing down the dream of true public education is our own demands, expectations, and beliefs about schooling. Ira Socol wrote about this quite eloquently yesterday in his post, Believing in the Wrong Things [http://speedchange.blogspot.com/2011/01/believing-in-wrong-things.html]. My board member wanted to see schooling the way he experienced it, as an arduous obstacle to get over before a child can graduate and enter the real world. A rite of passage. In your example the public wanted school to raise their test scores, to place unequal value on the type of learning that test measures. In both cases this battle is waged as an public education civil war fueled by competing ideologies about what the purpose of school is and how people value children. In both of these cases it is likely that a contributing factor is a widespread learned belief that children are just "adults-in-the-making" (to borrow a term from Alfie Kohn) rather than see them and value them for who they are in the present.
The Billionaire Boys Club and any other "reform"-minded group that so many public school supporters jump so fast to blame for this crisis really don't need to do anything. If they did nothing the vouchers, charters, and privatization of public schooling would likely happen anyway. Public Schooling is burning down because of an ideological fire set internally. The so-called "reformers" have only been adding gasoline to that flame.
What School Leaders Need to Know About Digital Technologies and Social Media - Edited by Chris Lehmann and Scot McLeod
The Quote File
"The Celts say that all teachers should be poets because knowledge is dangerous unless it goes through the heart"