Ok folks, I’m tired of it, and I wish that everyone would just quit ragging on my school.
No, I’m not talking about Manlius Pebble Hill, the private school where I teach. I’m talking about the school, or more precisely schools I went to. I’m talking about public schools.
My schools have been taking a lot of beating over the past few decades as people have talked about how they’re failing their students, how they’re doing a terrible job, how bad the teachers are, and especially what a terrible job city schools are doing compared to suburban schools.
I want it to stop now, and I want you to all shut up while I explain a few things to you.
Mark Twain once said that there are three types of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics. Statistics are the worst, because they’re so easily manipulated and misunderstood; and it’s the statistics that have everyone thinking that public schools are so bad. It’s the statistics that have people moving from “bad” school districts to “good” ones.
I got to thinking about this because of a…statistic…that I heard on NPR a few weeks ago, according to Diane Ravitch only 18% of people think that public schools in general are doing a good job, but 77% of them think that their own kid’s school is doing an excellent job. Something’s wrong with these numbers. How can 77% of the population think that their own kid’s school is great when only 18% of them think that public schools are doing a good job? The math here just doesn’t work.
If you take the time to really think about it, this means that 77% of the schools are doing just fine, but that 82% of us are buying into the hype about everyone else's schools, without taking the time to take a close look at the situation.
Then there’s another statistic, cited by one of my 6th-graders (so we already know that that’s a little suspect). She said that at our school 99% of the graduating seniors go on to college, while in the City of Syracuse, only 50% do. Assuming for the moment that that statistic is actually true, I asked her if there was a difference in the people who went to those two schools. How many poor families go to public schools and how many poor families go to private schools? Are private schools a self-selecting population of families who truly value education? What would happen to graduation rates if you sent all the students from Syracuse to schools in the more affluent suburb of Manlius? For that matter, what would happen if you moved the students from Manlius into schools in the city of Syracuse?
And then there are the “official” statistics that I hate. The ones that people base where they’re going to buy a home on. These are the scores that show how well a particular school or school district does on certain standardized tests. It goes without saying that if Ashland School’s test scores fall below a certain number, then it’s a poor school, with bad teachers, and that you wouldn’t want your kid to go there. But these scores aren’t adjusted for how many students come from poor families, who might have other issues on their minds when they get home; they’re not adjusted to how many immigrant students go there, who still aren’t quite adept enough at English to do well on the standardized tests. Maybe when you adjust for these students, you’d find that these schools are doing an excellent job. And maybe, despite the many students there who are struggling, your own child would thrive there.
In fact, I’ve heard about families who intentionally move to a "poorer" school district so that when it comes time for college applications, their kid will show up at the top of the class, and have a better chance of being accepted to the college of their dreams than had they gone to a “better” school, and just appeared to have been average. These parents truly understand the system, but in a rather perverse way.
Yes, I love my little private school, with small class sizes, and where everyone seems to know everyone else, and where “99% of the graduating seniors go to college.” But I’m also proud of my roots, and believe that public schools aren’t the big sinkhole that bad statistics have led so many people to believe they are.
And that’s the end of today’s lesson. Class dismissed.