Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Be True To My School

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.


  1. You're so right.

    In addition, I know people who grew up in abusive homes, who say that teachers at the public schools they went to were the only adults who ever took an interest in them. I think we often forget how very important schools are to kids like that.

  2. But, you also have to take into consideration the parents who were impressed with one aspect of a school district, moved from an apartment and remained within the school district because of the wonderful support and assistance the school district gave in a particular area. Then, when the parents and child experience a failing district first hand (dealing with a totally different aspect of the school district, here). I'm always curious about the "what-ifs." If we had really looked elsewhere and been OK with moving to a completely different school district, would my child still be attending public school? I can't know the answer. But, I do know that school district where we reside didn't live up to expectations. This school district is supposed to be top notch, the district to move into. I don't know the percentages for test scores and so forth. I just know it didn't work for our child. Perhaps it IS because the district has drawn more low-income families. We are the next "suburban ring" out from the city. So, perhaps that is part of the issue.

    I just know that I could no longer send my child to a school where they are dumbing down the students and telling me that my child would eventually "even out" (at the lower level). I can't, in my mind, accept that, when I know that my child is capable of much more.

    I certainly do not have anything against public schools. They do what they need to do for the children who attend them. There are students who do succeed in public schools. I attended public school and turned out (mostly) OK. :)

    I agree - public schools do provide so much for millions of children in our country, though. But, just like everything else that is government-funded, there is a lot that is broken and in need of some major overhauling. I do believe that standards need to be met, but the "one size fits all" education isn't working either.

  3. Mark Twain was certainly right. When a district reports their graduation rate to NY State, they have to report who entered 9th grade and who graduated in 4 years. This is called a "cohort." But anybody who takes longer, as almost all special education students are allowed to do until age 21, or even if they just stay an additional year for health reasons and graduate, they are counted against the school. Public schools could be even better if government lived up to its promises. The lottery money will go to education. (nope, the general fund...) The courts rule that a low functioning schools must be funded better. (nope, we are putting that off a few years) We will keep tuition affordable at our state colleges and universities. (not only did they raise tuition, they didn't let the colleges keep it and put it...wait for it... into the general fund.) Wouldn't it be nice if our elected officials thought that education was as important as fighting terrorism? I submit that it is, and upon further reflection, I believe they two go hand in hand in many countries.