October 14, 2007

What's in a School?

Justin Katz

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.

Comments, although monitored, are not necessarily representative of the views Anchor Rising's contributors or approved by them. We reserve the right to delete or modify comments for any reason.

My oldest daughter thrived in public schools. Deans list, Honors, right into college. My youngest couldn't read a TV guide in the eighth grade. My wife and I put her into Rocky hill School in the ninth. Four years later she was headed to Quinnipiac University where she graduated in four years. She never would have made it out of high school in the public school system. Private schools are better in some instances. People have different needs.

I don't think we would have enough good teachers if they earned only what the teachers at Rocky Hill School made. Some were independantly wealthy, some using their teaching position as supplimantary income, some secondary to retirement and some a stepping stone. I didn't see a lot of career teachers there.

I would reccomend private schools to anybody thinking of sending their children there. I just don't think it would work if all schools were private. Sorry, Justin, I'm a little off track.

Posted by: michael at October 14, 2007 8:55 PM


At least think it through beyond the equivalence that your personal experience suggests as reasonable. What quality — amenable to some people's learning styles — is it that you think will change if public schools are allowed to accept students from other districts and parents are allowed to send their children elsewhere? In other words, what educational benefit arises purely on the basis of parents' being stuck with their schools?

Posted by: Justin Katz at October 14, 2007 9:15 PM

Neighborhood schools make the most sense to me. Go to school where you live. The smaller the better. I, however am in no way shape or form educated enough on the issue to be taken seriously.

Posted by: michael at October 14, 2007 9:20 PM

Interesting, by the way, that hating is to be utterly rejected ... unless it is directed at someone who is perceived to be a conservative or Republican.

We are pleased to say it as often as necessary: our dispute is not with good teachers, for whom we have nothing but respect and admiration, but with the framework that fails to distinguish them from mediocre and bad teachers.

It is absurd that with all of the tax dollars that go to our education system, parents feel they are forced to turn and more more to private or home schooling. Not to mention the many parents who would like to but lack the resources (budget or time) to do so.

Was it Marcia Reback who complained several months ago about all of the conditions - including lack of parental involvement - which prevent teachers from doing their job? Yet every time I hear of parents considering (or following through on) private school, they are invariably like Justin and his wife: caring and involved. Exactly the parental profile Ms. Reback claimed to prize. Why then does it seem that they are being driven from the public school system?

As to the conduct of teachers (again, whose unprofessionalism and immaturity we presume is in no way reflective of most teachers) at school committee meetings, let's video tape them and make the footage publicly available. Maybe loop it at the city/town's next financial town meeting and at the polling place if there is a budget referendum. Surely there would be no objection to this if the conduct is as characterized by Messrs. Walsh and Crowley.

Posted by: Monique at October 14, 2007 9:51 PM


That's one long post, and there's a lot more than I could, or you would want me to, respond to. Let me start by saying, though, that I really do appreciate the sincerity with which your concerns are expressed, and your lack of cant. Indeed, I share many of your concerns, though my conclusions are different.

1. You say, "To be honest, I'm not even persuaded that the argument of equivalence with respect to academic achievement is more than a numbers game". I can appreciate your skepticism, but I think you have to take the statistical issues seriously. The way to know if it's a "numbers game" or a real difference is to understand the stats. Selection effects are real. Fill a school with extra-smart kids and you get high scores, regardless of the quality of education. Any study that compares public and private schools MUST control for this effect.

2. To be fair, I'll note, in relation to Andrew's recent reference to the high performance of Catholic schools, that the study Marek cites DOES find an advantage for a subset of Catholic high schools (Jesuit only though, I believe) even after controlling for student aptitude. (I haven't read the whole report yet)

3.I really do sympathize with the desire to pull your kids out of public schools and send them off to a place where they will be surrounded by smart kids with extra-motivated parents. My spouse and I struggled with this as well. In the end, we stuck with public schools. Here's why:

A) Practical reasons:

1. Money. $10K-$20K/year/chlld? I'd rather save that money for college

2. Quality of education. This is obviously the greatest concern. It all depends on the school and the kid, and I would never criticize a parent who decided that his/her child would be better off in a private school. We have been lucky in being at good public schools and having teachers who have generally been first-rate, though there have been a couple of serious exceptions. But I also know parents in private schools who have had disappointing teachers too.

3. Diversity. My kids is going to grow up and work in a multi-cultural world. I like that she's got a head start on that.

B) Political reasons

1. Every tuned-in parent who removes their child from public schools makes the system worse-off. I figure I have responsibility (again, assuming that my child was in a good-enough situation) to stay in the system and try to improve it. Again- I'm not dissing any parent who makes a different call; this is my view about my obligation. I just think it's easier to make change from the inside. I've spent several hundreds of hours inside my child's schools, working with teachers and administration to make the school better. I've also spend many many hours working with the district administration. It's really selfish, as I'm really working for MY kid, but I know what I do has spill-over. If one in ten parents would do the same, the public schools would be remarkably different. Parental involvement is THE critical factor in student and school success.

We have to fight tooth and nail at times to get public school administrators to listen. (I mean the non-union administration, not the teachers. I think the whole education debate on AR misses how much of the problem is do to entrenched adminstrative bureaucracies, as opposed to teachers' unions. Go talk to your kid's teachers about what they are required to do that keeps them from teaching your kids.

2. Michael makes a great point about neighborhood schools. Where I live, most of the students go to different private schools. Kids on the street don't know each other, and neither do their parents. Neighborhood public schools build stronger and more stable communities.

Posted by: Thomas at October 14, 2007 10:17 PM

Hi Justin, I'm glad my post inspired so much thoughtful comment, not only from you but from your readers. I particularly appreciate your view, Thomas, as I am in a similar boat. I probably should invest more time in our local school -- my contribution is definitely not in the hundreds of hours as yours is, but I do try to make a contribution when I can. Part of my contribution is exploring our local education issues online at my site. I did an interview with our School Committee Chair, Mike Traficante, in order to try to gain more of a sense of his perspective, as I noticed that he was the subject of much demonization. I also try to give credit and appreciation when it is due, such as to our school committee members and administrators who redesigned high school students' schedules to significantly reduce class sizes this past year.

I worry too about our high achievers not getting the nurturance they need in public schools and encourage parents to be part of the state's gifted education advocacy group. Their site is at http://riage.org.

Posted by: Kiersten at October 15, 2007 9:02 AM


Your experience jives well with the key point we're trying to make here. No one knew better than you and your wife that your children had different needs. Government education policy should have been focused on lowering the barriers that might have blocked your access to different education options, not on erecting them.

There are parents in situations similar to yours, but get frustrated trying to get their kids into the best-fit schools, because they don't make enough money and/or they aren't quite as driven as I suspect (ok, know) you are. However, if charters were more common, if open-districting were used, and/or vouchers were common practice, with the hurdles a little lower, more families might be able to get their children into the environments they need.

Posted by: Andrew at October 15, 2007 9:55 AM
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