15 April 2012
Last weekend, while looking at New York City’s school district’s list of “banned words” that cover just about the whole of life, I also looked at the district’s rubber rooms—rooms where teachers who couldn’t be left alone with students used to idle away their time on full salary.
More recently, due to an outcry, the program was ended and the teachers were transferred to administration. But the fact that such a program existed at all shows how difficult any genuine reform would be.
The parent groups and politicians who demand that the system be reformed blame the administration and the unions for stonewalling—and thereby miss the point that a civil servant once explained to me: If the government funds the schools through taxes and quasi-government agencies administer them, everyone involved is part of the government’s constituency.
The incompetent teachers in the rubber room are citizens and voters like anyone else, including the children’s parents. So are the administrators. So are the trial lawyers of the incompetent teachers and their union officials. And the trial lawyers of parents suing the board. So are the business people who clean and repair after episodes of graffiti and vandalism. And so forth.
Whatever reform the government intends is likely to be stonewalled by one of the groups that is in fact a legitimate part of its constituency. To put the students first, definitely and unapologetically, is not possible by the very nature of the system.
An impatient reader might ask, do I propose to burn down the schools and end public education?
No, I don’t. Such events would only happen during a revolution, and most revolutions have morphed into, at best, sclerotic dictatorships and, at worst, reigns of terror followed by sclerotic dictatorships. The American Revolution was a magnificent exception, but it is best not to push one’s luck in these matters.
In any event, the fact that a system is unreformable does not create a moral necessity to immediately dismantle it. Unreformable systems have gone on quietly failing for centuries. That is part of the general unsatisfactoriness of life, and is not usually a legitimate excuse for violence.
Very well, then, do I see private schools, charter schools, or home schooling as the answer?
For some students, yes. Their main advantage is not superior virtue, harder work, or better methodologies. It’s simply the fact that a private institution is free to prioritize how well the kids are doing over other interests.
Everyone in the district is not their constituency; their constituency is who they decide it is.
But I have no illusions about private or charter schools, or homeschooling. A private school could be a club for gentlemen pedophiles; a charter school could be a fundamentalist smackdown; and a homeschooler could be concealing problems that the Child Protective Services should investigate.
The key word here is “could.” No external force compels these outcomes, in the way that the fact that everyone associated with the public schools is a part of the government’s constituency forces certain bad outcomes. So, the prudent parent has a better chance of getting the kid a seat at a good school.
I do want to suggest, however, an option that has worked for some low-income parents faced with chronically failing schools—including me. The United States currently lags in international education achievement, so surely many lower-income American parents struggle with this problem.
In any district, there are better and worse public schools. The trick is to live near one of the better ones, whatever it takes. The worse schools tend to be in lower-income neighborhoods where parents have less education than teachers and may have language problems as well. Even establishing communication and trust may not be easy. Good teachers may relish the challenge. But some teachers just give up and do everything by rote . . . and it shows.
At the better schools in higher income neighborhoods, the parents are educated people who do not have language problems. They deal with teachers as equals. Good teachers enjoy the fact that their work is both understood and appreciated. Teachers who are not really trying get eased out—often into a school in the lower-income district . . .
Thus, if giving a child a good education is a priority, one strategy is to move to a humbler apartment in a wealthier district. True, one pays more rent for less space, but the amount doesn’t begin to approach the cost of private schooling or the time commitment of small charter schools or home schooling.
Look for the district that boasts a high-achieving high school. Its feeder elementary schools are probably good, too. There is little peer pressure to drop out; on the contrary, the child’s peers all expect to go on to higher education. Chances are, trouble with the law is not considered cool or inevitable, but awful and embarrassing.
If a child is focused on achievement, social class differences are not nearly as important as they might otherwise be. Everyone likes a winner.
This strategy won’t work for all, but it is one you don’t need a program for—just a good knowledge of your own city or county.