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Quotes: The Middle Class Obstacle To School Reform

image from scholasticadministrator.typepad.comMiddle-class communities don’t want to be told that the options they have are not good enough. There’s an unwillingness to accept the fact that their schools are just not excellent. -- Success Academy's Jenny Sedlis
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The Bush Institute (I find it amazing that I am citing them, but life brings all kinds of surprises) has an interesting interactive technology that allows us to enter our local district's name and, by linking state exams scores to NAEP and then on to PISA, see an estimate as to where our children stand in comparison to students worldwide. I entered Irvine Unified, which was once ranked by Harvard University as among the top three in our nation's more than 15,000, and found that our students would rank in the 71st percentile worldwide in reading and the 60th in mathematics. Our best aren't great, to say still less for our average. But the IUSD official I cited this data to seemed more interested in preserving local jobs than in improving the opportunities available to our families.

So you compared some ill-defined Harvard ranking from once-upon-a-time to some percentile rank against an ill-defined "world."

What's the point?

True, the Harvard ranking was real estate propaganda from at least ten years ago (although things haven't significantly changed around here, which is part of the point). "World", however, is not ill-defined. 76 countries or economies, including students from China, India, Indonesia, and Brazil, as well as all countries in the OECD (including, of course, the United States), participate in the PISA assessments, whose student populations increasingly represent the 15-year-old population of our planet. The point, which I thought should be clear, is that schools reputed excellent by admired middle class American communities are not so; and as a resident of such a community, I am frustrated by the lack of options here -- and perhaps you should be frustrated as well.

This line is currently a right-wing fad, along with extending the school-bashing to colleges (including private colleges, oddly). It's the latest thing from that crowd.

I don't see empowered middle-class consumers unwilling to accept that there are "better" options in other areas of their life. To the contrary, such consumers aggressively seek out better options in whatever area. And I don't observe them somehow losing their critical-thinking capacities and becoming blinded when it comes to their kids' schools.

I have friends in high-end suburbs who haven't been happy with their schools, and they rapidly sought out options, being empowered people with the means to do so. In the two that first leaped to mind, one went private and one was able to switch public schools with an interdistrict transfer. This certainly happens with my fellow urban parents too.

The reasons for the dissatisfaction have varied. Sometimes it's insufficient rigor -- "my child isn't challenged" -- but often it's "too much homework/too much rote memorization," social unhappiness (occasionally actual bullying), inadequate special education for a particular need, and more. But the point is that parents complain about their kids' schools all the time -- reality simply doesn't bear out the notion that middle-class parents have a blind spot.

I don't think the message that empowered middle-class parents are too stupid to know their kids are getting a substandard education will get much traction. (Oh, you're right, I'm a moron! Thanks for enlightening me!)

The far-right Pacific Research Institute (ironically located here in far-left San Francisco) put out a piece of material a few years ago to convey this message. It was a pretty witty piece, designed to look like a glitzy real estate brochure, but it also gleefully employed various means of deception to falsely claim that some of California's highest-income suburbs were served by low-performing schools and the stupid parents were just too dumb to know it. One trick, for example, was to ferret out expensive suburbs (Saratoga, in Silicon Valley, was one) that have a school technically located within their city limits that has fairly high poverty and correlating mediocre test scores, and then falsely present that as THE school serving those wealthy families.

In every single case, PRI used a fake way -- deliberate deceit -- to purport to show that schools serving high-end communities were low-performing and the parents were simply deluded idiots to think otherwise.

If this were a valid issue, Pacific Research Institute wouldn't have had to use deception in every single example it gave, but that is what it did.

I don't speak for Pacific Research Institute, and in my original comment wasn't writing about other communities; I was writing about my own children's school district, where my son is right now. I didn't refer to anyone as a "moron", "idiot", or any similar slur. I do find that, here in Irvine, the state of satisfaction with our local schools is high; and that, throughout the United States, including in Silicon Valley, the knowledge regarding where students in our higher achieving districts stand in comparison with their future competition overseas is low. California gives its schools API rankings on a 1-10 scale, and every virtually every school in Irvine is a 10; but on an international scale, our reading score is a 7, math a 6, science would probably be a 6 or 7, writing likely a 6 at best, foreign languages a 1 or 2, and social studies higher, perhaps a 7 or an 8, although we'd do a lot better in a history or civics competition than in geography, which is formally taught every year overseas.

Not accusing you personally of calling people morons, @Bruce, but that's the aggregate message of the clamor coming from the ultra-right pushing this message.

And I know you don't speak for PRI and wouldn't link you to them (they're pretty much nut jobs). But that doesn't change the fact that if this claim that even our high-end schools are substandard and parents are just deluded, PRI wouldn't have had to (gleefully and unabashedly) make a whole lot of **** up -- they could easily have found valid information.

I don't buy the notion that educated, empowered parents of means are deluded about their kids' schools, and that DOES tell them "you all are morons."

That's not to say that people are never dissatisfied with highly reputable schools, nor that they don't have the right to be. Lots of circumstances vary, and people are complex. But in the aggregate, I call BS on this right-wing fad claiming that middle-class parents are all deluded and their schools actually suck.

As for the international comparisons, U.S. schools have ALWAYS showed up partway down the list on such comparisons, for the entire time they have existed. That was the case when we were the powerhouse economy in the world; it was the case when we won the space race; it has been the case while we've led the world in innovation and entrepreneurship. So the main question that raises is "what is the meaning of these test scores?" -- not whether middle-class parents are deluded fools.

I am glad you dissociate me from extremists, Caroline; so I'll only address your last paragraph, a thoughtful one. The scores are averages, in these subjects. I have written, on my blog (http://principalfoundations.blogspot.com/), a post about how I think education systems should be evaluated (http://principalfoundations.blogspot.com/2012/02/switzerland-has-worlds-best-educational.html). As I write there, a problem with making too much of PISA is that it is a mere snapshot in time, of the relative progress of 15-year-olds around the world, and ignores what happens to them afterward. I believe attainment -- that is, the number of years of schooling successfully completed -- should trump achievement, which is often a euphemism for test scores at any particular point; and that ultimate outcomes, in adult life, are more important than both. Therefore scores in reading, mathematics, and so on have meaning insofar as they are predictors of future outcomes; and while our average scores in Irvine (and, I think, similar admired communities) are creditable, they are not outstanding; and given the high wages expected by the graduates of such systems, their competitive prospects are poor; and we badly need improvement, since I am convinced that what has worked in the past will not work in the future.

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