Sunday, July 25, 2010

How Public are the Public Schools?

From Bad Teachers, by Guy Strickland, copyright 1998 (pre-NCLB!):

In most schools, even those that pay lip service to "parent involvement", parents have no voice whatsoever in any decision that is really important to a child's educational well-being ... [The principal] remembers that when Henry Ford was the only supplier of low-priced automobiles, he could tell the customer, "You can have any color Model T, as long as it is black." Like Ford, the principal knows she is the town's only supplier of her particular product, low-priced education, so she doesn't have to satisfy the customer either. Her attitude may be polite, but the essence of her message is, "Shut up and take what we give you, and be thankful we're giving you anything at all."

We all know the public schools are truly public in the sense that they are run on taxpayer money (and plenty of it, in my district.) But why is it that in the public schools, the public has no voice? In particular, why do parents of kids attending the school have no voice?

Recently I was talking to a mother at the private school my younger dd attends. She told me she had decided to send her kids to public school, and had just moved to my neighborhood so the kids could attend our "excellent"(!) public elementary school. She said she had called the school to ask about their math curriculum, so she could ensure her kids had the needed background, but "the school hasn't called back." She was genuinely puzzled by this.

Another private-school mother, on hearing about my older dd's troubles, and the public-school principal who tried to talk me into staying at the public schools, said, "Why would the principal want your daughter to stay in a school that makes her miserable?"

I began my journey as a public-school parent, and the expectations of private-school parents are amazing to me. You call the school with a question about math curriculum, and you expect to get a call back? You expect the principal to approve of a high-scoring kid leaving the public schools, just because she's miserable? Wow.

But really, these parents' expectations are quite reasonable. They expect to have a voice.

Why can't parents have a say in our public schools? We are the public, we pay for the schools, and we send our kids there. It's time for us to take back our schools.


  1. I agree.

    I don't see how parents can ever have a real voice in educational policy when so much of it is effectively dictated at the federal (and to some extent, state) level. Other issues will always predominate in those elections, and the decisions will be made, in effect, by well-funded special interest groups who do not represent kids' actual interests anywhere near as well as parents do.

    I would like to see educational policy decisions made at the local level -- preferably at the level of the individual school. In some ways, that suggestion seems unthinkable: each elementary school in town setting and following its own agenda and educational philosophy? No uniformity? But of course it is exactly what happens in a private school, and is taken even further in homeschooling households. As you point out: How is it that the private options allow for more parental input than the public one?

    I'm not suggesting that financial decisions be made at the level of the school. Wealthy districts should subsidize poorer districts, in my opinion. But why should Iowa City have to adhere to the same educational goals and approaches as, for example, a school district in the deep South where people's values may be very different? (And vice versa.)

    There is an increasing focus on the importance of nationwide uniformity in educational practices -- see all the news about the adoption of nationwide adacemic standards -- but I have yet to see a comprehensible explanation of why. Are we really so sure that the prevailing approach at any given time is the right one? So sure that we want to preclude other approaches from even being tried? From what I've seen of the approaches out there, I'm not. If a given community wants to try a different approach, what is the argument for preventing it?

    I think it's a mistake to make every issue into a nationwide winner-take-all battle, especially when there's a good chance that you might end up on the losing side. As long as humane approaches to education are out of fashion and marginalized, we are better off with a system that would allow *some* districts to pursue them, rather than one that requires all districts to forgo them.

    It's strange -- you would think that local control of educational policy would appeal to conservatives (who have always been suspicious of federal intervention in local affairs), as well as to liberals (who pride themselves on tolerance of difference, and who should like the idea of educational policy being decided by actual voters rather than by the federal bureaucracy and powerful interest groups), as well as to libertarians (for obvious reasons), as well as to authoritarians. Oh, wait -- just kidding about the authoritarians . . .

  2. FedUpMom and Chris,

    Where I live (Ontario), local control is supposed to be enabled through school boards, comprised in part of elected trustees. But there is a trend towards more and more control being shifted onto the province--ie.,the Ministry of Education. It used to be, for instance, that school boards could levy their own taxes for schools, but the province put an end to that practice, in order to ensure that richer areas did not have better schools. (Of course, wealthier areas do still have better schools, but I agree with the motivation behind the equalization of funding.) So now the boards are left with control of certain things--for instance how to spend the funds they are allocated, and how to balance their budgets. Right now, the big issues in our board are things like deciding which schools to close in order to stay within budget, or figuring out which school pools to close or keep open, etc. The Toronto board did also manage to pass a substantial "family friendly" homework policy two years ago, as readers of Stophomework will remember. Our particular board also approves the setting up and funding of "alternative" schools, some of which are initiated by parents. So we have a Waldorf-type elementary school, arts-focused elementary and high schools, IB schools, sports schools etc.

    This all sounds great, and in some ways it is, but what bugs me--and I think this is what Chris is getting at--is that there is no mechanism for parental input at the provincial level. What this means is that there is no means for me, as a parent, to have a say in the basic curriculum, which is entirely dictated by the province. Sure, as a voter, I get to choose my member of provincial parliament, but I don't usually know what they think of curricular issues. In fact, the entire curriculum was "reformed" several years ago, and it seemed to be a very "top-down" process. So, to whom do I complain about the fact that my kids learn virtually no geography or history apart from Canadian? How do I express my disagreement and frustration with the abominable (anti-)Math program? My local school board has no jurisdiction over these issues. (I've just thought of a post for my own blog--if I ever find the time!)

  3. The only useful way for parents to have input is if they can be heard in time to actually help their child. This is why voting for the school board doesn't really help. By the time you've got your candidate(s) voted in, and the candidate(s) can effect any change, your child is done with school.

    northTOMom, should I link to your blog? Also, would you like to write a post for this blog?

  4. Hi FedUpMom,

    It would be great if you linked to my blog--that way I might acquire a reader or two! (My blog is not exclusively about education, but it does deal with a lot of school-related issues.) I'd also love to be part of the Canadian wing of your "coalition," and I'd be willing to write a guest post for your blog in the future if I come up with something relevant.

    Actually, I'm full of admiration for your new blog and the energy you've been putting into it. I felt quite bereft after Stophomework ended, but your blog has made me feel better by helping to keep the conversation going. I'm currently at a cottage in Quebec, which is why I haven't been responding to posts as much recently. We do have internet access here, but it's not that reliable, and besides I'm supposed to be outdoors enjoying nature with my daughters--which I am doing, but I like to sneak a peek at your blog from time to time as well...

  5. OK, I linked to your blog on the side, and I'll put it here, too. It's called "Parenting is Political" (nice title!):

  6. PsychMom said: Well thanks so much all you wonderful bloggers. Thanks for virtually guaranteeing that I will never get any work ever done again. You are all such brilliant writers...I never tire of reading your perspectives. I have bookmarked all these new blogs..I agree with Chris, that at one point there will be a tipping point with all of our energies and the educational system will have to change. Our circle will widen. Right across boarders too, eh NorthofTOmom?

    My own personal opinion will be that technology (and no, not robots) will be the answer to these problems. I do believe there are some really good teachers out there, and with the aid of the internet, those teachers will find their students. For example, wouldn't it be cool, if 10 kids in Toronto could link up with 10 kids in France for the entire length of the school year and each learn their respective languages and culture?

  7. Thanks FedUPmom. I'm glad you like the title. Just last night I was thinking perhaps it sounded too dated...too seventies-ish or something.

    PsychMom: I agree. Linking up with so many like-minded people on the Internet can be empowering. I sometimes think, if only we could all get together and open our own school--it would be such a wonderful, child-friendly school, wouldn't it?