Saturday, April 04, 2009

Good Expectations

When our eldest was our only, our parents told us it was time to leave the city. One of the reasons they used was that all of the "good schools" were in the suburbs. Our parents are not alone in this belief. We also have friends who moved away because of the same belief.

Last year my wife and I got into an argument over a NY1 report about an America's Promise Alliance study that concluded suburban schools have a higher rate of graduation than city schools. We came to an impasse in our conversation about the study.

The comment that caused the impasse: "So suburban schools ARE better than city schools."

We argued the point until we realized we weren't arguing about suburban versus city schools at all! We were arguing the qualities of a "good" school.

In some cases, a school is oversubscribed (meaning more students than available seats) because parents believe it to be the "good" school in the district/zone. The school has gained a positive reputation among parents.  However, I have to wonder how deeply parents are actually looking into the schools? Do they have firsthand experience with the school or were they told by peers that the school is a good school?

There's this great comedy routine I saw once. I think it was in an Abbott and Costello movie. Costello walks in front of a skyscraper and just starts staring up. Shortly a whole crowd has formed. Everyone is staring up. As they are doing this, Abbott fleeces them and they are totally unaware. The skit ends when Costello looks away and goes back about his business. One member asks another member in the dispersing crowd, "What were you looking at?" The other member shrugs and walks away. This is what I think of when I think of parents and "good schools."

I am afraid sometimes it just takes that right parent saying the right word in the right ears to determine the success or failure of a school. I am not denying that graduation rates and test scores also play a role. But a school - an education - is so much more - needs to be so much more especially in a democratic society where the voices of the many drive the actions of the few. In addition to academic success, students need to be trained as responsible civic participants.

I agree with the opening statement of the UCLA National Center for Research on Evaluation, Standards, and Student Testing (CRESST) report, What Makes a Good School?

For all the changes implemented in the American classroom, parents and the community in general are ill-prepared to measure the quality of the schools that serve them. As consumers of education, parents and other taxpayers have a right to know if their schools are doing a good job.

Their report identifies the following characteristics as being those of a good school:

  1. Strong and professional administrators and teachers.
  2. A broad curriculum available to all students.
  3. A philosophy that says all children can learn if taught, coupled with high expectations for all students.
  4. A school climate that is conducive to learning. A good school is safe, clean, caring, and well-organized.
  5. An ongoing assessment system that supports good instruction.
  6. A high level of parent and community involvement and support.

The word "Good" itself is problematic. One parent's good is not necessarily another's. And then there is the wordplay between "good" and "good enough," where the latter refers to acceptable performance due the dislike the student's parents and teachers may have towards the activity or subject. For example, a parent accepting his or her child's mediocre math scores and saying, "that's OK. I wasn't good at that either."

As parents, we want what's best for our children. Our understanding of "what's best" is determined by our own successes and failures as well as our social values and what we value. Our definition of a good school follows the same rationale.

In the case of my wife and me, it is not so much the characteristics of a good school we disagree on. It is the priority they are given. Academic rigor and good test scores are important but are they more important than social interaction and hands on experiences?

Before we judge schools as good or bad, we must first determine what we want for our children and then determine which institutions best promote our agenda. We must also prioritize the characteristics of a good school to determine which are most essential and which we can live without or compensate for on our own.

1 comment:

Karen said...

It is really difficult to quantify "good academics", even if one sticks to measurable outcomes like test scores and graduation rates. Unfortunately most of the widely-dissiminated reports do not even attempt to control for, or even address, socio-economic status (SES). The consumer model of education complicates things even further.

How does one compare an "under-achieving" high-SES school with an "over-achieving" low-SES school? Which is a better investment for parents? Which is a better investment for tax-payers?

Here's an example. One secondary school's students go to college/university at a rate of 75% although 90% of them have a parent with a degree. Another school's students go to university at a rate of 40% but only 25% have a parent with a degree? Which is the "better" school?

It seems like a leading example, of course. However, is it not legitimate for parents to prefer the school where post-secondary attendance is the norm* (75%), even though the school per se's contribution is questionable? The difficulty lies in addressing the classism involved, even if it is not the direct cause of the preference.

Parents favouring the high-SES school? Fine, perhaps.
Tax-payers favouring the high-SES school? Not fine.

This is, I suppose, an example of the myriad "social experience" reasons you suggest contribute to school preference. Peer-pressure to attend college is a good thing. But so is exposure to students of diverse ethnic and cultural backgrounds, which correlates highly with lower-SES schools, especially since most measures of SES account directly for white priviledge.