Bad Schools: That’s A Feature, Not A Bug

22 thoughts on “Bad Schools: That’s A Feature, Not A Bug”

  1. I do sympathize, mainly with people’s strong feelings about being left out or left behind, but … fuck schools. I just can’t think of them as being anything other than daycare.

    From what little I’ve been told by teachers I know, working with the kids and other teachers at the ‘bad’ schools is more stressful.

    But I’ve been reading a bit about classes in the US recently and it strikes me that this might be another example of mistaking income stratification with class segregation. *Of course* people want to live with others like themselves! And of course they want to send their kids to schools with other children of the people they identify with.

    And – to para-steal your line – people don’t really want their kids to actually do better and make more money than they do; not in the ways that are actually required. Are kids in ‘bad’ schools as likely to consider becoming doctors, lawyers, and accountants? And do they and their parents act like they really care about them achieving those careers? It certainly seems like they don’t – entirely independent of their diminished means.

    Public schools are like a lot of other public goods – ‘a common tragedy’. They are intended to be some many things for so many different people that they only really ‘work’ for people, i.e. parents and kids, that are willing to do most of the hard work themselves.

  2. I have been thinking about this a lot lately. I am a teacher in an “urban” school having previously taught in the suburbs. Steven Shultis has an interesting series on his blog about sending his own kids to a “bad” school. My question to people moving further and further away from their jobs and into more expensive houses would be: How much better are the schools?

    Is there a point of diminishing returns and on the other hand, what is the impact of having absent parent(s) after you account for longer working hours to make ends meet on top of a longer commute?

    In my urban school I see as many, if not more, extremely talented students as I did in the suburbs. Admittedly, the low-end student here is lower but students who come out of my school have a much more broad understanding of the way the world and their city truly are, what it means to be living in poverty. This is not just an abstract concept but a name, face, a person.

    I also think there is a lot to being one of the top students in your class. The additional opportunities outside of the school curriculum are invaluable. If every school gets to submit five students to a state/city convention, you want to be one of those five. If you come from a stable home where education is valued and where people are present in your life to ask how your day went and what you learned, you are more likely to succeed no matter where you go to school.

    There are always extreme examples of failing schools and those make the news. We often conflate the worst we have ever heard about with the worst in our own city. I would encourage people to look at their schools, take a tour, visit with the teachers and principals, learn what is going on there. A line item in the paper or a percentage on one standardized test score tells you nothing of the individual education your son or daughter will get.

    1. Some good thoughts here. I also try hard to determine where the returns start to diminish, and where the chart goes logarithmic.

    2. Also, the diminishing returns curve can actually go negative. I know some folks who live outside Princeton, NJ who have children in the school system that would be at the top of most class rolls anywhere else, but because it is a neighborhood that skews heavily toward other highly educated immigrants (they are Turkish, most of the others are Hindu or Han Chinese) the environment is not only too competitive to have much room for mental development, but also it is hard to just place into the good classes. Meanwhile, districts like this are discriminated against in admissions to top schools — to the degree that many esp. Asian parents actually move to bad districts before their child’s junior year to “hack the system” (changing the child’s last name to something European or African-American sound would likely help too.) I am not saying this is the most horrible situation in the USA, just that somewhere in the great middle is possibly better for kids.

  3. Massachusetts does some leveling with what are called the “cherry sheets”. The state is divided into townships, and each township gets a certain cut of state revenues so the peaks and valleys of school spending are more even. As a result Massachusetts has the best school system in the country and one of the better ones in the world (#9 in PISA scores). Minority kids in Massachusetts outperform whites in Alabama. All it takes is money.

    I always point out that people like to pay taxes. In fact, people will pay extra to live in an area with higher taxes. I did a regression some years back and found that people will pay an extra $10K for a house in exchange for a 1% higher overall tax rate. The market does not lie. The real estate code phrase for higher taxes is “good school district”.

    1. Well, that may be true for your well functioning state, but it is not true for my well functioning state. Where I live, we have the highest RE tax rate in the state, and also the worst public schools in the state. Maybe if you factor out all the cities there might be something like what you are describing here.

      I know that where I grew up in Upstate NY your formula does not work either. Taxes were merely exorbitant in the less urban areas, while they were criminally confiscatory in the cities, generally. The area where the schools tended to be universally good had the lowest tax rates of the region and was a republican stronghold (Saratoga County).

      I have also been to many places that had relatively low tax rates and pretty good schools — you could generally tell if a school made good use of the money by the crime rates; low crime rates = schools that do more with less, regardless of the general wealth of the town. That is what I have seen, anyway.

  4. You’re right of course but put yourself in parents’ shoes. A friend of mine put his daughter in Oakland public schools. Supposedly one of the better ones. She was harassed and bullied non stop. Grades in the toilet. Jump across the Bay and suddenly she’s talking about UC vs East Coast schools. It made all the difference in the world.

    In places with less severe inequality, the choice is less clear cut. My area is very diverse with test scores all over the map. Some parents on my block don’t want to “risk it” and put their kids in Catholic school. Personally I put my kids in public school but we live within the boundary for the better schools in the district. If I did live in the bad part of town, I might reconsider.

    As for the idea that it’s a “money” issue, that’s nonsense. Per pupil spending has weak or no correlation with student performance. I don’t have the answers and I guess I’m part of the problem. But as a parent, I have enough to worry about.

    1. Fair enough. The money vs. social capital debate is interesting. Culture makes a difference. I went to several different schools before dropping out. I loved one in particular, hated another, and was ambivalent about a third. People somehow find their way in life. Or they don’t.

  5. Great observation- that bad schools are a feature, not a bug. I wonder how the outcomes would differ if every child was homeschooled – but then of course the outcome would depend on the literacy and possibly religious stance of the parents, the amount of time the parents had to both teach, do other jobs for an income, and how curious the kid was naturally. Sometimes I think only the truly curious people ever learn ANYthing, and the rest are just indoctrinated and become good little sheeple. Think of all the advantages a Bush son had for schooling, and what happened there…

    I hope your now mortgaged-to-the-hilt friend realizes that he’s trading time he could actually spend with his children to a (frantic and exhausting?) job, while someone else is going to actually be raising the kids? And oftentimes those people are underpaid, overwhelmed and burned out?

  6. Read William Fischel’s work. But I’m convinced that the fight for educational diversity and vouchers and tax credits for private schools is a battle for social justice.

    1. Charter schools and vouchers for private schools will do nothing to improve the quality of schools for poor people. It’s just another shell game. Americans “could” make every school a good school. But we have no political will to do so. The current fashion for charters and vouchers just creates new routes for this school to be “good” and that school to be “bad” just like always.

      1. I agree that charter schools are not the solution but I’m not so confident that there is a solution. At least not a solution that school funding can address. Unless you can make poor kids home and social environment as safe, supportive and pro-education as that of rich kids they are not going to perform as well in school.

        Parents who have money are more worried about the perceived social influences in “bad” schools more than their kids academic performance. From their perspective it’s better to get average grades in a positive environment than exceptional grades in a risky environment.

        In general parents have zero tolerance for risk. I’m not blaming them. I’m that way too. In my life I thrive on challenge and uncertainty. When it comes to my kid I think differently. I fully realize this may not be the best way for me to act as a parent but it’s difficult not too. Plus there would be fallout from extended family and pretty much everyone I know if I sent my child to a school that people see as sub-par. There are all kinds of pressure on parents to be risk adverse.

      2. What is a “good” school then? One with good test scores? One which guarantees economic success? One which teaches high quality liberal arts? one which teaches moral character? orthodox doctrine?

  7. This is why I believe vouchers and tax credits for private and public schools are demanded by social justice. But if you want to understand the system, read The Honevoter Hypothesis and the other works by William Fischel, the expert on our land use mess.

    1. Fischel’s concept of the Homevoter probably has some merit in a community where people spend a longish period of their lives in the same town. But when you look at the statistics for many locations there’s a high turnover rate. The average resident of Phoenix, for example, only stays in one home for five years on average. When homes are transient semi-disposable commodities the Homevoter votes with his feet more than at the ballot box.

      1. Is there less NIMBYism in Phoenix than other places? If you’re right, there should be less. And if I knew I was going to sell my house in five years, I’d be more, not less, interested in its changing value.

    2. Some other countries manage to have more social justice than the U.S., but no other country uses vouchers and tax credits to do so. The current push for vouchers in the U.S. seems clearly motivated by, and is doing nothing to counteract, the desire to destroy what little equalizing power the public schools still manage to wield.

      Johnny is right that “good” school districts are mainly considered “good” because they are full of more privileged kids. So if you want to give your kid a leg up, it might make sense to move to a poorer neighborhood and then give your kid a few hundred grand when he’s thirty.

      1. Sweden, Denmark and Netherlands are examples of countries with fairly good educational systems that rely, heavily, in some form of school choice with monney follows student model in place (with specific adaptations etc etc).

        1. These are also countries with both homogenous cultures and homogenizing tax structures. These two differences are things that most people cherry pick one or the other when trying to apply their models to the USA.

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