Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

Sheff vs. O’Neill

with 4 comments

The title today refers to a law suit filed in the state of Connecticut over twenty years ago by parents of students in the Hartford Public Schools, demanding that Connecticut either provide equal funding for all the state’s schools or allow students from inner city systems (like Hartford’s) to attend neighboring suburban schools (like those in West Hartford).  The Sheff’s parents won the case, but as far as I know, nothing has come of the decision in their favor.

Here’s the thing–in the US public schools, the name of the game is retention and graduation rates.  The larger percentage of the pupils in your system who have high innate academic ability and/or serious parental support for academics (reading in the home, etc), the higher you can set your standards and still get the retention and graduation percentages you want.

Some of the suburban public school districts in the US can match or even outdo what the best of the private schools can offer–New Trier in Winetka, Illinois, for instance, or (yes) West Hartford.  Standards are high and rigorous.  Advanced placement courses are a way of life.  Graduates who go on to four year colleges top ninety percent.

The thing is, these schools are not really bucking the trends I’ve been talking about.  If the composition of their student populations changed, the chances are good they’d start dumbing down their curricula just like everybody else.  They can offer what they offer because accidents of geography carefully exclude the people–poorer, newly immigrant, from highly dysfunctional families–likely to bring their percentages down.

The same thing can be said of the private schools.  Opponents of school choice measures aer always declaring that actual outcomes–scores on standardized high-stakes tests–are no better for private schools (mostly parochial) included in choice plans  than for public schools in the same area, but they miss the point.  What parents buy is not really highe standards or different curricula, but different peer groups and different institutional cultures. 

In the US, however, I’d say that all but the most high-end of the private schools have the same problem the public schools do, and the same problem the universities do.  Exeter has a Classical Curriculum, where students can choose to study Greek and Latin the way their predecssors did a hundred years ago,  with more emphasis on modern math and science.  Most private schools, though, even good ones, either skimp on the Humanities or don’t bother to teach them at all.

My younger son was at a very high end country day school when he was being handed trivial silliness like Touching the Void.  I mean,  there’s nothing horrendously wrong with that book, but I could see no possible reason to assign it in an English class.  What he wasn’t being assigned was what I expected him to be:  Dickens, Hemingway, Shakespeare, Sophocles, something that had something to do with the intellectual history of the civilization he’s supposed to be inhabiting.

What’s more, the private schools are subjected to a pressure similar to the ones on public schools, except that instead of being brought by bureaucrats, they’re being brought by parents.  When parents spend $25,000 to send their kid to Wonder Prep, they don’t want to hear “not really college material.”  They think they’re paying to make sure their kid succeeds, and they therefore hold the school responsible for that success.

Some of the schools–back to Exeter, again, and Andover, and places like that–have endowments so large that they don’t have to care.  Most of them do have to care, and they bend when they have to.

But all of this simply comes down to what I started out with, which is that the schools–public, parochial or private–do not exist to do what we think they exist to do.  They do not exist to educate the next generation in any sense.  Instead, they exist as sorting devices for colleges and businesses, and as paper “evidence” of the community’s commitment to “inclusiveness,” and as babysitting facilities for busy parents. 

At the present moment, neither employers nor parents like me gets what we want from schools, public or private. 

But I don’t think the public school system has to collapse in one big heap for that to change.  I think it only has to wither away.

I don’t know what the situation is like in Canada or Australia, but the US has no pre-set national curriculum that all schools must follow or approximate.  Private schools are free to teach creationism or the worship of Cthulu, Einstein or Mother Goose, and they’ve got a SCOTUS case to back them up.

The other thing US families have got is the ability to home school without supervision in most states, and private schools that are not required to hire state certified teachers.  It does not take a lot of change or reform to make the mechanisms available for challenging the present system.

The harbinger of the end of the present system is the rise of the online proprietary (for-profit) universities, because they rise and fall by their ability to get people hired.  And that means they rise and fall by their ability to teach students the skills employers expect them to have.

It’s not quite accurate to say that employers are not trying to leave the system, but to reform it.  There’s a small proprietary school in my area that is working face to face with area employers to identify what those employers want and how to ensure that students get it.

If these schools get better results for employers, employers will prefer them, and since they’re not subsidized, they’re careful to meet the demand.  What’s more, they often provide new ways of approaching the learning of the skills involved–I can tell you, from experience, that it’s much more effective for most students to have their writing corrected and criticized in real time on line and one on one than to hand a paper into a professor at the front of a classroom with twenty students in it, take their C and shrug.

If the proprietary schools begin to take a significant number of students away from the lower ends of the four year and community college systems, what will go out with the wash is the Cultural Studies boondoggle.  Proprietary schools do not offer tenure.  They do not pretend to do research.  Their faculty exists to teach and to teach effectively, and random forays into the social construction of the gerund are not tolerated for long.

That will leave the four year colleges, if they want to survive at all, in a position where they either have to accept what they are (the way we transmit civilization down through the centuries) or die.

And that, you see, I find a very interesting prospect.

Written by janeh

May 18th, 2009 at 1:31 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

4 Responses to 'Sheff vs. O’Neill'

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  1. But why is it an either-or situation in the US? Why do your ‘proprietory’ (private?) college design courses with potential employers and subsidized community colleges not do it? They do here. Someone’s setting up a business and is going to need X techs who know how to do Y, and they sit down with staff from the local community college to hammer out a program. They may well do the same with private community colleges – which tend to cost a lot more, have worse facilities, and go out of business suddenly.

    OK, I know a community college isn’t going to be transmitting civilization to the next generation. But it still seems bizarre to me that a publically supported community college wouldn’t be working with industry to ensure that their graduates are as employable as possible.


    18 May 09 at 5:52 pm

  2. They are, Cheryl, but community colleges are two-year programs here, in more practical areas of study. For example, my company has a relationship with a local CC where we work with them to develop their automation technician program – and we’ve hired a couple of guys from there. And both of those guys are great at their jobs. But they aren’t in jobs that require good written communication, for example.

    It’s a different set of students, with different goals.


    18 May 09 at 7:19 pm

  3. Unless it’s a specific community college program such as culinary arts or other trade specialization, generally the purpose of most US (public) community colleges is to offer the first two years of general education requirements, designed to transfer to a four-year college if that’s where the student ends up. In 4-year colleges, the third year is generally when students declare a major, so everything before that is pretty generalized. Survey courses in history, literature, economics, political science, and the social sciences, astronomy & math, language courses, etc. It’s a much more economical way for many students to get their first two years of college.

    What one might call “private” junior colleges are usually targeted directly at employment. We have many around here designed for computer repair or network admins, medical assistants, dental hygenists, etc. They don’t offer much if any general ed courses, and their credits do not transfer to any four-year institution at all.

    Some public 4- and 2- year colleges have put together the kind of targeted business program you talk about, Cheryl, but most such institutions do not advertise, where the private ones do.

    Currently we’re in the situation in California where we’ve got the highest enrollment ever in the public universities, which used to accept everyone. Now they’re accepting 15% of their applicants. Community colleges are jammed, our local one is building new classrooms constantly. But the state is talking about all kinds of education cuts at the same time, due to the budget crunch.

    If students who really wanted employment could go to community colleges, and get a job with that, they would. But the universities are jammed with those who just want that diploma to get in the door. If instead the universities would concentrate on those who want to participate in the Great Conversation, the educational and employment scenes would be vastly different.


    18 May 09 at 7:21 pm

  4. Clearly the systems are very different. Our colleges do have some courses that can – or could – be transferred to university, but they are much more limited in number and scope. It used to be absurd – eg the university wouldn’t accept a calculus course that had been taken at a college specializing in marine sciences, including naval architecture – but those problems are supposed to have been solved. There are English courses at colleges, but most of them are called ‘communications’ and focus on things like report writing.

    I think you can transfer about a year of work either way. People in rural areas might do the courses acceptable at university rather than regular college courses at the local college branch. I don’t think it’s that popular an option to go to a college to get cheap courses to transfer to a university – but it’s not unusual for someone who has been at a university to transfer to a college to get some more immediately employable skills. College programs are usually either 2 or 3 years long and lead to a diploma, not a degree.

    Both the college and the university do ESL. Both do some introductory courses, mostly in English and science. Otherwise, they’re different. You want to be an engineer, you go to university. You want to be a technician or technologist, you go to college – where the program might well have been specifically designed for an employer and have nearly 100% employment at good salaries for graduates. It’s harder to get into some of these programs than it is to university.


    19 May 09 at 6:31 am

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