Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

A Couple of Short Notes

with 5 comments

This is going to be just a little thing today, because I’m gearing up for something.  For those of you who like to read up, part of what I’m gearing up to concerns two poems, “Dover Beach” by Matthew Arnold, and “Sunday Morning” by Wallace Stevens.

Actually, what I’m gearing up to is a thing about religion, tradition, and morality, but I’ll get to it tomorrow, I hope.

I would like to address Muddled in Moscow’s confusion for a minute.

First, there are many really excellent schools in the United States, both public and private.  

My guess is that at least two thirds of American students go to at least good schools and the top twenty-five percent go to really excellent ones. 

And there are places outside NY State–Connecticut has the best overall public school systems in the country, and then there are really stellar places in Winetka, Illinois, in the suburbs around LA, etc. 

But the first thing I want to know is if the people you know went to New York City schools or schools elsewhere in NY State?

American schools adhere pretty closely to local control.   It’s entirely possible for two schools in adjoining towns to have entirely different curricula, facilities, and, for that matter, socioeconomic make-up. 

Some states centralize some fuctions at the state level, but many states consist of dozens of local school districts run by local school boards with minimal accountability to anybody outside the locality.

That said, schools in suburban New  York towns–in Westchester  County, for instance–are often indeed excellent, but New York City schools are something else.

There are four kinds of NY City schools:  the public, the private, the parochial, and the public-selective high schools.

Virtually all New York  City parents who are middle class or above send their kids to private schools, and quite a few parents who fall distinctly under the middle class send their kids to parochial schools.

The exceptions are the competitive admission public high schools, like Bronx Science, for which kids must apply and by which they can be rejected. 

Outside of one interesting exception–P.S. 6, on the Upper East Side, the most monied neighborhood in NYC–the NYC public schools are an unmitigated disaster.  

These are the places you hear about where fewer than a tenth of students read at grade level, kids graduate from high school unable to do simple arithmatic, and there are metal detectors, rando drug sweeps, and the occasional knife fight.

Similar situations exist in Washington, D.C. and inner city Los Angeles. 

These are places where the middle class and above have simply abandoned the public schools altogether.  They send their kids to local private schools where they get very good educations, and that’s that.

To give you an idea, however, of how vast a difference there is between schools in the US, consider the following.

If you eliminate black and Hispanic students from the statistics on educational attainment, American students actually outperform students in every country of the world but two in every single subject area, including mathematics.

No, the issue isn’t race–it’s what goes on in schools with high poverty levels, which is most large cities are likely to have disproportionate numbers of certain categories of racial minorities. 

You’d do the same thing simply by eliminating the stats on the inner city schools.

Similar problems exist in some rural schools–remember, each town runs its own school system.  So if you live in town where the majority of the population thinks education is just a luxury and educated people are uppity snobs, that’s going to be reflected in the standards your school uses, the teachers it hires, even the culture of the school itself.

I don’t get the kids who graduate from Wilton  High School, where they’re required to take coordinated sequences in hitory and literature (one sequence in American, one in world starting with the Greeks),  one full year of American government, si courses in arts (history of painting and sculpture, history of theater, history of music), and on and on and on.

Send your kids to the Wilton, Connecticut, public schools. They’ll get one of the best educations available in the world.  It’s better than all but the very top rank even of US private schools.

But they won’t end up in my classrooms.  The kids who end up in my classrooms went either to inner city public schools, or to rural schools witout much use for education, or–and this is the kicker–to better schools in districts where there is just no political advantage in fighting parents.

Places like Wilton or Scarsdale, New York, have the kinds of schools they do because they’re full of parents with first rate educations who want the same for their children.

In town where the mix is not so heavily towards the well educated parent, you get a fair number of parents who make very decent incomes, but who were never “good at school” themsleves, and who tend to take it personally if their Little Darling gets a C. 

At that point, the district has to start worrying about law suits.  So they don’t.  They create tracks with often wildly divergent curricula–one thing for the “gifted students,” another for the ones who aren’t going to do any work anyway, and whose parents will back that up.

One of the interesting things over the last few years has been to watch the response to the “high stakes testing” requirement of the No Child Left  Behind Act.

I’m not going to go into the idiocy of thinking that if a student fails it must be the teacher’s fault, but beyond that there is the fact that students must take “competency exams” at various levels IF the district is going to accept federal money.

Note the IF.  Not all districts opt to take the money.

But note something else–the tests do NOT determine if the kid is to be passed on to the next grade.  They do NOT determine if the kid is to be allowed to graduate from high school.  They are NOT sent to colleges and universities as part of the admissions process.

Schools deemed “failing” must find a way for stdents whose parents want to to go to other schools, and that’s largely it.

Middle class parents whose children fail these tests almost universally attack the tests and demand they be halted–the same is true of state-run mastery testing. 

And that doesn’t even go into the fact that these tests do not test anything really useful, as far as I can see.  They certainly don’t test cultural reach or a general body of knowledge. 

So the first thing I’d do is ask your friends if they came from NY City or one of the suburbs, and then if they went to public, private or parochial schools.

And if they went to school in Westchester Country–well, yes, they’d have gotten an excellent education.

But my kids don’t live in Westchester County.

Written by janeh

August 5th, 2009 at 8:15 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'A Couple of Short Notes'

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  1. Yes, my friends’ kids went to NY city schools. My in-laws lived in upstate NY, and the special school was in Schenectady.

    My muddle isn’t about the way schools are funded — I get that. I just can’t imagine what happens in the classrooms — how do kids get to the 12th grade without being able to read or to write even at a 4th grade level? The kid gets 4 Fs and a D. In my day, the kid would have been held back, sent to summer school, or sent to another program. It was non-negotiable.
    So if you are a 4th grader in one of the lousy schools, and you’ve gotten all Fs and can’t fill in the blank “I — dinner last night” (or you write “I eated dinner last night”) — are you saying that nothing happens — it just gets noted and the kid goes on to the next grade?


    5 Aug 09 at 12:32 pm

  2. Oh — should say that the kids in NYC went to a I-can’t-remember-what-they’re-called — cluster? cob? magnet? school. Something like that. That is, it was a top of the line public school. Another kid goes to a public special school — also excellent (I think admission wasn’t automatic; he had to apply).


    5 Aug 09 at 3:15 pm

  3. Well, yes. The kid gets pushed ahead. Sometimes it’s called a social promotion – I think the idea is that the child will suffer a social stigma if failed, and probably won’t learn anything by being ‘kept back’, so why not let him or her go on?

    And he probably didn’t get all Fs. He’s bound to have passed *something* (although I managed to fail Grade 1 Art because I refused to draw the bunny or whatever it was the teacher drew on the board). And it’s not as though there are usually single tests covering a year’s work that determine promotion or failure – there’s probably a little quiz every so often in a variety of subjects, some assignments etc. all of which contribute, and most of which are much easier to pass than formal tests. And the teacher may not (or may not be allowed) to assign zeros for work that isn’t done.

    Oh, there’s lots of ways to ensure any promotion rate you want, regardless of what the students actually know.


    5 Aug 09 at 5:21 pm

  4. Full agreement with Jane here. (I just wanted that noted.) I used to grade “advance placement” papers from various Kansas high schools back in my days at K-State. I could sort out the Shawnee Mission high schools with about a 90% success rate. That is, there was a tiny percentage of students elsewhere good enough to pass a typical Shawnee Mission. On a DNA level, the kids can’t have been that different. But they had educated intelligent parents who kept the schools to a high standard.
    Mind you, we have very few schools so bad a determined parent and child can’t see that the child gets a decent education. But we have many parents no so determined.


    5 Aug 09 at 6:30 pm

  5. Wow. What an eye-opener. In my day kids who got held back or had to go to summer school were stigmatized –kids are mean — but the prevailing philosophy was: So what? The kid needs to learn this stuff.


    5 Aug 09 at 11:36 pm

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