Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Back To School

This month, a group of ministers in the Chicagoland area called for a boycott of the first day of school. The reason they want to hold children back from their classrooms is in protest of the way schools are funded in Illinois. Let me first say, I think it’s ridiculous to boycott in this way – the only people really inconvenienced or hurt by keeping kids out of the classroom are the kids. But, on the whole I agree with them. The funding system here is unfair. The way it works is that schools are funded by the property taxes paid in the area, so obviously affluent suburbs have a greater amount of money to work with and far fewer students to educate.

Some suburbs have as much as $17,000.00 per student, where the inner city has about $10,000.00. Yep, that’s a discrepancy and in a public school system I have to agree that the amount of money your family earns should have no bearing on the type of education available to you through that system…

But, here’s where I diverge. Catholic Schools need about $5,000.00 per student to educate their pupils. That’s half of what’s available in the city schools. Catholic School students, on the whole, out perform their public school counterparts and a far greater percentage of them finish high school and go on to college. Now, I mentioned before that I moved my own kids from the local Catholic School to the local public school last year – so I do believe children can get a good education in the public school system – but I don’t think the answer is to throw money at it.
I think if this protest works and the funding is more equally dispersed, it will have little to no effect on how well the children in those districts are educated. I think the call for more funding in education is a great rally cry for politicians, but it doesn’t do anything to solve the problems in education.

I think what we really need to do is look at the schools that succeed (regardless if they’re public or privately funded) and see where they differ from the schools that are failing and I think the biggest variance you’ll see is in the pupils’ own families. Kids who succeed in school have parents who are supportive of their education. They have parents who come to all of their school functions, volunteer to help in the classroom, or in whatever way available to them they show their child that they value the work they do in school. They treat the child’s school career with the same respect that they treat their own career.

That is the first variance I see, there are others, but we have to own the fact that a child’s first and most powerful educator is his / her family. In other words, counting on politicians to solve this problem is ludicrous. First, most politicians do not use the public school system. They send their own children to private schools that the average American cannot afford. So why would we count on them to fix a system that they have no vested personal interest in and, quite frankly, don’t take the time to understand? And even the well-meaning politician who honestly wants to champion the school system is at a disadvantage – even the best system and most dedicated teachers can do little to educate a child whose parents won’t work with them.

I think we’ve come to a point in this country where, when things are not working, we automatically want the government to fix it and I think that’s dangerous. We need to own our own communities and our own lives.

There are other reasons education is failing in areas here, and I’d love to talk about that in the comments section, but I think the number one decider of a child’s success at school will be in the support they receive early on and throughout their education. A close second is the amount of support their peers receive, because I can be as proactive in my child’s moral and academic growth as possible, but if they’re in a classroom full of kids whose parents don’t care, kids who then start misbehaving or being disruptive, well, obviously, that puts every child at a disadvantage to learn.

If I had that situation in my own kids public school, I’d move them right back to Catholic School without batting an eye… it doesn’t solve the problem in the school system, though, does it? And right now, many parents’ hands are tied in where their child attends school because private education is very expensive.

This is a far reaching topic and I think there are a lot of variables. What do you think? How do we fix it? Can it be fixed? Do you think more government input on individual school districts is the answer, or less? Do you think more funding will solve it?


Erica Orloff said...

This pretty much sums up the solution (I think):


The Anti-Wife said...

One thing to consider is that most schools still operate under a fairly traditional model that has been in place forever. A bunch of kids go into a classroom with a teacher who can give them limited individual attention and is somewhat forced to teach to the level of the slowest students. Even with accelerated classes, the kids aren't taught based on their abilities, needs and wishes. How can they ever reach their highest potential in these conditions?

No answers here - only questions.

pjd said...

I think the biggest variance you’ll see is in the pupils’ own families.

Spot on.

This is not to say that those families are bad people. Many have language or literacy issues from previous generations. Some face family crises brought on by economic, health, or other issues outside their control. Some kids have a parent in jail, and their other parent is doing all he or she can.

More funding to education is not the answer. Though I personally think throwing a trillion dollars at our education system would have been far more productive than throwing a trillion dollars at destroying Iraq.

95% of disadvantaged people desperately want to succeed. So why are all our policies geared toward the other 5%? As a society, we tend to treat poor people as if they did something to deserve being poor. How did that happen? When did that happen?

Children can not learn in school if they do not have a safe, stable, nurturing environment the other 18 hours of the day. If they don't have sufficient food. If they don't have books at home.

Our job as a society is to enable parents to provide that safe, stable, nurturing environment. This means adequate day care and transportation and job training. This means promoting small business in inner cities. This means adequate preventative health care for children. And it means promoting literacy and early childhood development. is a great start. A boycott is lunacy.

Instead of a boycott, priests should be promoting outreach programs from their own Catholic schools into the public schools. If their students are doing so much better, have their schools partner with disadvantaged schools to allow their high performing students to work with the disadvantaged kids. Break down the barriers.

When I was in 4th grade, my class went to inner city Hartford three days, and our sister school visited us three days. I still consider that one of the most influential things on me growing up. Break down the barriers.

This is not about funding for schools. Teachers are dedicated, hardworking, and passionate. And, for the most part, capable. Get rid of NCLB. Stop penalizing and start promoting solutions.

Sorry, you got me on a rant. :-) But you're right at the fundamental level. And you're also right that our politicians are the least capable people in the country to fix the problem. They only think in terms of funding, but the problem is so much more complex than that. If your pipes leak, you don't call a CPA. You call a plumber. Our families are failing. We shouldn't be asking a politician to fix them.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

A very thought provoking article. No Child Left Behind is deeply flawed, not least of which is because it dictates that children with learning disabilities master the same material as other children in their age bracket... and I'm with you on this - we should be educating the individual child and each individual has their own areas of ability...

But I don't think it's as simple as saying, "some kids don't want to become professionals and shouldn't go to college"... it's become a massive circle in which jobs that shouldn't require a degree now do... Why do I need a bachelors degree to answer phones and file paperwork? Most decent secretarial jobs ask for a degree, but you don't need one to be good at that job and quite honestly I think it's ridiculous that you have to pay massive amounts of money to earn a four year degree only to seek the same employment your mother might have found without a high school diploma (and done well with).

I don't think a degree should be the sole reason for pay scale or job placement, but in the work force right now, you're at a disadvantage without one. And I think this societal flaw has contributed heavily to the ever increasing amount of plagiarism and cheating in high school and college levels. Students no longer place the value on learning, they only take the classes to attain the degree to get the job, and those students are less likely to actually learn the material... they basically paid to be able to get a job. Which, in my opinion, devalues the worth of a degree.

Hi Anti-wife,

I think they try to get around this as much as possible, but working with teachers to make sure that classes are assigned in a way that the students can excell at their level. In my district they have advanced placement classes as well as IEP classes, which are for kids that have a hard time keeping up. The problem comes because all of those classes still have to take the same standardized tests.

Another thing I should point out about the success of private schools - they can decline students. They don't have the federal funds to properly educate children with learning or physical disabilities, so they are apt to test better because those students are not in their overall statistics... they can also refuse to readmit students who will not work within their rules of conduct, which makes it easier to keep a better social climate. And most Catholic Schools make parental involvement mandatory, which I think makes a big difference and makes the catholic environment more of a community than some public schools are.


thank you for the very thoughtful response... I have to run, but I'll be back to comment in detail.

pjd said...

It is a very interesting op-ed piece Erica points us to. While I agree with the sentiment behind it, I think it is limited in its truth, its imagination, and its vision.

High-school students who pursue the vocational track do better in the job market, in terms of both employment rates and wages, than those who stay in the academic track but don't belong there.

This is a nice thing to say, but I wonder if there is any data to back it up. It makes sense on the surface, sure, but where's there evidence.

On the other hand, there are several comprehensive studies that show that attending even two years of college can have a dramatic effect on average income. This includes JC and community college. But cause and effect, or simply correlation? Maybe the people who go to college for two years were already more likely to earn more than people who don't. No idea on that question. But neither do we know for sure if the article's claim above is actually true or is causal.

I think vocational education, done with a 21st century focus, is a great approach and should be a part of every state's educational mandate. The author is right that not all people are cut out for college. And society needs laborers at all levels, at least until we can afford armies of Asimos to drive buses and flip burgers and press clothes.

But I get the sense that the author's vision is incredibly white. I envision the old mill and mining towns from the movies when I read this article. But the biggest problems are in inner cities in populations of color. 50% of blacks and hispanics will drop out of high school. This is not primarily due to a lack of vocational education or an overemphasis on college that demoralizes them. In many cases it's due to a school system unprepared to handle the language problems of non-English speaking families. Or the problems of kids looking at their future and seeing no opportunity because none of those jobs they could be trained for actually exist in their neighborhoods. How many crane operators and machinists can there be in inner city Philadelphia or San Francisco? How many press operators does this country need when most of those jobs are going to Mexico and the far east?

Vocational education is one component of a much larger solution that is needed. It needs to be available and destigmatized, as the author states, but it won't solve anything unless the jobs are available and the kids are given the hope that they can actually make a living wage from them, can actually improve their situation by working them.

Merry Monteleone said...

I just ran across this:

and thought you guys would be interested

Here's the thing- they're making it a racial issue, and it's not. It's economic bigotry, not racial bigotry... I find economic bigotry to be even more insidious, because it's tolerated.

I still say, though, that 10,000.00 per student is still a lot more money than most private schools, which begs the question, 'where is that money going if they can't even get textbooks or proper facilities?' Does it help to put more money into it, when the funds alotted are falling through the cracks? I'm not saying no - I think it should be fair across the board, I'm saying calling it racial or pushing through funds doesn't solve the problem.

Merry Monteleone said...


First, you are absolutely right. The Catholic Church, all churches in fact, should do more to promote community participation in their schools. Unfortunately, there's often a rift between the CAtholic school families and their public school counterparts within the parish... and it's often only a few outspoken people who cause this rift but the effect is such that there remains an 'us' and 'them' mentality.

The Catholic Schools are woefully underfunded because as high as tuition is, it's not as much as it costs to educate the children enrolled so the surplus falls to the Church to make up. And much of the programs that are offered to all parishioners are done on a volunteer basis, and that's what it comes down to - how much are you willing to give and do? Because it's up to us. We have to take the time to put into our community.

I agree with about everything you said in both comments. I think it's a far reaching topic and I think we all need to realize that one blanket system will not work, because each student is an individual and they don't all learn the same or excell in the same environments...

Travis Erwin said...

My boys attend a private Catholic school but I understand the diversity you talk about for a few years we had a robin hood system here in Texas but it created lots of problems as well. I'm not smart enough to offer any ideas, but hopefully there are some problem solvers out here who will.

SUV Mama said...

Interesting- and perfectly timed.

My best friend in Illinois lives in a school district that boasts incredible taxes...and incredible schools. The higher tax bracket areas always seem to have the better schools- so yes, while private schools may have better performance, the reality is simple- more money=better schools. Is it FAIR? It is reality.

Incidentally, private school has shown no effect on future success. So as a private school Mom, yes, I believe it is right for my child, but I also know that the extra money I pay in taxes AND in tuition isn't necessarily going to "pay off". It is what happens in her overall life. Some of which I can control, most of which I can not.

There are hundreds stories of children reaching their full potential under the most dire of circumstances- white AND black AND hispanic. How do you explain their success? (I suppose that is another issue entirely). Some would argue that success isn't detmined based on what school you go to, who your parents are, and what circumstances you find yourself in.

Want to change the world? Start with our kids. But government involvement? The problem is that when we demand that SOMEONE take care of the problem, WE become the problem. I don't want (or need) the government making any more decisions for my family- especially regarding my child's education.

"Our job as a society is to enable parents to provide that safe, stable, nurturing environment. This means adequate day care and transportation and job training. This means promoting small business in inner cities. This means adequate preventative health care for children. And it means promoting literacy and early childhood development."

Fine. Great. Good. I agree. As a society let's start putting VALUE in children. Let's start putting VALUE in fatherhood. Let's start working on better maternity leave and BONUSES- even CASH- for mother's on WIC who choose to breastfeed.

The issue is NOT too big. Thinking that makes it seem impossible, which it is not. There is no one size fits all solution, but surely that doesn't give us the liberty to give up and throw it all in.

Keep on blogging about it. Discussion might lead to action- which is what we all really want here, regardles of differing political views.

Gary Corby said...

Wow, it doesn't help your situation, but there's a virtually identical debate in Australia, which might be bad news since it indicates no one has a solution.

Expensive private schools self-select for parents who care, and as Merry says, if the parents care, and the parents of the peer group care, then the environment is right and good things will happen almost irrespective of funding.

Conversely almost 100% of parents who do not care about their kids' future send them to the local, free, public school, which therefore gets a high percentage of the disruptive kids who prevent the others from learning.

Almost all the debate locally is over relative funding of schools, public vs private. But really I believe you could take the entire population of any private school, swap them wholesale with the population of the state school with the worst facilities, and the kids originally from the private school would still outperform on average; not because those kids are more talented, but because their families support them.

Gary Corby said...

Can I just add something mildly off-topic? What I admire most about America is something I see in all these responses: people wanting to take responsibility for themselves, and not waiting for or expecting the Government to fix things for them. Great attitude. Sadly, you don't see much of it where I am (sigh).

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Travis,

You know, if I didn't have a personal problem in my own parish school, my kids would still be there, but honestly, I'm lucky in that our public grammar school in my district is actually very good... the thing here is, I don't think it should matter whether or not we use the public school, I think it's an issue everyone needs to think about and want to fix.

Both Obama and McCain have offered very different platforms on Education, but neither addresses all of the issues that will fix the schools that are failing and I think what we all want is equal education for all of the kids.

The high school district I'm in is terrible, so a lot of the people in my town either move when their kids graduate eighth grade, or send them to private high school...

We're thinking about moving before our daughter gets there, too, and my kids will definitely not attend that high school. I'm not taking that stand with my children's safety. But I do think the people in my area need to be more involved in improving that high school. We kind of leave it to the towns who use it, even though our tax dollars are at work there, too... but the bottom line is, do we really want whole generations of our neighbors' kids getting out of high school reading at a fifth grade level or below? Do we want to see these kids not be able to get jobs and not be able to function in legitimate society? I don't. I don't want it for them and I don't want the repurcussions of that on society as a whole.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi SUV Mama!

I think I know the school of which you speak - that would be Highland Park, right? We'll just say I'm not in their tax bracket :-)

I know a lot of people who grew up in very swank neighborhoods, and a number of them wound up with drug problems and worse (kids with lots of time and lots of money and no responsibility can get in lots of trouble). You're right, there are no guarantees.

But, I'm going back to it not being about the money. Catholic Schools are decidedly private, so are Lutheran Schools... not the hoity toity you need a legacy to get in kind of private, but still. The religious schools generally don't have a lot of money or good facilities. In fact the inner city schools get far more in that department... so I don't think it's the money.

I do think you are absolutely correct that as a society we need to show some deference to parents. To support stay at home parents and working parents... I wouldn't legislate it, but it's definitely something we should be doing on a moral and personal level.

I think, too, it's likely that there is more parental support in more affluent neighborhoods because those parents can afford to stay home or work their schedules around their children more often than parents who are struggling to pay daycare and working two jobs. It's a hard situation and not that uncommon of one.

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Gary,

Thank you for joining in and for your insight. There are actually a lot of people here who seem to think the Government should fix these things, I think it's one of the reasons so many people are outspoken about getting involved themselves...

It is many layered and not easy. But I think, if you start at home and work your way out, if everyone tried in small ways to impact their corner of the problem, it might just start the ball rolling in the right direction.

SUV Mama said...

LOL! Yep, Highland Park. I'm coming out to visit on first visit to Chicago where I'll actually get away from the airport. Yeah!

I'm actually very interested in your views on Catholic education.... I may email you, okay? :)

Merry Monteleone said...


Yes, absolutely! And if you have time while you're in town, I'd love to get together for coffee or something!

my email's merry316 at sbcglobal dot com

Ello said...

Ok Pete pretty much said everything I'd want to say.

THere's been alot said already so I dn't think I can add anything to it, but I can imagine how frustrating it would be to be in the middle of this. And no boycotting education is never a good idea!

How's the writing going?

Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Ello,

You guys have a voucher system instituted don't you? I'm really wondering how that works and if it helps. The idea sounds good, because it's so difficult to afford private schools that many families don't have the option. At the same time, though, I'm afraid that the voucher system might leave it open for the government to try to take over the running of private schools and I think one of the reasons they work so well is because they don't adhere to the beurocratic red tape...

Writing's going slow at the moment as my regular computer is experiencing technical difficulties and I've been using the family computer, which means more interuptions... on the plus side though, Precie and I have made a pact to have our current wips finished (first draft, at least) by 12-31-08... so you'll have some beta reading coming up in the new year :-)

Erica Orloff said...

Hi Merry, PJ . . .

My feelings are really much more complicated that a single article. I only know the system is broken.

I agree with the opinions here that private schools don't have to accept kids with significant problems--hence they can educate a more model student that then makes the school look good, not to mention not having to spend funds $$$ working with kids who have additional classroom needs and attention (for example, No Child Left Behind doesn't offer exceptions for immigrant children arriving with ZERO English skills in the classroom . . . a lot of peop't don't know that . . . they can take tests in their language--but there's no additional funds for the time and attention required to EDUCATE them that school year in their native language until they catch on to English . . .).

Regarding vo-tech . . . I agree that college should be an OPTION for everyone, but fixing the vo-tech system so that kids leave with REAL skills--would be great. Case in point, I worked as a mentor with unwed teen mothers in the inner city for years. I had some very bright kids . . . who were studying hairdressing. BUT, the shocking thing was they were studying, essentially "white hairdressing"--so these girls weren't even practicing or working with people who looked like them, weren't learning braids or weaves. They were learning a skillset not like to be useful in their neighborhoods or their world--and it was, in my opinion, the height of arrogance for the schools to exclude multiracial hair from the teaching program--I felt like I was seeing them learn hairdressing from 1950s America. There are kids who graduate high school who have never taken financial literacy--can't balance a checkbook. As Merry said, you can read ads for jobs that say "college degress required"--but why? Considering a significant portion of students I knew majored in binge drinking and pot smoking . . . are they better equipped for some jobs than a hard-working person who wants to better himself or herself?

Anyway, it's disheartening to say the least. However, I also think the discussion in this country has to be based on reality, has to go above political platforms toward some practical solutions.


Merry Monteleone said...

Hi Erica,

I'm sorry it took me so long to get back here - and yes, there are soooo many variables at play here. I think one of the biggest things that everyone has to, HAS to, realize is that there is no standard model that works for every child. There isn't one. Every child has their own strengths and weaknesses and trying to fit them all into one mold will always leave a good percentage of them falling through the cracks.

And I will say some of the reason private schools test better is because they don't have special needs kids in the mix... but that is because they don't have the funds. Private schools do not get government funds and often the tuition is not enough to cover education and overhead. So I think in a lot of cases private schools would love to be able to offer some of these services, but they can't financially accomplish it and the kids are better off in a facility that can.

I think, too, we parents have to be vigilant in our children's education. We should have a good handle on where their skills are and what might benefit them individually, instead of leaving it up to the teachers and schools... there are so many parents that excuse their childrens bad behavior, even arguing with teachers over their grades. (I have teacher friends and I'm astounded at some of the parents' behavior).

Sometimes you have to stand up for your child. But some of these parents are only teaching them that they can be irresponsible and still get bailed out. Consequences are a good thing. I'd rather have my kid learn by detention in grade school than face prison time later...

Merry Monteleone said...
This comment has been removed by the author.