One of the frustrating things about school reformers is how they treat schools as if they were dry goods to be purchased: do I want the school with or without the bleach additive? Instead, a school’s academic performance is largely determined by the student body; in other words, parents who focus on performance are actually selecting student bodies, not faculty and facilities.
Recently, Freddie DeBoer at Balloon Juice had a nice rant about charter schools. While it was unfair to claim that Matthew Yglesias is a charter school advocate, deBoer is dead on target with this (boldface mine):
Yglesias says that the failure to talk about choice is what drives him crazy about how charter schools and education reform are discussed in this country. What drives me crazy about how Yglesias discusses charter schools and education reform, besides his absolute and seemingly unwavering commitment to snarking at anyone who questions reform at all, is that he knows the discouraging empirical evidence regarding education reform but seems never to let that knowledge affect his analysis. How is it possible to preserve the same tired reform rhetoric without any evidence to support that rhetoric? And like most liberal school reformers, he never seems to realize that a great number of his fellow travelers don’t possess his genuine concern for poor and minority students. Conservative and libertarian “reformers” love ed reform liberals because they give cover to a project that fits entirely with their principles but entirely against those of Matt Yglesias: destroying public institutions, smashing unions, and attacking liberal Democratic constituencies like public school teachers.
The useful idiot role many progressives play in the education debate is frustrating. Like it or not, issues like this often devolve to ‘are you for it, or agin’ it?’ Nuance isn’t really operative here. But the key point of deBoer is something I’ve been writing about for a long time (boldface mine):
Rich people usually take their kids out of the worst public schools precisely because the worst off students [are] there. If you increase the mobility of poor and minority students, you’re only going to compel rich parents to erect more barriers to entry. I promise: even if you give people a broad choice of schools to send their children to, I’m sorry to say that many parents will still endeavor to keep their children away from poor and minority students. That’s just the reality of American life; it’s riven with class conflict and unconscious racism. If you give poor people a $10,000 private school voucher, the top private schools will start charging $10,001. They will do so because, from a marketing standpoint, keeping out poor kids is a feature, not a bug; and they will do so because they know, better than any opponent of school reform, that the ability to keep out the hardest students to educate is an enormous advantage….
As so often happens, one of Yglesias’s commenters, named David E. Frazer, poses a serious rebuttal:
I think you are missing the chicken-and-egg conundrum. Rich [people] may decide to move to nice suburban towns because they have good schools but the reason nice suburban towns have good schools is because rich people live there. Try this little exercise: Millburn [a/k/a Short Hills] is usually lauded as the best school district in NJ. Let’s suppose we traded the 4200 students in the Millburn school district with a random selection of 4200 kids from the nearby Newark school system. Want to take a bet whether or not the following year Millburn was ranked #1?
As I’ve noted before, Yglesias’ model is wrong–and he’s still not getting it: much of a school’s quality is derived from the student body. Educational interventions and teacher quality (if one thinks that can be measured accurately) are about as important as attendance. Mind you, if reformers were to do something useful, such as focus on curriculum and pedagogy, the teacher contribution could be far more important, but, in our current system, the primary influence is the student body, as one of Yglesias’ commenters points out:
The problem here is that Matt seems to think that “the best public schools” has some meaning independent from “the schools where upper middle class and lower upper class people live.” But it really doesn’t.
More basically, this seems like the wrong idea entirely, as do Matt’s frequent comments about needing “the best teachers” or whatever. No matter what we do, upper middle class areas are going to have better schools than poor areas, because our main measures for whether a place is a good school are heavily correlated with measures of parental income.
At this point, people will say, “Well, what can we do about students?” Lots, actually. Everything from nutrition, to keeping libraries open (public and school libraries), summer reading programs, and lots of other things help. And, of course, combatting poverty which would provide better home environments for children helps too.
Schools aren’t products. Focus on the students, their welfare, and what they are learning.