"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Friday, August 31, 2012

Choosing the Right School Does Matter

Every parent who can afford a school choice considers the private-public options carefully.  A good education is perhaps the most important contribution to a child’s future that a parent can make, most are willing to sacrifice to provide a quality learning environment, and few are willing to compromise knowledge for what have recently been touted as important adjuncts or associative contributions of public schools – a diverse racial, ethnic, and economic environment; participatory, inclusive education, and a universal respect for all types of intelligence.

An article in the Washington Post (8.31.12) by Kevin Hartnett http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/what-matters-more-to-my-kids-future-their-school-or-quality-time-with-their-parents/2012/08/30/6275957c-ed90-11e1-b09d-07d971dee30a_story.html takes a different approach, suggesting that it is the influence of the parents and the home which makes the most difference in eventual achievement.  Schools, peers, teachers are all less relevant than the direct, continuous involvement of parents to transfer values, principles, and morals.

He is right and wrong.  There is no doubt that only the family can impart the fundamental principles of successful life in society.  That is why two-parent, educated families produce children with the right foundations for life and the fundamentals of learning; and that is why dysfunctional families in equally dysfunctional communities cannot and do not.  There is no doubt that the intense commitment to education found in many Asian families contributes to the academic superiority of Chinese, Korean, and Indian children; why their dropout rates are so much lower than blacks and Latinos; and why their educational choices are practical, appropriate, and productive.

As Hartnett observes, income is not necessarily a factor in parenting.  The Asian experience is a perfect example.  While many well-educated, high-earning Indians, for example, come to and settle in the United States and can afford the best education for their children, many Koreans, Vietnamese, and Chinese enter with few skills and resources.  Yet these children consistently do better because of the work and learning ethic instilled in them from birth.

When Susan Mayer at the University of Chicago looked at the relationship between family income and lifetime achievement, she saw that many of the character traits that allow some adults to make a lot of money — a strong work ethic, honesty, reliability, good health — also make them good parents. Mayer wondered whether it is those traits, rather than the money that results from them, that really counts.

Wealthier white families share some of the same commitment and spend hours with their children, teaching them early reading and math, conceptual development, and even practical skills such as risk-taking and entrepreneurial activity. They do this even with high-pressured lives because the teaching is informal, short, but continuous.  It is no wonder that researchers cited by Harnett found that these child-focused activities that impart knowledge and values go beyond income as determiners of future success.  Annette Lareau’s research confirms what should be obvious:

Middle-class parents convey substantial advantages to their children in three ways: by cultivating their interests, enriching their thinking and speaking skills through informal conversations.. Success in those areas is much more related to the amount of time parents spend with their children than where they send them to school.

At the same time there is no substitute for a top-flight education at a premier school.  Here in Washington, DC no one doubts that the children attending Sidwell Friends or St. Albans Schools receive the best education in the District.  Not only are the teachers of the highest quality, but so are the students.  Many graduates of these institutions talk more of the high-octane intellectual environment of their peers than of the actual teaching itself.

This is not to say that children who attend public schools – even those classified as underperforming – cannot become successful adults.  There will always be those few motivated, high-intelligence, disciplined students who can negotiate the mediocrity and excel; but in general, a top private school would be better for them academically.

There is a lot of self-serving justification in this article, written by a journalist who is also a concerned parent.  He can breathe a sigh of relief that the research shows that home-teaching of knowledge and values has a more direct relationship to future outcomes than school:

It’s certainly gratifying to have an academic study tell me what intuitively seems true: that to the extent I can influence whether James and Oscar grow up to be happy, successful adults, the time I spend with them is more important than the average SAT scores or the number of Advanced Placement offerings at their schools.

This of course is nonsense. The learning environment at home is not the be-all and end-all of the educational experience; it simply facilitates the more advanced learning that takes place in top schools. A child who has learned how to learn; who is able to do conceptual thinking, and who has achieved a high level of reasoning skills before entering primary school will of course be far more able to take everything the school has to give with honors and then some.

Record numbers of kids are applying to elite colleges, and in today’s economy, James and Oscar might need every advantage I can give them. Choosing not to rearrange our lives to move to the best school system could be unwise. Or it could be a pass for our family to live the way we want to.

If the Hartnett family does choose to ‘live the way we want to’ – that is to live in a school district where public education is not of the highest quality – they will be among the very few to do so.  The demand for the voucher program in the District of Columbia far exceeds the supply.  Parents in poorly-performing school districts are desperate to get their children out and into a better learning environment.  Charter schools are booming for the same reason.  People leave DC for Maryland and Virginia for the schools; and one of the first question realtors are asked is “How are the schools?”.

There is no doubt that a rich educational environment in the home provides the student with the moral, ethical, and intellectual foundations for higher learning; and in many cases such an environment trumps income and schooling.  At the same time there is no doubt that most children who are able can benefit from the demanding, rigorous, intellectually diverse and challenging environment of the best private schools.  The answer? Give your child the proper intellectual and moral education at home, and they will get into Sidwell Friends or St. Albans. 

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