A Way for the Most Affluent Folks to Really Help Improve Public Education

There is one very straightforward way that well-educated, upper-income families could help improve the public schools.

Send your kids to the local public schools, and get involved.

Your kids WILL survive.

In fact, since they probably carry half of your genes, and since you nurture them every day, they will most likely still do well in school, well enough to get into a good college and have a good life. Your kids aren’t the fragile little flowers you may think. The sturm and drang of adolescence will happen no matter where they go to school, but all the evidence I’ve heard (including from my own two kids, who went K-12 through DC public schools, thank you very much) indicates that there is a lot LESS use of illicit drugs in the public schools.

Plus, you and your children will actually get to know kids and parents from all kinds of backgrounds: African-American and Hispanic and European-American kids whose parents do important work that keeps our society running — many of them in blue-collar or pink-collar jobs. Your kids would grow up with deeper connections, understanding, and sympathy for the kids and families who are not as well off as you are. If they grow up to be managers, they will know much better how to relate to the rank-and-file workers…

Evidence for that comes from a study of upper-Northwest DC students who attended Murch and Lafayette elementary schools. Some of them went on and continued in DC public schools, and others transferred at various grade levels to private schools. The study showed no statistically significant difference in whether those kids were accepted at selective colleges and universities or not.

What’s really alarming about this study is how self-defeating many of these affluent parents really are. Why spend a quarter of a million dollars on seven years of private school, when your kids could end up taking and passing AP classes at the local public high schools, for free, (as did my own kids) and still get into decent or excellent colleges? (see page 38 of the report) More evidence: when I taught at Alice Deal JHS/MS in the same area of town, my MathCounts teams were very competitive with the local private schools. Sometimes we were #1, sometimes the private schools beat us. My old school and I still have lots of “Mathletic” trophies to prove this. And my own kids did quite well on their AP exams, too.

Take a look at this table of data from the report (page 8):

If you look at the table, you can see that zip codes 2008, 20015 and 20016 in Washington DC are  overwhelmingly composed of relatively affluent, well-educated, professional/manageral, white families. Who overwhelmingly send their kids to private schools.

What’s really sad is that many of those families claim to know exactly what’s wrong with the DC public school system and how to fix it: they were the core of the support for Adrian Fenty and Michelle Rhee and their totally wrong-headed approach to public education.

Seems to me that if these families were on the inside of DCPS, they would have a much better idea of what’s wrong and how it could be improved, rather than the facile answers provided by the billionaires who are simultaneously wrecking the world economy and telling the rest of us how to run our educational system.

And their kids do just fine.


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12 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. Guy – this fits with my anecdotal knowledge.

    Could you post a link to the original report? — I couldn’t find it by googling.


    • The links are at the highlighted words in my post.
      Were they not visible?


      • Thanks, I see them now, but they aren’t visible when using the scroll bar, as I was originally doing.


  2. Guy – I teach in a school with a progressive parent population, and I can see the support for public education on the elementary level. Not so sure as the children move on to the middle and high school levels, in practice, though. I would theorize that it becomes a matter building those perceived college application status points for some (not all). The teen years are scary for parents. The HS and MS levels need to publicize their achievements more, to draw more achievers.

    I am proud my children stayed in the public schools and have a sense of what the world is really about. They did very well, had excellent teachers, tough AP courses, and were accepted into prestigious colleges. My children have seen firsthand the insulation of their fellow students who went to private schools or wealthy suburban schools — these young people are going to be the leaders of tomorrow and harbor misconceptions and prejudices, of which they know very little about.


    • Well, the only news one hears is bad news, whether it be from at the school or the behaviour of the kids afterschool (on Metro, at the library, etc.).
      For example, the New Carrollton library is 3 blocks away from Charles Carroll Middle School. If you were a parent at the library after 4:30 on a weekend, you would see the students acting rude, loud and inconsiderate. The library has resorted to having a police officer stationed there.

      That doesn’t inspire confidence in the school.


  3. Guy –

    This is an excellent column, but I’m not sure this holds true for the kids at our PK-8 schools or all the middle schools in the city. Deal stands out in DCPS and has for years. Hardy was doing great until Rhee decided to remove the Principal. Our other middle schools include some good and bad.

    I do think if all these parents chose a local school and invested a third to a half of the money they would have spent on private school in their local public school we’d have even better outcomes.

    Mary Melchior


    • Well, my own kids didn’t go to Deal or Wilson; they went to Bunker Hill, Stevens, Stuart-Hobson, and then Walls and Banneker, respectively. I am willing to bet that there are good teachers at just about every DC public school (as well as the others). I also know that one can pay lots of money to have one’s child taught by some of those “others” at lots of private schools. I know, because I tutor a lot of their students. One of the keys here is to get involved. GFB


  4. What you have said is so true. Here’s my experience:

    When my older son was ready for high school I was afraid to send him to the local public high school because of the number of low-achieving and poorly behaved students. So my husband and I spent a huge amount of money on a private school where my son felt isolated and was unhappy. However, he DID get a good education and went on to graduate from the University of California and Stanford.

    My younger son refused to go to this private school and insisted on the public high school which had a program for the high achievers. He did even better than my older son and graduated from Harvard. Also, he was with his friends from grade school and had a much better time.

    There is so much research showing that the children of educated, attentive parents will do well at any school and yet people generally are afraid to trust this information.


    • Your conclusion appears to me, by my experience and research, true in an overwhelming proportion of cases (but not always).
      The converse is also very often true as well, it seems to me.
      In plain English, for those not familiar with logical and mathematical terms:
      I agree that if a child is lucky enough to be born to attentive and educated parents, he or she is going to do well in school perhaps 75% to 95% of the time (more or less).
      And if a child is unlucky enough to be born to parents who are uneducated and don’t care for their needs, the odds are stacked pretty high against that student doing well in school.
      Not that there aren’t exceptions. But they are fairly rare (one in five to one in twenty, perhaps?).
      {Not that it’s absolutely necessary to excel academically if you plan on excelling in life. There are lots of examples of folks who do very poorly in school but go on to do well or very well in real life. And there are folks who have extremely high IQ, SAT, and GRE scores (or whatever) and did great in school, who are miserable human beings because they can’t relate to the real world in any way at all. I’m not at all sure what the percentages are, but I know of lots of such folks – both types.}

      Note that I am also contradicting the “wisdom” of the current religious cult founded by the usual gaggle of educational Deformers and their billionaire backers (almost all of whom attended exclusive private schools). In fact, the teacher is NOT the major determinant of a child’s success in school. We can make, and sometimes do make, a difference in our students’ lives, but most of us end every school year wishing that we could have somehow had been more influential in leading many of our students in a positive direction.
      A story that one of my first principals told me about 30 years ago:
      (Obviously, I don’t remember the exact words, which I’m obviously making up, but I remember the gist of what he said.)

      “Mr. Brandenburg, I do my very best to get our male students to go in the right direction in life. I talk to them personally. I am sympathetic at every single one of their disciplinary hearings, though obviously there are definitely cases where we have to ask for suspensions, or even get police officers involved. I am on speaking terms with many of their mothers, or if there ain’t no mother, then the stepmother, or the grandmother, or the grandfather, or the aunt, or the uncle, or the foster parent, or whatever parent figure there might be, even the occasional father.
      “As you know, I’m out in the hallways, out on the playgrounds, they like me, and you teachers know that I support you as well: we deal together with the crazy little gangs that sometimes attack our students, and so on. I also sponsor RRRR and SSSS and TTTT on weekends.
      “But you know what’s really sad?
      “When I go down to visit a former student of mine that I hear has been locked up at Lorton [Reformatory: it used to be the DC prison, not jail, and was located outside the Beltway in Northern Virginia] — every single time I go to Lorton, or even to the DC Jail near RFK Stadium, I hear all these voices all over the place, on the wrong side of the bars, smiling saying things like this:
      “Hey, Mr. T!” (note: not his real name)
      “What’s up, Mr. T?
      “Look at me now, Mr. T!”
      “Hi, Mr. T!”
      “I made it, Mr. T!”
      “Remember me? I was in your XXXX class at YYYY school”
      “I’m a MAN now, Mr. T! I made it!”
      “Yo, Mr. T! You were my vice-principal at YYYY school! How ya doin’?”
      and so on.

      This principal really was a great guy and a great, competent administrator. So much so that when DCPS threatened to move him to a larger school where they needed a tough, well-liked, competent administrator, all the teachers at the school protested, because we wanted to keep him and not change leaders in the middle of a school year.
      (They relented and moved him over the summer. Our next principal was a former downtown administrator who, rumor had it, was exiled to our school for doing something wrong downtown. Don’t know if that’s true or not, but I thought she was a very ineffective administrator. She later told me, many years later, after she was retired, but while I was still teaching, and we happened to meet at a reunion of teachers and staff at that school, that I was a “principal’s worst nightmare.” We had, in fact, locked horns horns a few times…)

      So, this guy, who was BY FAR the best administrator I think I ever spent a full school year under, even he had a pretty low ‘batting average’ in getting his roughest kids to go in a positive direction, after years of hard, conscientious work.

      By the way, that was a very tough neighborhood.
      How tough? Let me explain.
      Some of our students lived in little houses, and some of the students lived in low-rise garden apartments, typically about 2 or 3 stories high. The region was very hilly, and consequently had quite a lot of areas where you couldn’t build anything. These “empty” spaces weren’t really empty: they held quite a few medium-sized trees and underbrush as well as a fair amount of trash. Also, lots of hiding places. I didn’t much like walking around there after dark.
      I visited quite a few of my students’ houses, since they all lived close to the school. If I had previously been invited in for a conference, the houses or apartments were typically immaculate and tidy. On the other hand, if I happened to call at an apartment because I hadn’t been able to get in touch with them in any other way and there was a serious problem (like suspected child abuse or neglect), it was not uncommon for THAT apartment to be a real mess, and to have drunken adults dozing on a couch or two. But that’s not the scary part.
      The scary part was that in just about every 2- or 3-level garden apartment building where I visited in that area, EVERY SINGLE ONE of the ground-floor apartments had apparently been burned and broken open (by whom I don’t know), and abandoned.
      Second or third floor, no. (Though the lights on the landings and in the hallways were often broken, and I recall some of the doors looking like someone had tried to break in.)
      Just the ground floor was burned out.
      Every single one.
      Think about that.
      How would YOU like to live right above a ground-level apartment that’s already been burned and broken open and ransacked? I mean, what’s to prevent them from coming back with a stepladder and a crowbar next time, or just to start another fire downstairs for kicks? How secure and comfortable would YOU feel?
      Most likely you would do what you could to go move somewhere else, unless you couldn’t afford to move…
      It was depressing, all right.


  5. thank you for that, Guy — maybe you should build this into a regular post so more people will see it.


  6. I agree completely with this post. I believe that is why many of the urban charter schools that have been successful work (i.e. uncommon schools). When parents are involved in their child’s schooling the success rate seems to skyrocket. I also was pleased to see that cultural implications of going to public school. Students get to see, be around, and appreciate different situations and cultures. A person learns more from the people around them then from a text book in an expensive private school. I hope others come to realize these truths as well.


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