Racism & Classism & Bussing

John Lamb over at Hispanic Nashville has a post today that brought me up short. He quotes an article from the Tennessean that says

Districtwide, African-American students make up 48 percent of the student enrollment, white students 34 percent and Hispanic students 14 percent of the district’s 74,600 students.

For comparision, according to the Feds, 64.4% of Nashvillians are white, 28.6% are black, and 7.3% are Hispanic of any race.

I have a lot of thoughts on this, and I don’t think it’s a problem that’s easily resolved. I do believe that, at the least, if your kid is in a shitty public school (or just a school that sucks for him), you should be able to yank him out and send him to another public school.

On the other hand, as long as I’ve lived in Nashville, I still can’t always tell when a person tells me about a “bad” neighborhood, if they mean a neighborhood where there is a lot of crime or a neighborhood that is predominately black and/or poor. So, it’s hard, from the outside to always know if a school is bad because it really is bad or if it’s bad because it’s predominately black and we, for a lot of reasons, associate predominately black schools with bad schools.

On the third hand, it seems ridiculous to me to bus students out of their neighborhoods to school if there are schools in their neighborhoods. If I had a teenager, living where I live and working where I work, it’d be easy enough for me to get to Overton or the high school on Hillsboro whose name escapes me right now, but incredibly difficult for me to get to other schools.

And I have a flexible job and a car. How are parents without those things supposed to be a part of their kids’ school life if their kids go to school across town?

On the fourth hand, I’m all for using bussing as a way to ensure that all schools get funded equally well. Public schools in poor communities in our district should not be at a disadvantage just because the communities they sit in are poor. Bussing kids all over town does tend to make it seem reasonable to spread money to schools all over town.

On the fifth hand, I get that bussing is a necessary tool to combat segregation and increase diversity, but look, our schools are already resegregated because white people have pulled out of the Metro public school system, either by sending their kids to private schools or moving to surrounding counties where the minority populations aren’t as big.

On the sixth hand, then, you have to ask, if the money in our community sits in the pockets of people who are white and, if we want our community to fund AND closely monitor our public school system (which is key. We need to throw money at public education, but we can’t just throw money at education. We need to demand accountibility and improvement and get rid of folks who can’t bring it.), wouldn’t it be pragmatic to return to neighborhood schools, let the public schools in predomiately white neighborhoods become predominately white and thus engage the folks with the money in the well-being of Metro schools?

It’s both incredibly difficult and very simple.

The very simple answer is that, if Metro’s school system were uniformly great, this wouldn’t be a problem. The population of the public schools would closely mirror the population of Nashville and, like Nashville itself–which has a handful of neighborhoods which are predominately one race or ethnicity–we’d end up with a handful of schools which were overwhelmingly one race or ethncity, but we’d also end up with a lot of schools with a lot of diversity.

The difficulty is that the schools are not all uniformly great and it’s hard to ask parents and students to continue to give them time to get that way. A city might have a five-year plan (say) for improving schools. But five years gets most kids from junior high to graduation. If their educational opportunities don’t improve more quickly than that, that individual kid’s educational opportunities, for all practical purposes, have not improved.

Plus it means that we white people have to decide that sending our kids to schools in which they are not a clear and overwhelming majority is a part of the educational process. That’s difficult enough, but nearly impossible if we’re asking people who can afford to give their children great educations to settle for giving them mediocre ones.

I don’t know. Clearly, I have no answers. I’m not even sure I have the problems fully fleshed out.

But it really sticks with me that, by and large, Metro is educating poor people’s children and all this talk about the importance of racial diversity does nothing to address the issue of rich flight (which, because this is America, is pretty synonymous with white flight).

Edited to Add:  I just read this and am completely grossed out beyond words. I feel like I should warn you that, if you are a person with disabilities or a parent or just a human being in general, this is a tough article to get through.

54 thoughts on “Racism & Classism & Bussing

  1. I think a good start would be increasing teacher pay. Make it worthwhile for good teachers to come to no-so-good schools. By putting good teachers into the classrooms, you’ll (a) give current students a good education and (b) develop a reputation for the school as providing a good education which will in turn make parents want to send their kids there.

    There are some really good teachers out there, but you’re not going to attract them for $30 grand a year.

  2. Also, give them some sort of sabbaticals. Even the best, most dedicated teacher gets burned out when dealing with tough situations all the time, year after year. A one-year transfer to an easier school, or a year off at half-pay, or something like that, will help keep the dedicated ones dedicated.

    Plus small class sizes. Which could be helped along by aiming the majority of new school construction at poorer areas.

  3. Actually, teacher pay wouldn’t be as big an issue if it wasn’t for some of the discipline issues going on in Metro schools.

    My very pregnant wife came home from her job at Hunter’s Lane yesterday to tell me about a fight outside her class door where 4 people ended up going to the hospital. One of them was a teacher. And that was just the first of 3 fights that day.

    A friend of hers has permanent nerve damage from trying to break up a fight last year. He got his fingers broken and has a hard time doing any of his art projects now.

    So pay is important, but it’s sort of ancillary to the other issues. If teachers felt safer going to work they wouldn’t need to be paid as much. I worried about my wife going to work before she got pregnant, but now I’m counting the days until she goes on maternity leave.

  4. It does suck.

    My kids generally test about 4 grade levels above their own, and have since kindergarten. It’s important to note that this is the norm at their school, they are not considered “advanced” (at least, not for this school). The school is that good.

    I realise they have the advantage of only starting with kids they deem smart enough. But, I can tell you, sometimes they guess wrong. And those kids are still testing above grade level, as well.

    nm has a point – my kids have never been in a class with more than 12 kids in it. And even then, they tailor “tracks” within each class according to abilities. So, it’s in effect like being in a class of 4 or 5 kids.

    Now, put yourself my shoes, albeit 5 years ago. You have the choice: send your kids to this school, foregoing many material things you otherwise could afford, or send them to what is considered a pretty decent public school (that still somehow managed to get itself on the NCLB watch list). Doing so would mean we could probably save enough to send them to Vanderbilt in 12 years, (if they were accepted). Not to mention we’d have money for trips to Hawaii, and all those other things we’ve since forgone.

    Irony: as it is, they could probably get accepted to Vanderbilt, but we couldn’t afford to send them because we’ve sunk all of our money into private school tuition.

    Now, we both know that I didn’t choose the private school route to keep my kids away from minorities. (Actually, that’s kind of funny). It was strictly a decision based on their welfare. And I have no higher responsibility.

    I have no doubt that there are some who send their kids to private school to avoid minorities or poor people. But I’d imagine, most used the line of thinking I’ve outlined here.

    Now, I’d LOVE for the publc schools to be able to do the same things this school does – I’d love for EVERY parent to have the opportunity to give their kids this kind of education. I’d be willing to “pay” to see that day come, as long as that money were spent on proven remedies.

    But that doesn’t change the fact that when you are a parent, your first responsibility is to your own children, and you must do what’s best by them. I

  5. Oh, good heavens, W. Yet another reminder about why I won’t teach kids that age. And, mind you, the best teaching experience I’ve had in my life was at a CC where at least once a month a student would miss class to meet with his/her parole officer. But at least they were a couple of years older, and had the hormones under control sufficiently that the school corridors were safe, though often crowded.

  6. Also, give them some sort of sabbaticals.

    That’s a good idea. Plus, a sabbatical would give them time to catch up on the latest going ons in their field, and therefore increase the educational value when they got back.

    So pay is important, but it’s sort of ancillary to the other issues. If teachers felt safer going to work they wouldn’t need to be paid as much.

    I don’t disagree, but if pay were enough of an incentive to get consistently good teachers through the school, I suspect many (thought certainly not all) of the behavior problems would disappear. So I’m not sure the two can be completely separated.

  7. I haven’t read the whole post or comments yet, but the nerd in me wants to know what the Census population breakdowns are for those under eighteen.

  8. Ha, smarty-pantses, you can find it here:


    What I can figure is that, in 2000, there were 107287 kids in Metro Nashville between the ages of 5 and 19. 63,225 of them were white and 38,773 of them were black. So, 59% of the population was white and 36% was black. If you recall, in the overall population of Nashville now, “64.4% of Nashvillians are white, 28.6% are black, and 7.3% are Hispanic of any race,” so I would say that the racial proportions among kids are close to the proportions among adults.

    If you can figure out, from that chart what the 2006 proportions are, you may be my hero.

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  10. Now, we both know that I didn’t choose the private school route to keep my kids away from minorities. (Actually, that’s kind of funny). It was strictly a decision based on their welfare. And I have no higher responsibility. (@Slartibartfast)

    I don’t really think there is a neutral, strictly for your kids, way to participate in private schools in Nashville or other places with similar histories in the south.

    A lawsuit in 1955 pressed the Nashville school board to allow a black student to attend a white school. Two years later, school officials let African-American parents decide where they wanted their children to attend. Only a handful of children went to the white schools. One school was bombed after an African-American child attended on the first day.

    The court rejected Nashville’s voluntary attendance plan and pressed for desegregation. The court instructed Davidson County in 1961 to integrate grades 1-4. In 1967, the school system was still segregated—schools were all white or all black. In 1971, the court ordered school busing.

    Before the busing decision, however, the move toward Christian schools had begun with Goodpasture Christian School in 1965. In 1969, Nashville-area Christians for “the glory of God” started Brentwood Academy. Other Christians started Franklin Road Academy the same year.

    Between 1965 and 1985, Nashville Christians went on a building crusade, launching a number of Christian academies. Historic, non-sectarian private schools also flourished.

    White enrollment in public schools dropped 20,000 during the decade of the 1970s, as whites moved to Christian schools and suburbs spread.

    Twenty years after the rush to build Christian schools, race remains a dominant issue in Nashville’s education system. Minority enrollment in the prominent Christian academies is generally between 3 percent and 6 percent.

    If race were not an issue in these schools, why would minority enrollment be so low when the minority population is so much higher?


    Maybe the school you chose wasn’t a Christian academy founded to keep whites from having to attend integrated schools. Maybe it was, but those aren’t your reasons for sending your children there. Whatever the case may be, this history–and the racial composition of the private schools–is the backdrop for your decision. I cannot say what the right decision for you and your children is, but the rhetoric of a parent’s “first responsibility” sounds like intellectual blinders to my ear.

  11. I thought you might have been saying something about not being white in your parenthetical. So I think I’d better take back what I said about intellectual blinders. I apologize.

    The quotes are still good for Aunt B’s discussion. And I am working my foot out of my mouth.

  12. The state should move to get out of the education business. It should all be privatized. Smaller classrooms? Better teacher pay? Somehow I’m not surprised by these knee-jerk responses.

    People learn at different rates in different ways. Parents have different preferences. Provide a voucher and let people make educational choices. There should be no distinction between public and private schools. Also, there should be no discrimination against homeschoolers.

  13. I have five children at three separate Metro Public schools – no magnet schools. The school for special needs children – the Madison school is very good (the transportation system for the special needs kids is horrible). The elementary school is pretty good. The middle school is OK. That is to say that I find the level of instruction adequate. My chief complaints are not academic. The schools don’t let the kids get outside for recess at any time during the day.

    I am the product of Catholic parochial schools but will not send my children to them. They’ve evolved, in mentality and approach, from simple parish schools to swanky private schools.

  14. Aw, Ben, I kind of like a person who will jump in with both feet and, actually, I think your and Slarti’s discussion raises a lot of good and difficult points. Our private school system is a direct result of white flight from the public school system in the face of desegregation and I don’t see how you get past the legacy of that.

    And one has to keep in mind that such white flight did end up being as much economic as racial. Poor white people, by and large, have not left the public school system and rich black people now often yank their kids out of Metro.

    Our public school system can be a scary place and it’s got deep problems–that yes, are often a result of our resegregating along economic lines.

    But it seems to me, too, that we cannot blame people who are trying to balance their attempts to promote social justice (and Slarti’s the dude who’s going into prisons to reach people and putting his time where his mouth is) with what’s good for their kids.

    I mean, like I said, it’s one thing–and a necessary thing–for us to put in place plans that might take five or ten years to fully impliment in order to improve our schools. But kids only get one shot at an education. It’s not fair to say to the mother of a 13 year old, “well, we’ll have much smaller classrooms in five years. Just stick it out.”

    Martin, do you really think homeschoolers are discriminated against? My impression is that the stereotype is that homeschooled kids tend to be happy, well-adjusted, well-mannered kids who are bright. Do home-schoolers have a harder time getting into college than kids to attend school?

    Second, you’re just never going to get me to support the dismanteling of public schools. And, I think it’s obvious why. Public schools are often the only safety net some kids have (if abusive parents could cover up their abuse by keeping the kids from interacting with others, wouldn’t they and claim they were homeschooling?) And second, which goes along with the first, there are kids, a lot of kids, whose best interests are counter to what their parents would be willing to provide them unless forced otherwise.

    This isn’t the same as outright abuse. But these are kids who don’t see books at home; who don’t have positive adult roll models; who are taking care of younger siblings. A public education might be the way out of their particular hell-hole and a way out that a parent might otherwise not be inclined to bother with.

    Now, I think you’ll probably say that my concerns could be met with a system of privatized schools with proper oversight.

    But I think that, in the case of Metro, the feeling has been that there are too many administrators at various levels taking resources that would better be used in the classroom.

    Isn’t a system of oversight just chucking the good things about public school and replacing it with a system that is all administration, which seems to be where the problem lies?

  15. Good discussion, and similar to one going on (smaller in scale) over at MCB, where Roger A. and Ivy bring up the importance of parents in the whole matter.

    I think the biggest hindrance to progress on the issue is that too many people (AuntB seems to be a notable exception) refuse to acknowledge that public schools are not likely to out-pace the society they serve. That’s why I think that class size (and even teacher pay) can never solve the “problems.” Teachers can’t be parents (and shouldn’t have to be), so any search for a solution has to extend beyond the classroom. But as long as pols demagogue education (somewhat like they demagogue Social Security) there will definitely be little to no progress.

    Re. homeschooling, we homeschool and I’d be interested to hear what Martin is referring to. And I don’t know if there is a perfect way, but it is a very difficult balance to maintain between DCS and a family’s autonomy (or parents’ authority).

    Re. Ben’s comment, I was grieved when a couple of years ago–upon considering the seeming coincidence of the private Christian school boom around 1969, that many private schools in the Nashville area had racist/segregationist roots.

  16. To state that white flight was THE reason for the proliferation of Christian schools in Nashville is overstated and inaccurate. Using a school outside Metro whose enrollment is and has been overwhelmingly outside Davidson county as an example of a school created because of Nashville white flight and a desegregation order that didn’t effect that county is well, rather stupid. While I’ll certainly give that white flight played some role in the success of some of these schools, I’d suggest a review and timeline as to the allination of Christianity in public schools, the increase in power by the teachers unions, the increase of violence in public schools and a host of other contributing factors. It’s a complex issue with multiple elements at it’s core. To reduced it to a single reasoning and in the process label persons and institutions as racist is misleading and unfair, not to mention counter productive to improving the situation.

    To suggest that those of us who send our children to one of these supposed white flight school haven’t made “race neutral” decisions because of someone’s myopic view of their history is also lacking in thought. Just because Planned Parenthood has roots in an organization whose founder believed that birth control was important to reduce the “dysgenic races” doesn’t mean someone who choses to use or support their services hasn’t made a “race neutral” decision either. While race may or may not play in a decision (most parents I know find the lack of racial diversity a negative–and the schools are responding to that) it is based on current issues, not some imagined history played out decades ago by administrators long gone.

  17. sbk,
    Crap, now I’m ticking off Conservatives (if I remember your political leanings accurately).

    If you’re addressing me, I didn’t suggest (much less say) that people who send their kids to private or private Christian schools are racist, though I did state that the boom for such schools in 1969 was rooted in racism/segregationism, and I’m not sure there is any way around that conclusion, frankly. I’ll stand by my assertion.

    And though I guess what happened in 1969 or so is a form of “white flight,” I hesitated to use that term when referring to the phenomenon because I think that is more of a loaded term with different implications. Please ignore that I used that term.

    The more I thought about that Boom, I remembered how my sister and I went to school in makeshift classrooms in the basement of a church in our small Georgia town when I started first grade in 1971. We started attending the public school immediately upon moving to Florida. We were perhaps more strapped for money after the move, but I don’t think my parents were particularly interested in Christian education. Both of my parents are deceased so I can’t ask them about it.

  18. SBK, last time I checked there’s no fence around Davidson county and no folks with shotguns at the county line keeping families from moving out. (Though, I suspect that, if they thought they could fund it with cigarette money, our legislators would soon fence off Tennessee and refust to let us ever leave so that we don’t take our tax dollars elsewhere.) So, I don’t buy that looking at what’s going on in surrounding communities is somehow invalid.

    Second, the alienation of Christians in public schools might be a reasonable hypothesis in other parts of the country, but in a state as conservative as this? I’m not buying it.

    Third, no one’s saying that you haven’t made a race neutral decision. If you carefully read what folks are saying here, on all sides, the consensus seems to be that, no matter what the initial impetus for starting so many Christian schools was, the public school system in Metro has such a bad reputation (sometimes deservedly and sometimes not), that it seems a reasonable decision for individual folks to make to yank their kids out of public school now and that, though there may be racist componants to it for some people, by and large, people are making those decisions based on trying to get the best education for their kids.

    That’s why I keep bringing up the economic factor, because it seems to me obvious that the school system is segregated, not by race, but by wealth, because anyone who has the money to put their kids in private school faces the understandable choice to do it. A choice, I believe, a lot of poor parents would also make if they could.

    I just don’t believe that it’s right that poor kids have to sit in shitty schools. Whatever the private schools are doing right doesn’t happen just because they’re private or Christian. Now it could be that it happens because sending your kid to private school already indicates you take an interest in your kid’s well-being, so that the difference is that parents are more involved with kids who go to private schools. But there’s also the issue of smaller class sizes and better pay for teachers and stuff that we could do in the public schools.

  19. I have taught at public colleges, and at private religious colleges (Jesuit and Jewish). My students there have been the product of public schools (in districts ranging from desperately poor to upper middle class), Catholic schools (parish/diocesan and special swanky), Jewish day schools, non-religious private schools, and … no, I think that’s it. There might have been some non-Catholic Christian private schools in their backgrounds, but I don’t think so. Anyway, students from a wide variety of educational backgrounds. And I can tell you that there’s no point in talking about “private schools” or even “religious schools” as if they’re all the same or have the same results. The students who had been through private schools were, on average, better behaved in the classroom, but otherwise there was no predicting who was going to have good writing skills, or analytical abilities, or the ability to read a map. And, sadly, being the product of a religious education didn’t seem to make students less likely to plagiarize.

    The overall impression I came away with is that while some private schools are very, very good schools, “private schools” as a category have the reputation for being better than public schools because they can expell students who disrupt the classes, and public schools can’t. So private school kids are, on balance, more polite, and average students from public schools spend years being ignored because they’re not good enough be prodigies and not bad enough to cause trouble.

  20. Ned I was responding more to Ben’s comment who said, “I don’t really think there is a neutral, strictly for your kids, way to participate in private schools in Nashville or other places with similar histories in the south.” He also posted a source that does nothing to consider the intricacies of the situation. Correlation doesn’t require causation and an educated person should not assume such. (I grew up being bussed in Metro schools and even I learned that!)
    Having read it very carefully, Aunt B., I don’t know how you can suggest that “no one’s saying that you haven’t made a race neutral decision.”

    For the record my political leanings are socially moderate with a strong priority toward the fiscally conservative.

    Aunt B you made my point. I don’t think anyone here would assume that the exurbs of the 60s became the suburbs of today based on the concept white flight. Maybe it was a motivating factor for a few, but I think the lower taxes, lower crime rate, lower cost of living, better real estate values for starters are going to resonate a bit louder. Again the point is that it is a much more complex issue that can’t be boiled down to a single causation for someone trying to make a particular political point.

    As for the alienation a Christianity, thank you I was there, it was real. I was an early part of the court order busing and went all through Metro schools. Having older siblings going through the same programs it became easy to note the differences that just the 8, 6, and 4 years of separation made. By the time I hit Jr. High in the mid 70s it was certainly on the radar screen.

    Aunt B one thing I think you might find interesting, since you think that the school system is segregated by wealth, is that the level of scholarship at most private schools is rather high and growing. At ours 1 in 4 students get financial aid. With annual giving we have the option of designating fund specifically for the scholarship fund. I would be very, very surprised if our private school had a higher average income than the (Williamson County) public school down the street. It is also more racially diverse. I would hazard to guess if you were a poor black child who could make the grade, get the transportation (admittedly a challenge) and have something to contribute to the school community you have a go chance of going to some private school in the Nashville area. They are looking for these kids because its what the parents want! Of course when we get these kids and they play a sport (like over half the other kids at school) we get slammed for that too.

    Is the diversity enough? No. There are great stride still to be made. But the half dozen private schools I’ve visited in the last 18 months are all moving in the right direction–determinedly so. To suggest they will always be racist because of a narrow view of history isn’t right.

    You are right when you say the difference isn’t because they are Christian, but it might have something to do with being private. As a private institution the administration is accountable to ME, not removed to a government infarstructure I can’t penetrate. But the smaller class size is actually minimal–the real numbers were surprisingly disappointing when I was actively comparing them. As for teacher pay it’s lower in private schools as rule as well–certainly lower when you include the value of health insurance and pensions for government employees.

    But I agree with you 100% that poor kids shouldn’t have to sit in shitty schools. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result. I think it is time to turn public education on its ear and try radically different methods–and the teacher’s union won’t support anything different than the status quo unless it’s a pay raise.

  21. As for the alienation a Christianity, thank you I was there, it was real.

    I’m pretty familiar with what modern Christians refer to as alienation. I don’t doubt for a second that sbk is right at it was there. That said, what a wonderful world it would be if all of us faced the same kind of “alienation” that Christians do.

  22. B- about parental involvement:

    I’ve often said that many homeschooled children have a built-in educational advantage in that by definition, their parents are engaged in their education. (I realise there are exceptions, but since we’re throwing out generalities, what the hell).

    I agree with Roger at MCB when he says that parental involvement is probably the biggest key of all. Now, here’s something I don’t get:

    Why is this a product of wealth?

    I’ll tell you how it is at our house. From the time our kids were infants, learning has been an intregal part of our family life. But, it’s not overt – it’s so ingrained, it’s just a part of our lives. We eat. We sleep. We learn. It’s not a special thing, it’s just what we do. We take special care NOT to make learning something we do outside of other parts of life.

    Full disclosure: we do apply resources to this atmosphere. Each of our kids has his/her own computer, and they have since they were preschoolers. We have a zoo membership. We have extended cable so we can watch Discovery Science, National Geographic, and History International. (As an aside, I love the fact that they’d rather watch documentaries than anything else).

    Vacations always have an educational element (this summer we’re going to Washington, DC). So, I’m not going to say my kids don’t have advantages.

    But, the ATTITUDE I’m speaking of (we learn, that’s just what we do), doesn’t really cost anything. There are libraries. There is PBS.

    Now, I know that poorer parents have a survival concern that’s going to take precedence over a learning atmosphere. But let’s not overstate it. Nashville, TN isn’t exactly Ethiopia. Or Romania.

    It’s funny how it all gets entanged. The survival priority is most felt by single parents. I don’t see how single parents survive and keep their sanity, much less foster a learning environment. (Ginger is my hero).

    So, I think that a very important piece of the puzzle is a societal emphasis on promoting (healthy) nuclear families. It’s probably the biggest reason I’m a social conservative: kids with two involved, loving, parents have undeniable advantages. (Yes, even same-sex couples – the numbers and the love are what’ s important here). I can’t tell you how many times Lintilla and I have played tag-team.

    And I’m not saying single parents can’t foster a learning atmosphere. And I know that some two-parent households are not healthy atmospheres. But that doesn’t mean we as a society shouldn’t play the odds. I don’t necessarily mean through the government. Real change rarely comes through governemental action, anyway.

    One final thing: the school my kids attend was formed in the 60’s, so I guess you could call it a “white flight”” school. It was the 1860’s though, by the Sisters of Mercy. :)

  23. Why is this a product of wealth?

    Two things: time and education.

    If you have more money, you often have more time overall (if, say, one parent makes enough that the other can stay home and deal with the kids and the house, and volunteer at all those cool parental events, and be involved at the school…), and even when you don’t (those high-powered two-lawyer households, or whatever über-busy standard we’re using… though one might note that those aren’t stereotypically known for their involvement), you certainly have more access to resources that make being available easier.

    Being able to pay a babysitter for crazy-weird hours, or better yet a nanny (or if you’re really trendy, a “manny”) to watch your child when you go to PTA meetings is a real boon. Not to mention the ability to hire tutors for your child when they have problems with subjects you’re not good with (even the most well educated parental set usually has at least one grade where the content is fuzzy enough that outside help is more efficient… for my parents, it was high school math past geometry), the ability to buy books (even expensive textbooks or primers) for your kids if/when the library doesn’t have them (or if, for example, it’s something your kid should be writing in; how valuable is the hour or two of your time that photocopying a thick text would cost you?), and so on and so forth.

    Not to mention the fact that low-paying jobs (especially say, retail jobs) generally have unpredictable and inflexible hours, so getting time off to go to that parent-teacher meeting may cost you a job you can’t afford to lose.* And if you’re in an economic position that requires you to take two or three or four jobs just to survive, it doesn’t matter that any one of them is flexible and family-friendly… you’re simply unlikely to have the time to invest in …well, anything. Sleep, eating with your family, reading bedtime stories, taking kids to the library, going to PTA meetings, checking in frequently with your child’s teacher… all of those things take a lot of time and effort that become harder to squeeze in as your economic situation becomes more dire.

    And, of course, there’s the educational issue. Pretty much everyone that comments regularly here is smart, even if they don’t have formal education in any specific area. Formal education is by no means the only path to knowledge, nor any sort of guarantee that said knowledge will be retained or applied in any meaningful way. (“Bread comes from wheat?”) It is, however, a big help.

    More specifically, formal education (or the strong drive to learn that powers intense informal education) tends to give one exposure to resources that one might otherwise not know existed. Most people know that the library is good for books, and maybe events for kids, but if you’ve never done an academic search, you’re rather less likely to know much about Lexis-Nexis, ILL, the GSS regional resources like ORBIS and Summit, or any of the journal subscriptions a good library is bound to have. And if you’re used to the bookstore climate, or worse, you don’t have much experience with books in general (look at all those studies about how many books your family has in its house and how that affects perceptions about learning), then you’re not likely to understand what librarians do (and how much they know and are willing to help you) in the same way that someone who’s had significant exposure to them, much less someone who has had to work closely with one to complete a project.

    You can expand that in all sorts of different directions. Adding an educational component to your vacations is nice, but a) you have to have vacations, and b) you have to be able to provide the educational component. Whether that’s just knowing things and pointing them out to your children (easy when they’re young, harder as they age), or knowing where resources are that will provide that information, or knowing how to find out information about places before you go there, it really matters how much flexibility you have and how your backround informs your perception of what is and isn’t available to you. I knew plenty of kids who had never really gotten outside of the city they were born in; their parents were very busy, and ‘everyone knew’ that field trips were a certain kind of thing** and vacations were a different kind of thing (often involving being at home, or possibly going to the nearby beach, rather than going to somewhere else), and that the two kinds of things didn’t have much to do with each other.

    Same thing with the kinds of places you’re likely to pick. Not because you’re less curious if you know less (though certain types of environments do foster that, which is also something you need to consider… a pair of parents educated in the factory-worker model are likely to have very different understandings of school and home education than a pair of parents who were educated in an environment emphasizing questioning and going after knowledge on one’s own), but because you’re less likely to know that such places exist, much less that they are open to the public and something one might do on a vacation. Going on a Mission Walk, for instance, or taking a tour through famous houses, or going to special events at a zoo or botanical gaden … if you don’t know that they’re possibilities, you’re unlikely to seek them out.

    And, of course, there’s the language barrier. Going to PTA meetings, Parent-Teacher conferences, and school events becomes markedly harder/less useful when you can’t converse with the other people. A lot of people I know had to have their kids translate for them, which made for… interesting… conversations when grades and activities came up, certainly. When the school calls to say your kid hasn’t been present in class today, and the recording is in English and you only speak Cantonese, well… my friends came up with a number of creative excuses. Multiply that times libraries (some books in other languages, but signs, computer programs, and everything else in English, and the overall relative lack of bilingual staff in pretty much every profession ever), zoos, gardens, museums, your kids’ report cards, and 95% of the educational TV available in this country without crazy cable, and one begins to see a problem. Parents with more money can afford translation services, tutoring for themselves, the choice of schools that have language facilities that cater to them, and so on and so forth. People with more money are also more likely to speak a bit of English anyway, either as a result of early education or job requirements, and are more likely to have an educational background that emphasized it.

    So… yeah. Time and education. (I’m including under education ‘recieved knowledge about what school is, the role of parents and the home, and available educational opportunities,’ because that’s huge.)

    * Yes, I’m aware that this is increasingly the model of every job set, and that workplaces are often famously family-hostile. But there seems to be extra pressure on the family for whom the loss of a job would spell economic disaster, in comparison to the family for whom the loss of a job would be a significant but not catastrophic downturn. This would roughly seem to coincide with the difference between families whose combined incomes are enough for significant savings and the families whose combined incomes are enough to cover expenses (perhaps), but not do much more than tread water.

    ** And, to be really truly honest, that thing was generally expensive (ah the joys of being informed that you not only had to pay for your own admission to the museums, but you had to pay for the (school) bus you were riding on too, because your school didn’t own one and had to rent it, and you had to bring money for lunch… one trip to a museum could easily run $20/kid. And they were generally mandatory, in the way that school trips are), and/or completely useless. “We’re taking a field trip to the beach” meant “we’re going to drop you off in a sandy area with no shade for eight hours, you’re not allowed to leave, explore, or do anything interesting, and then we’re packing you up and putting you back on the bus,” rather than “we’re going to go to the beach, learn about sea life, frolick for a bit, and talk about what we learned.”

  24. One final thing: the school my kids attend was formed in the 60’s, so I guess you could call it a “white flight”” school. It was the 1860’s though, by the Sisters of Mercy. :)

    Going off in a different direction – ‘white flight’ schools aren’t just the schools that were founded to avoid integration… they’re also the schools that already existed, which were flocked to by those families. Just because a school already existed doesn’t mean that it didn’t benefit from white flight, nor that it didn’t cater to that mentality.

    This is not to say that your specific school did this… I don’t know anything about that specific place at all. It is probably a perfectly harmless school. But just noting that it wasn’t built during the integration panic doesn’t automatically absolve it, either.

  25. I’m going to say some more about private academies in a little bit, but just so you know I haven’t gone away I’m going to chime in now and say here here to magniloquence’s eloquent analysis of of privilege plays into the opportunities available to our children and how class is not only a function of wealth.

    Also not only did whites flock to existing schools (in fact, I believe I read that some whites from Little Rock sent their kids to private schools in MS…)–whites raised money to expand existing schools to accommodate the influx of new white students. Did they do this in Nashville and its environs? I don’t know. But the white academies–actually known as “Segregation Academies” even their own time, in the 60s and 70s–were a south-wide phenomenon. And phenomenon is the wrong word, since they did not just pop up spontaneously; they were part of an organized response by the White Citizens Councils and others. I assume they had White Citizens Councils in Tennessee, right?

  26. Martin, do you really think homeschoolers are discriminated against?

    Clarification: in distribution of vouchers we should not discriminate against homeschoolers.

    … Public schools are often the only safety net some kids have (if abusive parents could cover up their abuse by keeping the kids from interacting with others, wouldn’t they and claim they were homeschooling?)

    There should be oversight. If public money is being used and accepted then the state should check.

    And second, which goes along with the first, there are kids, a lot of kids, whose best interests are counter to what their parents would be willing to provide them unless forced otherwise.

    Yes, but who decides what is in the best interests of theoretical children? I might disagree with someone’s approach but would be loathe to compel them to raise their kids in some other way. Not talking about kids getting beat here.

    A public education might be the way out of their particular hell-hole and a way out that a parent might otherwise not be inclined to bother with.

    Maybe, or even surely. I would not claim that vouchers would usher in public nirvana. We live in a fallen world.

  27. You are right when you say the difference isn’t because they are Christian, but it might have something to do with being private. As a private institution the administration is accountable to ME, not removed to a government infarstructure I can’t penetrate. But the smaller class size is actually minimal–the real numbers were surprisingly disappointing when I was actively comparing them. As for teacher pay it’s lower in private schools as rule as well–certainly lower when you include the value of health insurance and pensions for government employees.

    Yeah, I think the teacher pay argument diminishes when you look at private school salaries. And that’s an interesting factoid about class size, though I’ll concede that a classroom of 20 well-behaved kids is easier to manage than one with 15 well-behaved kids and 5 disruptive kids. But how do y’all of the Liberal/Progressive persuasion propose to handle the problem of disruptive kids in a school setting?

    Your comment (the long one) is eloquent and persuasive, but, in all candor, it is difficult for me to see a solution to the problems (lack of resources and time) you highlight. I think that what we’re all calling “parental involvement” often involves attending parent/teacher conferences or PTA meetings, but the more significant role (as relates to education) of a parent–in my opinion, is that they’re plain ol’ parenting.

    If school is the only place a child ever hears “no” or the only place that a child is shown affection or held to a standard for interacting with others or expected to follow directions or complete a task or be respectful or . . . or . . . then that child’s parent could be as wealthy as Bill Gates and be hard-to-educate and disruptive.

    Okay, having concluded that poor parenting is such an important factor, it gets a little aggravating to hear that issue ignored. Especially given, it seems, that class size and teachers’ pay are less effective predictors of educational success than are behavioral issues among students.

  28. Well, that’s the thing. Issues like class size actually do help with the behavioral issues, not to mention general issues of scale. While a class of 20 well behaved kids is certainly preferable to 15 well-behaved kids and 5 disruptive ones, both are preferable to a class of 60 kids of any behavioral level. This is the kind of issue we’re talking about when we say “class size.” My high school was so impacted when I was there that my chemistry class had 45 students to start out with… in a room with about 30 desks. We wound up sitting on the lab tables (on, not at; no chairs existed, nor would they have fit in the aisles) until the teacher managed to kick enough students out that we would fit. (And by “kick out” I mean “invent behavioral problems and send to the Dean, because just telling the counselors that she had no more room was futile, given that there was literally nowhere else to put them”)

    By the time my youngest sister got to the same school, she wound up with sixty kids… in her honors Algebra course. (Well, in every class, actually; they were so impacted that none of the classes had fewer than 45 students, and maby were pushing 70.) They were good kids, but there were just too many of them. The room only had about 30 desks, so classes wound up spilling into the hall, and the teacher had to spend his time walking back and forth between what essentially became two separate but concurrent classes.

    When classes are at this level of unmanageability, any behavioral problem is too much. One otherwise good kid that decides to crack a joke in the middle of class can derail 10 others, if they’re sitting on the floor in the hallway, out of sight. One seriously dedicated fuckup can ruin the entire class. (Not that a seriously dedicated fuckup can’t ruin the entire class at any class size… I’ve had it happen in a course of 9 people, in a higher level college course… but there is certainly a scale issue, and a resource issue that’s pretty evident.)

    And if your classes are huge, your teachers are spending more time doing basic classroom management stuff (even if the proportion of good kids to troublemakers is the same as, or lower than, other circumstances) than they are teaching. More time asking kids to sit down, more time picking up papers, more time grading the homework, more time taking roll, and more time fielding dumb questions. (Not that all questions are dumb, but that the larger a class grows, the larger the absolute number of dumb questions is. While the proportion is what’s important overall, the absolute number can wreak havoc on your teaching if you’ve got a 45 minute class period.)

    Which, of course, carries over to the Dean’s office, the Principal’s office, the Counselors, and all of the rest of your support structures. Kids get less individual attention at each level, which makes it more likely that minor problems will grow into major ones (either by inaction, or disproportionate reaction), and more likely that the structures evolved will be draconian instead of flexible… which means that the treatment is much less likely to be what that kid needs to get better.

    (In-school suspension is great for a kid who talks too much during class but otherwise isn’t having too many issues, but awful for a kid who was kicked out for fighting back, or falling asleep because of malnutrition, or who really didn’t get the subject and asked too many questions too loudly. And so on and so forth. Not to mention the fact that as things get more overloaded, the punishment systems tend to be used more heavily for all sorts of infractions, which gets tricky… honors students losing half a day to trash duty because they were chewing gum, or getting sent to the parole officer for wearing a skirt slightly too short. Not that they should get off because they’re honors students, but that the a) the punishment far outweighs the crime, and b) it’s easier to see the cost/benefit challenges at work in this situation. If other mechanisms were in place and not overtaxed, you wouldn’t be losing so much valuable time.)

    Not to mention the fact that smaller class size (25 vs. 40, not so much with 15 vs. 25, though it still helps quite a bit) does have tangible (and sometimes substantial) effects on student behavior and performance, not to mention “students’ reactions, teacher morale, and the quality of the instructional environment” (from first link; note for all of you lazybones that don’t want to read and might be inclined to quibble about geography: the premier sutdy on all of this happened in Tennessee schools.).

    Obviously, these benefits don’t happen in a vacuum…. you’re not going to get miraculous results with class size if you don’t have well-trained teachers (yet another problem that impacting created; when you need a body, any body, right-that-second, and you don’t have a budget, well…. you’ll take who you can get.). course materials (having been in a class that didn’t have any textbooks at all, I can tell you; I wasn’t learning, even though there were relatively few kids in class), and so on and so forth. But if you have the basics (a room that isn’t falling apart, a certified and at least sort of trained teacher, textbooks, even if they’re old), then class size is super important and can improve things a lot.

    Which.. that’s the thing. I highly disagree with all of this “major reason” stuff. There isn’t just one factor that’s making things the way they are. It isn’t economics or racism or bad parenting or historical uses for schools or bad teaching or classroom overcrowding or teachers unions or student behavioral problems or lack of pay or ADD or asbestos in the ceiling. It isn’t even stupid programs like NCLB or the massive and continuous under-funding of our schools, or the serious devaluing of (certain types of) education in America, something George Bush did at some point. None of those things caused this problem.

    Or, I suppose, a better way to phrase that would be that all of these things caused this problem. And each particular school, each particular teacher, each particular student…. it at an intersection of these issues. A parent can be the best parent in the world, but if their kid’s class doesn’t have books and the teacher is a moron, the kid isn’t going to be learning during that hour or so. (I speak from personal experience.) A teacher can be the most brilliant teacher ever, but if they’re stuck with a class of 60 in a room meant for 30 and books for 15, and 45 minutes to try to do something valuable…. they’re going to be hard pressed to perform. A kid can be a perfect angel and really want to learn, but if they’re stuck in a school that more resembles a prison than anything else, where they’re treated like cattle and only taught to the test, and punished in the extreme for minor infractions, they’re likely to lose their inquisitiveness and politeness with a quickness. A school can be great, but will wither and die when funding becomes scarce and dependent upon a series of increasingly out-of-step tests, and the better students and teachers are siphoned off to other schools*. And so it goes.

    So… what do we do? Some of these problems are huge and intractable. We’re not going to solve the parenting problem overnight. (Though, *cough cough* better access to reproductive health measures and family planning would go a long way toward that, not to mention universal healthcare, universal daycare, and other parental supports. But I digress.) But we can do something about class size. We can’t magically wave a wand and fix the kids with serious behavioral problems, mental illnesses, or severe disabilities…. but we can work toward creating environments that work better and encourage kids with less severe problems to do well. We can’t (and shouldn’t) throw good money after bad, but we can make sure the system is set up so the money that is there is utilized better. We can change things so that the money is no longer ‘thrown away.’ We can make sure there are books in classrooms, chairs to put butts in, and professionals to watch over our kids. We can reduce class sizes, implement programs with good track records, train our teachers better, and fund changes when they come up.

    It doesn’t just come down to one issue. It’s a network of issues, and they all impact each other. Some of the issues that come up are intractable, others delicate or personal… but some of them are just plain sense. An inability to control all aspects of a situation is no excuse to ignore the ones we can change.

    * A note about this as it relates to class size and teacher pay: One of the reasons private schools can get away with paying their teachers less (starting salaries, I might add; pay scales much quicker and more dramatically in private schools on average than in public schools, even if public schools do start off significantly better) is that they can offer small classes and handpicked students. A public school with smaller classes keeps teachers at a higher rate than a public school with larger classes, no matter the pay scale. And it’s not uncommon for new teachers to cut their teeth on bad public schools to show they can hack it, then retreat to decent private schools afterward.

  29. But how do y’all of the Liberal/Progressive persuasion propose to handle the problem of disruptive kids in a school setting?

    With good teachers.

    If school is the only place a child ever hears “no” or the only place that a child is shown affection or held to a standard for interacting with others or expected to follow directions or complete a task or be respectful or . . . or . . . then that child’s parent could be as wealthy as Bill Gates and be hard-to-educate and disruptive.

    Well ned, I can only speak from the stories I’ve heard from TheBoyfriend™ when he taught at a school where they send kids who get kicked out of every other school, and now works with kids before it comes to that to try and ensure that it doesn’t. I think you might be surprised how adaptable kids are (the younger the better). Get a teacher who is able to project an interest in the child, show the child that they believe the child is incredibly valuable, and instill a great interest in learning, and you’ll be surprised what happens to the child. TheBoyfriend™ is working with a client right now who apparently is a little demon around just about everybody else, but anytime he’s around TheBoyfriend™, the only one in his life right now who is actually interested in him and his worth, he’s the nicest kid around (and constantly is begging for even more time together). A child with a bad home life will never be in as good of shape as a child with a good home life, but kids are more resilient than you’re giving them credit for.

    Okay, having concluded that poor parenting is such an important factor, it gets a little aggravating to hear that issue ignored.

    I don’t think it’s being ignored Ned. There simply is no substitute for good parenting. NOTHING is more important than that. That said, outside of cases of outright abuse or neglect, I’m not comfortable having the government step in and force people to be “good parents” (by who’s definition?). So I focus on what we CAN do.

  30. * A note about this as it relates to class size and teacher pay: One of the reasons private schools can get away with paying their teachers less…

    Yeah, I think that’s an important point. When i speak of “teacher pay” I’m not referring to (only) the number of the paycheck. It’s all the things that makes a teacher want to teach at a given school. The idea I’m promoting isn’t throwing money at teachers and hoping they’ll improve. It’s making teaching attractive so you can attract enough applicants to be more selective in hiring.

  31. … So… what do we do? Some of these problems are huge and intractable. We’re not going to solve the parenting problem overnight. (Though, *cough cough* better access to reproductive health measures and family planning would go a long way toward that, not to mention universal healthcare, universal daycare, and other parental supports. But I digress.)

    Oh Vey.

  32. Magniloquence,
    I always hated the “no question is a stupid question” creed.

    But you’ve provided some great stuff to chew on (aside from the anti-Bush rabbit trail and the more-gov’t-services solutions, frankly). Some of it isn’t resonating, though because I am inclined to view education challenges more on the younger end of things–when kids can’t be expected to be responsible for their actions and when there is still potential to prevent behavioral and learning challenges.

    And regarding the taxpayer-funded (“free”/gov’t) proposals, there’s a point at which something’s gotta give. Do we assign a state-paid tutor/counselor/(parent) in every home to do what slartibartfast does in his home? I think one of my struggles with so many Liberal or statist policies is that they don’t work but they’re really expensive (for some citizens) and basically distract from the real issues. At least we feel better for trying, right?

    I think it is essentially ignored when we make excuses, insulate from consequences, offer more goodies, etc. And obviously I am someone who doesn’t think that gov’t should step in and force people to be good parents. Enabling them to be sucky parents (and I have plenty of definitions–you do, too) is another story.

    And I’m not sure you’re reading me correctly. I think kids are incredibly resilient. Adults are certainly less resilient, but I think all the faux tolerance of different parenting standards, and “noble peasant” premises, and political correctness makes it very difficult to change a child as much as possible at school. You’re darn right we can expect exemplary behavior; and hold parents accountable to “engage” in the system–schools aren’t a baby-sitting service; etc. etc. I agree with you, Magniloquence, that this is a multi-faceted issue–my beef (certainly with teachers’ unions) is that so many of the prescriptions offered for meeting the challenge of saving at-risk children (not to mention educating the normal ol’ kids) are foolish and ignore the real issues. For example, it appears welfare reform did more to curb out of wedlock births than anything ever tried (I’m not sure that we could make it any easier on the contraceptive side than we already do . . . could we?)

  33. The thing is, I think that there are two different sets of problems being discussed here, only one of which is a problem that schools can solve. Parental involvement in their childrens’ education is an enormous factor in how those children will (or won’t) learn, but what on earth schools are supposed to do to improve it is beyond me. I suppose that an all-day school setting, with real recess and gym time every day, art and music teaching every week, and built-in blocks of time for quiet study, group work, and consulting with teachers/tutors/librarians over problems and challenges, plus blocks of time for clubs and extra sports, could help to compensate for those households in which the parent(s) aren’t sufficiently involved in/supportive of the children, would help. But it would be expensive — would the cost in taxes be sufficiently offset by the decreased cost of childcare? And it still wouldn’t actually get uninvolved parents more involved.

    The other set of problems: taking the students, their households, and the presence or absence of parental involvement as they now exist as givens, what can be done to improve public schools? that’s a smaller question and one with clearer answers. And one of the most important answers is smaller class size. It’s easier to deal with disruptive students in a smaller class; each child gets much more of the teacher’s attention/feedback/assistance; it’s easier to let students who are ahead of/behind the others work at their own pace; you name it. Decreasing class size also gives teachers a de facto pay raise, since there’s less grading time, parent meetings, forms to fill out, etc. for smaller classes. The second most important answer (and one that becomes crucial if smaller class size is the goal and if the children are to get the exercise that will help keep them focussed and learning) is building/maintaining/equipping the school buildings and playgrounds.

  34. I certainly read it as a compliment. Then again, I think brevity is a virtue, if it’s not at the expense of completeness. I just happen not to be terribly virtuous in that respect.

  35. Hold on here! Time out. TIME OUT!!!

    Did Martin Kennedy say, “(Though, *cough cough* better access to reproductive health measures and family planning would go a long way toward that, not to mention universal healthcare, universal daycare, and other parental supports. But I digress.)”?!

    Our Martin Kennedy?

    Ha, I’m slowly turning y’all feminist. I knew it.

  36. Nah. That was a misplaced quote from me. All he added was the “oy” at the bottom.

    But wouldn’t that be cool?

    (Alternately, we could teach people how to use the html formatting you so kindly allow in comment threads, or at the very least citation of the sort one gets in other writing.)

  37. Oh, okay. I thought he was agreeing with you, but thinking that it would take some kind of monumental revolution of thought to get folks around here to agree to it.

    Never mind. You’ve restored order to my universe.

    Shoot. For a second there, nothing made sense. Cats and dogs were playing in peace. Children were refraining from arguing about who was on whose side of the car seat. It was nice, but weird.

  38. There is something we can agree on. The lack of recess at school really irks me. My middle school children don’t get out of the bloody building all day. There was be a better way. On the one hand we recognize the child obesity problem and on the other don’t let them suck fresh air into their lungs. There would have been a coup attempt back when I was in grammar school if they didn’t let us outside. In fact I’d have at least a third to the day allocated to free play/ phys ed and to music and art.

    I have taught, and learned for awhile. I have observed very different styles. School choice would liberate education. Why can’t I choose a school in a major city that empasizes phys ed, music, and art? I would pare down the academic side by offering math, reading, and writing (history and such would be taught via reading and writing). Why must we maintain a 19th century model of education in the 21st century?

    Most of my kids do well in school, but one of them underperforms. It is not an intellect question; I think he is the smartest. He simply hates school and I don’t blame him. There really isn’t much to like for him. He likes to read and walk in the woods. Get me a school that teaches orienteering, emphasizes reading, and mechanics. We do harm by trying to punch round pegs into square holes.

  39. I think that those responsible for taking recess away from grade school kids, and P.E., art, music, and foreign languages out of the curriculum, have badly harmed our society in a number of ways. I understand (though, obviously, I don’t agree with) the reasoning that says that music, art, and languages are just frills that are too expensive to maintain. But I have never, never understood the stupidity that doesn’t recognize that kids need breaks, including a chance to run around. Even in the very short run that decision is wrong, and in the long run … oogh.

    This may be the last time you and I ever agree about anything, Martin, but at least we agree heartily.

  40. nm,
    Your description of the ideal school sounded like an orphanage without the sleeping part.

    But okay, if teachers haven’t been getting it and class sizes aren’t improving, where has all the increased spending on education–over the past several decades, gone? And, for the sake of the debate, exclude the accelerated increases in spending under Kennedy’s (hee hee) NCLB initiative.

    And congratulations on reaching bi-partisan consensus on recess/art/music.

  41. Mostly the funding has gone to two areas: administration (some plain old bureaucratization, and an enormous amount of staff for dealing with NCLB and various state-by-state mandatory testing/reporting paperwork) and hardware (computers, science lab equipment, etc.).

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