Public Schools

I would like some clarification as to the various issues associated with public school education in the US.

Are public schools doing a mediocre-to-poor job of teaching across the board? Or is there wide school-by-school variance?

If some PSs are indeed doing a very poor job in teaching, then why is that? Or is it that the students are doing a poor job in learning? Or should no distinction be made?

Are private schools really doing more with less? How? If public schools are doing less with more, despite the fact that we’ve been “throwing” money at them, then where is all that money going?

Are PS administrators and teachers lazy and shiftless? Will reducing the budgets of PSs–to pay for vouchers–provide all the impetus needed to improve performance? Will the details take care of themselves?

How is performance measured? Average test scores? Is it impossible for a good student to get a great education a a PS? Or are average test scores low because of a lot of really bad students?

Is political correctness in the curriculum to blame? Or too many special needs students? How about my contention that it’s the “3 Ps”: parents, peers, and popular culture?

If a voucher system were implemented, where would the money come from to pay the families who already send their kids to private schools? Is the “creaming effect”–sending all the good students in a district to private schools–a valid concern?

Fight my ignorance.

In Denver, wide school-by-school variance.

The schools doing a poor job tend to be in poorer neighborhoods, with a more transient population. More immigrants, more illegals, more kids who’ve learned English as a second language, or not at all. More parents who are not very committed to their children excelling academically. More parents who are intimidated because they had a tough time in schools, themselves, so they never show up.

Two of my kids went to a private school for awhile. At this school, first of all, everybody was there because they wanted to be there. (Or their parents wanted them to be there.) So there was right up front more commitment than you’d get in public schools.
Second, the teachers were not paid very well and in fact were asked to have another source of income other than just teaching. So the teachers, too, were there because they wanted to be there. Because that was a teaching environment they wanted to be in. Mostly they were veterans of public schools, and were quite relieved to be teaching people who wanted to learn.
In addition to tuition, parents were hit up for a once-a-year auction (contribute something, buy something), work weekends to put in new playground equipment, work weekends to paint the building–etc. There were no uninvolved parents. The standards were quite high, and they were met.

The details never take care of themselves. Somebody has to care and get involved. Usually, in order to do that, they have to have something at stake. So that would be, basically, everybody–but parents can actually see what they have at stake.


Are public schools doing a mediocre-to-poor job of teaching across the board? Or is there wide school-by-school variance?

Unbelievably wide variance, even among schools in the same district.

If some PSs are indeed doing a very poor job in teaching, then why is that? Or is it that the students are doing a poor job in learning? Or should no distinction be made?

Yes. Crappy teachers, crappy administrators, crappy parents, crappy kids. Mix and match.

Are private schools really doing more with less? How? If public schools are doing less with more, despite the fact that we’ve been “throwing” money at them, then where is all that money going?

It’s amazing what you can get done, learning-wise, when you don’t have to teach kids who have behavior problems, or drug-addled parents, or stuff like that.

Are PS administrators and teachers lazy and shiftless? Will reducing the budgets of PSs–to pay for vouchers–provide all the impetus needed to improve performance? Will the details take care of themselves?

Of course. Let’s cut the pay of teachers across the board. When my father started teaching, his yearly gross was just over $3000. Let’s go back to that as a starting point.

How is performance measured? Average test scores? Is it impossible for a good student to get a great education a a PS? Or are average test scores low because of a lot of really bad students?

Welcome to the wonderful world of standardized testing. A student who is motivated can get a great education at any school in the country. Just like an unmotivated student can get a crap education at the ritziest prep school in the Hamptons. Test scores are low because the tests don’t match the curriculum.

Is political correctness in the curriculum to blame? Or too many special needs students? How about my contention that it’s the “3 Ps”: parents, peers, and popular culture?

Huh? Expand, please.

If a voucher system were implemented, where would the money come from to pay the families who already send their kids to private schools? Is the “creaming effect”–sending all the good students in a district to private schools–a valid concern?

Hell, yes. A voucher system just condemns the public schools to the bottom of the heap, with no hope of rising, because we have to take everybody.

A school’s funding is based on property taxes in the area. Teacher salaries consequently vary from district to district, even in the same county. Obviously, if you pay people more, you will get a more competitive staff. Smaller class size (depending on how many teachers you can afford to hire), variety of programming, newer materials, better technology, all those things vary from school to school. So yeah, schools do vary in quality, because some have more money than others. It’s as simple as that.

You ask a lot of questions, and there’s no way I’d even begin to answer them all, but let me address this particular one because it’s a thorn in my side right now. The rules for performance are so byzantine that my high school is labeled a Highly Performing school (which is one category below the highest - Exceling) by the state of Arizona, but Failing by NCLB standards. Why are we failing? Because if any single cohort (a group of a minimum number of students in different categories) fails, the entire school fails. We actually failed because on the state outcome test, we had special education students whose IEP required us to allow them to use calculators. However, federal standards say that any child who uses calculators is disqualified from the pool. If we didn’t allow calculators, we were violating law, but if we did allow special education students to use calculators, the school would fail.

So we failed one criteria (the number of students who took the test without calculators was lower than the required amount - they actually all passed, but since not enough kids took the test without calculators, we failed) out of over 100, and we were labeled Failing.

So…yeah. We can get waivers from parents, which is what we did this year, since we had more time to prepare for it, but what a nightmare.

Preach it, AT! We’re looking at the same sort of mess at my school. Last year we were designated a California Distinguished School. This year we may get listed as a Failing School by the Feds because of NCLB. The way the tests really ramp up this year is a bitch.

In Florida we have something called the FCAT, a standardized test for various grades. Schools are graded on how their students perform on the FCAT, and a failing grade three years in a row entitles the children to transfer out of that school.

Teachers have complained that all they’re doing is teaching to the test…“education” has fallen by the wayside.

My children do not take the FCAT…they are enrolled in private school.

Different school districts have different performing schools. I believe if you do away with the public school system altogether, and allow more competition for private schools, tuition prices will drop and better education opportunities will be available for all children.

This is the one statement that I’m going to disagree with. There is a lot that a kid can get done if he wants to learn, even in a pretty bad school. But there are also a lot of things that can get in the way of a good education: an unsafe environment (whether physical or mental), a lack of good instruction, and so on. I would say that your statement is much more true for college than for high school. A high school student still needs help from teachers in figuring out how to get a good education.

[anecdote]I was a good student who always enjoyed reading and got good grades, though I wasn’t quite in the uber-student category. But I didn’t go to a very good school, and when I got to college I was totally unprepared for the work required. There was just a ton of stuff that I didn’t know, and I didn’t even know what it was that I didn’t know. I enjoyed college anyway, though I didn’t get as much out of it as I would have liked, but really, I’ve done a lot of reading since then and caught up somewhat on my own.

I still feel undereducated, and this weekend I attended a seminar at which the lecturer asked us to raise our hands if we felt that way. Most of us did; we all feel a lack and are trying to make up for it. [/anecdote]

I can’t speak to most of the OP, since I’m not involved with public schools (I opted out with my kids), but one thing I would like to see is more equal funding for all schools in a state. With funding tied to local property taxes, there are amazing schools and terrible ones in the same city. I think kids ought to get a more equal chance than that; we punish and reward according to parental income far more than we actually need to, though I do realize that changing the system would elicit screams and howls from wealthy parents, and that’s why it won’t happen.

And we have way too many standardized tests, which I believe hurt much more than they help.

I have firsthand knowledge of both public schools and private schools. I attended Catholic school until high school, when I switched to the local public school.

At the 2 private schools I attended, parental involvement was much higher. Parents volunteered for various fund-raisers, attended Back to School nights to meet their children’s teachers, and genuinely cared about their children’s education (obviously, since they were spending quite a bit on it). At the public school, it was very much the opposite. The 2 public schools I attended were both much poorer schools on average (this was in the days of zoning, where you attended certain schools because of your location. They’ve since switched to allow students/parents more choices, so that the schools are more competitive). Poorer parents, for any number of reasons, put less effort into their children’s education. It may be a case of it not being a high priority, or it may be that they have to work several jobs to pay the bills, and don’t have the time to be more involved with their children’s education. Either way, parental involvement is a large factor when considering a school’s performance.

On top of that, the curriculum at the private schools I attended was more advanced in many ways. I read some books in middle school that public school students don’t read until high school, for example, two of Shakespeare’s plays. Also, the private schools did not rely on students’ standardized test scores for funding, so my teachers spent no time in class teaching to those tests. We still took standardized tests, but merely to measure our individual progress, not to ensure our school received more funding. In the public schools, the standardized tests were so important to funding, teachers spent weeks of class time teaching to the tests, which are all very basic, so that left little time to get into more advanced areas.

Also, my classes were much smaller (sometimes half the size) in private school, so that the teachers could focus on children who were struggling without having to dumb down their classes. With math classes, it went even further- they split the students into 3 different levels so that the more advanced kids got algebra in 6th grade and didn’t have to waste their time reviewing basic arithmetic with the less mathematically-inclined. I’m not much of a math person, but grasp it well enough that I got to take classes my freshman year (at the public school) that consisted entirely of seniors. If I had been in a public middle school I am sure I would not have been so advanced (because I’m not really a “math person” but my advanced math classes in middle school consisted of only 10 people, so I got plenty of individual help).

Discipline was not really an issue at the private schools at all. We did have one or two trouble-makers, but the smaller classes helped teachers because they didn’t have to deal with 4 or 5 troublemakers at once, usually only 1 or 2. Also, the parental involvement mattered. At the private school, teachers were quick to call a parent-teacher conferece if necessary (it didn’t often escalate to that point, however). And a parent who’s paying more than a grand a year to educate their kids is not going to be happy if they hear they got sent to the principle twice this month. At the public schools, I never heard the teachers even threaten calling someone’s parents. I’m sure if they tried, they would have gotten laughed at. In many cases, I doubt the parents would have cared or shown up.

The type of disruption differed greatly. At the Catholic schools, it was likely to be someone showing up late to class, passing notes, or having their shirt untucked. At the public schools, it could be anywhere from drug use/smoking in the bathrooms, to threatening the teacher, to fist-fights in the hallways. My freshman year, a fight broke out near my locker and I was thrown up against the wall in the scuffle. In 9 years of private school, the closest I ever saw to a fight was when I smacked a kid for making fun of me in the second grade. I actually saw the SRO (the cop on campus) get his ass kicked in a particularly brutal fight at one of the public schools.

Also, WRT to differences between public schools, the quality of education varies widely. In my county, all of the best public schools (based on test scores) are in the wealthier communities. They tend to have better technology, smaller classes, and attract more/better teachers. Who can blame than, would you rather teach spoiled rich kids or the kids that deal drugs and bring weapons to school?

For the Hillsborough County (Tampa, Florida) school district, you can access the “school report card” for each school through the District Website as well as the school demographics. It’s interesting to compare school performance vs. poverty level (i.e. “% Economically Disadvantaged”) and demographics.

Even in my district, where all the schools should be getting the same funding, the discrepency is amazing–we have SO MUCH that the “bad” schools in my district don’t, and it’s 100% PTA and other private donations. One parent alone probably donated half a million to my school: obviously, they are well off, but they were commited to public school and wanted to help that community. And they didn’t just help the things their kid was involved in–there were 5-figure “no strings attached” donations. The PTA raises around 100K in fundraisers every year. So if you even out funding, people quit voting for school tax increases and donate directly instead.

One huge issue is that I don’t think there is any consensus about what an education is for. Is it to train workers, or citizens? Because those are very different things. Do we want to develop communities, where people who don’t even have kids show up for football games and make donations when someone’s house burns down, or do we want it to be like a junior college, where everyone is an individual getting the education they want for whatever their goals are? Do schools look to the parents for guidance or to the entire tax base?

People’s assumptions about these issues are bone-deep and they don’t even see other paradigms, in my experience. What further complicates it is that people think that having been a student gives them expertise in these issues, and tend to generalize from thier own idealized memories of thier own education. We all see the elements of our own formative experiences as essential, and any elements we didn’t have as not important.

I forgot to add- I found out later from friends I met after high school, some of them never read a book their entire time in high school. I took Honors and AP classes, where we did have to read, but some schools didn’t require regular students to read any books in their English classes. The majority of their class time was spent reviewing the various skills tested on the standardized tests, so they left high school not knowing how to read or write critically. Just to give you an even better example of the falling standards in public schools.

Also interesting- how advanced my 7th grade science class was. I have a great memory, so I still remember most of what we learned. With the exception of the Krebbs cycle and a few other items, it was almost identical to my college Biology I class. Hell, I learned more in 7th grade than I did in my high school honors Bio class, although I didn’t get to dissect a shark in middle school.

I was astounded when I got to college and saw that a lot of what I learned in Catholic school was being taught in colllege- like how to write an essay.

It varies widely. I graduated from high school in Plano, Texas. Texas is rather low on the list when it comes to good public schools but the ones I went to in Plano were top notch. I was exposed to things in high school that many of my friends from Arkansas weren’t exposed to until college.

The state of Arkansas is having a hard time keeping teachers because they either go to places like Texas to earn more money as a teacher or they simply find another job that pays more. I am of the opinion that there are a few bad teachers out there but that there are even more parents who take almost no interest in their child’s education beyond getting them to school. If the parents don’t seem to think their child’s education is important than the child is likely to follow suit. There’s only so much a teacher can do.

It varies from state to state and even district to district. Keep in mind that private schools don’t have to take everyone in like a public school does. A private school can expel a trouble maker while the public school has to continue to educate him. Also, I bet private schools have a higher ratio of parental involvement in the education of the child, so I’m not sure a comparison of the two is fair given that they have different constraints.

Some school districts do waste money. The Dallas Independent School District has problems for years with their budget. For years employees of the district were issued credit cards with very little oversight. They could buy anything they wanted on these cards and there was nobody who audited the records. One of the superintendents of the DISD purchased furniture for her home and office with tax payer funds. The squandering of funds isn’t always a criminal matter though. Sometimes the district just makes poor choices and do things like spend funds on new administrative buildings instead of books.

Sometimes, yes. I’ve been to a lot of public schools while growing up and I can honestly say that I can only recount two cases where I had incompetant teachers. Most of the rest were adequet and a few were simply outstanding so I don’t think the majority of them are lazy and shiftless.

Hell, I was a bad student and I got a good education in a public school. I may not have done all that well on test but I did retain a lot of knowledge of what was taught and applied it to my undergraduate days.


Not necessarily true. In California, for instance, property taxes for education go to the state where it gets redistributed to the schools. The problem is that the amount per school got set years ago, and can’t be changed because LA does well, and the LA legislators dominate the state assembly and senate. My district gets a lot less per student than one about 20 miles away, for instance. That average income in our district has risen hasn’t helped at all.

In our district, so I’ve heard, school performance is tightly correlated to the percentage of students getting subsidized breakfasts and lunches. Average parental involvement is very important. In the district we lived in in NJ, where lots of parents worked at nearby research centers, just about every class had parents coming in to talk about things they knew about. One school had a auction that raised tons of money. There was also a decent amount of money from the state, so there were enough periods, and kids got science and language in junior high. When we moved to California, there was one fewer period per day, thanks to Prop. 13. Kids in junior high got one year of language maybe, and only one year of science. My eighth grade daughter was nearly a year ahead of her classmates, and spent a few periods in the high school because she was already taking what were high school level classes here. She was GATE identified, but any student in our old district would have had the same issue.

So parental involvement and money are both important factors. There are good and bad teachers everywhere. I was heavily involved in the schools when my kids were in them, and knew lots of principals and administrators. Some principals were great, some were idiots.

Would you happen to know if there are any state regulations related to private donations? Back in NJ my sister’s school district raised huge amounts of money through auctions & other fundraisers with the wealthy parents. Any deficit was made up through private donations. Around here the default seems to be if you can afford it, you send your kids to private school. I always wondered why there was no real concept of parents essentially helping fund their local schools via donations. God knows there’s a lot of money is Silicon Valley.

Orinda has a huge culture of parents donating to the public schools. I would imagine that it’s similar in the other wealthy Bay Area cities, it’s just that I used to work in Orinda so I know. The parent’s club was extremely active and donated a lot of money–come to think of it, they paid my salary. San Francisco could well be different, though.

They do in many cases. But the reality is that a private school can more easily rid themselves of “bad apples”, has more prestige (in many cases), and will better prepare their students to follow in their wealthy parents footsteps. Giving 20k to a public school will, in many cases, will go to something your child will see no tangible benefit from.

That being said, much of the disparity in “education funding” between rich and poor areas is the result of “donations” or “soft money”. I went to a public school in a fairly affluent area, and much of the advantages we had were due to the involvement of parents who gave their time and money in various ways.

I think there are some regulations about how money can be used, but I’d have to look it up. Certainly there is some fund raising going on, often for things paid for by taxes in NJ. The problem is that those schools who have parents who would take the time and effort to raise money are exactly the ones who are going to have good scores anyhow. In any case, you can’t add an extra period with money from bake sales. Plus, schools in neighborhoods with non-English speakers probably need the money more than schools in Palo Alto.

We have a friend who teaches 1st grade near Phoenix. If she has 20% of the students in her class at the end of the year she had in the beginning she feels lucky. In that kind of environment, how are you going to do fundraising?

We had some terrific teachers in the poor neighborhood where I taught high school, and we had some lazy ones too. The lazy ones were the ones who seemed to burn out faster because they didn’t really seem to care about the kids.

One of the problems in public schools today is that teachers and schools are being held accountable for things which are out of their control. Many politicians have suggested that teachers and schools should be evaluated based on how well their students do on standardized tests. Here are some of the problems that result:

  1. Ms. Smith teachers Honors English. Her students have very high scores. Let’s give Ms. Smith a $3,000 bonus and a letter of commendation. Mr. Jones teaches Fundamental English. Sixty percent of his students passed the test, but many had low scores. Tough luck, Mr. Jones. No bonus for you! Ms. Sweetie teaches Fundamental English also, but she has special funding and has only five students in each class. She also has an assistant. Seventy-five percent of her students pass and most have reasonable grades. She gets a $1,000 bonus.

  2. A school in the inner city is failing the NCLB standards. Not all of its students can pass the NCLB test. It is the only school in the city that teaches autistic students.

  3. Teachers are required to report students who are absent from their classes but whose names are not on the Daily Absentee List to the Assistant Principal. The teacher does this faithfully every period every day all semester. One of her seniors is missing in action. She notifies the parents by mail every three weeks that the student is not attending class. She notifies the guidance office that the senior is failing. At the end of the year the teacher finds out that the student was doing clerical work in the Assistant Principal’s Office and magically got an English credit for it. All of that is in strict violation of the Board of Education rules. (I hate to think of all of the time that I wasted writing memos and letters.)

These kinds of problems are multiplied for each teacher by a hundredfold or a thousandfold.

It’s really not that simple. Lots of those rich kids aren’t spoiled at all, but many of them are dealing drugs. Meanwhile, over in the inner city, 95 percent of the kids who go there never cause any real problems. They are just nomral natural teenagers. Some are spoiled and snotty, but most just want to have a little fun.
People from the outside coming in are more likely to cause problems.

I was in the inner city because that’s where I wanted to be. I asked to teach in an integrated school when I interviewed for the job in 1969. I got over the idea that I was going to save the world, but I loved teaching in the inner city. It was never boring.

Teachers don’t teach for the money. They couldn’t have paid me enough to do the job.