Thursday, April 10, 2014

Despite Many Choices, Low-Income and City Kids Still Lose Out

A year from now I could be registering my eldest child for kindergarten. I write "could" because I haven't decided whether I even want her to go to school given our bleak options. While there are many wonderful private schools within a few miles of our home, our family cannot afford the tuition at any of them. None-the-less, living in Philadelphia, we have literally dozens of school choices to explore.

Welcome to parenting hell.

In his TED talk The Paradox of Choice, psychologist Barry Schwartz laments the depressing consequences of having too many choices.

Schwartz starts out speaking about little stuff like salad dressing and stereo systems. Then he gets into the heavy stuff: Choices about medical treatment. Choices about the timing of marriage and kids. Choices about gender identity. Choices about work. He doesn't specifically mention parents choosing an educational path for our children, but considering that school is where kids spend most of their waking hours, certainly that falls into the category of Major Life Decisions.

Schwartz argues that having too many choices creates a sort constant stress of decision making, second guessing ourselves, and what he calls "paralysis rather than liberation." He gives the example of a study which found that for every additional 10 choices of retirement funds a company offered its employees, enrollment in any program went down. This makes me wonder if the increase in "school choice" through charters and vouchers is one reason for the increase in homeschooling.

After looking at the choices offered to my kids, I definitely feel a lot of the "paralysis" Schwartz spoke of, and I'm seriously considering homeschooling. Or if not that, moving to the *groan* burbs.

If I stay in the city, here are my kids' school options:

1. The public school for our catchment: Oh hell no. This school doesn't even have a playground. We're talking barely passing test scores in math and reading, poor student attendance, high turnover of both students and faculty, and 99% of students are "economically disadvantaged" - which is not at all reflective of our neighborhood's economic and racial diversity.

2. Lots and lots and lots of questionable charter schools: Enough that I get dizzy trying to do my own amateur research on them all. Some will brag about test scores, but leave out some of the icky strategies they use to achieve those scores, such as expelling even mildly troublesome students, or sacrificing joyful learning experiences for grueling test preparation. I have a friend who is a passionate educator with a Masters degree and 8 years of teaching experience. She was suddenly fired (along with almost all the rest of the faculty) by one of Philly's charters simply because her (mostly poor and at-risk students) didn't have high enough test scores. Gee, all their teachers being fired must have been great for the students! Many charters have only recently opened and don't have much of a track record, and could close down just as quick as they pop up.

3. A few good charter schools: The more established charters with good reputations and high test scores are usually nowhere near my neighborhood, and they all have big lotteries and long waiting lists. These fall into the category of Yeah, You Wish!

4. Public schools outside our catchment: There are a couple K-8th grade public schools just outside of my catchment where we can't afford to buy a home, but the schools have higher test scores, genuine economic and racial diversity, and often serve as feeder schools for the best magnet high schools. I have repeatedly heard that principals at these schools can grant students outside of a school's catchment permission to enroll. The idea is to convince the principal beforehand that my kid is a benefit to the school and that my family will be helpful and involved. However, budget cuts have curbed this practice, and until my kid is actually enrolled, there are no guarantees.

Like I said before, parenting hell.

Cartoon by Signe Wilkinson
In his TED talk, Barry Schwartz mentions doctors shifting responsibility onto the patient, and how this is problematic since the doctor more often than not has the experience and knowledge to make a wiser decision. I can't help but compare this to choices about education. We have scores of people with Masters and PhDs in Education, teachers and administrators with decades of experience, and yet we don't have an approach to public K-12 education that provides every parent and child with a single, quality option.

Let's face the real issue here, more affluent communities have excellent public schools. Parents in those communities don't sit around agonizing over pages of data, trying to figure out what schools are excellent, mediocre, or shamefully substandard without sufficient context or expertise, and then keeping track of methods and deadlines for applications, open houses, and stressing out over lotteries, wait lists, and meeting minimum standards for magnet schools. In affluent communities, most typically there is one public school option, and it has reasonably high test scores, well-trained faculty who seem to like their jobs, fine facilities, a variety of extracurricular activities, and appropriate interventions and aids for special needs or gifted students.

As much as the political liberal and progressive educator in me hates vouchers, charter schools, standardized testing, not to mention a public school model with roots in factory-worker-style conformity, I dare say that none of that is the big issue. This is not a question of educational philosophy. This is an issue of economic justice. The best predictor of school success is household income. 

In other words, the problem is poverty. Schools in poor communities have way more problems (due to violence, over-crowding, food insecurity, inadequate healthcare, etc.) but because of the way we fund schools, instead of getting way more funding and resources, they get less. It isn't a coincidence that charter schools serve more low-income students. I feel like instead of dealing with poverty, especially the horribly high levels of child poverty plaguing the USA, we're throwing a bunch of equally lame or worse school options at those families and saying, Isn't this great? Now you have a choice! 

A bunch of crappy choices isn't any better than one crappy choice. In fact, if Schwartz is right, it's worse, because at least if there's only one crappy choice you can complain to the Powers That Be. With all these damn choices, parents are left feeling that we alone are to blame if we make the wrong choice. If the cities want to keep middle class and affluent families from fleeing to the burbs, they need to put more money into the schools. If they want to reduce the hardships of poverty for their most vulnerable citizens, they need to put more money into the schools. Money for more teachers, counselors, tutors, and other support staff who make all the powerful one-on-one connections with students in greatest need.

But Philly is making school budget cuts. So I guess come the fall of 2015, I might be homeschooling my kindergartner, seeing as I'm one of the few parents lucky enough to have at least that option.


  1. So true, Martha. Send a link to this blog to all your legislators.

  2. Beautifully written and nicely said. As I am recently in a relationship with a woman with a 4 and a 6 year old, who has been putting herself through school and doing the child rearing with no supportive foundation of family or friends or desire to provide and be mindful of many of these issues is all blooming rich in the mind and your outlook mirrors my own and causes me pause and comfort and I take the step forward to helping them to a life that includes me in it.