National Public Education

Public Attitudes towards Education, Part III

The other day I was talking with a friend about his experiences as a band teacher in small towns in Iowa.  On finding that I had taught in New York City, he asserted that he would quit rather than teach in one of those "urban" schools.  He couldn't believe that I actually enjoyed working in such "terrible" places.

Well, maybe I am a bit odd, but look at what the data from that Kappan/Gallup poll tells us about those urban schools.  As you may recall, we saw that about half the people in the country think their local school is good, and well more than half think that distant schools are not good.  At first glance this seems logical, since we middle-class types, with our good schools, naturally think they are fine, and the rest of the population, such as the people in cities, have to put up with less good schools.  The general belief is that our overall school system is made up of a bunch of good schools, no doubt in middle class places, and a bunch of weaker schools, probably in the urban areas.

Leaving aside the inconsistencies in that view, which I discussed in the last two blogs, let's just look at what it says about exactly who it is who is favoring their own local schools, and what this says about those "terrible" urban schools.   Now, in the data, 50% gave their local school and A or B, and another 31% gave them a C.  So fully 81% of the population thinks their local school is either okay or good.

But wait, doesn't that include a good number of urban families, ones who attend those "terrible" schools?  About 62% of our US population lives in cities, and the Kappan/Gallup people are very careful to weight their sampling methods to accurately reflect this.  If the majority of the people sampled live in cities, then, and the majority of their opinions are in favor of their local school, there have to be a good number of urban families who actually think that these "terrible" schools are in the decent to good range. So what is going on?

First, let me say that such a finding is in keeping with my own experiences teaching at low-level urban schools.  No one was complaining to us about how bad the school was. On the contrary, the parents seemed to be very grateful for what we were doing.  And I probably had fewer complaints from parents than I had  in more affluent areas or private schools.  These parents had other things to worry about, such as poverty, crime, and the job of raising children in a poor area.  For them, as they often told me, the school, for all its low-performing data, was one of the few places around that was actually helping them.   For even particularly good students, whom you might think would do much better at a "good" school, the outcomes are often quite good.  The teachers, after all, are not all that different from teachers in general, and so are educated and caring, and particularly interested in paying special attention to those excellent students.  Strangely enough, a good number of really successful adults come out of those urban schools where they had spent their days doing special projects with teachers who loved them.

So, in fact, these urban schools in low-income areas are not "terrible" for most of the people who go there.  Yes, they have low scores on various measures, but for the people there they seem to be doing okay.  People seem to realize that although there are families with problems in that neighborhood, and this pulls down the scores, overall the schools are doing more or less what they should.

So, what conclusion can we draw from this?  Why does my band-teaching friend think he would hate teaching there?  The answer must be that there is some kind of bias in the way we are getting our information about these urban schools.  I'm not talking about racism, though no doubt that, too, exists.  A more powerful bias, it seems to me, is just that we would prefer to talk about the problems of someone else's children rather than our own. So this means that the TV commentator who has the choice of doing a story on drug use in his own, suburban school, or in a city school, chooses the latter.

I don't see that this kind of bias will change any time soon, and I am not going to "blame the media" as so many do.  I just want to remind all that we need to pay attention to this kind of bias in our perceptions about schools, particularly ones in urban areas.

Peter Dodington

December 17, 2016