National Public Education
22Jul/170

Local and Distant Public Schools

Todd Kominiak, in his blog at TrustEDk-12.com, has written that the schools are doing better than is generally thought, since most people report that their own public school is doing well.  He quotes an article in the Atlantic by Jack Schneider (7/17/17) who notes that the yearly poll in the Kappan magazine always shows that people give their local schools an A or B rating, but grades of a C or D to distant schools.  Everyone thinks their local school is fine, but that the schools in general need work.

From this Mr. Kominiak concludes that that the schools are doing better than we think.  Much as I agree with that sentiment, there are some problems with that specific claim.  First, there are many more distant schools for any one person than their one local school, so the evidence is still that, overall, the schools are getting a low grade.  Everyone is still saying that there is one good school and lots of lousy ones.

Secondly, the fact that the public is confused on this issue, (since obviously they are misjudging those distant schools, which are rated well by their own residents, the ones who ought to know them best) means that this “data” on the schools should not be relied on too heavily.  The question is not whether the ill-informed public thinks some schools are doing well, but whether they actually are doing well.  That has not been decided by this data.

Still, I am glad Mr. Kominiak brings up this issue.  It indicates several important factors about the public schools.  For one, it reminds us that all the schools, not just ones in affluent suburbs, have their supporters.  The Kappan people are very careful to sample all parts of the population, including the urban and rural poor, who make up a significant portion of the school-age population.  These people also think that their local school is doing well.  In other words, a school with low scores in a big city, which is classified by many outsiders as “failing,” is actually seen as a success by the parents who send their children there.

This sounds about right to me from my own experience.  When I worked at low-performing schools I always found that our parents loved us.  They obviously knew that there were problems, but, what else was new?  Of course they had problems; that’s why they were in the South Bronx.  At least the schools were trying to help.  The parents knew that the scores were low, but understood that this was because we were working with kids who came to us with low scores, and they respected us for working with them.  As I have noted elsewhere, it is quite possible to be a good school with low scores.

Secondly, these articles bring up a question we need to answer: why this is happening? What is going wrong in the public’s perception of these distant schools?  Why are we underrating them?  Mr. Schneider, in the Atlantic,  argues that our critique of distant schools might be due to such factors as the negative publicity he says that the federal government puts out about public education in general, or that the efforts of “civil rights activists” to blame public education for segregation makes us underrate them, but these arguments do not make sense.  Why would such broad influences affect only the public’s attitudes towards distant schools and not their own local school?  They should have the same effect on all the public schools, not just the distant ones.  The question is why the public has different attitudes towards these two groups of schools, and this is not answered by such general factors which affect all schools equally.

Well, you might say, maybe these general factors do matter, but the public has reasons to discount the negative influences on their local schools, since they can see with their own eyes that their local schools are succeeding.

Exactly.  It's that difference in perception that is crucial.  That’s where the real difference between the two groups lies.  At your local school you can see with your own eyes how the schools are succeeding at their various projects – the kids are learning, they are happy, they seem to be getting along with each other.  Your 10-year-old now knows where India is.  This is what you base your opinion on.

But at the distant schools you get none of this information.  You don’t know the kids, or their families, or anyone in the town.  You have to rely, then, on test score “data,” and that doesn’t work very well.  As Mr. Schneider notes, test scores don't tell taxpayers what they want to know about a distant school.  It’s data on the kids, not the graduates, and that’s a problem.

After all, why do we support those distant schools?  They aren’t teaching our own kids.  It's because public education produces social goods that we value: a lower crime rate, better health, more intelligent workers.  Education is related to all those outcomes.  It’s a public program, like the police or public health, that benefits our society, not just our own private needs such as the education of our own children.

But, the question is, where is the data on those benefits?  That is the real problem.  It doesn’t exist.  There are no indications at all that the public is getting those social benefits.  All the data from the school system is about the students, not the graduates who provide these public benefits such as better workers and less crime.  So that is why the public rates these distant schools so low.  They get no information on whether they are providing a benefit to them, regardless of whether they actually are or not.

This is a serious problem.  It is one of the reasons we need to make changes in the entire system, but that is another story.  These two articles don’t yet see the whole picture, but at least they are asking the right questions.

Peter Dodington

July 22, 2017