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Does Cecil think the way to improve Chicago public schools is to throw out the students and start over?
June 24, 2010

Dear Cecil:

Cecil, your scheme for improving public school in Chicago sounds like "Don't throw the system out and start over; throw the students out and start over!" The whole thing is based on getting different types of students with different types of parents to come to the school. I don't know if you're suggesting that the efforts of principals, teachers, bureaucrats, and funding are all pretty much irrelevant except insofar as they help to attract a certain type of person to the school, so if you are I think you should be more explicit about it, because when people talk of improving public schools and test scores, it's always "we need more money, We need more diversity, we need smaller classrooms," and rarely "what kind of parents raise excellent students." You'd be doing a service to humanity by saying that more explicitly.

If, on the other hand, you subscribe to common wisdom, and think that the secret to improving public schools is more money (and not for PR), smaller classrooms, Head Start, higher salaries, more ethnic diversity, and fewer bureaucrats, why does the system you suggest do nothing to achieve those things?

— Nathan

Cecil replies:

I hope no one will mind one last column on this subject, Nathan, because you express a common viewpoint — what I think of as the academic view, or perhaps a professional one. No offense, but my guess is you don't have kids in school, certainly not a Chicago public school.

I say this because you're clearly looking at the issue from an abstract, or anyway systemic, perspective: the Problem of the Schools. A parent of school-age kids doesn't think about it that way. Her primary concern (let's be frank, mothers do most of the fretting about this) isn't schools in general. She's more worried about the school her kid is going to — or rather, if her kid is a toddler and she's got some choices, which school.

You, Nathan, may say that's a narrow way of looking at things. But until you can put yourself in the mindset of those making important decisions about schools — and parents collectively are at the top of the list — your noble efforts to improve the public school system aren't going to get very far.

I'll get back to that. First let's talk about the Problem of the Schools. I don't want to put words in your mouth, so let me quote a phrase you used: "the secret to improving public schools." That makes it sound like there's one secret and presumably one problem. I'm sure you're not so simple-minded as to believe that literally, but the manner in which you express yourself betrays a common attitude: that the Problem of the Schools is fundamentally unitary, and can be solved by an integrated set of solutions: more money, smaller classrooms, Head Start, etc.

That's not so. Surely you know this. Loosely aggregated under the heading of "schools" are all sorts of problems, some of which are only distantly related. There's the problem of education in America, and whether we're adequately preparing our children for the future. Here we get into discussions about the rigor of the curriculum, the length of the school year, the effectiveness of pedagogical methods, and so on — important topics, but lacking any immediate impact on how good your neighborhood school is.

Then there's the problem of public schools. Here the talk is of money, unions, school choice, money, bureaucracy, maybe throw in some free speech and discipline issues, but then basically back to money. These concerns have more bearing on your neighborhood school, but they're in the nature of the weather — not something you can do much about.

After that the conversation splinters. We can talk about central-city public schools, poverty in the schools, minorities in the schools, retention of the middle class in the schools, or, in Chicago's case, luring the middle class back to the schools.

You may think that last item was what I was talking about. It wasn't. "Luring" suggests policy wonks cooking up incentives. That wasn't my concern. I purposely didn't talk to any bureaucrats or experts — only parents. I didn't spend much time asking them why they wanted to send their kids to the public schools; they just did. We spoke mostly about their school problem, as they conceived it: how to get their local elementary school to the point where they'd feel comfortable entrusting it with their children. The result was my "scheme" for improving the schools, although it wasn't mine — just my distillation of methods the parents had devised. What's more, it obviously wasn't a scheme for improving all schools. It works best mostly for schools in middle-class neighborhoods.

Big deal, you may say. That's the frustrating thing about this debate. Improving a school in a middle-class neighborhood is far from easy, however it may look from a distance. It's not impossibly hard, but it requires an investment of years. The result isn't better schools, but one better school. As a parent, that's all you're concerned about — the school your kid attends. My purpose, big-picture guy that I am, was to publicize the process, in hopes of encouraging parents in other neighborhoods to make the same investment.

Many are starting to do so. Parents at Nettelhorst school, who've had remarkable success in harnessing local resources, recently hosted a symposium to teach parents at other schools how to create community partnerships and raise funds. Some 70 Chicago public schools sent parent representatives; CPS CEO Ron Huberman gave the keynote address.

If middle-class parents get on board, and all the schools in middle-class neighborhoods improve, are the problems of the Chicago public schools solved? Of course not. You'll still have lots of schools in desperately poor neighborhoods with no resources to speak of, and solving the problems of those schools presents an entirely different and much tougher set of challenges. And of course you'll still have too little public funding, too much bureaucracy, and so on. 

But make no mistake. Getting middle-class kids back into the public school system is no inconsequential matter. You'd think that would go without saying; evidently not. So let me be clear: the engagement of the middle class is one of the greatest assets a city school system can have. In a just world, everyone would have equal claim on the attention of lawmakers and officials, without regard to how much money they made. In the world as it is, they don't. Once the middle class participates in the school system, its issues shift from being their problem (that is, the concern chiefly of poor people) to our problem, that is, of poor and non-poor alike.

Middle-class parents bring middle-class resources and expectations. A common observation is that when middle-class parents start getting involved in a school, test scores go up across the board — that's what happened at Nettelhorst. Why should that be? Do the teachers try harder? I have no idea. But I think any public school principal would agree that when middle-class parents get involved, things get better — and the beneficiaries are all the kids, not just the middle-class ones.

Let me be blunt about the goal here. The idea isn't to restore CPS to its former glory. Truth is, the Chicago public schools, with some exceptions, were never all that great. Fifty years ago the schools of choice in what was then a devoutly Catholic city were the parochial schools. The Catholic school system is now much diminished and more expensive. If you as a middle-class parent want to send your kid to a school within walking distance — in this age of play dates and constant kid chauffeuring, who doesn't? — the local public school is often your only choice. That's not a bad thing; on the contrary, it's an opportunity to create something a lot of Chicago neighborhoods haven't had before: a local public school that's at the center of the community's life, as the Catholic schools once were.

So no, increased middle-class participation doesn't solve the problems of the public schools. But who can seriously deny that it helps?

— Cecil Adams
Photo by Pat O'Neil

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