Trickle-Down Education

Posted on Monday, December 20 2010 by Heather Brandon

I’ve been searching for a high school for my oldest child. We have heard many recommendations for private school, especially from teachers at our current public school. When my daughter says she really wants to go to the Academy for the Arts, some teachers shake their heads and say, “That just isn’t good college prep. How are you going to get into Yale?”

Annual tuition for private high schools in the area is around at least $30,000 these days. Our local public schools are getting increasingly specialized, if you go by the multitudes of magnet types and “academies” within single schools. High school is the new college.

At an open house recently at Classical Magnet School (grades 6 to 12), principal and likely superintendent candidate Tim Sullivan tried to scare certain kinds of students away. “Don’t come here if you aren’t prepared to work hard,” he said. “Don’t come here if you think you have to get a job during high school. Don’t come here if you don’t think you want to go to college.” The curriculum at Classical is designed to look fantastic to a college admissions officer. In a lengthy slideshow presentation, Sullivan told the audience that students must do several hours of homework each night. This is the school’s way of being self-selecting—kids who don’t see themselves as hard workers, and who aren’t 100 percent determined to go to college, will opt for a school setting they hope is easier, and won’t even bother to try to get in.

At the Academy for the Arts, college prep is part of the discussion at open houses, but with an acknowledgment of a possible professional career in the arts instead right after high school. The school is expanding to the former Colt Factory, and as of January will be shuttling students back and forth between campuses for various arts specialties. The school offers a half-day program as well. If you want to enter your student in the school lottery, which is completely blind, you must choose whether it will be full-day or half-day, and you have to accept whichever one comes up first.

Across the board, school officials are telling us that in joining the magnet school lottery, we must list only schools we absolutely want our child to attend. Order of preference doesn’t really matter; what matters is what is on your list. If you really only want to get into one school, you should only list that school. But there are seemingly endless choices.

In a recent conversation with a fellow parent of an eighth-grader, we commiserated over the state of things. “I wish they could just make the neighborhood schools good,” she said. Keep it simple. Instead we have a complicated system of lotteries that assign you a random number. Talented in the arts and determined to make it on Broadway? Brilliant at physics and keen on becoming a NASA scientist? None of that matters; this system is based on getting as much funding as possible, attracting suburban kids, and letting  families who don’t opt in to the confusion of it all sort it out at the neighborhood level. This is trickle-down education.

Achieve Hartford, our area’s local education fund, held two public forums to invite input on what we might be looking for in a new superintendent. (Input is still being sought via an online survey.) Official results from both events are forthcoming, but I jotted down some information at the first one, where participants texted their responses to a series of six questions.

Based on those notes (which are not final or official), about a third of participants were not Hartford residents, and two-thirds were. About half had a child enrolled in a Hartford public school. Some who didn’t explained that they were invested in the school system for one reason or another.

An overwhelming forty percent said they were either unsatisfied (15%) or very unsatisfied (25%) with the current direction of the city public schools. Another 30 percent were neutral, making a grand total of 70 percent of participants either of no opinion or negative on this topic. Thirty percent were either satisfied (10%) or very satisfied (20%).

Facilitators invited the audience to give voice to their level of satisfaction. One woman described how she thinks the current school system design is ruining neighborhood cohesion. Kids are bused all over the place and they don’t know their own neighbors, especially if the neighbors also have kids. It’s disastrous. I would tend to agree, and I think any policy that crushes the building of social capital like this is generally a bad one.

Because school choice depends so heavily on learning about the options, and because the options are so numerous and overwhelming, the process is a turnoff even to those people willing to endure the whole rigamarole. The creation of mini-academies (magnets?) of specialty within the “regular” schools is also confusing. Does it reduce class size? Does it attract better teachers? Are the students that clear on what they want to do for a living? I would venture… no.

At the public forum, about half the participants hope to see a new schools superintendent who has experience managing a school district comparable in size to Hartford. Second at about 35 percent was a desire to see someone with a demonstrated ability to build consensus or collective decision-making. The audience was less clear on the single most important priority for the next superintendent. It split on “involving parents, families and the community in schools” and “ensuring every school is guided by a strong, effective leader” at 26 percent each. At 20 percent was “ensuring teachers are effective, supported and trained.”

All of these are critical, but my vote went to involving community because it’s what is so greatly lacking now. The facilitator, remarking on how popular that option was, added that this is often something communities desire and can be the hardest thing to accomplish.

The final question related to important attributes for our next superintendent. A third of participants agreed on “ability to build morale and inspire confidence among staff, school board, parents, students and community.”

Diane Ravitch has said that public education shouldn’t mimic a competitive marketplace economy. Instead resources should be shared; “schools should operate like families.” If a school learns something that works well, and figures out a means to some kind of best practice, it should immediately share that learning with its district and the administration should make sure it is implemented across all schools, so the whole city can benefit.

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