Understanding upper-middle-class parents

The June issue of The American Spectator carries a thoughtful--though ultimately unpersuasive--article by Lewis Andrews, "Meet the Suburban Parents." Like legions of activists and analysts before him, he ponders why upper-middle-class parents haven't rallied to the cause of school reform. [quote]

Suburban parents have always been ready to mob a school board meeting to agitate for improved athletic facilities, but never for teacher evaluations or merit pay. The PTA will mobilize families and schools to support the most controversial social movements, from gay rights and gun control to affirmative action and costly accommodations for the disabled, but not a peep about the pressing need to save urban children from failing schools.

In places like Marin County north of San Francisco, Fairfax County in Virginia, the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, even very modest reforms that could save taxpayers money while improving the quality of education--giving credit for courses taken at community college or online, for example--are either ignored or downplayed.

It's a provocative argument, and a worthy topic. But Andrews, like most of us in the education commentariat, isn't careful enough to keep two very different issues distinct: First, whether affluent parents should be satisfied with the public schools to which they send their own children. And second, whether those same parents can be energized to fight on behalf of school reform for the poor.

The second question, it seems to me, will soon be answered by Michelle Rhee's new endeavor, Students First. Rhee's potential donors and supporters surely include many well-educated, well-to-do parents; she is encouraging them to contribute money and time in order to fix the schools of other people's children, not their own. (Teach For America alumni--sensitized to the plight of inner-city education--will play a key role, I would bet.) The gambit is whether a "social justice" pitch to fix urban education can resonate--and be sustained--with people with the resources to engage politically, but without a personal stake in the fight. Time will tell whether Rhee can pull it off.

A totally separate issue is whether affluent parents should be up in arms about their own schools. Here Lewis's case is the weakest; he writes that some ritzy school districts that spend a lot of money get reasonably mediocre results in student achievement, perhaps because they are too focused on frills instead of the "basics." What he doesn't concede is that these schools are probably giving the affluent parents exactly what they want.

Here I must rely on a data set of one: myself. When I think about my aspirations for my boys (ages 3 and 1), I take as a given that they will do fine academically. Maybe that's naive, but I just assume that they will end up going to a good college, find interesting work, and so forth. What I want for them is to enjoy the ride along the way: Make close friends, have plenty of time for play, learn to be part of a team (athletic or otherwise), tap into their artistic nature, spend as much time outdoors as possible. These inclinations led my wife and I to pick a Waldorf preschool for their early years. We're not sure we'll stick with such an "alternative" approach over the long term. But I surely don't want my boys anywhere near a "testing factory."

Now, I'm not arguing that all middle-class parents are like myself. I'm sure that there are plenty who value academic rigor above all else. (Think: Tiger Moms.) We at Fordham are launching an effort to identify different "segments" of the parent market to understand just what it is that parents want, and why. There's no way the answer is the same for everybody.

But with a degree of affluence comes a degree of luxury. Confident that their kids will do OK academically and vocationally, I bet that many upper-middle class parents want to reach for something more: Emotional health, spiritual fulfillment, a sense of social responsibility. And thus the frills that Lewis derides (like all manner of extra-curricular activities) become quite important. And as for the test scores--well, who cares if they are really, really high or just really high?

So am I saying that we should provide one kind of education for the rich and another kind for the poor? That affluent kids get to develop their bodies, minds, and spirits, while low-income children suffer through endless weeks of test-prep?

Not exactly. The best schools for children of poverty focus on all aspects of their students' development. At the same time, they look a lot different than the schools affluent families send their kids to. They are more focused on making sure their charges have mastered the basics; they spend a lot of effort inculturating their kids in middle-class mores; they give regular assessments to diagnose progress. These elements would be overkill in many affluent schools. One size does not fit all. (More on that here.)

Pretending that all kids need the same kinds of schools leads to all manner of ridiculous conversations. Consider this segment from FOX last week, featuring my colleague Amber Winkler. The topic of debate was Los Angeles's recent decision to minimize the impact that homework could have on a student's grade. Amber's opponent, and the show's host, were in clear agreement that their own kids were doing too much homework. And if they are attending hothouse schools in upper-middle-class enclaves, they very well might be. But that's totally irrelevant to the question of whether low-income kids (the vast majority in LA) are being challenged enough to prepare them for college--and whether making homework not count is wise policy. (It most certainly is not!)

But if different kids need different schools, then different schools need different policies. And this is where the school reform camp runs into big problems. The No Child Left Behind backlash in the suburbs isn't due to concerns that the law isn't working to fix urban education. Plenty of evidence shows that it's helped. The anger comes from a feeling that the federal law is starting to make middle-class public schools worse--or at least worse in the eyes of their customers. If a principal asks a beloved teacher to scrap her favorite unit on dinosaurs or poetry or jazz or whatever in order to make room for test-prep, you better believe the affluent parents are going to be mad. As well they should be. Mandating statewide, test-based teacher evaluations might only make the situation worse.

Smart federal and state policy would treat different schools differently. It would be more surgical, focusing tightly on schools that are clearly in distress, and offering benign neglect to the others. Ironically enough, the way to get upper-middle-class parents engaged in school reform is to leave their schools alone.

-Mike Petrilli

Note: This is a second draft of a post I wrote yesterday.

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