I’m starting a series of posts on education, and I’ll begin with a practical observation that seldom makes it to the top of most education reform discussions: One of the most important functions of elementary education is to provide a safe, supervised environment for parents to leave their kids so they can work. Many parents concerned about improving the quality of education–not to mention highly-credentialed teachers–bristle at the suggestion that school is day care, but for many, it is and has to be, at least that.
I don’t think schools are just day care, but I think before we think about all the things we’d like to squeeze into education, we ought to not lose sight of the fact that school is not just about preparing our kids for the future–it’s also about supporting our present.
I–and almost everyone I knew–grew up with a father who worked a job and a mother who stayed home. Until I was 10, Daddy got up and was gone before I woke up, then arrived at home at 5pm like clockwork–he was on the 7:30-4:30 shift, I think. When I was 10, his union went on strike and things became less like clockwork. Nevertheless, through we went through some tough times, Mama stayed home, got me out the door for the school bus at 8am and was there at 3:15 when I got home.
I’m not nostalgic for that world…it was a different time, a very different place, and it’s not what my wife or I want for ourselves or our kids today. But I find myself comparing to what I know and trying to extrapolate what we should expect. Some parents schedule their kids into tons of activities–but this requires a parent be home to shuttle the kids around. Even with a flexible employer, it is hard to get kids to a 5pm sports practice. A 4pm dance practice? Who the heck can do that every week? So we always look at school and our kids’ activities in the context of how we can manage the schedule.
When parents are making “choices” about what schools to list as preferences in the Boston public school assignment process, practicality and predictability are inescapable requirements. When I hear parents upset about an assignment–or lack of assignment, what I hear most often is NOT about the quality of the school, but the disruptive uncertainty of the process. Some school days start around 8am or earlier; some as late as 9:15. Sometimes there is onsite before and after school programming; other times the kids are bussed somewhere else. If you are eligible for a free school bus, you have no idea of that schedule until August.
These practical uncertainties add to the importance of getting your preferred choice…but then, when the while system is considered, they turn into judgment and bias about the schools and stereotypes about why parents are preferring some schools over others. There seems to be a presumption in a system that asks parents to rate and rank schools that this process will put pressure on schools to “improve.” Maybe I’m creating a bit of a “strawman” here, but I don’t believe requiring parents to rank the schools has any positive merit in terms of educational reform.
We need to make every school safe and supportive. We need to stabilize the system long enough to even know what we have instead of breathlessly awaiting the latest round of standardized test results and then celebrating what’s probably a momentary spike in scores one year while rationalizing bad scores every other year–all the while compared to other schools while things constantly change.
The greatest thing our schools have the potential to provide kids is stability…but we throw that away by giving parents the illusion they can choose and encouraging relative comparisons. Thankfully, once the initial process is over, parents can decide to stay in the same school and make the best of it. But every year, a new crop of winners and losers is cultivated and the bitter taste of false promises and perceived unfairness undermines the real progress and positive change that is happening in schools across the district.