How Good Is That School, Anyway?

How do we measure the quality of a high school? Some schools have high test scores or send lots of kids to good colleges, but family and friends and general atmosphere probably matter far more for students’ odds at success. There are basic metrics such as the standardized tests du jour, which are very good at measuring how well students take standardized tests. The caliber of the hockey program is, of course, also an important consideration. (I jest…mostly.) Accurate measures are hard to find, though I’d still find more value in things like graduation rates and ACT or SAT scores, which, for all their flaws, are remarkably good predictors of college success. But  assumes these schools are all starting from the same place, which they simply are not. A better question asks how schools work with the students they have, rather than wishing they had.

There’s no elegant way to control for income and parents’ education and all those things, but free/reduced lunch rates are one option. What happens, for example, if we graph average ACT scores from 2012-2015 in comparison to the free/reduced lunch rates at all traditional public high schools in northeast Minnesota? Well, this happens:

act1215

Click all images to enlarge.

Three schools stand out here: Duluth East, Esko, and Hermantown sit off by themselves at the upper left end of the graph. This shouldn’t be terribly surprising, as basically all of the wealthiest neighborhoods in the region feed into these three schools. Those demographics are friendly to strong test scores, but don’t necessarily mean a school is doing an especially good job in and of itself. Take Hermantown, for example: it’s a growing town, and invariably, young people who consider moving there talk about “the schools” as one of the reasons. Yet this graph suggests that Hermantown’s schools do a decidedly average job—even a slightly below average job—for the population they serve. People may think they’re moving for the schools, but whether they realize it or not, they’re moving for a demographic makeup that makes it easy to have a good-looking school by traditional metrics with far less effort. This is not to pick on Hermantown, which still does a reasonably good job of things, and there’s plenty to be said for wanting one’s children surrounded by other like-minded achievers. But it does show what a disservice we do when we rate schools by the most basic metrics.

At the risk of sounding a bit smug about my alma mater, East’s over-performance is actually pretty impressive given that it is already toward the high end; that said, it’s probably worth noting that East’s attendance area, while holding more poverty than Esko or Hermantown, also contains some uniquely wealthy and highly educated neighborhoods that may pull scores up. Its large student body also probably insulates it from dramatic year-to-year swings. The larger Range schools, meanwhile, perform quite well, as does Cloquet.

Denfeld, which is too often the source of less-than-happy stories about local education, modestly overachieves compared to the region. The school’s struggles when compared to its east side counterpart are entirely predictable based on who goes there, and this data suggests that’s not really the fault of the school. There may still be reasons to be leery of a place like Denfeld if it’s failing to offer the same advanced courses or difficult for students to build a schedule that incorporates those classes, but the school itself and its instructors seem to be doing fine. Places like Proctor and Wrenshall, though, where a number of kids in the Denfeld attendance area go to open enroll, actually underachieve. Floodwood, Carlton, and Bigfork all raise big red flags. High-poverty Deer River, meanwhile, exceeds expectations by a solid margin.

But wait, this may or may not be the most accurate way to do this: not everyone took the ACT until 2016, when the state of Minnesota required all students to sit for it. This is what happens when all students take the test, not just those who want to:

act16

It’s one year of data, so the smaller sample is somewhat limiting, but the shift after the new requirement was predictable. Scores dropped across the board, since a lot of students who are not college-bound sat for a college aptitude test. Generally, this change makes well-off schools look better, and poorer schools look worse, as the steeper trendline shows. The wealthiest schools all hover around the lowest score drops, which probably reflects the fact that the bottom end in these schools is a lot higher than it is elsewhere. Meanwhile, we see big drops on the Range and in some of the poorer schools, including some schools that looked pretty good in the data from previous years, like Virginia and Cloquet. (To Cloquet’s credit, it still does pretty well.)

schoolactchg

Drop in ACT scores when all students required to take test. The statewide average drop was 1.6.

There are two very contradictory ways to interpret this: one, these schools’ great scores from before tear down the curtains and suggest they’re not really that great, but instead serve their top students well while the rest shuffle along. Two, the ACT is not a great measure of what a high school is supposed to do: not every kid is destined for college, and maybe these schools are also educating the less academically-inclined kids well, and just channeling their talents in different directions. Most likely they are both true to some extent.  (Worth noting: this region has an exceptionally high number of people with associate’s degrees or other degrees that are “less” than a bachelor’s degree, but can be tickets to good, steady employment in certain trades. At the same time, the region’s average ACT score is somewhat lower than the statewide average, whereas its graduation rate outpaces the state.)

One way to plausibly better judge a school’s performance is to measure graduation rates against free-reduced lunch rates. Even if kids aren’t going on to college, they’re still equipping kids with the basic skills and credentials for whatever they do next. Of course, one could also argue that these schools are just funneling under-qualified students through the system.

gradrate

And, sure enough, if we correlate graduation rates and free/reduce lunch rates, we get a more complicated picture than with the test score graph, and see that some poor schools do an excellent job of getting students diplomas, while others do not. Here, the three affluent schools all under-perform the trendline mildly—though maybe the trendline should flatten out somewhat at higher levels—places like Greenway, Carlton, and Bigfork do a good job of graduating their students despite weak test scores.

The fundamental point here: just because a school has lower poverty rates does not necessarily mean it is good; just because it has higher rates does not mean it is bad. And yet educational reforms that supposedly aim to improve outcomes somewhere along the line, such as making all students take college aptitude tests whether or not they’re going to college or efforts to block teachers from teaching courses for college credit—a pitiful example of credential obsession at its worst—only tend to make the rich look richer and the poor look poorer. The rest becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as students drain out of the weaker-seeming schools and flock to the ones that appear strong, whether or not they really are actually better. Few things make my blood boil quite like educational bureaucracy and the underwhelming efforts to get around it.

The idea of rating schools is always fraught with difficulty, and I wouldn’t want to try to reduce the complicated things that go into an education to a single number. College rankings are trashy enough, and I say that even as someone who probably puts more stock in the value of educational prestige than most. If I had to pick out a few things I’d like to see to judge a school’s performance, though, I’d look for a high school’s college graduation rate (separated out for both bachelor’s and associate’s degrees). I’d also want a raw percentage of students earning the very highest test scores (say, ACTs over 30). And I’d control it by free/reduced lunch rate, because not all success is as it seems. It’s not a perfect way to gauge schools, but it’s at least an improvement over the poverty of current methods.

Data source: Minnesota Department of Education. Northeast Range High School (Babbitt) excluded due to lack of data.

A Follow-Up on a Charter High School in Duluth

My piece on the possibility of a Duluth Edison charter high school was unusually punchy for this blog, and in turn, it provoked some good reactions. I spend a lot of time in detached analysis; part of this is just who I am, and part of this is because I do try to transcend normal political categories so that I’m not pigeonholed as some tradition-loving conservative or government-loving commie. But when the guard does come down (and when it does, it always seems to involve Duluth East High School), taking a hard stand on something often does generate a good response. So here are some of the responses, and please, if you have any thoughts, send them along in a comment or through other means. I love the dialogue.

First, I want to clear something up that I didn’t mean to suggest, especially with my overly vague title: I certainly wasn’t trying to throw all charter schools in one big pot. In large urban areas, I can certainly see how charter schools can be and have already been helpful, though I also don’t pretend to understand the education debate in those cities well enough to come to a good conclusion. For my friends out there in Teach for America who are employed in charter schools, keep doing what you’re doing. I just hope you can see the nuance in this debate, which I think reveals the dangers of abstraction in education. Whenever someone says a certain type of school—public, private, charter, whatever—is the problem or the solution, you should be suspicious. This is a complicated debate, and there is no one-size-fits-all answer, and little reason to believe that what works in New York is the same thing that works in Memphis or Muncie or a small town in Kansas.

My intent was to address Duluth, Minnesota in 2013, and nothing else. Perspective is in order, and an understanding of the diversity of experiences is in order. That’s what set me off about the original “Dish with Trish” piece (since removed from the Reader website, I now see) more than anything: her own perspective was the only one that mattered, and she declared that ISD 709 “sucked” for her, and therefore must suck for everyone else, even though this is (a) patently untrue and (b) is of absolutely no constructive use for figuring out the future of education in Duluth.

With that in mind, I got three good responses from people with unique insights into the situation here.

My first correspondent was a fellow Duluth East alumnus who went to Edison schools through 8th grade. He had a very fair beef with my insinuation that Edison would hurt diversity (broadly defined) in Duluth schools. I did know that Edison has a fairly high percentage of students on free/reduced lunch, but at such a small school, I wasn’t sure that this was necessarily a good proxy for diverse family backgrounds: after all, there are plenty of engaged and well-educated parents who just don’t make a lot of money. (Maybe they’re single-income families, maybe they’ve chosen fulfilling jobs that don’t pay much, maybe they were English majors, etc. I’m a living example here: I got a Pell Grant, but my parents both have advanced degrees, and it would be laughable to call my childhood “working class” or something along those lines.) My correspondent, however, assured me that the kids at Edison during his days there ran the gamut of possible backgrounds; most went on to Duluth Central, he said, and he could name plenty of former classmates who went on to become teenage parents or even went to prison.

My friend had plenty good things to say about Edison, and thought the school did pretty well for what it had to work with. He didn’t particularly want to be at Edison and was happy to head to East for high school, though as a hockey player, he already had friends at East who helped make his transition easy. He said he wouldn’t send his own kids there unless there was a substantial gulf between it and the public schools, and didn’t appear to think the schools are at that point right now. He also agreed that an Edison High was not in the best interests of Duluth as a whole.

He also raised a good point that seems to have been forgotten in all of this: Duluth already has a charter high school! Harbor City has been up and running for a while now. I guess my question to the Edison people is, what would an Edison High offer that Harbor City doesn’t? Is there simply not enough room at Harbor City, or is there something deeper at work here?

It’s also worth noting the time he was at Edison: the early 00s, long before the Red Plan debates began. When I mentioned that, he said he did think there has, perhaps, been a change in Edison’s mission in recent years, whether the people who are running the school realize it or not. On a similar note, Harry Welty noted that the situation currently confronting Duluth schools was “unimaginable” when Edison was first set up. My friend’s comments invite a lot of questions over the Edison mission, and I’m genuinely curious to know the answers. The school may have been diverse in 2003, but how have things changed since the Red Plan flights began, and how will it look in 2023? Perhaps Edison may not want to think of itself as being in direct competition with ISD 709, but in a city of this size, it’s inevitable. How does Edison choose which applicants get in, and does it just shrug its shoulders at the kids who don’t end up there? If more families try to “flee” the “issues” in ISD 709, who gets let in? Considering that one of these two districts gets public funding without needing to endure levies or contentious school board meetings or Keith Dixon or Art Johnston, how does the endgame possibly look good for ISD 709? I can imagine a few answers to that question, but I want to hear them from other people, too.

While it obviously isn’t Edison’s fault that ISD 709 has some issues, it does share a community with that District, and it has some responsibility to work with the District, not against it. I think school choice is great when it meets needs that public schools do not, and I’m glad people are happy at the K-8 Edison schools. (See an older post of mine on publics versus privates here.) Edison can be great for this city if it is a complement; the troubles will begin if it comes to be seen as a substitute. As I said at the end of the last post, we’re all in this together.

Harry Welty followed up on the Dish with Trish on his blog, and adds some kind words about me on the end. His perspective on white flight into charter schools is an interesting addition to the conversation, and it will be interesting to see if Edison—which is fairly racially diverse (by Duluth standards) right now—remains that way. And while the racial element is important, I also think Duluth’s racial homogeneity can hide other divisions within the community.

Finally, I heard from someone who has more knowledge of the financial details of a possible sale of the old Duluth Central to Edison than I do. Here are my informant’s thoughts, with this person’s permission:

[T]he idea that Edison will get a high school may be an inevitability, but who is to say that they will get off the ground in the near future?  As far as I can tell, there is no building around here suitable for a high school outside of the property that our district owns. It would take Edison at least 4 years, maybe up to 6, to build a building from the ground up. They need to find land, purchase it, develop plans, get bids, get permits, etc, etc, etc. We currently send 1.4 million of public school funding to Edison every year. In the event they purchase Central, it’s conceivable that they could be off and running by September 2015. If they have to do it on their own, it’s likely they won’t have a school till at least 2018, maybe 2019. Assuming they have around the same number of students, that’s an additional 1.4 million for 4 years that would be sent to Edison that otherwise would have stayed in our schools. That 12 million we get from them for Central won’t look nearly as good if you have to subtract 5.6 million of lost revenue over that span of time when they otherwise wouldn’t have had a high school. 

Of course, that isn’t going to satisfy the people who are upset that they’re being taxed to maintain Central and just want that off the books as soon as possible, but if these people take the long view, selling for minimal profit now will only exacerbate financial problems later on, and we’ll be having a war just like this one a few years down the line. From the District’s financial standpoint, it makes a lot of sense to wait for another buyer; the question is, how quickly do they think that buyer can come along, and how much longer will this process drag on?

It’s hard for the District to win here, but this city has to come up with a coherent vision for the future of its public schools. Sorry, Marcia Stromgren: public education isn’t going away anytime soon, and even with an Edison High, the public schools will be inextricably bound up in the city’s fate. We can fund them with the levies, vote for dedicated candidates who will dialogue with us citizens, and watch the Board to make sure the money ends up in the right places. Or we can vote them down and somehow pretend that 50 kids in a classroom is “justice,” or that this will teach a school board full of people who were not around when the Red Plan was implemented a lesson about having implemented the Red Plan. It’s your choice, Duluth.

Charter Schools and the Ones Left Behind

My dad and I are in southern Wisconsin this weekend, visiting my grandmother for her 87th birthday. The impromptu family reunion has been a rewarding one, as I’ve been reunited with a cousin I hadn’t seen in about 15 years. My dad was the only one of my grandmother’s children to go to college, and without belaboring the details, let’s just say I grew up in an entirely different world from my cousin. It wasn’t the smoothest of meetings, especially since neither of us is all that extroverted, but we shared some laughs and found some common ground. I’m damn proud of that, and I wish I’d found a way to say more.

What on earth does this have to do with education? It’s simple. It made me wonder about her education, and even more importantly, about her 13-year-old son, whom she had while she was still in high school. I’ve never met the kid; he lives in Colorado, and my cousin doesn’t have custody over him. But I care about him. Who’s looking out for kids like him?

On the drive down, I found myself reading a Duluth Reader Weekly column under the tagline “Dish with Trish” advocating the selling of Duluth Central to the Edison charter school system for a new high school. Her experience in Duluth public schools was the polar opposite of mine, and she refuses to acknowledge them as a contributor to her education. She rushed her children out of ISD 709 and into Edison. Her argument is a sloppy one that relies on silly cherry-picked examples about kids holding open doors for her; it lacks anything resembling nuance. But that doesn’t take away from the sincerity of her perceptions. She clearly thinks Edison offers a better future for her kids, and for her, that is all that matters.

The argument in favor of charter schools is a pretty sound one. “Charter schools create competition, and competition is good.” That makes complete sense. Institutions that never face any competition can easily become stagnant or mediocre. But here’s the thing: charter school populations are entirely self-selected. Everyone there is there because they want to be there. No wonder people gush about the community and engaged families at charter schools: describing them that way is practically tautological. If you are an engaged parent, it also makes complete sense that you’d want your child in an environment entirely surrounded by other children of such parents. Add in the ugly class sizes in ISD 709, and it’s a slam dunk. What’s not to like?

However, this nation has made a commitment to universal public education. Unless you want to go and throw that out, you’re going to have to contend with the fact that there are quite a few people out there for whom education is not a priority. Perhaps their parents are unwilling or unable to support kids to the extent they need; perhaps it’s a conscious rejection, and most likely it’s a complex web of socioeconomic and family and psychological factors. It’s unfortunate in many ways, but that fact can’t be wished away. These kids are still going to go to school, and it’s going to fall upon the public schools to educate them. Because of that, public school test scores will always face some burdens, teachers will always be frustrated by certain kids, and while these kids are certainly not doomed to be disruptive or “bad,” they have an unfortunate tendency to become the face of public schools. Public schools will never be able to compete with charter schools on a level playing field. Ever.

If you pull the engaged families and students out of the public schools, it leaves the public schools in a downward spiral that’s hard to escape. If parents never think their kids are going to public schools, they don’t bother to support school levies, and the funding dries up. Parent volunteers disappear, and booster clubs that give private support to public school programs go the way of the dodo. Class sizes get even bigger, even more kids are pulled out, forcing even more cuts, leaving behind those kids who are all too often left behind by society. I’m not saying this is destiny; there are some exceptional individuals who come out of even the worst schools, and committed leadership can turn around struggling schools. But this is the exception, not the norm. Throwing up one’s hands and praying some good leaders will come along isn’t a winning strategy.

You would think that most liberal-leaning people respect the need to support the entire community, and to fight for public schools. (I won’t pretend to know Trish’s political allegiances, but aside from a few stray anarchists, social libertarians, and Harry Welty, I don’t think the Reader has ever run anything by anyone who isn’t somewhere on the leftward end of the political spectrum.) Duluth’s liberalism isn’t without its downsides (as with any political ideology), but it has allowed for relatively generous support for public institutions over the years. And yet, with our public schools going through a troubled time, the reaction of so many community-oriented people has not been to fight for that community, but to flee in search of something else.

I don’t say this in spite or judgment. It’s only human nature to care deeply about our children before anyone else, and I’m not among the cosmopolitan idealists who think we can or should get rid of that. When I try to weigh the moral implications of something, I often use my hypothetical future children as my test: would I let my children go here or do that? I certainly wouldn’t send them to one of the miserable inner-city schools I saw in Washington DC just to make a political point. (For new readers, I went to college in DC before coming home to the city I love most.) Duluth, however, isn’t there yet. Some perspective is in order: Duluth can still be rescued, if enough people pitch in and resist the atomizing tendencies that drive us all to pursue our own short-term personal interests at the expense of the communal good.

The problem with Duluth is that it’s small. Build a charter school and take 500 kids out of the Washington DC school district, and DCPS will keep on running (to the extent that it runs…) with fairly stable funding; there might be some ripple effects, but it isn’t going to reorder the entire situation. Take 500 kids out of a district that only has maybe 2800 high school students, and you have a potentially huge disruption. Duluth is small enough that the old cliché used by everyone from Marxists to Buddhists to Rand Paul (in very different contexts)—“we are all interconnected”—really is true. Charter school parents may not like to hear this, but in Duluth, it’s true: your choices affect everyone else. The good news is that, in a smaller community, a movement to change the course doesn’t take a whole lot of people. We can make this happen.

In a community of this size, it’s impossible to imagine a sustainable social fabric without public schools. To their credit, Duluth public schools have programs for the kids who aren’t on the fast track on college that teach them skills that will get them employed after their school days are over. I don’t know how well these programs work, but at least the effort is there, and that is essential. Students who aren’t going to college need to know that they aren’t failures, and that there is a group of people who care about their futures. By keeping everyone in the same building, we recognize that interconnectedness, even if they’re tracked into very different sorts of classes. Tracking can make sure that the highest achievers can get the courses they need to go to the best colleges (it worked for me), and the kids in the middle can find a happy medium, too. Money and support flows in to everyone, and not just the select few who already have strong support networks. If you get enough stakeholders on hand to fight the good fight, the class sizes will fall to normal levels, and these schools can reach their very real potential.

You might call that an idealistic stance, but it’s an ideal rooted in acceptance of reality. The people in public schools are going to be our neighbors. Some of them might even be our relatives. If you’re a liberal, the need here should be obvious, Red Plan rancor be damned: there is no other way forward if you really do support an equitable society. If you’re a conservative, giving these kids a chance can keep them off the welfare rolls, and creates at least an avenue to welcome their families into a community that will allow them to escape the pathologies of the past. Of course it won’t work out for everyone. Human nature is what it is, and people will make mistakes or not listen or face obstacles that simply cannot be overcome. But it is not destiny. And public education, for all its faults, is, from a societal standpoint, the only cost-effective way to keep it from being destiny.

Yes, this requires some active parenting. It requires a bit more engagement, perhaps, as people band together to fight for their kids and confront the bloated bureaucracy and inane love-and-happy-thinking education-speak that plague many school systems. But it’s worth it. It’s worth it for everyone that you share this community with, and for your own kids, too. Putting one’s children in a school that offers the whole gamut of students also broadens their horizons in ways that no self-selected charter school ever could. There is more to “diversity” than race or faith, after all. This is the world we live in. The empathy I feel for people from different backgrounds from mine does not come from the various service projects I’ve done among people from disadvantaged communities. It comes from living among them.

All of that said, I support the sale of the old Central High School to Edison. I can wish that all of the Edison parents are going to read my piece and change their minds, but I’m not delusional. Edison High is going to happen. I don’t like it one bit, but holding up some ideal in a desperate attempt to keep one’s hands off the inevitable is only going to hurt the district in the long run. Selling Central to Edison gives ISD 709 some chance to control the terms of the sale and cap enrollment, and I doubt it’s going to get a better offer for that financial black hole atop the hill. At the very least, Harry Welty’s lease idea could offer some sort of compromise. (Full disclosure: Harry and I did lunch after he read my last column on ISD 709.)

Antagonizing the charter school people even more certainly isn’t going to win them back, either. This is our future we’re talking about. We’re all in this together, even if we have some disagreements about methods. I hope Duluthians can come together and work some of these things out, perhaps over a drink or three. (I’d be happy to foot the bill, even on my underemployed recent college grad’s salary.) This town is unique because it has such a distinct communal identity; with enough effort, it has the potential to be exceptional. Getting there is going to require that people get out of their comfort zones, though. We’ll see if Duluth can pull it off.

Publick Skoolz Rule

The juiciest piece in political blog-land today was an article with the delicious title “If You Send Your Kid to a Private School, You Are a Bad Person” by Allison Benedikt on Slate. I am not a regular reader of Slate, but the provocative piece set off any number of Facebook friends and many conservative commentators, who responded with equally delicious titles of their own, such as “Liberal Cites Virtues of Crappy Education.” So, the article was a smashing success: it got a lot of people to read it and comment on it, and the good folks at Slate are probably thrilled, no matter what they think of the argument. But sometimes it takes a healthy dose of hyperbole to get a good debate going, so here we go.

First off, it’s worth noting that the author’s intended audience is probably very liberal: she probably knows she’s only going to rile conservatives. Her true targets here are the liberals who extol the virtues of funding public education but bundle their own children off to private or otherwise exclusive schools that isolate said children from the “regular” people whom they claim to want to help. There is a certain amount of hypocrisy in that stance, though it’s all relative: I may be all for public schools, but after a college course that had me doing work in a Washington, D.C. public high school, I now know there are schools that I could never send my children to in good conscience. Sorry, America: my loyalty to people I love will forever trump any cause of national greatness or abstract devotion to the human race. Judging by the response of even many ardent liberals to the column, most people out there agree, even if they don’t realize it.

And, of course, there are plenty of valid reasons to choose private schools that this article casually tosses aside. A religious bent is an obvious one, and people who respect for the freedom of worship shouldn’t have any qualms with religious schools. Some private schools offer programs or activities that just don’t exist in the local public schools, or are absurdly hard to get into—for example, a varsity basketball roster at a 3,000-student high school—and it makes complete sense for families to seek out such schools. (Unless, of course, the private schools start “stealing” the top-end athletes: then they’re the root of all evil.) I could trail on here, but the reasons are clear enough. I also admire the commitment of many people who choose to homeschool; naturally, there will be some parents who teach their kids kooky things or try to isolate them so much that they fail to socialize with their peers when eventually released out into the world, but the horror stories are overblown. Most of these people belong to cultures that are not entirely comfortable with mainstream American culture, and in most cases, I respect that diversity.

A large number of families, however, will simply say they want “what’s best” for their kids, and choose private schools for perceived academic advantages. To some extent these advantages are due to self-selection, but there are a number of private schools out there with more demanding academic programs, especially when measured against the weaker public schools out there. Somewhere, though, there is a point of diminishing returns. For example, the other night, I was eavesdropping on a conversation between two fathers of middle school kids. One of them said he had “heard nothing but good things” about the local public high school, but if a proposed charter school opens, that will immediately become his first choice for his daughter. Um, okay. This gets even more head-scratching when the discussion switches over to private schools, where tuition costs can go exorbitantly high. It’s not something I resent, but it does make me stop and wonder what exactly these parents are chasing. Having been through the whole rat race fairly recently, I’d counsel a series of deep breaths. A few more AP classes or even a slightly more prestigious college aren’t going to change one’s life prospects. Instead, it’s a matter of making the most of where one finds oneself, instead of subjecting oneself to the constant anxiety of needing to be the absolute best. There is such a thing as “good enough,” and so long as the kid in question has involved parents and is otherwise well-adjusted, most public schools not in economically destitute areas do the job.

Perhaps the most compelling arguments for alternative paths are the kids on both extremes of the academic achievement ladder. Special needs kids by definition need extra attention, and if the public schools can’t give that, those kids need to get out. (A huge part of Washington, D.C.’s education budget goes to paying private school tuition for such students who find woefully inadequate facilities in DCPS.) There are also some students who struggle in public schools for whatever reason and need a change in scenery or a new group of friends, though private schools are no guaranteed fix. (I am always amused by people who rant about the alleged depravity of public schools, as if one would not find sex, drugs, or alcohol at private schools. For that matter, it’s also interesting that both Benedikt and the Rod Dreher rebuttal seem to assume that deeply intellectual learning and less refined “educational experiences” are somehow mutually exclusive; while this may be true for some, it is certainly not true for all.)

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the highest achievers. These are the kids who are not always challenged by normal public school pedagogy, and this bit of art from the Walker Art Center pithily sums up the dangers if they aren’t given an alternative. If you can forgive my lack of modesty, allow me to attest to this; there were certainly some moments in my public school education (mostly in the earliest grades) when I was bored and/or isolated because I learned things faster than my peers. This wasn’t at all damaging in the long run; I never got any crap from my classmates for it, and young me was all too proud of myself. But I can easily see how a little bit more of that sensation, or a somewhat less accommodating group of peers, could quickly lead smart students to want out. To that end, I’m a big proponent of tracking in public schools, as it groups kids in with peers of similar ability, sparing teachers the headaches of dealing with students of wildly different aptitudes for a particular subject.

Still, if possible, I think it’s good to keep these students in the same building as those for whom things don’t come so easily. Public schools at their best really can build community in a way that exclusive schools cannot, and lead to greater understanding of those people with whom we must share the planet. For example, due to a series of scheduling conflicts, I was forced to take “regular” government as a senior in high school, instead of the high-end version. I learned very little that I didn’t already know in that class, but I did get quite the civics lesson, as I found myself serving as a de facto T.A. to some of my classmates, trying to find ways to explain Constitution to them, and present my political views in a way that wasn’t over-intellectualized. I got to work with a class of kids I wouldn’t have seen at a private school, and the things I learned about them were probably more valuable than cramming the details of a few more Supreme Court cases into my head.

This, in far less provocative language, is the a valuable point that can be rescued from the Benedikt essay: there can be real upsides to going to school with people from different backgrounds. However, one really has to be open to those upsides going in: I remember a few other peers left in the same scheduling conundrum who were just bitter about the whole experience from start to finish. Throwing a bunch of people in a room together will not make them understand each other. It takes a little more work than that, and shutting down private schools isn’t going to do that work. Looking back on those culture shock experiences later in life, perhaps laughing at them, and admitting they were educational in some respect—that’s one thing. Telling an unwilling kid that “this will be good for you!” is quite another. One-size-fits-all approaches to education don’t work. Instead, I’d simply counsel a little less panic when it comes to question of school choice, and the flexibility and wherewithal to take something away from it all when it doesn’t live up to the ideal. With a few obvious exceptions, things will probably turn out alright anyway. And for people who can’t quite accept that, or have particular needs, there are, thankfully, other options.