As both a parent and a teacher, I’m sometimes used as a sounding board for friends trying to make educational choices for their children. I’ve seen firsthand the struggles they go through as they agonize over what school district in which to buy a house or consider whether they can budget for a particular private school. The advent of publicly available state test data, while well-intentioned, has also conspired to make some parents even more neurotic about their school decisions. “Everyone says this is a good school, but then I looked at their test scores,” one friend confessed to me recently. “What am I supposed to believe?”
|Photo via learningally.org.|
First of all, some good news: where you send your kid to school is not as potentially life-shattering as it sometimes might seem. The best research indicates that home factors far outweigh how most children turn out. If you are a caring, involved parent, chances are your children will have a good opportunity to succeed in all kinds of places, provided the school is safe. I encourage parents, then, to do their best in choosing for their children, but not to lose too much sleep second-guessing themselves over whether they made the right choice.
Of course, parents still have to make that choice, whether it be traditional public schools, public charter schools, private or parochial schools, or homeschooling. Some of these options will be explored by other writers on this site; here I want to address public schools.
If there is one rule about public schools, it is this: they are all different. Just as the United States is a very diverse country, so are its schools. Some public schools are well-resourced suburban schools; others are lean rural schools. Some wax more liberal; others are conservative. Schools in California have a different flavor than those in Texas, Minnesota, or New York. I’ve been in different schools in the same small town that are very different from each other in terms of school culture and even curriculum.
That means there is not always a hard and fast rule about whether a public school is the best fit for a family over other possibilities. But in most cases I believe public schools can be a good option worth considering. Here are a handful of reasons why:
1. Most public school parents think their kids’ schools are doing a good job. A 2013 PDK/Gallup poll (see page 13 of this report) found that 71% of parents give their kids’ schools a grade of “A” or “B.” These are the highest approval marks given in the poll’s history and reflect an upward trend over time. Only 5% of parents gave their schools a grade of “D” or “F.” In short, the vast majority of public school parents feel their children are getting a good education. This is especially significant in an era of recent budget constraints.
2. Most parents choose public schools. Over 9 out of every 10 students attend a public school. That in and of itself might not be a revelation, but what might be is that even when parents report having at least some degree of school choice, two thirds of them nevertheless choose to remain at their assigned public school.
3. American public schools compare better internationally than people realize. Every once in awhile a news story breaks about international test scores, suggesting that American public schools are slipping compared to other countries. Careful analysis, however, indicates that U.S. schools perform better internationally than is often reported. And among schools where the free and reduced lunch rate is less than 10%, schools outperform every other country in the world. Not in the test data but perhaps more important, the U.S. continues to have one of the most innovative and productive workforces in the world, a workforce composed predominantly of public school students.
4. Many public schools offer both college preparatory options and vocational / technical options. Because of their size and scope, many districts offer a range of options to meet various kinds of kids. For students headed to college, most public high schools have at least one (if not more) forms of college preparatory work, whether it be Advanced Placement, International Baccalaureate, dual credit with a local college, dual enrollment, or other options. Just as importantly, public school students wishing to pursue a skilled trade usually have some options to prepare for that trade either in their school or through an affiliated local or regional technical school – especially important given the growing shortage of skilled trade workers.
5. Some public school districts offer school choice within their district. Particularly among large urban districts, the trend in recent decades has been to leverage size to diversify the offerings of schools available to children beyond just their neighborhood school. Some districts, for example, offer magnet schools for high achieving students. Some districts offer schools focused on a particular vocation or passion, such as performing arts, law, or engineering. Some districts have even experimented with semi-autonomous charter schools (distinct from autonomous charters that operate free of the local school board) that operate under the umbrella of the district.
6. Federal law requires public schools to allow access to all. Regardless of where a school is in the United States, federal law requires that schools offer certain benefits to all students. For example, public schools must provide special education services to students in need, including those with profound physical, emotional, or mental impairments. Schools must also respect certain fundamental rights of students and their families, particularly with respect to their religious freedoms. Schools must also provide certain social supports, such as free or reduced lunch, a crucial service in a country where nearly one in four students is classified as being in poverty. This does not even include other social services such as the guidance counselors, social workers, school psychologists, and nurses that staff many public schools, or the partnerships many high-poverty schools have entered into with universities, faith-based institutions, and philanthropic groups to bring help to those who need it the very most.
Editor’s Note: This piece was written as part of an ongoing conversation nationwide leading up to National School Choice Week — January 26 – February 1, 2014. All schooling options, including homeschooling, private schooling, public magnet and charter schooling and traditional public schooling, are celebrated that week through independently-planned events. To read more opinions on the topic from parents, head to Twitter and search the hashtag #schoolchoiceworks.
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Tags: college prep