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Talking About Schools

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By Tom Ferrick Jr.

We need a new vocabulary for discussing basic education in Philadelphia because there is a huge gap between how educators and parents talk and think about schools.

That gap is made clear in a report released today (Tuesday, June 29) by the Philadelphia Research Initiative, an arm of the Pew Charitable Trusts.  It takes a detailed look at the three largest education systems - public, charter and Catholic - and also includes a first-ever poll of parents about their views on education. You can read the report here.

(Full disclosure: I was principal author of the report, working under contract to Pew, but the opinions expressed herein are my own.)

How do parents and educators/public leaders differ in their views?

Let us count the ways.

Educators and civic leaders tend to see "systems" of education - public, charter, Catholic, private, etc. -- each with its own distinct characteristics and challenges. Parents do not see systems; they see schools.  They could care less what system the school is part of; they only care if it is good or bad.

Educators and parents also differ on what makes a school good or bad.

The professionals believe that if the quality of education provided in the school is good, discipline and safety will follow.  After all, they argue, schools that make learning a rich and productive experience are never disorderly places. Conversely, parents believe that safety and discipline are prerequisites for education. They must come first so the learning can happen.

Educators tend to see schools as learning communities, where professional teachers interact with students in ways that yield a productive educational experience. Parents want learning to go on, but they also want schools to be caring communities, where their children are valued and treated with empathy and respect.

Modern educators do not believe schools should teach morals and values, but parents do. They want schools in word and in deed to inculcate such values as hard work, respect for others, teamwork and self-discipline. They also want their children to be taught right from wrong, if not in a religious frame then in a moral one.

Finally, contrary to popular belief, it is not only middle- and upper-class parents who aspire for a better life for their children and see a good education as the path to that goal. Poor and working class parents share the same goal.  In Philadelphia, the aspiring class of parents cuts across racial, class and ethnic lines.

If they have the money, parents will send their children to private schools to get the education they want for their children.  If they do not have money, parents will engage in a variety of stratagems - send them to Catholic schools, even though they are not Catholic; line up outside the newest charter schools (charters now enroll 33,000 children and have 25,000 on their waiting list); finagle admission to one of the district's special admission schools or register under a false address so their child can go to a good public school outside their neighborhood.

It is not easy navigating this new world of education. There are more choices, but it takes work to figure out the best choice - and how to get in. In this new world, the local public school often becomes the default option - the one you take when the others don't work out. Not that parents are happy about that, In the Pew poll, 62 percent of public school parents said they had looked for alternatives to sending their children to the closest public school.

What happens when schools deliver the goods parents want? They embrace them. Among charter and Catholic parents, approval ratings for their schools were in the 90-plus percent ranges.

These high approval ratings often baffle public educators.  They point to the fact that the quality of education in charter schools isn't much better and sometimes is worse than in the public schools.

They are right about that. On the standardized tests used to measure student achievement, charters in Philadelphia outperform public schools, but only slightly.

In the case of charters, it seems that the safety, caring and values they offer trump the three R's in the mind of parents.

Finally, for the last 40 years, most of the discussion about education in Philadelphia has been about the public schools. Specifically, how to get them to work so they offer a decent education to children. That modest goal has proved elusive, despite the billions spent and energy expended.

The mayors and superintendents who work toward that goal believe they are doing God's work.  They are trying to give parents what they want and what they believe they deserve.

Mayor Nutter and Superintendent Arlene Ackerman are continuing that fight - and it is a noble cause.

But, the reality is that many parents have moved on. They simply want a good school for their child. If the public schools can deliver the goods, fine.  If not, they don't want to join the crusade to save public education. They want more choices.

 

Tom Ferrick Jr. is senior editor of Metropolis.

 

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