I was reminded of this provocative argument when I read Allison Benedikt’s polemic in Slate, asserting the moral bankruptcy of parents who send their kids to private schools. Though the two arguments differ slightly (Benedikt doesn’t think the positive effect would come as quickly as Kamras did), the fundamental issue is the same: The problem with schools is that parents do not put enough pressure on teachers, administrators, and policymakers to make the necessary changes to fix public education; and the lack of pressure is attributable, in large part, to the fact that the parents with the most political capital either send their kids to private school or to high-performing public schools that are de facto segregated by income level because of property values.
Although Benedikt concedes that change might take a long time, the power she seems to see in parent pressure would work over the short term. She explains:
In many underresourced schools, it’s the aggressive PTAs that raise the money for enrichment programs and willful parents who get in the administration’s face when a teacher is falling down on the job.
The assumption which underlies this -- and a lot of thinking about education reform initiatives -- is that the current system could function perfectly well if the people in it were just pushed to do certain things. This is a mistake people sometimes make when they think about merit pay; people believe that merit pay is meant to motivate teachers to teach better. But as Matt Yglesias has pointed out, merit pay is really about attracting and retaining the best teachers. The mistaken idea is that some huge amount of capacity is going squandered because the wrong set of incentives animate the system. But what if the problem is more fundamental than that?
Certain characteristics of our teacher recruitment, training, and retention systems raise the question of whether we are supplying the system with what it needs to do the job in the first place. In countries that top international academic rankings, like Singapore and Japan, teacher candidates come from the top third of their class, while teachers in the United States are in the bottom 60 percent, says Jal Mehta, assistant professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. “Training in these countries is more rigorous, more tied to classroom practice, and more often financed by the government than in America,” he says. These systemic failures suggest that perhaps the shortcomings of the system are not merely a question of parents failing to put pressure on the system to do better. (This is, by the way, also a limitation relevant to overstated arguments about the potential benefits of school choice.)
It is always tempting to believe that a few small, generative tweaks to the current system might render it suddenly fully functional. It is also frustrating to see how routinely the families that would most benefit from improved schools are often those with the least political capital. But unfortunately the problems plaguing the education system run deeper than just the inexcusable lack of political concern given to under-resourced communities. If we want to fix our system, it’s not just a question of enough people pushing schools to be better on a daily basis; it’s about putting in place the structures that will give the schools the capacity to achieve and sustain that higher ideal.
CJ Libassi, a former teacher, is a public policy graduate student at the University of Michigan. He can be reached at clibassi(at)hotmail(dot)com or on Twitter (at)clibassi.