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Thursday, August 8, 2013

On education, money, and feeling like a total asshole

How do you talk about the differences between pricey private school and public school without sounding like a total asshole?

In 1991, very soon after the fall of the Communist governments of the former Soviet bloc, my husband and I spent nine months in Romania, he as a physician working in the infamous orphanages, I as a freelance reporter and all-around logistical support. (Bear with me. This is relevant to my original question, I promise.) The culture shock we experienced was profound. Some of the weirdness could be chalked up to developments during Romania’s Communist years; the rest was just part and parcel of the Romanian national character.

“How much money do you make?”

That question was asked of us repeatedly, from the moment we arrived. As Americans, we were taken aback. It was rude. It was shocking. It was, more than anything else, unanswerable. Ask yourself: Could YOU bring yourself to tell someone who probably makes $45 a month what you make?

But in Romania, salary information is not treated as sacrosanct. I don’t know if this developed during the Communist years, when everyone earned more or less similar amounts (at least, on the books), or whether Romanian society has always had different ideas about money and privacy. Probably some combination of both. At any rate, we quickly took to answering the question with, “Sorry, in America we don’t talk about that.” This answer seemed to confuse Romanians and probably sounded as rude to them as their question sounded to us, but it did the trick, and the topic was generally dropped.

But it’s actually a damn good question -- not just good, but IMPORTANT. As we all know from personal experience, if you don’t know what other people make, you don’t know if you’re being underpaid, how much the company values you, or whether you’d be better off in another department, an entirely different industry, or for that matter, another country. The taboo about discussing salary is the employer’s ace in the hole; something he knows that you don’t. We all know our employers benefit from this power, and yet we all play along, because we are so deeply uncomfortable talking about what we make. If we earn more than the next guy, telling seems like boasting, or at least like very bad form; if we earn less, we don't want anyone to know because it makes us feel inferior, or at least vaguely embarrassed, or possibly just pissed off and resentful.

Ever since transferring my kids from public to private school, I’ve felt the same way talking about education (other than with a couple of very close friends). How do you tell public school parents that the smaller class sizes, absence of standardized testing, broad curriculum, and excellent facilities make this school a better learning environment than the one my kids had in public school without sounding like a total asshole, or at the very least like someone who is oblivious to issues of privilege? For that matter, how do you tell private school parents that, while the overall quality of teaching in private school is high, the best teachers in public school are better than the best teachers in the private school they're shelling out tens of thousands for?

It is absolutely true that the private school my kids now attend is expensive as hell, and many (though by no means all) of the kids who attend come from families who can afford to pay. And yes, the school accepts only about 30 percent of an already highly self-selected applicant pool. So, yes, many issues faced by public schools are simply absent in this privileged private school environment. And, while my kids’ private school can boast of diversity, it’s not the same all-comers-welcome diversity of which public schools are so rightly proud.

But if we can’t open a dialogue about differences between private and public education, don’t we parents hand politicians, school boards, boards of trustees, administrators, etc. an ace in the hole similar to the one employers get because of the taboo on salary discussion? If parents can’t compare their kids’ school experiences, aren’t we more likely to just accept whatever we’re handed, without even knowing what possibilities are out there?

Despite the obvious differences, some comparisons are valid and worth making; at least, some questions are worth asking. For example, is it best to focus on AP classes, or will high-achieving students get more out of independent study and research? Does arts education contribute to a student’s critical thinking skills? What role should physical education play at different stages of development? What’s the right balance between education theory and subject expertise in teacher training? How does class size affect learning?

In the past year, I have on numerous occasions bitten my tongue in conversations about such questions for fear that my, “Well, at my kids’ school...” will come out sounding like, “Well, at Fancy Shmancy Academy, the sun shines out of every teacher’s ass and there are unicorns and rainbows in every classroom; too bad for your kids that you can’t afford it.” (To be totally honest, I have met private school parents who, I swear, do think this way. It's pretty horrifying.)

And what about the other way around? What should Fancy Shmancy Academy be learning from its public school counterparts? What messages are not being heard by the private-school crowd because of false assumptions about public schools? Like, say, messages about job security and benefits that would allow teachers to make a go of teaching as a lifelong career, so kids can benefit from master teachers who have honed their art over a lifetime? Or how to prioritize spending to create opportunities for more kids rather than prestige opportunities for the institution? How do we get that dialogue going?

The plain fact is, in America, talking about money makes us queasy because of the fundamental tension between our shared democratic ideal and the obvious financial inequality among us. The public-vs-private education tension is a part of that. But if we don’t find a way to bridge that gap, we all miss out on valuable dialogue that can, over the long haul, create more equitable and effectively better school systems for all.

And that’s the thing we really have to remember: There is nothing magic about private school. Yes, resource levels vary between private and public schools, but they also vary among different private schools -- and, for that matter, among public school districts. Per pupil spending is a key issue, but not the only issue. How do we get the most out of the resources at our disposal? Which educational philosophy benefits kids most? How should schools be organized? Who should be making the decisions? We can find the right answers if we look at what works, but we can only do that if we talk -- and listen -- to each other.

Bonus track: Here's something that should be part of the dialogue about the intersection between money and education: Taylor Mali's brilliant "What Teachers Make."

Adding a related story of interest: Recently, actor Matt Damon has been attacked by the right as a hypocrite for sending his own kids to private school. Why? Because he has very publicly supported the anti-reformy public education movement -- those who are trying to stop so-called reformers who push high-stakes standardized testing, using student test scores to evaluate teachers and schools, abandonment of poverty-mitigating measures, and, yes, the mishmash of charters, vouchers and other privatizing measures commonly known as "school choice." The right's simplistic attack says, "So Matt Damon wants choice for his own kids, but not for poor kids." In fact, what Matt Damon and so many others are saying is that he wants progressive education for all kids, including his own. The kind of education reform that pushes testing, school closings, and privatization of public institutions is actually killing progressive public education by narrowing the curriculum, defunding public schools, demoralizing teachers, and increasing segregation. As a result, those who want progressive education must turn to private school to get it, if they can afford to. That's what we've done as well.

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