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Don’t sacrifice your kids on the altar of equity
Parents shouldn’t try to save failing public schools.
New York resident (and creator of the The New York Times’ 1619 Project) Nikole Hannah-Jones faced a dilemma in choosing a school for her children.
In an article titled "Choosing a School for My Daughter in a Segregated City," she agonized over whether to send her child to a "better" private school, or to a mediocre public school, which more accurately reflected the demographics of her city.
Ultimately (spoiler), she decided the “right” thing was to send her kid to the public school and, in her mind at least, take a stand against systemic racism and oppression. In the process, she was ritualistically sacrificing the potential of her daughter for the hypothetically higher good of “equity.”
We don't want to belittle this perspective. To the extent that it's a genuine moral struggle in her heart, there is nobility in wanting to try to do something for struggling parents and kids who don't have as many options as a post-graduate writer for the New York Times. But we do want to drill down on why we think that compassion is misdirected and how we can more productively use our parental energies.
It's pretty much a cliché that when you have kids, new levels of compassion blossom within you. You suddenly can't watch violent TV without thinking, "That's someone's child!"
That compassion has to have somewhere to go. We can’t ignore it while we shout about numbers and facts.
But we can try to direct it toward more productive ends.
A better story
There are two sides to the debate around choosing schools — the compassion-driven and the rationality-driven.
The compassion-driven want to make sure no child is being forgotten or deprived. The rationality-driven know the outcomes of the system aren’t changing, and the best hope is gettng out.
But what if it’s not either-or? What if making a choice to educate your child to the best of your means is the best thing you could do for the children who have access to less?
This is a bold claim. Let us explain what we mean.
First of all, we need to know if kids with access to school choice perform better, on average, than kids without that option.
Let’s look at a real-world comparison: Kids who enter and win a lottery for a voucher (basically, a tuition check to any school of their choice) have better outcomes than kids who enter the lottery and don't get one. The random lottery eliminates selection bias: the voucher itself mattered, not just the kind of people who sign up for it. Some of the kids still chose to go to a public school or charter school (of their choice), but this still gives us the insight that having a choice is positive for kids’ outcomes.
In other studies, outcomes for kids attending the school of their choice are equivalent or slightly better to public school outcomes – while the cost to taxpayers is significantly lower.
In fact, the outcomes for public schools are so poor it might be the case that if everyone were given a voucher for the school of their choice, no one would choose to go to their assigned public school (except maybe the ones in the richest zip codes). They might also go to private schools, micro schools, online, or homeschool.
You could imagine that becoming a vicious cycle, where the poorest public schools would fall further and further behind, trapping the most vulnerable kids who genuinely have no way out. Or even more dramatically, public schools would cease to exist altogether.
And for some of us, the idea of "getting rid of mandatory public schools" evokes the idea of raising kids without universal standards and oversight. What if there are swaths of kids who believe the earth to be flat? What if “self-taught” engineers are building our bridges?
These are genuinely tricky questions.
Let’s address them head-on.
The problem with trying to make everyone have the ‘right’ ideas
So… what about flat earthers?
To level with you, we just don't believe that free exploration of ideas is dangerous in the long term. People believing in a flat earth is the price you pay for people discovering things like general relativity.
But let’s unpack that.
Of course, people believe all kinds of strange and superstitious things, but the best “authority” to root out these beliefs is reality – not a government standard.
It’s important to keep in mind that all the greatest thinkers and inventors in history had beliefs that went against the ruling authority of their time. And lots of people who discover new truths about the universe continued to hang on to some provably false beliefs (Issac Newton was a big fan of alchemy, for example). To believe that we, in the present, have a perfect lock on what is true and what is not would be shortsighted.
Contrast this with the school system's track record of countering such beliefs: less than half of high school grads believe evolution is real, for example. The other half believe in creationism. So, no, government standard has yet rooted out superstition. But this is not actually the biggest problem with public school education, like the media wants you to think.
Fundamentally, we believe that people having the freedom to explore ideas they think are correct, and question those they don’t, is the best possible way to move closer to the truth. “Truth” is like the horizon – always in the distance. Science gets us closer, but science is a process and a mindset, not a set of beliefs.
Kids should have the freedom to explore ideas without administrators baking their beliefs into the curricula. By design, their structure squashes dissent and prevents new ideas from emerging. We should tattoo on our foreheads: new ideas always seem strange at first (Einstein claimed that gravity could bend something called spacetime, which was laughable…until they checked his math).
This is exactly why scientific progress is slowing down so dramatically in recent years – we are far too obsessed with having the “right” ideas and cramming those “right” ideas into our kid’s heads. There isn’t time to think of anything new.
Whether we agree with the parent's ideological leanings or not, all kids should be free to learn in a way that suits their curiosity. Their interest is what should guide them, not an administrator’s checklist. They should be free to try things that may seem silly to a bureaucrat. If not, colleges will continue to decline in their scientific output (and they are).
What we’re suggesting is not politically dangerous or “anti-expert.” The exact opposite, actually. It’s how humanity makes progress – question the hegemony, even when the hegemony actively tries to stop you.
When kids have the option to go to the schools they like to learn in (again, as good a rule of thumb as anything else), the outcomes are at least as good, sometimes better, and the cost is much lower. The data are undeniable. That’s good enough to make a change and to let more families make a change for the empirically provable.
But it gets even better for those of us on the more compassionate side.
Powerful outcomes from expanding educational alternatives (noticeably higher rates of life satisfaction and student achievement, for example) make it painfully clear that whatever the public schools are doing is costly and ineffective. When parents have a choice, that forces schools to change.
Results, not political rhetoric, will create organic demand for change.
Pulling US education out of a nose dive
So, is it selfish to send your kid to a better school and keep them out of the “bad” public school?
Well, it's not just yourself you’re serving; it's your child. And each child’s positive outcomes ripple outward to every person they come in contact with for their entire lives. This effect alone is more powerful than sending them to public schools to make a fashionable political statement.
That's not to say it's bad to have compassion for those with fewer choices. But sacrificing your child to the god of equity by sending them to public school just isn't the move. Not only does it not help the “underprivileged” kids it sets out to help, but it also encourages the downward spiral of the US education system – dooming everyone to ignorance for the sake of seeming compassionate.
The quicker we send the message to public schools that “this isn’t working,” the sooner they will be forced to change.
Someone needs to pull us out of a nose dive (low standards have been getting lower for everyone in recent decades). And upward momentum doesn't come from throwing more money at what's already in a downward spiral. It comes from expanding on what has some momentum.
Your money is better spent at “alternative” schools that are actually proven to have great outcomes. As a parent, put your kid into the best school you can afford — not the most expensive one, but the best fit for your child’s learning. As a voter, support policies that put more education money in the hands of parents, with no strings attached.
By expanding access to funds that are being wasted in the public school system (mostly in paying overpaid administrators, not teachers and counselors, by the way), we can make "alternative" education the new norm, and improve outcomes for millions of kids.
We're well overdue for that shift. The standardized education system we are all so used to is not a social inevitability – it was a blip in the 20th century that sought to turn our kids into soldiers and factory workers.
It's time to create a groundswell of options that will make military-industrial classrooms seem like a relic of a more ignorant past – like doctors prescribing leeches and doses of mercury.
No one cares if your kid thrives and builds a better world more than you do. As long as distant strangers direct the money and options, the system will condemn your kids to mediocrity by default.
Give your child the best possible education you can afford, given your circumstances. By doing so you indirectly help those who remain trapped in the public school system – by helping raise all standards.
If that happens, we can once again make a well-educated mind the norm in the US.
Thank for reading,
Taylor + rebelEducator team
This week, we want to highlight a conference we’re cohosting called The Liberation of Education.
It starts May 19th and goes through the 21st.
Sign up now to reserve your spot.