In 1997, I was a student in the Boston Public Schools. Thanks to the folks over at The Steppingstone Foundation, the next year I enrolled at the Noble and Greenough School. Nobles is the sort of school that charges tuition in the range of $40,000 and supplements that with an endowment of more than $100M. For context, the year after I graduated from high school, the average expenditure per pupil for the city of Boston was $14,047. If you imagine a dilapidated inner city school and compare it with the sort of institution that boasts a campus designed by Frederick Law Olmsted and serves lunch in a castle designed by the same architect who built Boston’s Trinity Church, then you’re most of the way towards an accurate picture. The quickest way for me to give you a taste of what it was like is to tell you that at my public school just about all of us were on free or reduced lunch – Nobles, by contrast, was the sort of place that on occasion served caviar.
For the record, I did not grow up in a household that ever served fish eggs over artisan bread.
My retelling of what I think I learned from the experience could fill volumes – spoiler alert: there would be a lot of angst and a, perhaps somewhat surprising, neo-conservative period. A not-atypical narrative for kids who leave their low-income neighborhoods to benefit from a first-rate education is that they experience rejection from their old peers. I remember reading something while in high school – something a teacher gave me to put some context around what I was going through – that involved a scene in which a kid hides his books in a pizza box so his friends wouldn’t realize he was taking schoolwork home. Thankfully, that was not my story. My hometown friends rallied around me and I’m forever grateful for that. A lot of what you hear about teenage friendships in the inner city revolve around the theme of bad influence; my friends, by contrast, got me through private school with most of my sanity intact.
They also kept me grounded to the road I would have taken if it hadn’t been for some very dedicated and generous adults. I got to see firsthand how a great education and a pretty lousy education differed from each other. Nobles was bursting with smart and dedicated teachers. During my last few years as a student, and then for a short while after graduation, I had the privilege to work with some of those teachers at an academic program the school hosted during the summer. I got to see a little of what made them tick and a bit of how they did their job.
I walked away from that with some pretty clear lessons – among them that if you want teachers to succeed, then you have to give them autonomy. Educating children is a problem-solving exercise. Good teachers find the opportunity to engage with that challenge worthwhile and interesting, even if exhausting. But anyone who is told to deal with it but isn’t given the freedom to try anything creative is bound to become dispirited. Just ask a public school teacher.
I also saw that choice and accountability are powerful forces. Nobles could charge an arm and a leg for high school education because parents with the money to afford it saw a product worth buying (though also probably because what school your kid goes to is the sort of thing people talk about at the ski lodge). Those parents kept the school accountable, the trustees kept the headmaster accountable, the headmaster kept the faculty accountable, and so on. It also worked the other way: a committed faculty with deep roots in the school community over decades of work helped to keep the school’s headmaster looking in the right direction.
Nobles also didn’t have any licensing requirements for their teachers; instead, they hired people who were passionate about their subjects and supported their development as educators. (Anyone who thinks teaching isn’t a craft hasn’t sat in a room with a handful of teachers swapping tips on how to explain a concept or deal with a student.) They also didn’t seem to have any qualms about ushering bad teachers out the door. (By contrast, New York City spends $22M a year to pay teachers to do absolutely nothing while they await disciplinary hearings.)
These differences in how incentives were laid out and how education was structured were certainly part of the reason that Nobles sent a third of the students that graduated my year to Ivy League schools while Boston celebrates graduating 64% of its students as a historic accomplishment. When people support charter schools, they’re doing so because they understand a lot of the insights I’ve discussed here.
But for all that, it’s important not to lose sight of that other big contrast I’ve already mentioned: the money. And it isn’t just a matter of pretty facilities or gourmet lunches. If we forget for a second what you can buy with money and try instead to focus just on how wealthy and poor communities differ from each other, then we can see a little more of what makes private schools and public schools different.
Community based education – whether that community is a neighborhood or a group of people coming together – is basically a system for aggregating and transferring the social capital of one generation to the next. Better structured systems can do a better job at that than poorly structured systems, and that’s where some of the changes that the supporters of charter schools advocate can make a difference. But there’s a limit – simply put, it’s hard to transfer capital that isn’t there to draw on.
It’s a hard truth, but I’d be willing to bet that if Nobles turned its entire infrastructure over to the Boston Public Schools (and even if funding levels could somehow magically be maintained), that the end result of that philanthropy would more closely resemble Boston’s meager outcomes than Nobles’ gilded track record. The reason for that is simple: private schools that succeed do so by being integrated into stable, engaged communities with high social capital. Public schools that fail often do so because they’re embedded in unstable communities with low collective efficacy. You can’t change that just with money.
We have to ask ourselves what we want the proper goal of public education to be. Ideally, we would think that it would be the creation and actualization of human capital. In the absence of that, a lot of parents would be happy just to feel that the public school system doesn’t effectively doom their children to bad outcomes. That’s a lot of what animates the charter school movement: the desire to get off the sinking ship.
Unfortunately, if the problem is that the ship is sinking, then you can’t very well fix that by handing out life vests. At some point, you have to plug the holes.
Follow Pedro on Twitter @IamPedroA.
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