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Meet the Suburban Parents

The other obstacle to public school reform.

By From the June 2011 issue

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Teachers unions are widely regarded as the most serious obstacle to the reform of public education, but history suggests a second critical, though less obvious, impediment. It was the muckraker Upton Sinclair who in 1919 conceded -- and, as a socialist, with no great pleasure -- that the success of any reform movement in the United States depends on the active support of the upper-middle class.

What Sinclair had learned from his own crusade to reform the meatpacking industry was that most social injustices are supported by powerful economic interests. And it is only the upper-middle class that has both economic independence and political clout to agitate for improvement, often shaping needed change to satisfy its own concerns.

A more recent illustration of Sinclair's thesis was the early environmental movement in the 1960s, which drew membership disproportionately from professionals and college graduates. While the movement is rightly credited with saving the Hudson and Ohio Rivers and reviving the health of the Great Lakes, it also did much to enhance property values in affluent suburbs, university towns, and vacation communities inhabited by its supporters.

Unfortunately for the health of America's public schools, the upper-middle class suburban parents who could do the most to advance education reform nationally by modeling it in their own communities have for decades been mute on the issue.

Suburban parents have always been ready to mob a school board meeting to agitate for improved athletic facilities, but never for teacher evaluations or merit pay. The PTA will mobilize families and schools to support the most controversial social movements, from gay rights and gun control to affirmative action and costly accommodations for the disabled, but not a peep about the pressing need to save urban children from failing schools.

In places like Marin County north of San Francisco, Fairfax County in Virginia, the affluent suburbs north of Chicago, and Fairfield County, Connecticut, even very modest reforms that could save taxpayers money while improving the quality of education-giving credit for courses taken at community college or online, for example-are either ignored or downplayed.

If pressed, the parent groups that dominate suburban politics will explain their contentment by claiming that the structure of public education is basically sound. They argue that only two ingredients, adequate tax revenue and parental oversight of the school administration, are needed to make the system work, and affluent suburbs are committed to providing both.

In reality, neither generous budgets or the parental dominance of boards of education contribute much to the academic quality of suburban schools. In March of 2005, the Yankee Institute for Public Policy looked at every school district in Connecticut, comparing per-pupil costs to student scores on state-administered mastery tests. It found that many affluent communities "spend much more than middle-class towns for the same educational outcomes."

For most of the last 40 years, state courts have experimented with improving failing schools by ordering legislatures to fund poorer districts at affluent suburban levels, but to no avail. As the Supreme Court recently observed in reversing an Arizona school funding case (Horne v. Flores), the "weight of the research" disproves a causal relationship between spending and learning.

And as for the supposed academic benefit of parental oversight, the economic structure of suburban education -- which gives families the ability to force neighbors without children in public school to share the tax tab -- actually encourages board members to budget irresponsibly.

In states where suburban schools are funded primarily by property levies, for example, a family paying $10,000 in real estate taxes and sending three children to public schools with an average per pupil cost of $9,000 nets a yearly windfall from the community of $17,000 in educational services, a subsidy that is largely treated as what it is -- other people's money.

"The irony is that the huge real estate taxes...actually provide money that is counter-productive within the school system," observes Margaret McIntyre, a former board of education member in the Illinois suburb of Wilmette. Parents are incented to grant educators excessive compensation and lax work rules-by far the largest cost drivers of local budgets -- in return for a wide range of benefits with little relationship to the curriculum.

These include low-cost forms of day care, both before and after school, expensive and eclectic sports programs, holiday "socials," low-cost summer camps run out of public school buildings, and a variety of school-day distractions for students, such as pottery and ballet lessons, cafeteria pasta bars, and media centers with state-of-the-art video equipment.

High schools in commuter enclaves outside of New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Seattle, and other large cities have as many electives as some small colleges, offering credit for courses in jewelry making, computer animation, and the history of television.

On the other hand, when it comes to teaching the basics of reading, writing, and math, affluent suburban public schools are remarkably dysfunctional. For the small minority of highly motivated students, the system works well enough, but, according to Davis Guggenheim, the filmmaker behind the widely praised Waiting for "Superman" documentary, up to 75 percent of graduates need to take at least one remedial course in college.

In 2007, the Pacific Research Institute studied some of California's wealthiest districts, including Newport Beach and Capistrano, and found more than a dozen schools where 50 percent to 80 percent of students were not proficient in math at grade level. In one Silicon Valley town, where the median home price was above $1.5 million, less than half the high school sophomores and juniors scored at or above proficiency on the state's English exam.

"[I]f we were being brutally honest," says Chester Finn, assistant secretary of education in the Reagan administration and now president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, "we would be saying to suburban America that your kids actually aren't learning very much either."

One telling indicator of the low quality of suburban schools is the rise of tutoring. In 2008, PBS's Nightly Business Report estimated professional tutoring to be a $4 billion industry that year, concentrated in the suburbs, with a 10 percent estimated annual growth rate.

Even this figure does not take into account either the common off-the-books arrangements with moonlighting teachers or burgeoning Internet options. With small online providers like Colorado-based e-Tutor seeing revenue jump from $180,000 in 2009 to a quarter million in 2010 despite the recession, the Kaplan online university division of the Washington Post has launched its own reading and math programs for elementary and middle school students.

How is it that intelligent and motivated parents, many sacrificing financially to afford homes in the most expensive suburbs, end up as uncritical supporters of a public school system that does a better job of filling students' leisure fantasies than providing a rigorous education?

IN THEIR HEARTS, says University of Missouri political science professor J. Martin Rochester, many suburban parents know something is wrong. When he interviewed 250 executives of leading corporations for his book on suburban education (Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents, Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence), most believed their local schools suffered from programs that are "diluted, distracted, and diffused from the basic mission of education."

The problem, he concluded, is that over decades suburban schools have developed effective techniques for promoting ideas that support the convenience of teachers and administrators, while excluding information and research that would require a change in policies, practices, and personnel.

It starts at the top with boards of education composed largely of busy volunteers, who over-rely on the guidance of superintendents, and goes all the way down to the interactions between teachers and individual parents. When suburbanites join school curriculum committees, for example, they are rarely presented with all sides of an issue and seldom informed of all the relevant research. Critical parents, Professor Rochester found, "end up being demonized as right-wingers or troublemakers."

Other writers who have studied the academic deficiencies of suburban schools reach a similar conclusion. When EducationNews.org columnist Barry Garelick examined the inability of three Maryland districts to successfully incorporate a superior math curriculum from Singapore, he found that teachers skillfully used vague technical jargon and inflexible rules to discredit aspects of the program that required them to learn new skills.

As suggested by the title of his book Oversold and Underused: Computers in the Classroom, Stanford professor emeritus Larry Cuban finds suburban educators eager to spend public money on the latest technology to create a "leading edge" aura, yet rarely willing to take advantage of its academic potential. "Curricula, teaching methods, and schedules [could] all be customized to meet the learning styles and life situations of individual students," says Cuban, and "coursework from the most remedial to the most advanced can be made available to everyone...(but educators take) action to prevent technology from transforming American education."

Dr. Armand Fusco, a retired Branford, Connecticut school superintendent who has written and lectured widely on the deficiencies of suburban districts, sees similar problems: "It's one thing for parents to intuit a problem, quite another to do anything about it when educators with advanced degrees flash their credentials and have glib answers for every question."

Superintendents, for example, will always brag that their local public school students perform just as well on state mastery tests as students in neighboring affluent suburbs. What they neglect to mention is that any mediocre suburban school will appear successful, just so long as it is surrounded by other mediocre suburban schools and their average test scores are higher than those of nearby urban districts.

Dr. Fusco believes that the federal No Child Left Behind law had it right when it sought to measure the performance of individual schools, but it was aimed at demographic groups least able to do anything about the results. "What's needed is data that makes it clear to suburbanites just how badly served their own children really are."

INDEED, FOR EVERYTHING that has been written about the power of teacher unions to maintain the status quo in failing urban districts, their greatest political achievement has been to censor, distort, prevent, or discredit any information that might motivate suburban parents to agitate for local improvement.

Teachers and administrators have been especially ingenious in their subtle control of state education service centers, which exist in theory to help local schools incorporate the latest and best practices. In fact, centers are carefully monitored by their respective state teacher union, which uses campaign contributions to influence the legislators who regulate them.

As a result, no state education service center would dare poll a district's recent graduates to determine how well they were prepared for college, advise high schools to replace some courses with superior Internet offerings, advance a curriculum that challenges mediocre teachers, recommend academic credit for outside courses, or offer to train a community's board of education in how to audit local schools for performance.

Where this leaves many parents with poorly served children is to feel unworthy of complaint. When New York Times reporter Kate Stone Lombardi wrote an article back in 2004 on the rise of tutoring in Westchester County north of Manhattan, she found parents extremely reluctant to admit to hiring tutors, either for fear of offending teachers or admitting that their child needed help. "[Those] who were willing to speak for this article," Lombardi wrote, "would do so only on the condition that their names not be used."

Parents of children with serious learning disabilities, who are rewarded with a taxpayer-subsidized outplacement if they pretend to take seriously the school's evaluation process, are even less likely to voice criticism, especially if they have other children in the system.

With the midterms over and states facing record deficits, newly elected and returning governors are now coping with exploding public education costs through a combination of budget cuts and tax increases. While this process will undoubtedly be painful, preliminary evidence suggests that significant reductions in district funding will prompt suburbanites to at least consider promising reforms.

Coping with the projected need to cut $90 million from the budget over the next three years, the school board in affluent Douglas County outside of Denver has begun to debate the public funding of private school vouchers, giving academic credit for outside tutoring, and even paying parents to home school.

Beyond cost control, the most constructive action governors could take would be to restructure their state's education service centers, requiring them by statute to issue performance audit guidelines to local boards of education, survey school graduates to determine weaknesses in district curricula, create a database of online courses suitable for credit, and offer inexpensive remedial and advanced placement classes during summer vacations via the Internet.

Ideally centers would be insulated from political pressure with the status of an independent agency, with leadership determined by the governor in consultation with the state's association of certified auditors, and with a guarantee of multi-year funding.

Suburban parents are unlikely to ever give up their luxuriously appointed classrooms and handsome athletic fields, but, as Upton Sinclair discovered almost a century ago, they will be the first to remedy a clear demonstration of local dysfunction, especially when coupled with options for improvement. If any force has the potential to reform the traditional public school, it is the righteous indignation of a rudely awakened upper-middle class.

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About the Author

Lewis M. Andrews is the senior policy analyst at the Yankee Institute in Hartford, Connecticut.