Friday, March 04, 2005

READER RESPONSE -- Some children left behind?

Posted by Craig Westover | 11:02 PM |  

I received this email from a reader regarding Laura Billing’s use of the fact that public schools take all comers as rationale for not comparing private and public schools. Self-admittedly harsh, the reader’s suggestion, with some tweaking, may not be as untouchable as it seems at first read.
Today's post re: LB's column hits one nail squarely on the head - government schools take all comers. But that's not the problem. The problem is that they throw all comers into the same classroom.

We used to have slow class for those who couldn't keep up, and detention/suspension/expulsion for those who wouldn't sit still.

The bluebirds could read faster than the robins and THAT WAS OKAY.

Nowadays, we lump every 8-year-old kid in the same class - whether autistic, moronic, brilliant, or average. Obviously, the slowest can't keep up and the smartest are bored to tears. And nobody can figure out why the schools are failing to educate? They are, but only to the lowest common denominator, which is unacceptably low.

The solution is obvious: let private schools skim the cream off the top and educate those kids to their maximum potential, and at little cost. Force government schools to handle the dregs - the handicapped, the discipline problems, the kids nobody cares about - and educate them as best we can.

Either we leave a few kids behind, or we force every kid to stay behind.

Okay, so it's harsh. I didn't create the children the way they are. I'm just pointing out the obvious.
Let’s take a closer look at what the reader is saying.

His premise is unassailable -- kids are born with different abilities, come from different backgrounds and respond differently in school. His conclusion, which I’ll grant gets muddied by some pretty charged language, is that we shouldn’t force a pseudo-equality by lumping kids of all different abilities together. I’ll go with that too, but with a clarification.

Life is a bell-shaped curve, and at either end of the curve lie kids who are very slow or very bright; relative to the whole, they are few in number. The majority of kids group around some average measure.

That leads to where I disagree with the writer. I don’t like the term “dregs,” but if you read between the lines of comments like Billings, that’s what the education establishment thinks of the low-end of the curve. It is always the “problem” kids that are standing in the way of a smooth-running education system. Public school apologists always seem a little envious of what they portray as private school exclusivity, which Billings does.

But in point of fact, private schools like First Trinity Lutheran cater to the kids public schools begrudgingly take but fail to educate. In a real free-market education system, where funds follow the child, you’d see even more of First Trinity-like focus on the margins of the bell-shaped curve.

As the reader points out, the upper and lower ends of the curve are underserved by the public schools. And it’s underserved populations that are first targeted by new entrants into a market. Vouchers for low-income families essentially create competition among private schools to better meet the needs of that demographic.

A more likely “leave behind” theory is that as non-public school options proliferate, traditional public schools will lose students at the underserved margins of the curve and thus be better able to focus on a more homogenous grouping of "average" students, which is the demographic public education is designed to serve.

Again, that should only make public schools better. If it’s not about power, then I just don’t understand why that is bad.