Who should public schools serve?

Mary Battaglia’s post on a Curious Social Development began to raise some fundamental questions about who the public schools should serve, and a healthy discussion on this blog might help clarify differing views on some of the current trends being implemented in the MMSD.
To set the discussion, let me offer that schools serve roughly three populations: the neediest, the average, and the brightest — not too startling a breakdown.
Which group should the schools target?
If schools target one, should the schools just let the other two groups fend for themselves? For example, should schools place their priorities on raising the academic accomplisments of the lowest performing students, on the assumption that the average will get by and the brightest will succeed regardless of what schools do? Or maybe schools should triage the groups? Let the neediest drop by the wayside, target the average, and just expect the brightest to do well.
How then do we determine whether the schools succeed? Do we measure success by the number of National Merit Scholars or by the increase in the performance of the neediest?
I think schools should and can successfully serve all three groups by using curriculum and programs to challenge all students academically.
I hope that many will candidly post their opinions.
ps. To the grammarians, I know that the title should be “Whom should public schools serve?” But “whom” sounds so stilted.

4 thoughts on “Who should public schools serve?”

  1. At the risk of repeating myself and/or being labeled a “blog hog,” I’m going to reprint here the questions I recently included in a comment to Mary B’s post on “curious social development.” The questions — and the conversation that will hopefully unfold — really belong here, after all, under Ed B’s query about “who should public schools serve?” –LAF

    … Which brings me to Ed B’s recent post on “who should public schools serve” and what should public schools’ priorities be? I, too, would welcome an honest and thoroughgoing conversation about this issue. I believe that a truly courageous conversation — one devoid of “happy talk” — would do us a world of good. In fact, I can’t help but wonder: if we could only be honest — with ourselves, with each other, as a district — about our answers to these important questions, might we enable ourselves to do a better job by our children?
    So here are a few questions for people to chew on.
    — Do public schools have the same responsibility — legal, moral, ethical — to meet the educational/academic needs of each of this woman’s children? Yes or no? Put another way, does each of her children have the right to expect from the public system the best education FOR THEM?
    — Put more broadly, do public schools have the same responsibility to meet the educational needs of all kinds of children (for example, children with special education needs, other struggling students, average students, academically gifted students, poor students, middle class students, wealthy students, black students, white students, ELL students, and so forth)? Or do public schools have a greater responsibility to serve and meet the needs of one or more of those groups of children? (If so, which ones?)
    — Very pointedly, do public schools have a greater responsibility to serve our neediest children (whether defined as the poorest, the poorest performing, or the most at-risk)? Yes or no?
    — Do children from advantaged backgrounds have a right to expect from the public schools anything of TRUE educational/academic value for them? Or not? How does that change — or not — as resources become more limited?
    — Do public schools have the same or different levels of responsibility to meet the intellectual/academic versus athletic versus social versus artistic versus other needs of our children?
    — Are there limits on what the public schools should be expected to provide by way of repairing the damage done to innocent victims (i.e., children) by the variety of destructive societal forces? Yes or no?
    — If there are limits, what might they be?
    — If there are limits, can we attach dollar amounts (as in percentage of total expenditures) to them?
    — What about meeting the needs of middle and upper middle class children with special education needs? Morally and ethically speaking, should the families of those children be expected to assume more responsibility for meeting their children’s special needs (in the same way that middle and upper middle class families who do not have children with special education needs are expected to fill in the gaps for their children)? What if their doing so meant, for example, that the intellectual needs of poor gifted children could be met?
    Clearly these are tough questions, made that much more so by current tough financial times. But they are also important questions. I believe they deserve our respect and our deep, thorough thought. Not superficial platitudes and “feel good” rhetoric; but genuine, down-and-dirty moral struggle.
    And clear, honest answers. I, for one, would far prefer being told “because of NCLB, because of IDEA, etc., and because education money is so tight right now, we believe our District’s highest priorities should be educating our poor children and our children with special education needs. Consequently, we will be making policy and curriculum decisions mainly with those students in mind. We are truly very sorry about this; but our hands are tied by a variety of laws and mandates, as well as the ongoing threat of litigation.” I would far prefer being told that than to have to put up with the pretense that people care equally about all kinds of students and intend to work equally hard towards meeting all students’ needs in empirically sound ways … only to have them behave in ways that are grossly inconsistent with that claim.
    I look forward to people’s responses.

  2. Very interesting questions. I have pondered these type of questions for many years. Years ago, I felt the public school will education everyone, every child deserves the right to learn. But after frustration over the years of my own child’s needs being ignored, we decided to go private. We are classified as middle class, not upper middle class by any means. In order to go private we changed our priorities, no vacations, not purchasing things unless we needed them etc. For us, we discovered many different things.
    We found out that there are teachers afraid to work with kids many years advanced for their age. We realized that other teachers where afraid of working with kids above grade level because “what will they do next year”. If a teacher did go the “next level” with our children, we found that the following year the kids would repeat what they already learned. We found out that teachers are extroverts, and don’t understand introverts or what their needs are.
    We found out, larger schools don’t mean better, in fact, smaller schools is where teachers know all the students better. Our children, where overwelmed by the size of Leopold, but we didn’t realized it until we changed and saw what was on the other side of the fence. We found out that sometimes, smaller schools meet the needs better than smaller schools for those needing advanced material.
    We were lucky to have some sound advice (and others have received it also I know) that they may want to “shop” around for other schools. They admitted that the way the current schools were set up that “all” students needs would not be met, and that they were required to met the needs of the special needs and the low academic level student.
    I struggle at the needs of those who are considered “poor” – whether financially or academically. I stuggle when I know we worked with our children at a young age to read, when classmates don’t even take advantage of a local library or bookmobile. I stuggle with the thoughts of kindergarteners not knowing how to hold a pencil, the sounds of letters, or even know what letter their first name is. I stuggle knowing that it doesn’t take money but adult commitment to have children ready for school. I stuggle at the fact that parents don’t teach the children time commitments (getting to school on time), value working on homework with their children. On the other hand, sometimes it just takes one special adult to teach a child from whatever income/academic level they are at, that they do matter and that education is so important for them.
    I grew up with one parent illiterate and the other through an illness became a child. Working with disabled people most of my life, I understand the frustrations that these families deal with day in and day out – not to even talk about the financial drain that it can cause.
    Personally, yes, I would love to have my children educated in the public school system, but the way the schools are set up, they do not have the resources. I wonder if Madison should follow Milwaukee’s program where schools specialize. I also remember the movie Stand and Deliver, where one teacher made the difference for so many children when needed it. There are teachers like this in Madison, I am just afraid that they are not at the right place at the right moment when kids need that. For child A, it may be 1st grade, but for child be it may be 10th grade. We never know when the influence of an adult, or what adult will influence a child.
    The other idea I have had is that grades are not based on “age” but on academic levels. Maybe there would be classes with 12 and 17 year olds in the same class. Maybe a 7th grade with 12 year olds. The concern with a program is is the younger child ready for the more mature information that is taught in the class or the conversations that are being said by the older children.
    For us, reorganizing our financial needs/wants with our children’s education was very important. We were allowed to observe other schools, see how they would handle different needs that our family had, and be able to leave if things didn’t work out was the best thing that happened to us. Being forced into what schools our children is not an answer. Some kids do well in big schools, others need the small school atmosphere. I don’t care what anyone says, every school has it’s own atmosphere and every atmosphere isn’t good for every child. Some kids need a more structured atmosphere, where others need a more flexible one. Some children need a quite atmosphere, where others work well in “chaos”. Some kids learn better kinisthetically others are text based, while others are auditory. I know a good differentiating teacher does uses a variety of teaching styles, but not all teachers are good, and when as kids get older, they may need to rely on one way more than another way to learn. Usually kids are placed in classrooms based on numbers, not because of their “needs” are.
    Special needs are a very touchy subject. Are you going to tell those parents who had a child at 20 weeks that their child is not going to be educated? What about the parents of a 7 year old who gets hit by the car and ends up with brain damage. What about that 14 year old straight A student who suddenly finds out he has muscular dystrophy and is missing school a lot. Should he not receive OT/PT through the school? This is a can of worms that I will not even touch as a parent. I will say my kids did learn a lot about life while in the public school system with classmates who where homeless or that the child who had ticks or autism may have similar interests. In fact my kids go on outings with a down syndrome child and have fun with this child. They also learned that some students have families who don’t give any care about the child’s needs, they may go to school for 2-3 days in a row in the same clothes. There are also the families from all social economic levels who feel that anything dealing with school should be done at school. Homework is unimportant, their social lifes rate much higher. These may have even been some of the children who came into kindergarten not knowing how to hold a pencil, color, or even what colors where what.
    I am upset that public high schools spend so much money on athletics. On the other hand, that may be just the thing for a child who has given up on education to turn him/her around. But if this really affects only a few children, is it worth the expense. Truly I feel that everyone assumes that if affects many children, and has anyone ever done a study in Madison to see if this is the case here? Just because it is the case in Detroit, or Albany, NY, doesn’t mean it is that important here.
    Schools always state they are looking at “well rounding” the child. I wonder if this is really important for all kids. In my own family’s experience, when academic needs are paid attention to, the child will blossom in other areas. On the other side, I know where another child’s self esteem is based on social skills, and the academic needs are what makes him stuggle.
    I know of a poor young african american who was very bright and in the same grade as one of my kids. This child had one teacher that my child had, and then all of a sudden my child was still given the “teacher everyone wanted” (besides us) and the other child was placed in classrooms where no one wanted that teacher because they were known as not a strong teacher. I don’t know what ever happened to this child, but she had so much promise, and yet was not given the teachers that would have “enriched” her.
    Do I think that schools could meet the needs of all children, yes. But not in a situation where one teacher children in so many different levels. I can also understand that if a child is struggling or has a learning disability, it isn’t fair for them to be in the so called “dumb” course because they will keep this label the rest of their life. What about the elementary child who may be dyslexic yet strong in math, or the child whom is advanced in reading in 1st grade, but is grade level in 4th. When a child is labeled “gifted” in 1st grade, and is pretty average in 5th grade. I don’t really have answers on how to meet the needs of everyone which is why we became “white flight”.
    Sorry I have no real answers, maybe even more questions. I will admit though, because the district was unwilling to meet the needs of my children, I am much less willing to agree to additional taxes so the district can waste more money.

  3. I like many people when looking to see if a school district will work did look at the number of National Merit Semi Finalists to decide if a school would “work” for my kid. Unfortunately, many years later, I found out that most kids do go to private school at least part of their K-8 schooling and that MMSD really doesn’t meet the academically talented. I have also learned that National Merit Semi Finalist doesn’t mean “gifted” either. One can study for the PSAT (the test which declares this award), and that over achievers can and will receive this award also. I don’t say this because they are not deserving of this award, but that it isn’t a good source on figuring out if the district meets the needs of gifted children. Often parents don’t realize this when they are planning a family and where to live.
    From our family’s experience, there is no test for “giftedness” but there are tests to test for learning disabilities and other special ed assessments. Our family has learned that there are “special needs” for both groups, and don’t both groups deserve those to have a school meet those needs?

  4. These are all difficult questions, questions that we as a district need to struggle with as we decide how to make the best use of limited dollars. I really hope that others join in with their thoughts on these issues because there are not easy answers out there.
    For me the only question in this list that has any easy straightforward answer is the question: Do public schools have the same or different levels of responsibility to meet the intellectual/academic versus athletic versus social versus artistic versus other needs of our children?
    I believe very strongly that the primary responsibility of our schools is to meet the intellectual and academic needs of our children. This is why I have long argued that the first priority of the administration and the Board when making decisions about the budget is to preserve classroom instruction. I know that many have argued that we need athletics as a way to keep some students in school, but it seems to me that if a student does not understand the importance of an education beyond it being a ticket to a place on a varsity sports team than we have failed in educating that student.

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