Arguing About Where Famous People Send Their Kids to School Is Not Just Dumb, It’s Harmful

I don’t think anybody actually cares where Matt Damon sends his kids to school — the kerfuffle is largely the result of somebody mistaking a piece on for a serious item on education policy — but since people are talking about it, I thought I’d point out why silly fights about where people send their kids to school are worse than you think.

The basic complaint is that certain people (e.g. Chris Christie, Michelle Rhee, Barack Obama etc.) advocate for policies that are not in place at the schools where they send their kids. Of course that’s only a problem if they chose those schools because those policies were not in effect. And people generally don’t send their kids to exclusive private schools because there’s no testing or teacher evaluations, they send them there for the high performing peers and an environment where 100% of kids are expected to go to selective colleges. I actually don’t think Obama would mind if Sidwell Friends added a week of testing.

But these accusations of hypocrisy aren’t just silly. They promote the idea that we should make the educational experience of low-income students more like the educational experience of high-income students, and I think that’s a harmful way to view the dire situation in high-poverty schools. One reason high-poverty schools are so bad is that they’re already modeled on schools built for people who aren’t poor. Going back 100 years, the basic design of the school day takes for granted that all students don’t come from stable two parent homes, have their nutritional needs met, live in safe neighborhoods, understand the connection between school and career, and speak the same language as all the other students. The fact that those assumptions are more or less true for fancy private schools is why those schools are successful.

Educational institutions have always been designed by those in the middle class or higher to serve those in the middle class or higher. Our higher education system was essentially created by elites for elites. We’ve done an admirable job tweaking it to better serve poor students, but it should come as no surprise that poor students still struggle to graduate for reasons that have nothing to do with their cognitive ability. Similarly, the basic one-classroom/one-teacher design where kids learn math/reading/science/history/art was conceived during a time when public policy was relatively more concerned with the education of students in the middle or upper classes. Sociologist Art Stinchcombe is famous for establishing the concept of “organizational imprinting.” The idea is that an institution’s founding environment strongly influences some of its characteristics, and those characteristics persist even after the founding environment has changed. Both our K-12 and higher education institutions continue to have many characteristics that were not designed with low-income students in mind.

And so to say we just need low-income schools to be more like fancy private schools obfuscates the problem. Things like community schools and Harlem Children’s Zone are among the few real innovations out there because they buck the politically correct CW that we shouldn’t educate poor students and wealthy students in different ways. This has turned into a fairly heated rant for something that began with the inanity of where Matt Damon’s kids go to school, but it’s important to point out how it can be unhelpful to imply that poor urban public schools should be more like elite private schools. If anything, we need more people to imply the opposite — that what poor urban students need is something that’s never been done before.

As a thought exercise, try starting with a clean slate, and then figuring out what services to provide low-income students in order to transform them into the best possible adults. Forget about the last 150 years of organized schooling or public education. Forget what the prep school two towns over does. More often than not, you’ll end up with something that’s more like Cincinatti’s community schools, and less like Sidwell Friends.

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