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There is an anti-privilege mood. It is hard to see private schools escaping unscathed

13 January 2019

From The Guardian:

David Kynaston is a historian who has written books on postwar Britain, the City of London and cricket. His latest book, co-written with his old school friend Francis Green, is called Engines of Privilege: Britain’s Private School Problem, and focuses on the unfair advantage offered by the independent education sector.

You are known for your forensic histories of modern Britain. What inspired this book?
It’s an issue I’ve become deeply interested in since my sons went to a state grammar school in 2007. They both played football for their school and standing on the touchline when they played against local private and state schools I saw the full spectrum of the unequal allocation of resources, the huge difference in the quality of facilities at state and private schools. The unfairness hit me terribly hard. A few years later in 2014 I gave the Orwell lecture, focusing on the private school question, and then at the end of that year my son George and I wrote a piece on the history and cultural significance of private schools in the New Statesman, which provoked five further articles the following week. That was the moment that made me think this was an issue that had some traction.

You argue that private schools add significantly to a child’s socioeconomic opportunities. What do you think would have happened to you, had you not attended Wellington college?
If one has had a very privileged education and then one achieves anything in adult life, there’s always that nagging thought – how much is down to the fact that one had good fortune and others didn’t? The academic advantages conferred by the private school are not dramatic but significant, and cumulatively over the course of a childhood they amount to quite a lot.

. . . .

What tangible advantages did going to private school give you?
In my case, boarding school provided an escape from my parents’ divorce. I was nine when it happened and school was friendly and cosy and it was nice to have another world to go to. Later, I had three very good history teachers and they really got me flying intellectually. In some ways I had better history teaching at school than I did when I was at Oxford. But perhaps the most important thing it gave me was confidence. Private-school students are taught that they are going to do well in life. That makes a huge psychological difference growing up.

There has been a discussion about reforming private schools for decades. Why has it not got anywhere?
I think the liberal left find it a difficult issue because parents want to do the best for their children and if they can afford it they’ll often educate their children privately, and that’s entirely understandable. But attitudes become very entrenched when people have made a significant financial investment. And if one’s been privately educated oneself there’s the question of having advantages that others have not had, and then throwing away the ladder one’s climbed up oneself.

. . . .

Should we bring back grammar schools?
It is an important question and I am a bit conflicted. When grammar schools were phased out at the end of the 1960s, something was lost. At that point, they were offering real academic competition to the private schools. But you also had the problem of selection, division within families and three quarters of the population being written off. I think overall there was a good case for abolition but it was a debatable case. I am not nearly as unsympathetic towards grammars as I am towards private schools.

What should be done now?
There’s obviously the question of outright abolition, but in our view to aim at that is impractical because it would be such a difficult thing to achieve. My starting point is where we are at the moment, with these highly resourced schools for, on the whole, children of wealthy parents, entrenching already existing advantages. So anything, in a sense, is better than where we are now. We’ve put our emphasis on changing the social composition of the schools. We call for a fair access scheme in which, initially, 33% of pupils at private schools would be state-subsidised.

Link to the rest at The Guardian

PG says the Constitutional prohibition against titles of nobility is one of the lesser-known of the many wise decisions the founders of the United States made as they were crafting the fundamental legal principles that govern the United States.

OTOH, PG attended US public schools.

By any reasonable academic standards, PG’s high school would not have been highly-ranked. Out of 22 members (No, that’s not a typo) in his high school graduating class, only three completed college.

In college, many of PG’s classmates were graduates from private schools or top-ranked public high schools. He has to admit he never felt any injustice because they were more educationally privileged than he was nor did he feel any lasting harm arising from his own pre-college educational experiences.

PG sees no net benefit from any sort of limitation on or prohibition of private schools. If any individual is well-educated, regardless of the source of such education, PG thinks the larger society benefits.

PG knows a small number of families who have home-schooled their children with excellent results. No public funds were expended to pay for that education. Recently one of those families sent a daughter aged 16 and a son aged 14 to a local university and the children have adapted very successfully with excellent academic results. In another family, the oldest son has become a practicing physician as are several of his first cousins who were also home-schooled.

PG suggests that improving substandard schools while leaving those that are performing well alone is the most rational approach. Interfering with schools that are producing properly-educated graduates while being supported by private tuition payments and donations is the height of foolishness, especially where alternatives to such private education have not demonstrated they are able to deliver similar results.



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50 Comments to “There is an anti-privilege mood. It is hard to see private schools escaping unscathed”

  1. If the public schools aren’t doing a good job of it then there is a place for private schools. I don’t think the OP understands that there are people out there that actually want what they see as the ‘best’ for their kids, and they are willing to pay a bit more for it. And on that same note, the kids going to private schools ‘know’ it’s costing more – and if they blow it/fail then they might be sent to public schools.

    “We call for a fair access scheme in which, initially, 33% of pupils at private schools would be state-subsidised.”

    It’s already ‘fair access’, if you want a better school you pay more for it. As for ‘giving away’ state-subsidised private school slots, half the problem with public schools is the kids in school don’t care and their parents don’t care, and ‘giving’ them a free seat will do nothing but start lowering the private schools to public school levels.

    MYMV and you get something useful out of any classes you take.

    • And if the state pays for it, than the state controls it, and can set standards, or demand that students who might not qualify academically have to be admitted. And then the school will be penalized because the unprepared students are not doing well. (Happened to my college while I was there. No one was happy.)

      Full disclosure: I teach at a private school that practices pre-admissions testing. Students must pass the tests in order to be accepted.

      • You got it, the OP doesn’t really want to raise the kids but to lower the private school. And as you say, the OP would like the state to have more ‘control’ over the private schools – and not to make them better.

        And I’ll bet the kids have to not only pass but to keep passing.

        MYMV and the state not take control of your school! 😉

    • People send their kids to private schools so they don’t have to deal with the dysfunctional environment created by the 33% state subsidized folks.

      Even more worrisome is the privilege conferred on kids because their parents finished high school, married before they were born, don’t do drugs, have steady jobs, and even read to them. That beats any private school, and anyone can do it without a subsidy.

      • And the dysfunctional 33% (and their parents) don’t like knowing that they aren’t allowed to screw it up for everyone else. They’re really not interested in bettering themselves but in lowering everyone else to their standards.

        “Even more worrisome is the privilege conferred on kids because their parents finished high school, married before they were born, don’t do drugs, have steady jobs, and even read to them. That beats any private school, and anyone can do it without a subsidy.”

        How unfair of those parents to raise their kids in such a manner! The OP has/had much better things to waste their time on then reading to their kids. Heck, the TV makes a good babysitter/teacher.

        MYMV and you have that little extra time your kids need.

        • @ Anonymous

          Kurt Vonnegut’s Harrison Bergeron. Beware Diana Moon Glampers wannabes — they’re everywhere!

  2. The grasping hands of mediocrity are always recruiting.

    • More like they want what someone else has but don’t want to have to pay what everyone else pays for it.

      MYMV and your schools not be run by idiots.

    • Terence OBrien, This is not recruiting. This is dragooning.

  3. If one has had a very privileged education and then one achieves anything in adult life, there’s always that nagging thought – how much is down to the fact that one had good fortune and others didn’t?

    Why worry about this? Could you not just have some humility? And empathy? Consider Abigail Adams’ classic advice to her son:

    If you are conscious to yourself that you possess more knowledge upon some subjects than others of your standing, reflect that you have had greater opportunites of seeing the world, and obtaining a knowledge of Mankind than any of your cotemporarys, that you have never wanted a Book, but it has been supplied you, that your whole time has been spent in the company of Men of Literature and Science. How unpardonable would it have been in you, to have been a Blockhead.

    Did Newton not say something about standing on the shoulders of giants? If a man who figured out the rules of the universe’s operating system can be humble, why can’t this guy? What did he do that was so much greater?

    PG suggests that improving substandard schools while leaving those that are performing well alone is the most rational approach. I am suspicious that this option isn’t on the table for the OP.

    • Thank you for that ‘shoulders of giants’ reminder. One of the stories I’m working on they’re trying to move a science forward, but are running into problems that shouldn’t be there. As they will find, the data was faulty, the giant’s shoulder was made of sand which crumbled away when they tried to stand on it.

      MYMV and your giants be solidly built.

  4. For what it’s worth:

    1- The future success of a child has long been known to be proportional to the engagement of the parents in their education.

    2- In more recent times, an ever stronger predictor of future success for children has been the educational level and career field of the parents.

    3- In parallel, old educational practices known to improve children’s performance have been abandoned and even demonized (most notably, tracking) by professional educators in favor of “socialization” practices such as pass-fail and social promotion.

    4- A long standing STEM student competition that I’m familiar with was recently recast as a “STEAM” competition to be more “inclusive” and add Art as a qualifying discipline for the participating students. As a result, the submitted products improved in aesthetics but declined on technical merit.

    4- Home schooling is the ultimate in Private education. Totally funded and totally controlled by the parents. Not a panacea, but…

    Make of the above what you will, folks. I’m no longer engaged in promoting STEM careers, and I have no interest in warring with social egalitarians.

    I do favor significantly expanding and altering the H1B visa program along lines recently suggested that would reduce the control of the “sponsoring” companies over the imported expertise while offering a faster path to permanent residence and citizenship.

    If the country is unwilling to do what is required to natively produce the technical workers needed to support the economy, the least the IdiotPoliticians™ can do is expand the existing braindrain programs importing them while the country is still a desirable destination for them.

    • Point 4 — the first one! — I might have approved of, if I thought it was going to teach art in a rigorous manner that results in, say, the “Last Supper.” If I thought they were going to teach students about how da Vinci used the Golden Ratio to compose said painting, I could see adding art to the fold.

      Or from a practical standpoint, if they led to a revival of Craftsman-type designs in architecture, in contrast to the crappy houses from the 70s to today. Early 20th century houses wedded architecture to thoughtful use of space and materials, with layouts oriented to the way people actually lived.

      But nah. That’s not gonna happen. The “art” will just be crap a three year old could do. Tis a pity; you could actually get interesting results when combining STEM with art. But that’s not where they’re going with this.

      • High school kids visualizing future tech instead of actually learning how to make something work. Sleek and shiny output with no concern for real world feasibility. Might make for marketable SF covers, though.

        Clearly, the intent was to make sure they didn’t feel “left out” rather than try to entice them into stretching their horizons, getting them to wrestle with the realities of How Things Work.

        (Yeah, I missed the numbering in reorganizing. Dangers of stream of consciousness.)

    • Having twice been phased out of a job by abuse of the H1B visa program, I’m going to respectfully disagree with the idea of expanding it.

      • It will be expanded.
        The question is whether the IdiotPoliticians™ address the indentured servitude aspects.

        260,000 unfilled jobs in the IT industry alone.

        Never mind aerospace, consumer electronics, pharma, hospitals, and yes, teachers.
        Either you grow the workers, steal them, or export the jobs.

        “Pick yer poison.”

        The first hasn’t happened in 40 years of federal government programs. The third is political poison in these populist times.

        To paraphrase Conan Doyle: Once you eliminate the unacceptable, whatever remains, however distasteful, must be accepted.

        Of course, doing nothing and enjoying “prosperity in our time” is also an option for some out there. Generally the childless.

      • The flaw in H1B is that the immigrant is tethered to the sponsoring firm. Free him. Welcome immigrants who are highly skilled and let them compete. The last thing they will do is work for less than the market rate. That’s not what highly skilled immigrants do when allowed to compete.

        • Exactly.
          Right now the path to permanent residence, to say nothing of citizenship, is convoluted, expensive, and puts the immigrant under the company’s thumb.
          Far from optimal.

          The h1B abuses are different from the abuses the illegals endure but the exploitation is just as bad. But somehow the latter are “heroic” and worthy of empathy but the former aren’t.

    • @ Felix

      4- Home schooling is the ultimate in Private education. Totally funded and totally controlled by the parents. Not a panacea, but…

      Unfortunately, this all too often results in the blind leading the blind. Home schooling tends to attract religious fundamentalists and other know-nothing types, who want their kids raised to be as ignorant and brainwashed as the parents. Not A Good Thing, IMHO.

      Successful, highly educated parents, OTOH, typically choose to put their kids in academically tough, college-prep schools, either private or public (in high-end school districts whose involved, voting inhabitants are highly educated UMC’s).

      • Less economically successful parents have learned that their kids can have the same advantages as those of the highly educated and successful. They home school and join cooperatives that enable them to offer math and science that may be beyond their own abilities.

        These folks have joined together to create lots of digital content, lesson plans, tests, support groups, etc. They also enroll their high achievers in junior college courses at age fourteen and fifteen. These folks can easily refute the notion that they are ignorant, brain washed religious fundamentalists. The best colleges in the country tend to agree.

      • People are still allowed to be “wrong” and live their lives as they see fit. That includes the religious, as long as they don’t strap on explosive vests to go blow up others. That seems to be changing but it’s not yet illegal to be religious.

        From what I’ve heard, in certain circles, single earner families are a status symbol. And a lot of them choose to control their kids’ education by training them personally. In most states home schooling is regulated and monitored and the number of home schooled is growing in lockstep with the decline of the public schools.


        If it were such a problem wouldn’t the busybodies be testifying before congress to forbid it?

      • Do you actually know any homeschoolers, or do you exclusively get your information about them from teachers’ union newsletters?

        Because A. There are a lot of leftist homeschoolers; and B. In my experience, homeschoolers are better educated than their public schooled counterparts.

        • ^ this.

          Also, in my experience adults who were homeschooled tend to be curious, self-motivated, and lifelong learners. I have always enjoyed training former homeschoolers as a supervisor, because they want to understand and if they don’t know something, their first impulse is to figure it out and apply what they learned.

          • I think it’s the personalization aspect: all humans are born as information sponges but mass education tends towards the common denominator, pushing some kids faster than the should go while boring the heck out of others, and by enforcing conformity. Unless you’re a fantastically gifted teacher it is hard to profile a kid you see an hour a day for five months in a crowd of 40.

            The ancient greeks and the single room schoolhouses didn’t have those issues.

            Engaged parents have plenty of time to know their kids’ likes and dislikes, when they’re engrossed and when they’re bored, how to frame material for the specific student. Of coyrse, it requires a degree of paternal competence, which is why it’s no panacea, but the basic fact is all parents are their kids’ teachers; ethics, morality, manners, basic social skills. Home schoolers just go a few extra miles to prepare their kids for today’s world.

            Too much of the public school system is geared for the last century and not always the relevant parts. The mismatch between unfilled jobs and the national workforce is ample proof of that. Today’s labor market isn’t lacking warm bodies and strong backs, it *is* lacking critical thinkers and self-starters.

            This probably an area where “AI” systems can make a big difference and radically change teachers’ roles.

  5. My own take on some of the relevant English social history. This can still cause bitter disputes so others will have very different views (though I tend not to take seriously those to young to have attended school after the changes went through).

    Fifty plus years ago in England the grammar schools provided a generally excellent academic education for those who showed an aptitude for such studies. The OP mentions some of the supposed problems with this system, including the fact that their intake was only a minority of the children; unfortunately the obvious solution of improving the other schools (those offering more practical subjects) was ignored and the grammar schools were largely destroyed.

    The main forces behind this destruction were from the left, though the right did not fight particularly hard in their defence. Given that the grammar schools were great drivers of social mobility and offered huge opportunities for advancement to the more intelligent working class kids the left’s attitude always puzzled me. They seemed to be more concerned with the inequality that might result from selection by academic ability than the social mobility gains being made by the lower classes. Cynically one can guess that the upper class part of the right didn’t like the competition that the grammar school kids were providing to those from the public (i.e. private) schools.

    In parallel with this there were also the Direct Grant schools. These were private fee paying schools where the local education authorities paid the fees for pupils who were graduating from state junior schools. Those getting these scholarships were selected on academic merit, basically those who got the highest scores in the 11+ tests that were used to select pupils for grammar schools. The proportion of state funded pupils varied but was often quite high and the Direct Grant schools were amongst the most academically successful in the private system (as they generally had a higher quality pool of students and a better social mix and were effectively free of Government control). This system was also destroyed and most of the schools ended up with only private fee paying pupils and provided a significant boost to the private school system: some of today’s leading private schools were originally Direct Grant ones.

    The OP’s answer to “what should be done now” is close to recreating the Direct Grant system but would almost certainly fail as (a) these are currently “high resource” schools because of the fees being paid and the government are most unlikely to pay at the necessary rate because it will be higher than the costs per pupil of the state schools, (b) the government will want to control the selection of pupils and will want to apply criteria of diversity and social need rather than academic ability, and (c) the removal of scholarship students probably diluted the academic quality of the best schools as the need to fill places lowered their entry standards and it may be difficult to reverse this.

    • Your direct grant schools sound somewhat similar to the US charter school programs.

      As for why the left destroyed your old system, bear in mind that most leftist parties, faced with the reality that there is no way to make everybody wealthy will settle for making everybody poor.

      And no, this is not a joke: in the old soviet union the communists had (and still have) grass roots support from people who were and are willing to suffer anything so long as their neighbors are forced to suffer with them.

      Egalitarianism to the extreme.

    • Thanks for the historical detail, Mike.

  6. So as a Canadian, where private schools are less visible than many of the private schools in the US, my experience is somewhat different, and my take on the OP is also different. I don’t think he’s talking about “better facilities” or simply “better education”, he’s talking about a two-class system of opportunities that result from it. It really resonated with me, but maybe I’m also reading into the OP. Under the heading of TL;DR, I apologize in advance for why it resonated with me being so long…

    Since I’m Cdn, let me use an ice hockey example of what happens in a similar way elsewhere. Many sports programs routinely set age limits by calendar year for enrolments, which means that, say for this year, everybody who turns 5 *THIS YEAR* are in the same hockey group. The kid who is 5 on January 1st starts playing side-by-side with the kid who is only 4y, 1m old at the moment because they both turn five *this year*.

    People immediately notice that the true 5yo looks HUGE compared to the little 4yo+1m, because, well, he’s the equivalent of 22% older (60m, instead of 49m)! So that 5 yo January baby can skate better, move better, handle falls better, knock the smaller kids over, can do almost EVERYTHING better. Fast-forward ten years, and people think those advantages will disappear but they don’t. That 5yo got better opportunities, more ice time, more chances to do things, more confidence. The next year, they continued that “bump” — they get selected for more elite teams, given more coaching, etc. Fast forward to when they’re 15, i.e. when the real streaming starts to weed out average players, and the share is something like 80-90% of the kids who make it to the next level are all born within the first three months of the year. That’s a direct result of the public policy choice to go by calendar year. (Don’t get me wrong, you had to have SOME sort of cutoff, but if you go by calendar year, the January babies do the best; if you go by school year, the September babies do the best). Whose the best example of this? Wayne Gretzky, born January 27. Who’s the exception? Sidney Crosby, born in August. There are examples both ways, but for the middle 80% of Cdn players making it to the NHL, something like 60/40 are split for first three months vs. the other 9 months combined.

    It’s a cumulative advantage.

    Economically, that is no different, and I think it is what is seen by the OP author. Except instead of it being a hockey program, the bump is getting into a private school.

    I’ll share a couple of Cdn anecdotes. I went to a Catholic elementary school (fully state funded) at a time that when you got to Grade 11, you had to pay your own way (lots of other issues there, but I’ll ignore them for now). Think of it as “private school lite”. However, when I reached Grade 9, and was starting high school, we didn’t have the money to pay for Catholic in two years, so I went to a public high school. It wasn’t the best school in the city academically, one of the central city schools. Good tech program, rest was pretty basic.

    Going through high school, I didn’t know anyone who had gone to university. None of my parents friends were university grads, they were all factory workers. I was near-valedictorian (second to a superstar who arrived in the last year with a 98% average to my lowly 94%, but I’m not bitter!) and yet I had NO idea or guidance as to how to choose a university, what programs to consider, what the considerations even were. Nothing. And it was all pre-internet days, so you couldn’t just google stuff.

    If I needed to find someone to replace a transmission in my car at a reasonable price, my dad knew a guy. If I needed to know the best way to block out a shed for a convertible camping / storage area at a camp, we were covered. Needing to know what to do with my life, or even what things I should consider in choosing a university? I was on my own. Those other things are important, but they don’t tend to advance you economically that often.

    Fast-forward four years. I’m finishing university, and I wasn’t feeling “ready” for the job market. I had an inkling I might want to do somethign law-related but more likely government, and maybe municipal level? I wasn’t sure. The only people I knew to really ask were friends of my girlfriend’s family or professors, and none of them were really “on point” for my area of interest. So not surprisingly, I chose a university that just happened to be the one my favorite professor went to for his degrees…I didn’t have the money to fly across the country and visit it first, so I had to rely on other logistical factors (I could do a law degree with a MA in public policy together, with a co-op option to pay for it and get some real world job experience — a dream combination).

    It wasn’t the “best” law school in the country, but we also don’t tend to have the real crap ones the US has in some places. At the time, we had 16 in total and they were all relatively decent with a couple of regional stars or by specific topic. At a couple of those other “top schools”? A bunch of the top recruits were ALL from private schools. I had good enough marks to get accepted at the best school, but had to say no, because I couldn’t really afford it. In retrospect, maybe I could have, but it didn’t feel like it at the time. It was just out of my foreseeable reach.

    So you can argue that it’s just good fortune, but we’re not talking about a small difference. It’s the founding principle of our continent’s settlement both politically and economically that merit will out, and regardless of where you start, you can make it “to the top” so to speak. We celebrate those success stories as “See? The system works!”. Yet I couldn’t afford to go. Or at least didn’t think I could.

    But the OP, in my view, is more about the cumulative imbalance you don’t see.

    I couldn’t afford a high school that wasn’t covered, and which had a better English program than the one I went to.

    I gave up French in Grade 9 to take a double tech program because my father thought it was more important (and while I benefited from that advice, I also now work for a bilingual government where I have to maintain a French level that was REALLY hard to learn as an adult), and tech was one of the specialities available to me. Because I didn’t go to the “academic” school that cost more money.

    In high school, I wanted to do a trip to Washington for my US history class — the teacher opened it up to the entire student body, 700 kids, to consider going and we had two people sign up because nobody could afford it (about $500 I think?). So NO trip. By contrast, a private school I know did their Grade *10* class science trip this year…to the GALAPAGOS ISLANDS!

    I worked all the way through university, a few friends I met didn’t have to as their parents paid. I had no real time for clubs or societies, I was working all the time. They joined clubs, ran for school council, etc.

    In the end, I have done way better than many, thanks to the co-op program that served as a huge equalizer for me. I have a pretty good job, started at the bottom and worked my way up, I could go a bit higher and am choosing not to (but might have gotten higher faster earlier though with a different start?), it pays well, my wife makes a good income too (almost the same), and we only have one child with few debts other than the house.

    But I could never provide my son — the next generation, theoretically a leg ahead of me — with private school options and school trips to the Galapagos. The Galapagos might happen as a bucket list some day…He lives in a decent neighbourhood, has no obvious deprivation for anything, but he will never be able to compete economically with those who got a cumulative boost in Grade 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, etc. with better opportunities or better teacher to student ratios. Diversity is a huge problem, sure, but the economic 1% tend to keep their 1% year after year, generation after generation.

    Or put differently, I was a November baby economically, and I couldn’t compete with the January baby. It just wasn’t the same start. So the other kid got a better opening opportunity, more coaching, just a little bit more each year until I can’t even SEE their taillights any more. And my child will do better than me, as I did better than my father, but my now-“August baby” still won’t be able to compete with the eternal January babies.

    I love my life, but if I could put my kid in private school, I’d regret it for about 30 seconds, lament the social imbalances created, and probably register him in a heartbeat. Heck, even within the limits we have, we moved him from one school to another this year to have French immersion, better academics, and more social club opportunities than he had at the old school (which was more about size than economics).

    In the end, SOMEONE is going to be a January baby. It would just be nice if there were fewer constraints to playing with the calendar from time to time.


    • The hockey bump you refer to is equivalent to having parents who care about their kid’s education vs those who believe it is the school’s job to raise their kids for them.

      The former police their kid’s recreation time, monitor their homework, touch base with teachers and if needed find tutors for the kids. (I know working class parents who take on added part-time jobs to get their kids the best start in life they can.)

      Since there is no way to get the…disengaged parents to actually care, the only way to equalize the field is to prevent the engaged parents from helping their kids. Hence the opposition to grading, advanced placement, charter schools, home schooling, and truly better public education.

      But since private schools can’t be banned, all they achieve is to amplify the advantages the more affluent kids get.

      Unlike hockey bumps, educational disadvantages can be made up for, given enough parental interest and absent egalitarian obstructionism.

      Not the same.

      • Felix, you say “The hockey bump you refer to is equivalent to having parents who care about their kid’s education vs those who believe it is the school’s job to raise their kids for them.”

        I think that’s unfair to the parents who care but don’t have the time (because they’re working 2+ jobs) or the educational background to support their kid’s education in the way that a parent who graduated from college and has time (and knowledge) to help their kid with homework in the evening can. Likewise, having the *time* and *knowledge* to home-school a child is a big luxury, not available to most people!

        Saying something like (to paraphrase) “Their kids don’t do as well because they don’t care enough.” is both inaccurate and unempathetic in the extreme.

        • In case you hadn’t noticed, I’m a left brain guy.
          Very unempathetic.

          Second, I have seen more than a few working class families where the parents work two jobs or more yet manage to find time (and often money) to remain engaged. If they manage it…

          Look up the term “Ay bendito” in PR culture.
          Held back the country for centuries.
          We’ve learned better in recent times.

          Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
          Absent the will, no amount of handwringing or government largesse will succeed. Ample evidence of that since the sixties. Daniel Patrick Moynihan was 100% right back then.

          And trusting IdiotPoliticians™ will simply bankrupt the government. (But not the country.)

        • “I think that’s unfair to the parents who care …”

          The far deeper problem is those parents that “don’t” care one bit about how their kids are doing in school. Most of those kids also “don’t care” and there’s no school or plan that can help them because they don’t care.

          ““Their kids don’t do as well because they don’t care enough.” is both inaccurate and unempathetic in the extreme.”

          Hate to tell you, but there are those parents/kids out there that it’s quite accurate and they’ll happily trash any system that tries to help them.

          MYMV and your kids not get stuck in the same class as the ones that don’t want to be there …

          • Nothing wrong with actually trying to *help*. Plenty of good can come from it. Especially those actually trying.

            But leveling isn’t a helpful approach. It is just a smokescreen that hides mediocrity by redefining it as excellence and painting the few that succeed *despite* the system’s “best” efforts as “lucky outliers”.

            For a good look at the mindset behind it, consider Gladwell’s OUTLIERS.


            Trying to help everybody is good but eventually there comes a point where you need to move on and focus the efforts were something positive can actually be achieved.

            As the old mantra says: “God helps those that help themselves.”

            “Woe is me” never moved the needle one bit.

            • Anyone think the Asian countries will hold back their best to make their worst feel better about themselves?

              • Doubtful.
                They’re actively trying to grow their intellectual capital to make sure their kids and grandkids have a better future.

                On the other hand, societies focused on leveling end up hunting wild flamingos to eat.


                • I have to confess I think this thread distorts both the OP and much of our combined documented history. Let’s say we have two kids, (A) in public school with lower middle class parents and (B) in private school with upper middle class parents.

                  The popular capitalist theory, and much of Felix’ first post, is that while A = B. In other words, the “lesser” can compete through other means besides financial resources.

                  And capitalist theory has held out that premise as the basis for much of the normative side of economics…that if “X” can raise you up, then all those at the bottom who don’t raise themselves up must not be doing it right or are said to “not care”, as Anthea pointed out. In other words, they haven’t “earned” it and therefore if someone is pointing out that they’re disadvantaged, it must be social policy run amok as a bleeding heart liberal PC who wants handouts.

                  Much of North AMerican history (mainly US, but it permeates to Canada too) is rife with examples of people who “made themselves a success”. And if one November baby can make it, they all can, right?

                  Well, no actually. Because if the “extra” factor that Felix suggests is parents investing more in child A and paying attention, engaging to get ahead, or at least to catch up to child B, the only thing parent of B has to do is do the same thing. Call their investment X1 because as Anthea mentioned, they have more resources, might be able to home school, might be able to adjust work schedules more easily, might not have to work 2 jobs to pay for that extra opportunity. Their choices are just different.

                  So A + X can NEVER be equal to or greater than B + X (since the Xs cancel out in that premise and A started farther behind in the race) nor is it ALOMST EVER equal to or greater than B + X1 because X1 is almost always greater than X. MOre choices, same effort, the gap widens not shortens.

                  On an individual basis, you could have A being a good student with X being a heavily engaged parent; and B could be an idiot with idiot parents who do nothing for X1. So, sure, they can catch THEM (as Jamie outlines). But to go back to the OP, the question wasn’t about an individual student vs. another student or even generic poor student against generic rich student.

                  It is really about recognizing that a group of A students, as a group, will NEVER catch a group of B students, as a group. It’s easier to see in sports with the January and November babies. Or as the OP pointed out, seeing how Tier 1 schools wipe the field with Tier 3 schools on a regular basis because the Tier 1 schools have better training facilities, better schedules for training (such as not having to share a field with another team), and students who don’t have to work their way through school but can just train.

                  Individuals advance, but 300 years of economic history in North America shows virtually no social mobility of any class/group except one. Immigrants in narrowly defined groups or regions can and do flourish, although that is often a community effort of sorts. A networked approach to getting ahead where they compete as part of the culture or in a specific occupation.

                  But that doesn’t mean I think we should ban private schools or create brand new redistribution efforts. It’s to recognize the reality of what Jamie talks about … limited circles of opportunity that stop not only groups from advancing but also individuals.

                  I’ve seen interesting debates on this where economists have tried to estimate coefficients of probability of success. Basically the idea that if you took Class A and added in all the possible things they could do in terms of starting position (S), academic aptitude (AA), hard work (W), parental support (P), career opportunities (C), occupational choices (O), and a whole host of other factors, you can study a bunch of indicators and see that for that Class of As, they generally have a predictive outcome of somewhere between 75% and 110% likelihood of surpassing their parent’s level of income attainment with a nominal average somewhere around 105%. In its most basic form, it’s like they have a 5% better chance of coming out ahead of their parents than they do of coming out below. It’s a decent stat until you factor in inflationary rates over time, and it comes out still positive but down a bit. Call it 103 or something like that. The housekeeper who works for the same company as their mother and grandmother (although that isn’t a lot different from a coal miner family).

                  By contrast, the group of Bs range from 85% to 130% and average out around 115% or so.

                  As a class, the 103s / November babies will NEVER catch the 115s / January babies. One or two might who are longtails. But the group cannot do it. Because everything they CAN do to get ahead, the other group can do too and more (X1 > X).

                  It’s partly why generational wealth is such a hot topic for social activists. If I compare myself with a colleague, we had the exact same job, relatively same level of education, etc. and because of the way pay works in our area, the EXACT same rate of pay. We both lost a parent around the same time, which triggered an eventual inheritance for me around $25K and about $750K for her. On an individual basis, everything else was almost the same for us, we had “leveled out” with each other to that point in our life. But suddenly she had available resources for real estate investments and more education (a second MA) while I was still struggling with student debt and renting.

                  Again, that’s not whining. That’s just reality.

                  But pretending that it is “earned” or “natural” is ludicrous…and a dangerous starting point for public policy if you assume the poor are just lazy and their parents don’t try hard enough, or that the game isn’t rigged against them in the key factors that we suggest will break cycles (like education).


                • Sorry but life isn’t hockey. Metaphors only go so far before the complexity of real life throws makes itself felt.

                  And the “advantages” of affluence are overstated by proponents of leveling. There is such a thing as downward mobility and the working poor aren’t the only disengaged parents out there. One needs but to look at the demographics of higher education students by profession to notice that poor and middle class students gravitate to careers that lead to a higher standard of living as quickly as possible whereas the more affluent students gravitate towards “fulfillment” and “cultural” careers which are inherently limited and have capped earning potential

                  Whatever “advantages” they were given prove to be disadvantages in the long run because they never learn self-reliance, money management, the need to grind through rough patches.

                  Sure, there are a few fields where going to the “right” elite school is a requirement and where networking with the rich is useful. Publishing is one. Politics another.

                  But by and large the vast majority of professions don’t care about inherited connections, only competence. That is most certainly true in the technical and productivity businesses. All you need to do is look up the background of the most successful people of the age. Few if any children of privilege there. Jobs, Bezos, Gates, Walton, Hewlett, Packard, and on and on.

                  Look at the people changing the world through the sciences, medicine, commerce, even literature. The majority worked their way up in life. You don’t see many Rockefellers or Kennedys or whatevers creating businesses, discovering new science, inventing new tools. Why should they? That stuff is hard. They’re used to the easy life. They had everything handed to them. They achieve little if anything.

                  The old line about “adversity builds character” isn’t just a wisecrack; it is a basic truth that drive feeds achievement and success is best measured by obstacles surmounted and limitations overcome.

                  The fact is, like it or not, some people are born faster, or smarter, with better memories, or more artistic talent. But in the end it is training and striving that matters. Problems have solution but you have to be good enough and driven enough to find your way. Throwing your arms up in surrender at the first sign of resistance doesn’t get you anywhere. Neither does begging IdiotPoliticians™ to save you.

                  Out in the trenches of the real world, away from politicians and social engineers, where the gears of society grind, the drive to achieve is what matters. Earning instead of demanding, building instead of taking, creating instead of dreaming.

                  That is what engaged parents teach their kids in both word and deed. And money is no help for that. The real inherited “privilege” is inquisitiveness, stubbornness, sense of responsibility, study habits, and work ethic.

                • And capitalist theory has held out that premise as the basis for much of the normative side of economics…that if “X” can raise you up, then all those at the bottom who don’t raise themselves up must not be doing it right or are said to “not care”, as Anthea pointed out.

                  Capitalism says nothing of the kind. The theory presented is the Fallacy of Composition, and is directly opposite of capitalism.

                  Individuals advance, but 300 years of economic history in North America shows virtually no social mobility of any class/group except one.

                  Three hundred years of economic history show incredible movement of individuals among the classes. Of course the class itself does not advance. They are relative to each other. But, three hundred years of economic history shows no system has delivered more prosperity to more people of all relative classes than capitalism.

    • The poor we will always have with us. And it is true that where knowledge and such are concerned, the Matthew Principle is actually a thing.

      But — the problem isn’t the fact that some people get to go to better schools, the problem is that the other schools are so awful. And I agree that the parents make the difference. I am literally a November child 🙂 I grew up lower middle class, but I attended a public school district with a lot of upper middle class kids. Class trips to France and Spain, Italy and Greece, Australia and New Zealand? Couldn’t afford them, but my classmates could. The more people I meet who went to lesser schools — or better schools they failed to take advantage of — the better I feel about my education: I at least have a good idea of my known unknowns 🙂

      True I was poor, but I had a leg up: though my parents couldn’t afford to buy the Encyclopedia Britannica set I wanted, they always took me to the libraries in our county’s network. They bought me dictionaries. They encouraged reading. Subscriptions to Highlights, 3-2-1 Contact and Illustrated Wildlife Treasury, etc. They would say, “Turn off that TV! Those people on TV have their education! You need to get yours.” They encouraged me to look up things I didn’t know, which meant that sometimes it was my taillights the other kids couldn’t see …

      In contrast, I’ve seen parents who get angry with their children when they ask “why is the sky blue?” and so on. Curiosity offends those parents, and they’ll cuss out their children for asking questions they can’t answer. Such children will be left behind by default, unless they have some inner resource, or external encouragement to rebel against their parents’ mentality. But that’s a lot to ask of a child, no? It’s that lack of curiosity, beaten into them, that will hold them back. It’s that lack of value on knowledge and education for its own sake that will hold them back. It’s true the rich kids who have that same deficiency will start out ahead, and get by for a time, but it’s not impossible to gain on them.***

      At this point though, if I had kids, I would home school them. Sending kids to public school seems more like child abuse these days. Otherwise, maybe a parochial school. No regrets, no remorse.

      ***One thing your story highlights is that a constricted social circle isn’t a good thing. I’m an introvert, but even I can see that knowing a wider range of people — factory workers and secretaries here, doctors and bankers there — can open eyes and opportunities. This is especially crucial if the people surrounding you have relatively limited horizons. Example: I was once chatting with someone about a job interview I was going to that morning. She assumed I was interviewing for a secretarial position (I was dressed business casual, with heels and everything). She didn’t imagine aiming any higher than that. To put this in perspective, she is the third generation of housekeepers in her family. And not even with her own “Molly Maid” business, but as an employee of the same place that had employed her grandmother and mother. Limited horizons are limiting.

      There’s something to be said for having a diverse network. And I gather that networking is one specific reason parents send their kids to private schools. The OP will next have to outlaw associations with members of the “wrong” social class, I guess.

  7. improving substandard schools while leaving those that are performing well alone is the most rational approach

    If only! Because of the teachers’ unions insistence that there be no merit involved, only seniority, in such things as promotions and class assignments, all ‘improvement’ programs are applied uniformly to all teachers, regardless of whether they need it or not, thus burdening the better teachers with more and more paperwork and wasted meeting time.

    I’m sure there are many problems in private schools, money being one of them, but they have options. Public schools are managed by committee, with the delusion that teachers are replaceable cogs/widgets.

    • Additionally, public schools insist that a teaching certificate qualifies an employee to teach any subject equally well and regardless of expertise or competence in a discipline insist on the full curriculum diploma, thus discouraging career changers.

      Also, unlike many other businesses where merit promotions (and salary increases) are available on multiple career paths, in the public schools the only upward mobility is by leaving the classroom and taking on administrative duties which has the dual effect of removing the more experienced teachers from the classroom and bloating the bureaucratic side.

      (I have two sisters and a cousin who are teachers. Lots of sighing.)

      • New Jersey has an alternate-route teaching certificate. My husband, a PhD in physical chemistry employed in industrial research by a specialty chemicals company, went that route in a special magnet-type high school for STEM students within the votech system (!?) in Middlesex County, taught chemistry to every junior and physics to every senior for eleven years.

        The original founder preferred these teachers with real experience, and hired many (the school had 40 students per grade, with 13 teachers total).

        But I watched the load of unnecessary paperwork increase every year as the originator of the school moved on, and less and less qualified principals without hard science degrees basically downgraded the school and its accomplishments – and husband retired the instant he was SS age.

        The only way to significant increases in salary was to jump ship.

        Meanwhile, I homeschooled our three into Caltech, Carnegie Mellon, and Rensselaer Polytechnic.

        Logic doesn’t apply, because of the fear of who will make the determination that a teacher is worth more, so the system never purges its bad elements, and an excellent teacher receives exactly the same pay as a seriously unqualified one. The bar is very low for a ‘passing’ grade to teach subjects.

        My dad and his seven younger siblings, first-generation Hungarian Americans, got excellent educations in Michigan’s school system – way back when. We owe all kids that.

        • Color me impressed, ma’am.
          Whatever you have needs bottling.
          (deep bow.)

          • Why, thank you, sir.

            But I’ll be more impressed with myself when I figure out – for me – marketing my indie mainstream fiction. Now that most of the parental decisions are done (I officially stopped nagging as each kid reached 25), I’m hoping there’s still enough left in the bottle.

            • What’s left in that bottle has aged well I think, it should be interesting to see what pouring it forth brings. 😉

              MYMV and your books never be average.

      • Additionally, public schools insist that a teaching certificate qualifies an employee to teach any subject equally well

        In states I have lived in, private schools are not burdened by teaching certificates.

    • Good points, Alicia.

      The two public elementary schools I attended were much smaller than my high school and attended by kids whose parents didn’t have a lot of money.

      One of the great blessings of my life was that my two elementary school teachers were each excellent, although in much different ways.

      My mother, who hadn’t finished college at that time (she ended up graduating from college the same year I did), was always one of my greatest educational blessings because she closely monitored what I was being taught, spoke to the teachers if she had a question, always attended parent-teacher meetings, encouraged me to read a lot, etc.

  8. The best argument I ever read against “leveling down” education is this:

    You or a loved one is going in for heart surgery. Do you want the best surgeon, who may have gone to the best schools, or an average surgeon?

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