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The Parent’s Dilemma

How much do you believe in public schools?

April 29, 2014, 12:00 am

My wife and I find ourselves confronting a tricky dilemma: Though I believe in the principle of free public education, I’m not feeling good about sending our 4-year-old daughter to the neighborhood public school for kindergarten in 2015. In fact, I’m not excited about sending her to any public school in Santa Fe.

I may believe in free public education then, but when it’s my daughter on the line, it seems I really don’t believe in our city’s public schools.

I know this is a risky declaration. To say I don’t believe in Santa Fe’s schools will likely offend the teachers and administrators so invested in them, including close friends of mine. I’ll be dismissed as one of those parents who’s overprotective, paranoid, even classist and racist. I’ll be accused of turning my back on our schools when they most need support.

But I’m not alone. I’ve spoken to dozens of parents—in and out of The New York Times, Subaru Outback subset to which I belong—who have serious concerns about Santa Fe’s schools. I’ve spoken to scores of teachers and administrators who are finding it harder and harder to believe in the system in which they work.

When I listen closely to these people, I find that, like me, they still believe in public education. They believe that families from different walks of life should come together for their children’s education. Most of all, they believe deeply in the art of teaching and in the goodwill, energy and intelligence of those who choose to become public school teachers.

But they don’t believe in our schools.

My dilemma, then, may not be a simple issue of personal preference, but a symptom of a larger crisis in public education, a crisis not about dropout rates, test scores or teacher attrition—but about faith.

This is not new. People have mistrusted the American school system since it was imported from Prussia in the 1850s. But the recent craze toward charter schools, parent choice and data-driven reform—all very present in Santa Fe right now—indicate to me that the divestment of faith in the institution of public school is particularly high.

District and state leaders are aware of this, and have embarked on a host of strategies that I imagine they believe will restore faith in our schools. Their approach—popular across the nation—is to focus on producing results. Raise the graduation rates and test scores, show the hard evidence, and parents will flock back to the neighborhood schools.

As an educator, I can see the logic behind such an approach.

As a parent, it falls flat.

We’re not talking about my IRA here. We’re talking about the person my wife and I love most. If I’m to believe in the neighborhood school so deeply I’ll entrust my daughter to it, I don’t want numbers. I don’t want school report cards or teacher evaluations.

Belief begins in the heart. I’ll believe in a school when I feel the learning and respect. I’ll believe in it when I walk in and am greeted, authentically, by kids and adults. When I see quality, original student work hung with care in the hallways. When I can engage students in intelligent conversation about their passions, strengths and goals. When I witness learning guided by—not dictated by—standards.

I’ll believe in a school that serves a nutritious cafeteria lunch I can enjoy, a school that gives kids plenty of time—not 15 minutes—for recess. Above all, I’ll believe in a school whose teachers and principal are present, collaborative, curious, reflective and willing to chat with me till I’m convinced my daughter will do just fine.

Some schools in Santa Fe have elements of what I’ve described above. But such a culture of learning and respect is far from districtwide, and the major reform measures being implemented are focused on generating quantifiable data—test scores, value-added measurements, percentile gains.

I know district and state leaders have their reasons for zeroing in on data and numbers, and I imagine they can justify it with statistics and theory. But numbers won’t convince me: Unless something begins to shift in the way our schools feel, our SFPS may have to count my daughter out.

Seth Biderman, manager of the Institute for Teachers at the Academy for the Love of Learning, is a graduate of SFPS. His recent TEDx talk, “Education and the Pursuit of Happiness,” can be found at here.


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