"You can get away with more experimenting when your students aren't at risk
and their parents are picking up the slack with tutoring programs at home
and in the community. In the district where I worked,
we actually had to teach to get results."
-- Elaine K. McEwan, author of "Angry Parents, Failing Schools"
"Good schools? Move to the suburbs."
It's not that easy!
The higher funding and shiny buildings
in the 'burbs does not necessarily translate into superior instructional methods
or a wider parent choice of approaches.
In fact, when it comes to choice,
parents in the city of Chicago have far more choices available than do
parents in the suburbs of Chicago! Chicago parents have options that
include excellent classical schools,
Core Knowledge schools,
or a variety of themed magnet schools, all within the
public system. Add to that a variety of private schools with different
methods and choices.
The number of such options in the suburbs can be counted on one
hand with fingers to spare. If you've read about Core Knowledge,
or about classical education, and
think these sounds great, there's only one way in the suburbs to get either for your
kids: move to Chicago!
Those aren't quite what you're looking for? Well, in Chicago there are 47 charter schools
and 39 magnet schools
offering a wide variety of approaches -- something for everyone!
But in the Chicago suburbs there are just two charter schools
(and both of them are of the progressivist/constructivist variety).
||in the Suburbs|
|Core Knowledge Schools|
||in the Suburbs|
|Charter and Magnet Schools|
||in the Suburbs|
The availability of more money is a double-edged sword. The big bucks are great
when used to attract better teachers and provide additional valuable services.
But sometimes it takes money to really screw things up. Cash can be applied
to small classes with lots of
pointless "enrichment" presentations,
psychobabble teacher in-service programs,
and extra layers of bureaucratic staffing.
The Suburban School Challenge
Here are just a few links regarding the challenge of finding
"good" schools in the suburbs:
A Coming Crisis in Suburban Schooling?
by Lewis Andrews, American Enterprise, July/August 2006.
"Overly cozy relations between teacher unions, administrators, and
school board members with their own kids' interests in mind have led
to runaway expenditures in some districts. A backlash may be
Crisis in Suburban Schooling
by Wendy Cook, December 13, 2006. Excerpts:
"The cost of suburban schools has risen far beyond the rate of
inflation because of an opportunistic relationship between parents
and the public educators they are supposed to be regulating. ...
'It's not an exaggeration to say that public schooling in the suburbs
is a form of upper-middle-class-racketeering,' Lewis Andrews of the
Yankee Institute writes. Parents and educators collaborate under the
banner of 'advancing education' to serve their own narrow interests
at the expense of the broader taxpaying community.
"very little of the higher funding available to schools was
funneled into improved academic performance"
"Parents want to send their kids to the school where they will gain a
quality education ... and rightfully so. But 'quality' has become a
deceptive code word for the services, hobbies and recreational
activities meant for the narrow benefit of school children and their
families, and has almost nothing to do with academic rigor, writes
University of Missouri professor J. Martin Rochester. Expensive
sports programs, holiday socials, pottery and ballet lessons, media
centers with state of the art video equipment and rooms overflowing
with computer work stations are all part of these perks.
"So, the question many people are asking is, 'Is it paying off?' A
2005 study by Dowd Muska of the Yankee Institute for Public Policy,
using per-pupil cost and student scores on standardized tests found
that very little of the higher funding available to schools was
funneled into improved academic performance."
- Perceptions and Reality in the Suburbs
by Margaret J. McIntyre. McIntyre was on the board of education in Wilmette for
four years, so she was an insider into learning about how districts encourage
positive public impressions, sometimes in contrast to actual performance
or evidence of extensive outside tutoring to fill in gaps left by schools.
"Maintaining this image -- that a lot of tax money buys
superior education -- is the number one preoccupation of the
administrations ... Even when perception is not reality -- it doesn't matter. As long as
the home shoppers believe the perception, pay the high prices for the
house and justify (in their minds) high taxes to preserve the
'superiority' of the schools -- perception will suffice."
Denial and the Suburban Mind by Bruno Behrend. Excerpt:
"One large social group that is living in a state of denial right now is that
of suburban parents. Most of them simply will not permit themselves to believe
that the quality of education in their suburb is lower than it should be.
The Other Crisis in American Education
by Daniel J. Singal, Atlantic Monthly, November 1991.
"Two crises are stalking American education. Each poses a major
threat to the nation's future ... yet to date, almost without exception, those concerned with
restoring excellence to our schools have lumped them together.
"The first crisis ... centers on disadvantaged minority children
attending inner-city schools ... The key issues are more social
than educational. These children clearly need dedicated teachers and
a sound curriculum, the two staples of a quality school, but the fact
remains that most of them will not make significant progress until
they also have decent housing, a better diet, and a safer environment
in which to live.
"The second crisis, in contrast, is far more academic than social and
to a surprising extent invisible. It involves approximately half the
country's student population--the group that educators refer to as
'college-bound.' Although the overwhelming majority of these students
attend suburban schools, a fair number can be found in big-city or
consolidated rural districts, or in independent or parochial schools.
Beginning in the mid-1970s these students have been entering college
so badly prepared that they have performed far below potential, often
to the point of functional disability. ...
"the overwhelming majority of these students
attend suburban schools"
"Our brightest youngsters, those most likely to be headed for
selective colleges, have suffered the most dramatic setbacks over the
past two decades ...
"'Students come to us having sat around for twelve years expressing
attitudes toward things rather than analyzing,' [one professor] says. 'They are
always ready to tell you how they feel about an issue, but they have
never learned how to construct a rational argument to defend their
"No account of the present condition of college students would be
complete without mention of the extraordinary dearth of factual
knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic
abound--and they are probably all true. ... Indeed, one can't assume
that college students know anything anymore. ... a professor
... at Berkeley remains
astonished that sophomores and juniors in her upper-level course on
American social history are often unable to differentiate between the
American Revolution and the Civil War, but rather see them as two big
events that happened way back in the past. ... A veteran
member of the Harvard English department encounters the same mushy
grasp of historical knowledge and blames it on the 'trendy
social-studies curriculum' now taught in most high schools which
covers broad thematic topics rather than history. 'They are aware
that someone oppressed someone else,' he says with only slight
exaggeration, 'but they aren't sure exactly what took place and they
have no idea of the order in which it happened.' ...
"... the extraordinary dearth of factual
knowledge they bring to college. Horror stories on this topic
"Students headed for college used to get a solid grasp of both
American and European history at the high school level. Now, as most
people are aware, they pass through an array of social-studies
courses designed to impress upon them the central values of the
sixties, including concern for the natural environment, respect for
people of different racial and ethnic groups, and women's rights.
These values are important and should certainly be included in the
curriculum. But teaching them in such a superficial manner, devoid of
any historical context, simply doesn't work. ...
"Observing the performance of students who have been arriving at
college campuses over the past decade, one can only conclude that the
present generation of American parents has been failing in its
obligation to provide its offspring with a high-quality education."
Of Minivans and Charter Schools
by Martin A. Davis, Jr., Thomas B. Fordham Foundation, September 22, 2005.
"[Some] parents want charters that offer a back-to-basics curriculum, which
frequently isn't found in their children's local schools.
National Heritage Academies, for example, has some 50 schools in five states --
many in the suburbs -- catering to parents and students who appreciate the
back-to-basics philosophy. One of these schools, Canton Academy in
Canton, Michigan, has a student population of around 600, and a
waiting list nearly as long. And its students are, for the most part, far from poor.
Less than 6 percent of that city's population lives below the poverty line. ...
This interest in charters by suburban parents should surprise no one.
The notion that suburban schools are bastions of intellectual power has been
proven wrong time and again ... some suburban parents have long known this."
"The notion that suburban schools are bastions of intellectual power has been
proven wrong time and again"
Worse Than You Think,
Wall Street Journal, October 24, 2007.
"Conventional wisdom holds that upscale communities tend to have 'good' schools,
and parents often buy homes in expensive neighborhoods so their kids have a shot
at a decent public education. But the PRI study, which focused on California,
found that in nearly 300 schools in middle-class and affluent neighborhoods,
'less than half of the students in at least one grade level performed at
proficiency in state math and English tests.'
Many of these schools were located in the Golden State's toniest zip codes,
places like Orange County, Silicon Valley and the beach communities of Los
Angeles. In areas such as Newport Beach, Capistrano and Huntington Beach, where
million-dollar houses are commonplace, researchers found more than a dozen
schools where 50% to 80% of students weren't proficient in math at their grade
level. In one Silicon Valley community where the median home goes for $1.6
million, less than half of 10th and 11th graders scored at or above proficiency
on the state English exam. ...
At Dos Pueblos High School in ritzy Santa Barbara, only 28% of high school juniors
tested college-ready for English in 2006, slightly better than the 23% of
students who did so at San Marin High School in Marin County, where the median
home price recently hit $1 million."
Stupid in America: How We Cheat Our Kids
by John Stossel, ABC News, January 13, 2006.
"If you're like most American parents, you might think 'These things
don't happen at my kid's school.' A Gallup Poll survey showed 76
percent of Americans were completely or somewhat satisfied with their
kids' public school.
Education reformers like Kevin Chavous have a message for these
parents: If you only knew.
Even though people in the suburbs might think their schools are
great, Chavous says, 'They're not. That's the thing and the test
scores show that.'
Chavous and many other education professionals say Americans don't
know that their public schools, on the whole, just aren't that good.
Because without competition, parents don't know what their kids might
There is quite a bit of interest in a new book,
"Class Warfare: Besieged Schools, Bewildered Parents,
Betrayed Kids and the Attack on Excellence" by J. Martin Rochester.
The author is "The Curators' Distinguished Teaching Professor of Political Science"
at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, and winner of their "Chancellor's
Award for Excellence in Teaching at UM-St. Louis." But he is also a Dad.
And in that dual role, he is well-suited to describe the abandonment
of rigor and excellence in well-appointed suburban schools. Here's a
quote about this book from Chester Finn, former assistant secretary, U.S. DOE:
"mediocrity ... afflicts
the nation's high-status suburban schools, too"
"Anyone under the illusion that America's suburban
public schools are doing fine and that our education crisis is
confined to inner city classrooms must read this book.
Martin Rochester expertly reveals the mediocrity that afflicts
the nation's high-status suburban schools, too."
Suburban Schools Offer No Sanctuary from Dumbing-Down Regime
` This is another review of Martin Rochester's Class Warfare,
written by Kevin Killion in School Reform News, February 2003
- Chester E. Finn, president and trustee of the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation,
interviewed on PBS Frontline:
PBS: Do you think that American public education as a whole is still in crisis?
Finn: ... When you look at the international comparative data, and things like
math and science, you discover that our best students are lagging way
behind most other countries' average students in things like math and
physics. You have to conclude that the suburban schools of America
are not as good as they think they are. The difference is that our
suburban schools are complacent and think they're fine, and the
people attending them generally think they're fine. In the inner
cities, people know they have a problem and are actively
discontented. But I think a lot of suburban Americans are living in
a kind of fantasyland.
"a lot of suburban Americans are living in
a kind of fantasyland"
PBS: If you look at poll data, parents in suburban school districts might
say that schools in general are bad, but that their own schools are
Finn: I know, and this is of course a very tricky political issue, because
you don't particular want to tell people that they're wrong, and that
something they think is fine is actually broken. You don't endear
yourself to them by telling them that. But if we were being brutally
honest, we would be saying to suburban America that your kids
actually aren't learning very much either. While the country is doing
fine, and thus this doesn't feel like a crisis, I think the country
is doing fine partly because we have an endless number of mechanisms
for coping with the fact that our education system isn't working very
well. We let everybody go to college, we let everybody get retrained
on the job, and we let everybody go back to college a second, third,
fourth time. We never say it's over, we never say it's a lost cause,
we never say it's hopeless. You can buy all kinds of educational
supplements. You're given a thousand chances, and that's the nice
thing about America, but it also means that we don't actually ever
sort of finally crack the whip and say, "Shape up or ship out."
Vouchers Hit the Burbs
by Marie Gryphon, Cato Institute, August 31, 2005. Excerpts:
"For decades the minivan set heard sky-is-falling predictions that
choice would destroy public schools and undermine social stability.
Suburban schools may not be perfect, commuters grumbled, but they
aren't bad enough to risk change. ... Families within shouting
distance of growing crops or big box retail may be late adopters, but
school choice is no longer nouveaux. Urban programs have shown that
choice increases parent satisfaction even as it improves the quality
of public schools exposed to competition. As existing programs
mature, families are increasingly comfortable with the idea of
choice. ... School choice has upside potential because different
children learn differently. Students who are learning adequately in
one school may find that elsewhere they can become outstanding. An
Indiana University evaluation of the Cleveland program found that 'no
particular school or school type is likely to meet the expectations
or needs of all families.' ... That a child's individual needs,
rather than geography, should determine the school that she attends
was a novel idea in the wake of decades of public school assignment,
and it has taken hold slowly. But as urban voucher programs diversify
educational options while revitalizing public schools, parents
elsewhere are rethinking the opportunity to choose."
- In an
article from the New Oxford Review (December 2001) author Jack Taylor
crisply states the problem with improving suburban schools:
"One reason why they can sustain this level of denial is that the
schools look normal. A new school was recently built in our neighborhood.
Its architecture is not my cup of tea, but its reflective windows
and clean, low rectangular shapes appeal to the modern sensibilities
of my neighbors. Inside, shiny linoleum floors and computer stations
radiate an atmosphere of high tech academics. As a species, we believe
that anything that looks good is good. We buy cars this way, we buy
houses this way, some of us pick spouses this way, and we enroll our
kids in schools this way."
- On the issue of the "look" of a school, also be sure to read
the section of this website on
"Curb Appeal" and Schools.
- In Plano, Texas, a suburb of Dallas, a group of parents
have engaged in a protracted legal battle with their school district
over the district's implementation of a trendy and fuzzy math
program. In this
article from School Reform News (October 2001) about that battle,
George Clowes identifies a problem endemic to all such efforts
to improve suburban schools:
"The major roadblock to the advance of school choice in the
suburbs is not how to pursue a solution, but for families first to
recognize there is a problem, and they have little choice or control
over what their children are taught in public schools."
- In his fascinating book,
Leviathan: The Growth of Local Government and the Erosion of Civil Liberty,
Clint Bolick mentions the role of suburban parents in education reform (page 143):
While government schools are spending resources doing things they shouldn't
be doing, their track record is far worse when it comes to fulfilling
their essential goal of providing the educational basics.
Many parents in the suburbs are vaguely aware of the problem,
particularly when standardized tests reveal vast numbers of failing students
(which is usually followed by demands not to fix the problem but to get
rid of the tests).
Soccer Moms vs. Standardized Tests
by Charles J. Sykes, December 6, 1999.
"After decades of endless gold stars, happy faces and inflated grades,
American parents apparently were not ready for a reality check about how
much our schools are really teaching our children. ...
It is not surprising that more rigorous state standards have come
under fire from the usual opposition coalition of civil rights groups,
progressive educators and teacher unions.
What is striking though, is the opposition from soccer moms.
In Wisconsin ... most of the opposition to [a proposed exam] came not from
troubled urban schools, but from affluent suburbs.
... For much of this century, the educational establishment has behaved
as if it were addicted to bad ideas, indulging its own wishful and
romantic thinking even in the face of mounting evidence of failure.
... The schools had been allowed to obscure the fact
that many children were not mastering basic subjects. The constant
positive reinforcement of unrealistic grading and easy tests was
meant not only for the children, whose self-esteem remained strong in
the face of shaky math and reading abilities, but for their parents,
For many of these parents, the new tests were a very rude shock.
Accustomed to thinking of educational difficulties as somebody else's
problem, they and their school districts suddenly faced the
possibility of failure.
A powerful speech from a parent in an upscale suburb:
Elizabeth Gnall's statement to the National Math Advisory Panel, September 6, 2007.
"I live in the affluent public school district of Ridgewood, New
Jersey. But my district has a dirty little secret. Ridgewood Public
School district is segregated -- on one side of town, elementary
school-aged children are taught math following a logical sequencing
of topics, honoring the scholarly body of mathematics.
"I live in [an] affluent public school district ... but my district has a dirty little secret."
"In another part of town the math is not taught but instead it is left
for the children to discover and to construct. The math where for
grades beyond Kindergarten the use of scissors, glue, paperclips, and
any other object now defined as a manipulative, are deemed acceptable
and encouraged. Sadly, this is the side of town where my children
attend school. ...
"Across this nation, parents just like me, will ultimately triumph in
the math wars because it is OUR children, not the children of the
state. ... Give us a choice in math education and we would choose a
math education that is rigorous, focuses on content, is not driven by
constructivist pedagogy, emphasizes the learning of mathematical
facts, principles, and algorithms, uses the proper language and
symbolic notation of math, and defines mathematical reasoning as the
interconnections within mathematics. It is the kind of math that is
being taught in other parts of this nation, the world, and in other
parts of my town of Ridgewood, New Jersey. It is the math I believe
that will provide a solid foundation for my children so if they
desire, if they dream, to become a scientist, an architect, or like
their dad, a Wall Street finance executive, or like their mom, an
engineer, they can."
Suburban Kids' Behavior Mirrors Urban Students':
High-schoolers as likely to have sex, drink, steal regardless of address
by Pamela Brogan, Gannett News Service, as printed in Detroit News, January 28, 2004.
"Public high school students in suburbia are just as likely as
students in urban schools to engage in sex, get pregnant, obtain an
abortion, drink, use illegal drugs, steal and fight, according to a
report released today..."
ED-RED calls itself the "voice of suburban schools"
and has a membership consisting of the superintendents of most of the Chicago
suburban school districts. Not too surprisingly, they are in favor of loosening
achievement goals, giving more money to school districts, weakening tax caps,
and keeping as much authority in the hands of district administrators as possible.
Nonetheless, they do have some goals that are consistent with those
of education reformers: For example, they oppose handing over control of certification to
a board dominated by education unions. The
ED-RED website is an
excellent source of information about current legislation
in Springfield, and about our state legislators and the school districts they
cover and the committees they are on.
Another good source of information about pending legislation in
Springfield is this
Digest of New School Laws, 2004 provided by the
Illinois Association of School Boards. Of course, most of these boards
and the IASB itself are highly oriented towards preserving the status quo,
so don't expect unbiased coverage. However, this does provide a heads-up.
- Constructivism and fuzzy math in an upscale suburb:
Math Education: Bellevue, WA:
Suburbs and Charter Schools
In other states, yes, charters are very popular in the suburbs.
But here in Illinois, local districts are given almost all power of life and death
over charters, and the suburban districts have no interest at all in giving up their monopolies.
Here's the Chicago Tribune (May 19, 2005): "Suburban [school board] officials have rejected all but
one of 19 proposals. Only south suburban Crete-Monee School District agreed to grant a license.
That charter, given to Governors State University, was later pulled."
The result is a wild imbalance: In Illinois, charter schools are pretty much confined to
the largest city, unlike in other states:
Here are some links that provide more insight.
Where are the charters in Chicago's suburbs?
Why is Illinois so
far behind other states in enabling educational options for
A report from the Fordham Foundation explains it all:
"The Approval Barrier to Suburban Charter Schools" (PDF doc)
uses Illinois as its example of a state that has deliberately blocked
expansion of charter schools. The report contrasts the growth and success of
suburban charters in Colorado, New Jersey, and Connecticut
with the stagnation in Illinois.
The conclusion: if a state sets
up a system for authorizing charter schools where the authorizing
body doesn't want charter schools, there won't be many charter schools!
The report is also available as an
The Dark Side of Suburban School Achievement
by George A. Clowes, School Reform News, January 2000.
"In early November, parents in many New York communities were shocked
to discover that buying an expensive home in an exclusive
suburb hadn't guaranteed a good education for their
children in the local public schools."
Charter Schools Pledge Success, USA Today, November 14, 2001:
"Seven years ago, parents in the Cherry Creek [Colorado] district sought
to create a charter when many of their children weren't learning to read.
Already, there was heated debate over whether reading should be taught
using the whole language or phonics approach. Parents wanted a curriculum
that focused on the basics. Their dissatisfaction with the suburban
schools challenged the schools' generally accepted reputation for excellence."
Newark Charter School, Newark, Delaware:
Read about this Core Knowledge school in the sprawling suburbs near
Wilmington, Delaware. Excerpt:
"The school was founded in 2001 by a group of local parents frustrated by a perceived
lack of rigor and challenging content in Newark [Delaware]-area middle
schools. ... Newark's staff members have learned a powerful lesson:
If you teach it, students will learn it. ...
Of course, having a logically sequenced and very specific curriculum has given
Newark's extended family another benefit -- clarity. 'Teachers know what
it is they are supposed to teach, administrators know what they are
supposed to see teachers teaching, the teachers talk to each other about
what's being taught, the parents easily see what's being taught and where it's
going next year.'"
Why Charter Schools? The Princeton Story (PDF), Thomas B. Fordham
Dave Ziffer, one of the founders of the Illinois Loop, writes,
"This document is [written by] Dr. Chiara R. Nappi, a physicist, incidentally)
who was one of a group of parents
who wanted a more structured, systematic curriculum in the K-8 schools of
Princeton, New Jersey. The story is absolutely gripping ...
It blows away the myth that America's suburban schools are doing just
fine, as indicated by their relatively high scores on achievement tests. Nappi
exposes the reality -- that the children who were doing well in the highly
affluent and educated suburban town of Princeton were those whose parents could
afford to tutor and otherwise educate them outside of the schools. ...
The article details the attempts of Nappi and other parents to
'work within the system,' and being defeated at every turn by an opposing
majority of board members who used every imaginable device to discredit anyone
who wanted to implement higher standards and accountability in their district."
Ultimately, the parents successfully created a charter school to address their needs.
Parents Hungry for ABC's Find Schools Don't Add Up
by Kate Zernike, New York Times, April 28, 2001, Page A1 (Cover page).
"Signs of quiet revolt are everywhere: children tracing neat cursive
letters in penmanship class, memorizing multiplication tables, taking
spelling quizzes and learning the value of a strong topic sentence.
"Today's model classroom tends to avoid these things, deeming them
uninspired and uninspiring, dismissing them as 'chalk and talk,'
'drill and kill.' Here, the new Princeton Charter School is
embracing them unabashedly. Call us traditional, the parents who
started this school say. They prefer to think of this as 'drill and
skill,' the foundation of a good education. ...
"These parents say, most schools have moved so far away from the
fundamentals that their children come home knowing about the
Holocaust but not World War II, Babylonian math but not fractions.
Children cannot think critically, they retort, if they do not have
the basic content to think about. ...
"Jeanne Allen, president of the Center for Education Reform, a charter school
advocacy group in Washington [says,] 'I don't think most parents start out
wanting to start a new school; they just want the school to do what
they thought the school was going to do.' ...
"'Five or ten years ago, most parents fell into the category of
believing my school knows what is right and best for my child,' said
Mychele Brickner, a member of the Fairfax School Board. ...
'That trust level has eroded.' ...
"'We're not saying it's boring,' said Ms. Byers, [a] teacher in
Princeton. 'There's plenty of room to be creative in deciding how
you teach these skills. What we are saying is that you need to be
able to read to do anything else, you need the logic, the order, of
math to survive in the world.'"
Mission Statement of the Princeton Charter School:
Suburban Chicago parents, read this and eat your heart out!
Charter Demand Rising In Suburbs:
Spurred by choices in the Twin Cities, parents seek options for their children
by Megan Boldt, St. Paul Pioneer Press, August 31, 2004. Excerpts:
"Suburban parents ... are driving much of the new demand for charters"
"[Parent Melissa] Martyr-Wagner said. 'I knew what I wanted for my child, and the district
couldn't offer it. And when someone's convinced at what they want for their
child, they'll work pretty hard to get it.'
Suburban parents like Martyr-Wagner are driving much of the new demand for
charters and other public school choices in Minnesota. A record 20 charters will
open this fall, including seven in the Twin Cities suburbs, also a record. They
range from Spanish immersion to a Stillwater school focused on the classics.
'Suburban parents see [city schools in] St. Paul and Minneapolis offering more choices to their
residents, and they want different opportunities for their children,' said Steve
Dess, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Charter Schools."
- Suburbs Face Tests as Charter Schools Continue to Spread
by Kate Zernike, New York Times, December 18, 2000. Excerpt:
"In the middle-class community of Glen Cove on the North Shore of Long Island,
[a proposal for a charter school] touched off a bitter dispute: were the local
schools as fine as they were said to be, or were they merely coasting on
reputation? ... Charter schools began ... mostly as a possible solution
to bad city schools. ... But they are starting to spread into suburbs,
in part because some
suburban parents say they, too, deserve a choice of public schools."