Should we be satisfied with mediocre schools?

Michael J. Petrilli is president of the conservative educational thinktank, the Thomas J. Fordham Institute–whose tagline is “Advancing Educational Excellence.” Petrilli argues that it’s totally okay if his children study at a school that is “often mediocre.” This a breath of fresh air in regards to his honesty and candor, at least. What sort of school should he want for his children? “Not a school that is just ‘adequate or average,’ much less mediocre, but one that, by design, helps to prepare kids for ‘life’s endless frustrations.’”

This is the attitude that literally frustrated me to distraction when I was a student in the 1970s and 80s, and which led me to homeschool my two boys. It is refreshing that Petrilli admits that his children’s school is mediocre and that, out of consistency, he wants to make a virtue of not-quite-necessity by saying this is a good thing, because it prepares them for the many frustrations of life. But no, I argue that we should not be satisfied with mediocre schools, and the quality of education is an important enough thing that, barring some sort of educational revolution–not likely–then we should seek other solutions. Homeschooling is ours.

We don’t regret our choice in the least. To give an example of what they’re doing now, my 12-year-old son is about to read the classics of archaic Greece, Hesiod’s Works and Days and Theogony, and both the Iliad and the Odyssey by Homer. As to my 8-year-old, I read the Odyssey to him when he was five, at his request, and am now halfway through reading the Iliad to him. For his own part, he’s polishing off the Harry Potter series for fun and continues to watch science videos aimed at high school students.

I ask myself: What can account for such a stark difference of opinion between Petrilli, who finds himself arguing that mediocre schools are good enough for his children, and me, when I absolutely insist on giving my children an excellent education?

Part of this, no doubt, is the difference between a conservative and a libertarian. Conservatives are generally inclined to defend the current system, warts and all, even if they are (as in Petrilli’s case) committed to “Advancing Educational Excellence.” The incursions of institutions on liberty and, yes, excellence naturally piss off libertarians.

But let’s look at Petrilli’s actual argument. He says that life is full of mediocrity and boredom; kids should learn to cope with it. I find this argument transparently weak. Have we heard any stories, much less seen hard evidence, that homeschooled kids, who do not have to deal with the bullshit of a regular school, are somehow hampered by their lack of experience with daily mediocrity and boredom? Not at all. If anything, the unremitting mediocrity of most regular schools (both public and private) beats down many kids, turning them off to learning and stifling their ambition, especially in the case of boys in recent decades.

I would argue, to the contrary, that small human beings naturally bristle and rebel at stifling mediocrity, and if this rebellious spirit, which is the same as the desire for excellence, is not beaten out of them, it will serve them very well in adulthood.

So that argument won’t do, and Petrilli acknowledges he might be rationalizing:

To be sure, I might be rationalizing. To find the money to send two boys to private school would require a painful change in our family’s lifestyle; likewise with becoming homeschoolers. But the truth is that we could do it if we wanted it badly enough. So I have a strong self-interest in conflating “mediocre” and “good enough.” Maybe I’m just trying to feel better about the fact that I haven’t figured out how to get my boys into a school that’s excellent.

I don’t know Petrilli, so I can’t say if his refreshing candor here is correct in his case. But it does have the ring of truth to me. I think that many of us ambitious adults do place our own interests before those of our children, and perhaps this is natural for us. But others feel quite differently about the matter.





Please do dive in (politely). I want your reactions!

8 responses to “Should we be satisfied with mediocre schools?”

  1. The real problem is that public schools try to stream kids. If they do well academically, then they are thought of to be too smart for something like a job in the trades; consequently, they are often pressured by their parents to do well and get a university degree where they end up at Starbucks waiting for their ship to come in. The ones that don’t measure up are pushed through in hopes that they can get a mediocre job somewhere. I saw this when my own son was questioned by his teachers as to why he was studying academic level science, math, and English when he wanted to get into the skilled trades. No kid is ever taught to take ownership of their lives and make their own opportunities. At the end of the day, they’re just being streamed into a system that will let them down, so we would be wise to teach them to take control of their own lives and choose a path that’s right for them.

    1. Paul, you read my mind! As I told Conrad, I think the big problem with traditional schooling of all kinds is the tracking (or streaming). Students should learn every subject at their own pace, period; that’s how it should work. If there aren’t enough teachers to manage them if they’re doing this (I’m not convinced) then bring in some volunteers, some of the SAHMs and SAHDs. Then they really would be able to do what you want, i.e., figure out what they want to do with their life and study more of the sorts of things that will prepare them for that.

  2. As someone who sent my daughters to private schools (that cost significantly more than my private college education) from K onward, I have to add that I found private schools to be consistently mediocre as well. They’re just a better class of mediocre. I agree that there’s little merit in training our children to deal with frustration and stupidity as an educational strategy. But I think the hard decision is whether the obviously superior education from home-schooling out-weighs the (I think pretty real) draw-backs. Choosing between schools is often like choosing between fast food and fast casual restaurants on the Interstate. There’s a difference but it’s not necessarily the choice you’d hope for.

    1. See also what Conrad says about this very question. I’ve investigated the local private schools and I know enough about methods and curricula to read between the lines: no, with the possible exception of a couple schools, they don’t look that different from public schools.

      The ideal educational situation would be a school in which every student has his own regularly-updated and -reviewed study plan, and while he studies alongside other students, he isn’t studying what they’re studying. Moreover, the teachers are on hand both to answer questions and to motivate and cheer on. I know this is how some unschooling situations might work out for some students, but I strongly disagree with the unschooling notion that students should learn whatever they want to, and avoid learning whatever they don’t want to. So wrong; there’s just too much stuff that they must learn, like it or not.

      Yes, I wish my boys had more socializing opportunities than they do have, but it’s OK. They still have friends (especially each other).

  3. Interesting article, Larry!

    And congratulations on your decision to homeschool your sons. How wonderful to see that you are introducing the great classical works to them: they’re already ahead of the game!

    I was a classroom teacher of thirty-four years and I actually do see some merit in Petrilli’s position. There was a time when I would have extolled the virtues of private schools and regarded their public counterparts as inferior. I’ve had a change of heart.

    Having worked in a Catholic system with its dress codes and religious paraphernalia and taught the International Baccalaureate English program for the last eight years of my career, I regard separate educational systems and their claims to higher academic standards as almost fraudulent. I saw a lot of unscrupulous administrators and parents who arm-twisted staff into awarding inflated grade averages to mediocre students; I encountered firsthand the viciousness of school superintendents and ambitious staff who would report you to school authorities in a heartbeat (if it served their interests) ; and was forced by a dictatorial teachers union to strike and cause no end of schools/classroom disruptions.

    Dress code violations, chronic absenteeism and drugs were a common part of every school I had ever taught in. Every school had to address the chronic issues of bullying and hazing. And teachers faced growing harassment from students and their parents.

    Unfortunately, the school is a microcosm of the world. I think it is part of every young person’s educational journey to learn (by trial and error) to navigate the dangers and obstacles that await them in school and beyond. I would favor a system that offered educational and moral excellence–and not a few school systems claim to do just that– except I don’t believe any such educational systems exist.

    There are imperfect schools; imperfect students and teachers; and a very imperfect world that will continue to subject the young to the bruising realities of life.

    1. Hi Conrad, thanks for the reply. I once thought private schooling might be better, but since reading Dumbing Us Down, I’ve come to the conclusion that the real problem with regular schooling (public or private) is over-coarse tracking. Only homeschooling and non-insane unschooling can allow the student to learn efficiently, with books he’s most interested in, getting rid of texts he dislikes, studying more of what he likes, etc.

      The moral dangers of school are not an advantage. I mean, you might well say my boys will grow up innocent of a lot of the stuff you describe, and so they will, but they will have gotten the many advantages associated with encountering such bad influences after their judgment has matured.

      Perhaps the real problem is lack of courage—why weren’t those drug-using, harrassing, and absentee kids kicked out of school immediately? Most parents might have supported this, and ultimately you might have had more students. Public schools can’t kick them out; but they can discipline them in various ways.

      Then of course there’s the whole absolutely insane (now mostly indirect, but still very real) influence of radical feminism and SJWs in classrooms. Why on earth would I want to subject my boys to the constant message that they are defective girls?

      I don’t claim homeschooling is perfect, just that it dodges many awful problems and allows us to give our boys a proper education.

  4. I just want to add, why do schools need to be so incredibly boring? Why can’t kids in grade 1 build a model rocket every day and launch it? Or build model race cars and race them? Or dig into the ground to discover the secrets and history of various rocks and minerals that lay beneath? The concept of a classroom is an abstract that worked in the days when kids were milking cows, feeding chickens, shoveling dung, digging out potatoes, and interacting with the living natural world during their summer holidays and before and after school times, but trying to force that model on kids today is like giving people buggy whips to get their cars to go faster. It’s antiquated, it doesn’t work, and it’s broken. It’s time to get our kids back into the natural world they were born into, to learn dynamically as humans have evolved to learn best.

  5. I enjoyed reading your article, Larry. I agree that schools, public or private, are more or less, mediocre. It’s quite tragic and not at all what I envisioned I was getting into when I became a teacher (I lasted 6 years). Eva Moskowitz said it perfectly in an interview several years back when she stated ““If planes crashed at the rate that schools are crashing, there would be a national crisis. Our schools range often from abysmal to mediocre and a very small number are very good.” She’s spot on, in my opinion. I have, however, encountered some charter schools that have figured out some formulas that are working nicely. Not all of them are great, but some of them are absolutely stellar. Those ones deserve our attention.

    I am a former (incredibly disillusioned) public school teacher. In college, I was not sure what I wanted to pursue. I toyed with medicine, psychology, chiropractic medicine, etc. I was not sure enough to invest that sort of money, so I majored in education figuring I could enjoy that until I figured out my next move. After leaving six years in, I joined an ed. tech company where I serviced 150 schools in the midwest as a consultant. I almost moved to NYC after accepting a job at a stellar charter school, but decided to pursue passions in psychology instead. I say all of this because what I found when I was a teacher, a consultant, sales rep, and unoffical investigator (ha!) is that school culture is the root cause of this all. Tracking students is a symptom of a deeper issue, in my opinion. Students would not need to be tracked if the school had done its job in the first place – ensure all students are on grade level. Adult excuses got in the way of this frequently, and teachers’ unions were another serious issue. I am not a huge fan of unions, but I can go with them in some instances. That said, I am absolutely not okay with them when kids are the collateral damage of them, which was what I encountered.

    I taught in three public school districts during my time – one title one school in an urban district, one affluent district that won awards labeling it ‘excellent,’ and one upper middle class district. I actually attended high school in the affluent district. They all had one thing in common: all were excellent at maintaining the status quo. The affluent district was bolstered and prasied for being stellar, but what was inside was mediocrity at its best. Teachers were lucky to have had the students they had. I believe they learned in spite of us, not because of us.
    Sure, the experience may have been a little bit better (think Ihop instead of McDonald’s pancakes), but excellence was nowhere to be found. I was hungry and incredibly eager to learn, waiting for feedback and coaching, but it never came. I grew bitter and frustrated. As a student in the award-winning high school (which I shall not name), I was a high performer who was well-behaved. I never had to persevere. In fact, I think perseverance is the single most important lesson schools can be teaching students through the content they teach. This bit me later on in life.

    The only schools I’ve seen perform with excellence are charters. There have been random one offs throughout history in the public school system, but movies are made about those scenarios, and those teachers typically leave. I’m not saying charters are perfect – far from it. What I am saying is there are some really really good ones that deserve our attention. Achievement First, Zeta, Noble Network, Success Academy, Uncommon Schools, KIPP and more are taking students living in poverty and getting results better than affluent suburbs are achieving. They are teaching students the joy of learning and school is a joyful, rigorous place.

    The biggest difference between public/private schools and charters for me is that charters are able to foster a culture of excellence. If done well, the culture permeates throughout the school. The curriculum is, ideally, well- thought out and planned, asking things of kindergarteners that traditional public schools (and even some private schools, I’d be willing to bet) are not asking of students until third grade. Behavioral and academic standards are clear without changes from class to class. I think there’s this notion that teachers need ‘autonomy’ to be effective and happy. I think autonomy is something that needs to be earned after proving results. I think that having a standard curriculum is absolutely necessary and that teachers can inject their personality and make the content come to life. They must give up some ‘freedom’ to ensure we’re all paddling together on the same ship. Curriculum is similar to a surgeon’s tools – it needs to be precise and sharpened just right for best use. Each school will have a slightly different flavor, and so the task at hand for teachers is to find a school that fits his/her philosophy culturally, pedagogically, etc.

    When I applied for charter positions in NYC, I was able to observe classes. When I entered the classrooms, I thought to myself ‘this is what I’ve been missing.’ The experience was incredible and one I’ll never forget. The passion and dedication that these students had, even for a class like dance, was incredible. The energy was absolutely contagious. If/when I have children, mine will attend a reputable public charter school, for sure.

    I could go on and on. Just had to chime in as the topic is near and dear to my heart. I’m so glad there are others really taking the time to think through our educational crisis. We owe it to ourselves and our children. It really is an emergency at this point.

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