Diff’rent strokes for diff’rent folks . . . even Tiger Moms and Koala Dads

I’ll continue throwing out suggestions for how Utah could most effectively spend its (inevitably limited) additional educational resources. But meanwhile, a debate over charter schools has been raging among the people commenting on this blog, and I can’t resist wading in.

Much of the argument centers on whether charter schools unfairly cherry pick students. It seems to me from the discussion, and from what I know of education law, that the answers are no, and yes.

No, charter schools can’t just choose their student body. Charter schools must offer open admission, although it’s true that  they don’t need to accept all special education students. When demand exceeds supply, as it often does, the schools choose their incoming class  by lottery. That’s the “Superman” those Harlem parents were waiting for in the now famous movie: a winning lottery number.

But yes, of course, parents who enter charter school lotteries are not going to be perfectly representative of parents in the community, or, more accurately, they are not going to be perfectly representative of the least responsible or involved parents in the community. Charter school lottery entrants want change, by definition, which means that they’re paying enough attention to know when their kids’ schools aren’t working. They take enough initiative to apply for an alternative school, instead of just putting their children on whichever yellow school bus drives down their street. Applying to a charter school doesn’t automatically brand them as helicopter parents – any more than choosing traditional public schools brands parents who pick this alternative as indifferent parents – but yes, charter school applicants are taking more initiative than some of the uninvolved parents that teachers have frequently complained about in comments on this blog.

(I’d just note that in my experience teachers complain as much, or more, about parents who constantly seek more information about, or influence over, what their kids are learning. But that’s a topic for another blog post.)

Of course, to use these allegedly unrepresentative involved parents as an argument against charters is to employ the logic of the least common denominator. If not all kids get to have involved parents, well, then none of them should get to enjoy the fruits of having involved parents. That is, of course, unless the involved parents are wealthy enough to afford private schools or real estate in the best school districts – usually, though not always, pretty expensive real estate.

Some charter supporters actually reverse this argument, and defend educational choice only for disadvantaged kids. I’m perfectly willing to start there, but I wanted to share a recent article that makes the case for offering more educational choice in “the leafy suburbs.”  The author, Fordham Institute Executive Vice President and Hoover Institution research fellow Michael Petrilli, argues that conscientious parents who want to be involved in their children’s education also often want, well, very different things from schools.

Here’s my favorite part:

. . . forcing people to “go private” in order to get a customized education for their kids is not a great political strategy for building broad support for the public schools. When school levies come up for a vote, don’t districts want as many taxpayers as possible to have a direct stake in the outcome?

And “customization” is the real issue. Even in upper-middle-class communities, not all parents want the same things for their kids. From my own personal experience (Fordham is working on collecting more rigorous, non-anecdotal data—stay tuned for that), affluent parents break down into at least three groups:

Tiger Moms (and Dads), who want their kids pushed, pulled, and stretched in order to get into top colleges. They want gifted-and-talented programs in elementary school, lots of “honors” and Advanced Placement options in secondary school, and high-octane enrichment activities like orchestra, debate club, and chess teams. These folks have no patience for warm-and-fuzzy edu-babble; they want teachers who themselves attended elite schools and can help their charges attain the pinnacle of academic achievement.

Koala Dads (and Moms), who want school to be a joyful experience for their kids, big and little. They want lots of time for creativity, personal expression, social-emotional development, and relationship-building. Models like Montessori and Waldorf are catnip to these folks; they want teachers who can role-model a kind, soulful, tolerant, mindful way of living in the world—a sort of wisdom that goes beyond mere knowledge. They, too, aspire for their children to attend great colleges—but probably the liberal artsy/crunchy types.

The Cosmopolitans, who want their children prepared to compete in a multicultural, multilingual world. They want a language immersion program for their tots (ideally Mandarin, though they’ll settle for Spanish); International Baccalaureate (IB) starting in middle school at the latest; and at least one, if not several, overseas experiences in high school. They want multicultural, multilingual teachers—and aspire for their children to either run, or save, the world. (Yes, these are close relatives of the Tiger Moms—Madres Tigres you could call them.

Can one school meet all these demands? Should one school even try? Read on – it’s an intriguing article.



  1. Carolyn Sharette

    Great article Mary. The criticisms of charter schools because we aren’t “required” to serve the most difficult students seems to me a waste of time.

    Why are we stuck talking about this over and over? Why can’t we move on to what seems to me to be more important – how do we motivate ALL parents to take such an interest in their child’s education? Wouldn’t that be our overarching objective and goal?

    By offering charter schools as a no-cost alternative (with the exception of the transportation parents must usually provide) parental involvement in education is growing rapidly. Parents in West Valley City, who many would have likely branded as uncaring and uninvolved, now have at least 5 charter schools to choose from and they are flocking to them.

    Our goal as a society should be putting in place educational systems that motivate parents and provide truly accessible schools that parents can get excited about being involved in. I know from personal experience that coercion into boundary schools that may or may not meet our child’s needs tends to beat the enthusiasm out of the best of us. An educational system that provides many options for parents will increase their participation. I think everyone agrees that parental support and participation in meaningful ways is the very first step toward academic success for students.

    So I want to know: why is the very thing that can improve education the most (parental involvement and participation) fought so vehemently by anyone who claims to want to improve education for students?

    • Jeffery Hosten

      Carolyn, I agree with you almost entirely, but I’d like to play devil’s advocate. Charter schools have some good points, sure, but research shows that they perform about as well as traditional public schools. Why not pool resources into public schools and improve them?

      Or, if you’re a little more libertarian (like me), shouldn’t we be pushing toward more privatization? Vouchers, etc.?

      What do you think of what’s happening in New Orleans, by the way? Essentially, most of the city’s schools have turned into charters, but critics claim that some kids are getting kicked out and left behind. It sounds a lot like the “no excuses” model that Mary was talking about previously.

  2. Mary McConnell

    Remember that charter schools ARE public schools. If the growing demand for charters shifts resources from one public sector to another, so be it. Of course, this raises the question of whether school districts are as willing to close traditional public schools. I’ve repeatedly argued that a big advantage of charter schools is that we seem to be willing to allow them to fail!

    Later today, I’ll post an interesting article that makes this point.

    I like vouchers, too, but so far charter schools seem to enjoy wider public support.

    Good question about New Orleans. I’ve been planning to post about what’s happening in the Big Easy. Maybe you’ll speed me up.

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