“The doctor’s child sat beside the child of the council laborer,” she said.
It was hardly perfect. Most school systems reproduce inequities to one degree or another. But nothing quite prepared her for her role as a teacher in New York’s system. She has since developed some sympathy for those theorists who say that at times America’s educational system has verged on a form of apartheid.
Yet, O’Brien doesn’t believe Catholic schools or other alternatives are the right choices for immigrant parents in New York. “Public school teachers are better qualified and credentialed, for one thing,” she said.
That’s just one piece of information that parents hear. They are also exposed to countervailing arguments in favor of private schools. And they read about the in-vogue charters, which are run by private entities within the public system. Who and what should they believe?
Many experts would agree with O’Brien, at least if student academic achievement is the issue. They say U.S. studies have shown no compelling evidence that Catholic or charter schools offer middle-class and working-class students any real advantage over students from similar backgrounds that go to public schools.
Some of these same experts, though, have argued that Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s reforms can’t close achievement gaps. “The gains are real,” said Norm Fruchter, of Brown University’s Annenberg Institute for School Reform, about test scores, “but the kinds of capacities they’re producing are not the kinds of intellectual capacities that kids need. “
He added, referring to the mayor and his education chancellor: “My main criticism is that the Bloomberg/Klein regime has looked to structural rather than instructional solutions.”
In one sense, the debate over public or Catholic or charter may be beside the point if none of those systems are producing outcomes that society and parents want. Fruchter has had a decades-long association with New York’s public schools as student, parent, teacher and researcher, yet he looks to other cities, such as Boston, that have reorganized teaching in the classroom. One version of that model has brought impressive results to the schools on the bases of the U.S. armed forces, he has argued in “Urban Schools, Public Will: Making Education Work For All Our Children.”
“Military schools are a demonstration that background does not have to determine achievement,” he said.
In the relaxed atmosphere at military base schools, socio-economic and racial achievement gaps have been whittled down to nothing, precisely because they’ve reorganized the classrooms. And because there are so many of such schools, that success can’t be ignored.
O’Brien, who teaches at a high school in Brooklyn, said that the emphasis on test scores, while beneficial in some ways, won’t necessarily help her special-education students in the long term.
“But there have been great improvements in the system in last few years,” she said.
According to the County Tipperary-born O’Brien, the roots of New York and America’s education problems are historical. “Funding has been tied to property taxes,” she said.
Fruchter said that 10 times the amount was spent on New York’s school infrastructure in real terms in the first half of the 20th Century than in latter half.
He added that people look back on the 1950s, when the move to the suburbs was just beginning, as the “golden era” of the system.
“The failure rates were just as large,” he said of a time when a high-school diploma was not a requirement in the industrial economy
Still, the New York City public school system was celebrated nationwide.
From the 1960s on, however, it became a “system for other people’s children.” Fruchter argued that if it had continued to serve key constituencies, and various elites, it wouldn’t have become an easy target for “scapegoating” in the media. “You would get a different quality of coverage,” he said. But with a large bureaucracy serving one million students, “there was a constant production of material for scapegoating.”
Arguably, Fruchter’s point has been made for him by Bloomberg’s recent election ads. In them, the mayor claims he took charge of a “dysfunctional and inept school system.”
Against that backdrop, the search for alternatives is hardly surprising. The most important of them historically, however, the Catholic school system, has been in crisis over the last decade. The Diocese of Brooklyn and Queens has seen enrollment drop at its schools from 55,000 in 1998 to 37,000 this year. One reason for the decline is that that those from more established Catholic ethnic groups have been leaving the city while the newer immigrants of the same faith haven’t been able to afford tuition. Nonetheless, given that a further 88,000 students attend the schools of the Archdiocese of New York, which covers the other three boroughs and some counties to the north, it’s clear the Catholic system remains a factor.
Irish immigrant parents generally cite safety, class size and the sense of community engendered by a smaller school as reasons for opting out of the public system.
Fiona Finneran, a native of County Leitrim, explained why she sends her 11-year-old son to a Catholic school. “It’s secure and it’s safe. You don’t worry even when they’re out of school,” she said. “They look out for each other. You have peace of mind.”
But it’s expensive. The basic [annual] tuition fee is $3,600. “When all is said and done, though, it’s actually closer to $5,000,” she said.
Finneran is satisfied with the standard of teaching, but said she knows there are good public schools and may send her second son, who is now 4, to one if the option of a Catholic school isn’t financially feasible.
She said that religion was an important consideration in her initial decision, but allowed, too, that she may have been unduly swayed by others’ opinions. “I was in Ireland for a few years, and when I came back I heard some mothers portray public schools almost as if they were prisons,” she recalled.
Parents apply to charter schools for many of the same reasons they look to the Catholic system, such as class size and safety. Charters, often referred to as the new Catholic schools, may even allow an indirect religious dimension in state-funded education. This would be a good thing, for people like the Rev. Colm Campbell, director of the Irish Center in Long Island City, who believes that not financing citizens’ education “is taking church-state separation too far.” He said that Catholics in Canada and Northern Ireland are entitled to state funding.
Sense of community
But while church groups in the black community have been involved in the creation of charters, and there have been proposals about charters using Catholic school buildings, generally speaking religion does not figure in parents’ discussion of them.
“Charter schools have gotten great write-ups and reviews,” said Catherine, a parent from a border county in Ireland who has four children from 13 down to 5. Two are in charter schools, and she’s waiting for openings for the other two.
“The education is great in public schools. I’ve no problem with it,” she said.
Class size and control of her children are the important issues for her in addition to curriculum. In her experience with public schools, the older a child gets the more students there are in his or her class.
In the big public schools, Catherine said, students are bussed in from “undesirable neighborhoods,” bringing the dangers of children falling in with the wrong crowd.
“With two parents working, nobody’s home; there’s nobody to answer to,” she said. In the charter schools, “they’re on top of the kids.” she feels.
“And there’s more of a community,” Catherine said. “I know many more parents than in the public school.”
But Caroline Lee, a County Wexford-born mother of sons aged 7 and 4, said she was happy with the answers she got from her public school on issues such as teacher turnover, their qualifications and those of the principal.
“I couldn’t get any answers from the Catholic school,” she said.
“My husband and I wanted to bring up our children up in the Catholic faith,” she added. “As my son was getting close to starting school, I put a lot of thought into where to send him.”
She came to feel that the Confraternity of Christian Doctrine program was adequate for religious education.
Fr. Campbell acknowledged that many parents avail of the archdiocese’s after-hours CCD program. “But for others, having a strong set of values as part of their child’s education [in school] is a big issue,” he said.
Lee countered that snobbery is often a more important consideration. “It’s almost toxic,” she said, adding that many Irish-, Italian- and Polish-American families are susceptible to peer pressure.
“The attitude is that if you send your kids to public school, it’s because you can’t afford to send them to Catholic school,” she said.
Lee also said that some parents opt for Catholic schools because they’ve never really explored the alternatives.
Ann Cook, co-director of the Urban Academy, a small transfer school in Manhattan, said: “People make assumptions that they can’t have this or they can’t have that.
“But you can’t be passive. You have to be proactive,” Cook said. “You have to be involved if you want your kids to get an education.”
Turning the corner
Cook advocates progressive education and an “enriched learning environment,” which ideally devotes 30 percent of its curriculum to the arts, rather than the 3 percent average of New York’s schools, and one in which a child learns not just to read and but also the pleasure of reading.
The Urban Academy accepts students who have struggled everywhere else. It has negotiated an alternative to the Regents examinations with the New York State Department of Education. Ninety-seven percent of its diverse student population go on to four-year colleges within a year of graduation.
Cook noted that the children of the privileged aren’t subject to obsessive test-scoring, citing the president, whose daughters attend a progressive Quaker school in Washington D.C.
Brown University’s Fruchter likewise is a critic of the “audit and inspection” approach of New York City Hall.
“By 5th grade, kids need to turn the corner and be developing more complex skills and precisely those that I don’t think we’re developing in the middle grades at all,” he said.
He added that school systems need to find ways to help teachers, who are “neither artists nor geniuses,” differentiate instruction and “give them the data about where their kids are, so they can do something about the range of skills that are in their classrooms.”
Fruchter said: “The military’s schools have figured out ways to do that.”