That’s right: I’m bad. And so is my husband. At least according to Allison Benedikt, who wrote in Slate that only bad people send their children to private school. Her argument is basically that if people with money stopped opting out of public schools and used their resources instead to improve them, those public schools would get better.
So before I start posting about Robe Roberson’s incredible class at Campbell Hall Episcopal Day School, a private school in North Hollywood, if you agree with Allison Benedikt, I should tell you that my husband and I sent our three kids to private school.
The truth is, I don’t disagree with Benedikt in theory. I’m not convinced schools would make the radical turnaround she suggests, but I think some improvement would be likely after, as she says, two or three generations. But no matter what my husband and I believed intellectually or what our values were, we did not send our kids to our local school in Hollywood. I didn’t just hear rumors about its badness. I volunteered in its classrooms, which were overcrowded and did not have the resources to deal with the extremely broad range of very high-needs students in the room. The teacher was nice, but so overburdened she barely noticed my visits. My phone calls to the principal offering help went unreturned.
I’m not saying I couldn’t have made a significant difference if I’d stayed and fought. Quite possibly I should have, and I deeply admire people who do that. What I’m saying is that as a working mother with three young kids at home, I made the probably-not-commendable decision not to devote my life to improving our local school. Instead, my husband and I paid a jaw-dropping amount for private schools where our kids were in classes taught by caring adults who knew them really, really well–adults who were role models and who in several cases have become lifelong friends.
I know these relationships also happen at public schools. Jennifer and Dennis are that teacher for many of their students. But you’re a lot more likely to know your individual students really, really well if you teach classes of 15 than if you teach classes of 50.
When I taught, I didn’t have 50 students in any one class. I had about 30, on average, which makes me incredibly lucky by LAUSD standards. We taught six classes (one was an academic support class, but it had a full curriculum), so in addition to having more students, we had a larger course load than most teachers at private schools. Sometimes my students who had graduated would come and see me after school. This deeply gladdened me, as you can imagine, especially when they were in college, as they often were. But I’m going to be honest: if I was on the tenth hour of a 12-hour day and was so exhausted that I could hardly walk, when I was grading the 50th of 90 papers, sometimes my heart sank a little as my beloved former students popped their shining faces into my classroom at 5 pm.
(I want to say, in case my former students read this, that I love you very much and am always happy to see you. But as you sometimes pointed out in dismay just from clapping an eye on me, I was sometimes really, really tired. Please come see me now when I am better rested. I miss you and am so proud of all you’ve accomplished.)
I’m not saying my own children deserved individual attention any more than anyone else. In fact, what I’m saying is the opposite. I’m agreeing with Benedikt that my students in South L.A. deserved individual attention just as much as my children—and often needed it more. So though I cannot claim any moral high ground, it feels worth taking a moment to unpack what of value, exactly, is apportioned so unequally by this system, because so much of it has to do with individual attention, something our current discussion on teacher effectiveness rarely acknowledges.
The current belief, which is bizarrely axiomatic in educational policy these days, is that class size does not matter. To hold this belief is in effect to say that private schools are not conferring enormous privilege. This statement makes no sense. Though obviously there are other factors like selectivity, philosophy and reputation, an individual relationship with a teacher is the essence of educational privilege. It is the privilege my children enjoyed and that my students lacked, not because I didn’t care but because as a teacher I was exhausted and burned out. The more I cared, the more burned out I became; this is the definition of burnout, to care profoundly about a job you are too overextended to do well.
At least that’s what I’ve believed for years. Now Jennifer and Dennis have challenged my assumptions by being excellent even when faced with classes of 50. Which is why I’m fascinated to observe Robe’s class at Campbell Hall. Here, I’ll see a great teacher with a class of 15 students. According to the rumor mill of Los Angeles private schools, Campbell Hall is not a crazy money scene. In fact, it seems to have a reputation as the nicest private school. Though the school is Episcopal, the student body is interfaith. In terms of race, the overwhelming majority of students are white. 24% of the families receive some kind of financial aid, but the remainder pay over $30,000 per year per student. There are no sibling discounts. (All of this is on par with other L.A. private schools.) To compare their demographics with Jennifer’s class, click here. To compare them with Dennis’, click here.
In effect, in watching Robe’s class, I put my beliefs to the test. Is there a difference between teaching a class of 15 and teaching a class of 50?
As my students used to say, aw, hell yeah. I’ll explain why in my next two posts.