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February 20, 2007

« Poetry of Cities | Main | Superstar Cities, Spiky World »

From today's Wall Street Journal:

"Across the country, a small but growing number of parents ... are dramatically altering their families' lives to pursue the perfect private school for their children. ...  The phenomenon is driven by rapid changes in technology, which give many parents geographic latitude with their jobs. The Internet has created a national marketplace for schools, with troves of information on most any school in the country, and even particular administrators, available within a few clicks."

Click here to read the whole thing (hat tip and shout out: Rob)

Makes sense to me: Families moving to schools to give their kids the best opportunities. But we've always done that, really -  choosing this suburb or that to be near better schools or in districts close to private schools. You should see how the housing prices escalate in Northwest DC  where we live, as you to get to the blocks which are closest to the  premier schools.

But there is another response as well. The simultaneous rise in home schooling among these same types of  families.  My own take on this is that the very same technology that enables the parents-move-to- schools trend is also beginning to transform education as we know it. 

The creative age requires flexibility and is rapidly eroding bureaucracies of all sorts. If the corporation no longer controls my life telling me when to punch in, when to go home, what to wear, and where to live, why should a school?

What's more these sort of family-to-school moves are extremely expensive. Not just in terms of tuition but entail substantial transaction and opportunity costs.  So consider this: What if families can get state-of-the-art curriculum on-line and then use those resources to educate and engage their kids in all sorts of activities? A typical response is: "That's well and fine but how will kids get socialization?"  Well,  I for one never much cared for the " socialization" I saw in schools, and have trouble finding others who did.  High school horror stories in particular abound.

So what if we move socialization activities out of the schools, as is already occurring. Say for example, some enterprising educational provider were to come along  develop and market not just a curriculum - and this is the important part - but also an la carte menu of pre-screened and certified experts, teachers, coaches, advisors and activities that parents could expose their kids to - an expanded take on the old music lesson, after school tutor, or sports league.  It would give families a whole lot more flexibility and might even make the educational experience both less costly and more tailored to individual needs and exciting for kids.

Care to weigh in?


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My initial reaction was that for me and my family, I'd love to have "a la carte" educational choices. Have reading, math, spelling and other basic course material take place in a small group or home school environment in which its easier for kids to focus. And, have socialization happen surrounding natural group activities like band or music class, soccer, etc.

As a well educated, reasonably wealthy family, our child/children would likely thrive in this system. And, as well-educated parents we'd feel reasonably comfortable making educational choices.

But then I thought -- what about all the struggling families. The kids whose parents might not have the flexibility in their jobs to work with a school system that was not 8AM - 4 PM, looking after the kids during that time. Also, the scenario Richard describes empowers parent to make good choices for their kids. But what choices will certain parents make -- who today can't even get their kids to school on time with a lunch (and not always for lack of funds but lack or organization or caring )?

With a less structured system will it be even easier for the disadvantaged to fall through the cracks and miss a basic education all together.

Yes, the world is spikey, and becoming more so. But national and global economic well being will require that educational advances benefit everyone. An uneducated underclass is not off long term benefit to any society.


Wendy - I agree totally. But here in the United States our system is terribly segregated already. Inner city schools are a nightmare. So we need to fix that. I personally believe the schools themselves are a big part of the problem. Even if we upgraded them and filled them with terrific motivated teachers (which many in these schools are already), the peer effects, the troubled kids, the lack of family support, what James Coleman originally dubbed 'social capital' would leave them far below the standards of the kinds of private schools the families profiled in the Wall Street Journal are moving to. I can't help but think technology can help here and than we have to begin at least to contemplate moving from a bureaucratic, industrial era mass production educational system to one based on more flexible and independent learning. I think it's a mistake to conflate learning with buildings or with all sorts of socialization activities and social policies. We need all of those things, for certain. But we need to remember that they are different things and we probably should not pass all of them off to schools to provide.

But your main point holds. We are becoming a society that is more divided in life-choices and life-outcomes. Even if we can improve the educational system by making it more flexible, we still have to address that.

Mary Z.

When I first read the article I thought that these private schools are the earliest breeding grounds of the social capital you mentioned. I would love to have my child educated at a private school, but then again, would I? For as much as the traditional public school has values I do not embrace, I also would not want my son enculturated in an environment based on socioeconomic constraints and elite ways of viewing oneself in the world.

We do not homeschool our son, but we supplement his education in every which way possible through the creative and alternative lifestyle we lead (not that we're that radical, just not accumulating things and calling it living). So, in a sense, we are tweenies -- somewhere in between private school, homeschool, and public school. I agree with your stance about socialization in schools. I am a teacher, former anthropologist, and mother and I am constantly in awe of how brave my students need to be in order to function socially in a high school setting.

I like your idea about a la carte services. It is much more cost effective than the super dome schools being built right now to warehouse students.


My kids could have received very cool art and music lessons at the Child Development Center they attended, but I didn't sign them up because I couldn't afford to pay for lessons on top of their already super high monthly tuition.

I like the idea of a more creative, technology driven, flexible school anti-system, but echo Wendy's concerns and feel that in order for it to work, it has to work (be accessible and affordable) for everyone cause otherwise, what's the point?

Lately, I have been thinking that I am the problem with the school system. I work 40 hours a week, so does my husband. We do just shy of nothing at our sons'schools. Do I know who is on the local school board and have I ever been to a meeting or a PTA meeting --barely, once and no. I am a well-educated otherwise good citizen, but basically, I'm too busy working and recovering from working to be involved in something I feel is so so so important AND I know I am not alone out there. Where is our responsibility in all this? Aren't we the system?


Clara and Mary Z - Thank you for your comments. You are helping me think this through, especially for my new book. I am trying to understand what a true "family-friendly" community could be. And yes it is all of our responsibility. And clearly, as your comments indicate, you're taking it, inventing new modes of learning and education which operate outside of and around the system of mass production education warehouses we have today. And again I want to emphasize it's ALL of our responsibility. So, I'm struck by the fact that save for me, all of this discussion is by women. Where are the men on this one? I know you're out there.

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