Going public


POSTED: Sunday, July 19, 2009

A University of Hawaii professor who tapped into the “;incessant conversation”; about private versus public education found plenty of evidence that high-achieving students from comfortable families are thriving in public schools that challenge and inspire them.

In “;Going Against the Grain: When Professionals in Hawai'i Choose Public Schools Instead of Private Schools,”; author Ann Shea Bayer explores and explodes the deeply entrenched conventional wisdom that “;public schools are failing, private schools are succeeding”; and seeks to replace it with the more accurate view that the quality of institutions in both categories varies.

Moreover, she writes, the very tenets of democracy depend on the middle class giving their neighborhood public schools a chance, rather than dismissing them out-of-hand based on hearsay and assumptions driven by a steady diet of negative headlines and Hawaii's long history of two-tiered schooling based on status, race, ethnicity and wealth.

As part of her research, Bayer, a professor and chairwoman in the Educational Psychology Department at the University of Hawaii, interviewed dozens of parents — doctors, lawyers, college professors, military officers and business executives — who could afford to pay private-school tuition but resisted the peer pressure to do so.

Instead they enrolled their children in Hawaii public schools and ended up being satisfied with the quality and scope of the academic and extracurricular activities, the condition of the facilities and the safety of the campuses. “;They didn't feel like they were sacrificing their children for some greater cause. They were simply satisfied with the overall quality of the experience,”; said Bayer. “;Their kids went on to the same colleges as their friends who had gone to private school.”;

Among the common themes that emerged among the 65 public schools represented in the study were the “;absolute importance”; of high standards and expectations, a strong academic curriculum and the availability of “;gifted and talented”; classes.

“;Band also came up a lot, as being important to (someone's) success. I thought that was interesting,”; said Bayer, who kept adding parents to the study “;until I wasn't really getting new information ... I feel like I have a representative group.”;

Bayer, who has no children of her own, was not sure what she would find when she began her research in 2000, having long been exposed to what she calls the “;incessant conversation”; casting Hawaii's public schools as failing and private school as essential, especially for high-achievers.

“;I heard it as soon as I arrived in Hawaii now 28 years ago. I was hired to teach in the College of Education and so I was going out to the various schools, some private, but mostly public,”; she recalled. “;Some (of the schools) were very well-maintained and very well-run, and some of them weren't. Yet there was this pervasive sense (in the larger community) that all the public schools were failing. The degree and intensity of the negativity surprised me. I wondered where that came from.”;

Her book delves into how Hawaii's royal, missionary and plantation history normalized a two-tiered educational system that encourages public school graduates to abandon the very institutions that helped them succeed, by sending their own kids to private school once they “;make it.”;

The middle class exodus is intensified by public school teachers, administrators and state legislators who undermine the public schools by sending their own children to private ones, all while failing to address persistent problems within their control, she writes.

The negative image is amplified and reinforced, including outside Hawaii and immediately to newcomers, by media accounts that emphasize public-school shortcomings — especially low standardized test scores — while failing to report such detailed information for private schools.

It all adds up, she said, to a collective belief that public schools can't measure up to private ones, “;when obviously there are plenty of individual public schools that do measure up. That's what I found out from these parents.”;

Bayer's work is no rose-colored defense of the Department of Education.

She includes numerous suggestions from the study participants about how the statewide system could improve, including decentralizing into smaller districts better able to respond to the needs of its communities. Schools are urged to raise standards across-the-board, not just for the highly motivated students disproportionately represented in the study, and to beef up college counseling at the high school level.

More than addressing any single problem, though, Bayer hopes her research, and the mass-market book born of it, helps change the tone of the public discourse.

“;I would hope that the reader would just hesitate the next time they're engaged in a conversation about schooling in Hawaii ... and recognize that this is a narrative that has historical roots and ... just question it,”; she said. “;If someone says 'send your child to private school', ask 'Why do I have to do that? What are my alternatives? Let me do my own research and let me find out for myself.' I'd like to suggest that the community narrative be modified ... instead of 'public schools are failing, private schools are succeeding,' it should be 'public schools vary, private schools vary.' Check out the schools yourself and find out.”;



Here are quotes from some parents in the book, who were identified only by profession:

“;I really wanted her to go to public school, partially because of the work that I do. It's hard to be able to promote and support the public schools and send your children elsewhere.”; — Legislator


(The attitude) “;is 'I'm going to private school, you're going to public school. Clearly, whatever I do is better than what you do.' That's assumed.”; — Professor


“;You can get good things out of public school. You just have to work a lot harder for it.”; — Computer programmer


“;I'm not saying private schools are bad. But I just don't think that people should feel that they have to send their children to private schools in order for them to do well.”; — Attorney


“;... As a public school administrator, I should have full faith in our public system. I should have sent my children to public schools, but I didn't.”; — Educator


“;The talk about giving people vouchers for sending their kids to private schools just drives me crazy. ... “; — Military officer


“;Clearly, democracy is only as good as the public school system.”; — Legislator




Parents unite to strengthen U.S. public schools

        The national group Parents for Public Schools has emerged as a powerful advocate in large, socioeconomically and racially diverse districts in the continental United States.

The group, formed in 1989 in Jackson, Miss., went national in 1991, and now has 17 chapters in 11 states. Hawaii parents have expressed interest in forming one.


The group's community-based chapters work to improve and strengthen local public schools, motivated by the belief that quality public education is vital to democracy and to America's future.


For more information, see www.hsblinks.com/ib






Meet the author at isle signings

        Ann Shea Bayer, author of “;Going Against the Grain: When Professionals in Hawai'i Choose Public Schools Instead of Private Schools,”; has two book signings scheduled next month:

Aug. 15, 2 to 3 p.m. at Borders at Ward Centre


Aug. 16, 1 to 2 p.m. at Barnes & Noble, Kahala Mall