Children are too precious to be pawns, even to serve a noble cause

Every day on my way to work, I drive past Congress Elementary School, an imposing building and part of the Grand Rapids Public School system. You may have heard of Congress because of Dustin Dwyer's excellent documentary broadcast on Michigan Public Radio's "State of Opportunity," which challenges many of the assumptions we have about urban schools.

Passing Congress Elementary each day brings pangs of conscience. As an advocate of localism and a huge booster of Grand Rapids, each time I do I am reminded who isn't in that school: my own children. We elected to live just over the border in East Grand Rapids, a separate town with it is own charms (and issues – elitism and its own form of parochialism, to name a few) and a stellar public school system where two of my children are currently enrolled. To be sure, there were many reasons we moved to East, as the locals call it. It is where we grew up. It is where our parents live. It is walkable and safe, with its own downtown and only a short drive from downtown Grand Rapids. But, obviously, it isn’t Grand Rapids.

And even if we were living in the vicinity of Congress Elementary, we likely would not be sending our kids there, given many of the problems Dwyer details. As his piece makes clear, even many who live in the East Hills neighborhood surrounding Congress, a vibrant area with some of the best restaurants, boutiques and galleries in Grand Rapids, have elected to send their kids elsewhere. Congress, as measured by test scores and economic indicators, is a struggling school – though test scores don’t tell the whole story and even those are improving. And its reputation is, as Congress' own principal, Bridget Cheney, describes it, "Rough behaviorally, rough academically, and just rough all the way around."

But, again, this raises the question: If you are committed to localism and the city, should you be invested in your local schools in the form of sending your own children there – especially if yours might be the very children who help improve the school? This is a subject that engenders deep passions.

Just last year Allison Benedikt wrote about the subject in the context of private schools, penning an article for Slate entitled, "If You Send Your Kid to Private School, You Are a Bad Person." Benedikt contended that "if every single parent sent every single child to public school, public schools would improve. This would not happen immediately. It could take generations. Your children and grandchildren might get mediocre educations in the meantime, but it will be worth it, for the eventual common good."

Benedikt believes we have a duty to send our children to our local public schools. I vehemently disagree. But we need to address the more fundamental questions that Benedikt fails to ask: What is education for? What is a parent's responsibility to his or her children?

There's a long tradition in the West of seeing children as gifts to be safeguarded and shepherded. They've been entrusted to parents to safeguard, teach, educate and aid on their journey of human formation. Education isn't mainly about facts or figures, tests, "critical thinking," or learning to leverage the latest technology, but about human formation – formation in virtue and the classical transcendentals of truth, goodness and beauty.

My wife and I are not auxiliaries to this formation but those charged with the primary responsibility of making it happen. Schools are the auxiliaries. In my experience of parenting, too often schools – whether private, parochial or public – reverse this order. Indeed, too often schools act in ways to undermine this formation and the lessons taught at home.

The most local of communities is the family. While I and my family have a duty to the common good, that duty cannot come at the expense of my children. Contra Benedikt, my kids aren't the means to the end by which to improve public schools. Poet Sally Thomas has written eloquently on this point:

The idea of sending a child daily into a hostile environment – if not actively hostile, as in bullying, then certainly philosophically hostile – expecting him not only to withstand assaults on everything his parents have told him is true but also to transform the entire system by his presence, seems sadly misguided to me. There may be many valid arguments for sending a child to school, but that one doesn’t wash.

So what is the solution? While I hardly think that school choice is a panacea that will solve all problems, this is one area where more choice could be better. If parents are the primary educators, we need to give them – especially those without the means – tools to find the best aids to fulfill their responsibilities. For sure, here in Grand Rapids, that may be Congress Elementary, but it might be a classical academy like Trinitas or Sacred Heart Academy, or one of the great Christian Reformed schools.

But to adopt Benedikt's approach, where one sends one's children into the fire in the hope that someday, somehow the school and the system will be improved, fails the fundamental responsibility parents have to educate and foster their children's human formation. Localism and the common good don't require anything different.

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Sat, 03/29/2014 - 7:11am
Using the word "pawns" and "noble cause" in the same sentence was not the best terminology unless the author was trying to be sarcastic which from reading the article that didn't seem to be the case.
John Q. Public
Sat, 03/29/2014 - 10:20pm
The author has scored a direct hit upon what I consider the most fundamental flaw of the communitarian philosophy: that individuals exist to benefit institutions, rather than vice-versa. Many people--including me--have had to come to terms with a conflict in two of the positions he takes: the family as the basic community unit, and the responsibility to do one's best for one's children. Some of my own family members exist in an environment that is far more toxic than beneficial to rearing healthy children. We kept our children away from them for that reason. If we would deny them interaction with their own family members, we certainly aren't going to feel any responsibility to an institution of artificial constructs, like a city or a school district. I think Dugan is suffering unnecessarily from some cognitive dissonance. He's a self-described "advocate of localism and a huge booster of Grand Rapids." He may well be an advocate and a booster, but he doesn't seem to be a believer. Else, he'd live in Grand Rapids. The ability to believe one thing while advocating and boosting its opposite is a hallmark of his profession, so it comes as little surprise. Even so, there's nothing inherently bad about that, and his conclusion on this issue is sound: sacrificing individualism at the altar of institutionalism is a poor choice not just for one's progeny, but also for society. In my experience, reification of institutions is encouraged most by those who are trying to get their hands into your wallets. Nobody does it better than schools. If you don't believe that, just check out the size of the endowments at universities, which are expert at convincing you their institution was uniquely responsible for your life successes. When my children were attending a school other than the neighborhood public school, I drove past that downtrodden building daily, too. I never once felt a pang of conscience or guilt for doing the best I could for them.
Chuck Jordan
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 12:31pm
While it is true that where to send our children to school is an individual choice and should be, it is also true that school choice and charters are having a negative effect on the mostly urban minority schools and some rural ones. Sending our kids to the school best suited to them should be our priority as parents, but that doesn't relieve us of the necessity of doing what we can to help those struggling schools. For example, we can advocate against turning over these schools to the state, encourage charters to work with community schools, encourage the same kinds of teaching methods used in better schools to be used in struggling schools (not teaching to the test and drills to raise irrelevant test scores), and mostly implementing economic incentives for placing the best teachers in poor districts, and making sure these schools have libraries and reading specialists.
Richard McLellan
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 3:24pm
I think this summarizes some of the conflict between parents and school authorities: "There’s a long tradition in the West of seeing children as gifts to be safeguarded and shepherded. They’ve been entrusted to parents to safeguard, teach, educate and aid on their journey of human formation. ... My wife and I are not auxiliaries to this formation but those charged with the primary responsibility of making it happen. Schools are the auxiliaries." But many public school people cling to the model whereby school age children are "owned" by a school district (yes, they use that term) and were required by law to prohibit a family from attending any public school outside the district. Fortunately, the district ownership of pupils (and the money that follows) is slowly undergoing change.
Darryle J. Buchanan
Mon, 03/31/2014 - 3:03pm
Mr. McLellan I challenge your assertion that school districts feel as though they own children, but rather that they take their elected oath seriously to educate the children of their community. They are elected officials chosen by their local community to provide the best education possible to its children while being good stewards of the public trust. Under the current formula for educational funding, many of the dollars invested by local districts are being spent in other communities. Fix the funding problem and you will eliminate many if not most of the problems in urban schools. And to the point that these children do not belong to the state, regardless of whether the parent does a good job, they will eventually belong to the state. It costs less to educate a child than it does to warehouse a prisoner.
Charles Richards
Sun, 03/30/2014 - 8:14pm
What a relief to read Mr. Dugan's article. It is good to encounter someone gifted with good judgment and sense. I was particularly impressed with his emphasis on virtue and character. Paul Tough, in his book "How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity and the Hidden Power of Character," points out that character is essential to success in everything, not just education. And Martin Seligman and Christopher Peterson, in their book "Character Strengths and Virtues: A Handbook and Classification," demonstrate the value of character to individuals and society. Both books are relevant to Congress Elementary. The principal, Bridget Cheney, says of her school that it is "“Rough behaviorally, rough academically, and just rough all the way around.” Isn't it possible that there is a connection between being "rough behaviorally" and being "rough academically?" If the students' parents had been able to instill "self-control" and "conscientiousness" in their children, wouldn't they be much more successful academically? The "School to Prison Pipeline" has been in the news recently. The Obama administration's Justice and Education departments have accused school districts of suspending minority students at rates that are out of proportion to their percentage of the school population. They then note that a high percentage of suspended students wind up in prison, and allege that the suspensions are responsible for the high rates of incarceration. They fail to consider the possibility that both the suspensions and incarcerations are caused by a common factor: the lack of the appropriate character traits. Mr. Dugan is absolutely right in refusing to sacrifice his children's future in a futile attempt to turn around Congress. As he says, " Contra Benedikt, my kids aren’t the means to the end by which to improve public schools." Particularly, as it would be a very bad bet, with a low-probability of success. The recent merger of Albion and Marshall high schools (recently detailed in Bridge) was much more successful. In that case, the cultural values that are coincident with success prevailed. Mr. Dugan is absolutely right when he says of school choice, "If parents are the primary educators, we need to give them – especially those without the means – tools to find the best aids to fulfill their responsibilities." There are inner-city charter schools that put a heavy emphasis on character, even going so far as to give out report cards on character.
Mon, 03/31/2014 - 12:26am
So much here, cries for more nuance. At the very least, Mr Dugan is perhaps not the best person to be writing about the contrast between a Congress Elementary and a Wealthy Elementary in East Grand Rapids, little more than a mile to the east. After all, he returned to the area as an already accomplished lawyer, settling in East Hills was not in the cards in the first place. The choice, "why put my kids at risk" is in that sense, false. It was never on the table in the first place. Instead, he has arrived at home. Literally. Nonetheless, a number of misconceptions sprout up in his essay. He portrays Congress Elementary as rough, but that is scarcely the whole story as the report Dugan cites makes clear. Dustin Dwyer pops that balloon, commenting "But I did not see anything like what the neighborhood rumors had told me to expect from Congress Elementary. I didn’t see fights. I didn’t hear kids yelling curses at each other, or at teachers." So what then, is this roughness? The uncomfortable fact is that much of our approach to urban education gets caught up with the confusion of race and class and the prejudices we barely speak to ourselves. The reality is that the schools in the city can put together effective teams of administrators and teachers -- the difference between the suburban and urban school teacher may be far less than one imagines or perhaps fears. This in turn leads to another crucial point: academic success for children depends far more on the combination of committed parents working with teachers, than it does on the externals of the school. Where strong teachers and administration exist -- and by all lights they do at Congress Elementary -- students can thrive. This is the good news for parents in the neighborhood. Their children will work with teachers who are committed and engaged. And yes, their children will thrive. And had Mr. Dugan looked around a little more, he would have understood just how varied the educational choices are for parents. This idea that the choice is only between suburb or dangerous city schools is a false dilemma. Within Grand Rapids there are a number of choices available for parents, from Montessori to parochical, to the charters. In the coming year, the school system will also begin an elementary IB program focused on the arts. The choices available to parents who live in the city are in fact quite broad. Living in the city is the key, though. For all his commitment to localism, Mr Dugan will nonetheless stand outside the choices that will be made within the city. One cannot claim to be an advocate for the common good while not also sharing the same geographical constraint, the same stage on which that good will be enacted. Practically, this will mean that for those outside the immediate city like Mr Dugan, their contribution will lie elsewhere. His position at his law firm, in the conservative community, and in East Grand Rapids give him a platform to gain an audience with state legislative leaders such as Sen. Dave Hildenbrand, and Rep. Lisa Lyons. He has a voice the welfare mom at Congress does not possess; one can only hope that he uses it.
Mon, 03/31/2014 - 1:50pm
Amen to Harris! Way to set the record straight. I welcome Mr. Dugan to first re-listen, re-read Dustin's MPR story. Because it sure seems that Mr. Dugan heard what he wanted to hear and wasn't actually listening to the substance of what is otherwise a great success story about Congress Elementary and why perceptions and one size fits all test scores do not reflect the great students, teachers, and school. Second, I invite Mr. Dugan and others to actually visit Congress Elementary, meet the principal Bridget Cheney and learn first hand why their perceptions are falsely informed. Third, I hope that others will take time to study and learning more about the exciting neighborhood-school reclamation initiative happening between Congress Elementary and East Hills Council of Neighbors, Fulton Heights Neighborhood Association, Midtowne Neighborhood Association, Easttown Neighborhood Association, and several local businesses and churches. There is a movement happening and more and more of the next generation ("Local Firsters") of parents and prospective parents are in fact checking out and choosing Congress Elementary as their choice. These are parents who want a walkable, neighborhood school; who value, respect, and believe in the educational value of diversity; and who have taken the time to get to know the children, teachers, and dynamic principal at Congress. This is the second such "guest commentary" in Bridge that was disappoint at best. The last one was by Mr. Ignatoski on March 20, 2014 where his posting was filled with painful inaccuracies and false assumptions about the City of Grand Rapids and its transformation.
Miles V. Schmidt
Mon, 03/31/2014 - 9:15am
Mr. Dugan strikes a familiar cord. Exactly whose kids are these and whose primary responsibility? The State? Wrong answer! Therefore the State should do everything to help Parents obtain the kind of education for their children that the Parents see fit. Instead, we have a system that taxes everyone to support a monolithic, Union-infested, un-achieving, and "diversified" moral program, that caters to the "dumb-down", common denominator. Parents flee the inner city schools because they want their children to be educated in formations that they see as good - not infested with "diversity" (to love every bizarre sexual/social behavior on this earth), sex, drugs, no discipline, etc. Great read Dugan - keep up the good work which our academic elites seem to pooh-pooh!