In it for the Money: Getting Schooled

"Show me a list of who our kindergartners want to be, ..."

Editor’s note: Nelson’s “In it for the Money” column appears regularly in The Chronicle, roughly around the third Wednesday of the month.

David Erik Nelson Column

David Erik Nelson

Last Friday my son finished his kindergarten year at Bryant Elementary – an excellent public primary school in Ann Arbor, Mich., conveniently located near our municipal airport and impressive town dump [1]. He learned a shocking amount this year – e.g., he’s now functionally literate and has a solid grip on mathematical concepts I vividly remember my middle school class puzzling over – and I really appreciate everything his teachers and school administrators have done.

But, frankly, it’s hard to be super shocked by these academic achievements. I’m a former English teacher, my wife has taught for at least a decade, and the only consistent forms of entertainment in our house are books – it would be a little weird if he didn’t know how to read yet.

No, what impresses me about my son’s education at Bryant is this: Midway through his school year my blond, Jewish five-year-old told me he wants to be like the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

The Three R’s: Reading, Writing, and Race

I’m sure what I say next will leave some folks incredulous, but prior to MLK Day 2012, my son didn’t know what race was. I’m not saying that he didn’t perceive that different humans have differing features, skin tones, and hair textures. But, in a liberal panic, I had consciously elided the existence of our nation’s system of bright-line racial distinctions. I’m at a loss to justify this action, except that in my heart of hearts I feared that noting difference inevitably led to criticizing difference, and I couldn’t stomach the possibility that I’d plant that seed in him.

Again, I acknowledge that this may seem far-fetched – hiding race in America. I might as well try to hide the sun under a wool blanket. But my son had attended a Jewish daycare. This didn’t leave him wanting for contact with African-American children and adults – this is, after all, still Ann Arbor – but it’s really easy for racial difference, despite being so overwhelming in American life, to seem small compared to the more immediate challenge of navigating the contradictions of a Christian-slanted “secular” world and your Jewish home world. [2]

So, his report card is OK-ish, and his standardized test scores are great [3], but what really intensely pleases me is that my boy wants to be like MLK – that he can conceive that as a goal, that he doesn’t presume that his Jewishness or paleness bar him from that path.

If our goal is to fix the world [4], then this is a solid pedagogical win on the part of Ann Arbor Public Schools – one that my shaky parenting had basically bolloxed in the run-up.

More to the point, as a parent and a citizen, should I be more interested in my local elementary’s march toward “Adequate Yearly Progress,” or in the number of MLKs they can nurture each year?

School Biz

The current fashion – both at the state and national level – is for politicians along the conservative spectrum to argue that their business acumen will inevitably lead to sound governing.

I don’t want to reject their claim out of hand. Not to waste a lot of verbiage on horn-tooting, but I taught and operated a school for about eight years, then spent the next five-plus years writing about business, and have spent my lifetime stewing in my family’s building and real estate dealings. I really do believe there are legitimate business practices that can be usefully ported into the public sector – including the classroom.

But pretending that schools can function like privately-held or, worse yet, publicly-traded companies isn’t just ineffective or misguided; it’s downright stupid. [5]

Measuring Outcomes

The businessmen are right about one thing, though: You need metrics to gauge your progress. And, man, have they ever got metrics for us! They’ve got “dashboards” and “observations” and “evaluations” and “merit pay” and all the standardized tests money can buy! Unfortunately, in the absence of a clearly established and commonly shared notion of what warrants measuring, those metrics are kinda useless. Weight Watchers doesn’t advocate keeping a daily height log, and shop keepers rarely track the sales staff’s carb intake in order to evaluate employee performance.

The common metric in business is money. Are you making more money than you did last quarter? Are your comps up (i.e., have comparable same-store sales increased relative to the same time last year)? If so, “Yeah! Hugs and high fives for all!” If not, you’ve got ‘splaing to do.

Sadly, this is increasingly how we want to talk about schooling: What are the grades? The test scores? The graduation rates and matriculation rates? How many go to four-year universities? How many finish those programs? Who’s got a job and how much is he or she earning?

Of course you can fudge scores and graduate a class of functional illiterates – and public schools are accused of such skullduggery all the time by right-wing pundits. But even when we move away from dumb numbers and into fuzzier, but more reasonable questions of “career readiness” and “marketable skills,” that move doesn’t really change the metric. We’re still saying that the point of schooling – the point of our children’s lives, as they spend at least a third of each day on schooling – is to make more money.

Pardon me for playing to type, but that seems like a pretty goddamn shabby lesson for our kids, and a pretty shitty life goal.

“Hey, kid, what do you wanna be when you grow up?”


If I heard my boy say that, it would turn my guts.

I imagine most Ann Arborites aren’t so different from me on that count: Right, left, and center, rich and poor, my experience is that if we want our children to be doctors and lawyers, then we want that so that they can help their fellow humans, not so that they can make bank. But when we blindly insist on good test scores, good grades, good graduation rates, good numbers, aren’t we just telling them that? Aren’t we just saying: “Earn better! Score more points! Bust bricks, jump on turtles, and collect all the goddamn coins you can!”

Remember this: The bankers and quants and politicians who gutted our economy and sent countless Americans spiraling into ruin were all well-educated point-scorers. They looked great on paper. Oops.

Near the beginning of the school year I attended a kaffeeklatsch hosted by Roberta Heyward (my son’s principal) and Che Carter (principal of Pattengill Elementary where my son will attend grades 3-5.) Bryant is K-2 and Pattengill the corresponding 3-5; they are sister schools and, although miles apart, function as a single unit in many ways.

At one point a parent raised a concern about Bryant students’ readiness as they move up to Pattengill, and then on to Ann Arbor’s highly-regarded middle and high schools. She didn’t say as much, but she was tacitly making references to the fact that Bryant serves the large Section 8 housing developments on that side of town, and purportedly has a high percentage of Title I students (that is, those so impoverished that our federal government will assist with paying for their breakfast and lunch). Principal Heyward immediately acknowledged the concern lurking behind the question, and noted that, anecdotally, Bryant students had an easier time integrating into Ann Arbor’s enormous high schools, when compared with students who had come out of more homogenous elementary schools.

I didn’t put much stock in this at the time, because the question itself seemed classist, and plausibly racist.

But then I saw my boy’s class picture: Of 22 students shown, the gender split is nearly 50/50, and fewer than half the students are “white.” There are at least four different household languages represented among his classmates [6], who hail from as far away as India (and clearly all over the economic spectrum of Ann Arbor itself) [7].

Diverse Rooms Enhance Achievement

There are two things going on here, and I want to take a second to tease them apart. First and foremost, on the bean-counting metrics-obsessed end of things, coping with diversity requires cognitive overhead. When you thrust adults from homogenous systems into diverse ones, they become exhausted and perform poorly. This is, in part, why it is such terrible folly to recruit armed forces from resource-poor, homogenous rural communities and then send those troops into a culture almost entirely alien to them; most of their energy for discernment is used up just trying to figure out if someone is speaking Pashtun or garbled English. Toss a few explosions into the mix, and it’s small wonder some young soldiers shoot first and ask questions never.

Thrust children into heterogenous systems, and their fantastic, spongey little brains thrive and grow. Want a reason that first-generation Americans – those born to immigrants – thrive? Maybe it’s because there is not a moment in their lives, from birth to death, when they aren’t negotiating two (or more) languages, calendars, or systems of evaluation (monetary, ethical, or aesthetic).

So, if all you care about is scores, about raising a generation of earners, then the Tower of Babel classroom is the way to go.

Diverse Rooms for Greater Good

But let’s say you’re interested in something higher. My son’s class photo is much more representative of the America we now live in than Main Street Ann Arbor: I’m looking out the window to my right during lunchtime on a sunny 78 degree Saturday, and all I see are tidy white people in shorts. I see no one who looks like our President, no one who looks like my son’s table-mates, no one who looks like the folks singing to me through my headphones. I don’t even see anyone who looks much like me.

That melting-pot class photo is no accident. AAPS has fascinatingly gerrymandered attendance zones in order to create that American Dream picture. My son’s neighborhood friends – children who live across the street and look like they could by his biological kin – all go to Allen Elementary, which is a five-minute walk from my front door. The result: Among all of the questions my boy now has about race – some of which are actually pretty fascinating [8] – none are even accidentally pejorative.

Schooling Success

So, in terms of Adequate Yearly Progress and test scores, despite less-than-ideal conditions and being kicked around by everyone looking for a slot on a ballot, our teachers are doing pretty well – not just Ann Arbor, but throughout much of Michigan. We’re keeping our heads above water (especial for a state with high enrollment and low education spending).

But maybe “economic viability” is sort of a crappy metric for our children. I look at test scores, and it really tells me nothing about how these children are going to fix the world. After all, those bankers and quants, they had great test scores. They’ve got the ability to fix the world and no desire to do so.

But show me a list of who our kindergartners want to be, and I’ll know something important about our schools. Show me how that list changes in fourth grade, eighth grade, twelfth grade … Where’s the drop off?

At what age do I lose my Lincolns and MLKs and Rosa Parkses? How can I keep those numbers up?


[1] The landfill is closed. It’s impressive because the gas from the landfill is captured and burned to generate roughly 3,000 MWh annually.

[2] For example, last year we dropped by a friend’s house in April, and their little girl – the same age as our son – joyfully shouted “We dyed Easter eggs!” To which our boy brightly replied, “Oh! For Passover!” (Pro-tip: one of the symbols displayed during the ritual Passover meal is a boiled egg). This was met with good-natured perplexity from the girl and her parents. These little dissonant cognitive clangs come up almost weekly: Is the day of rest on Saturday or Sunday? Is the New Year in winter or fall? Is Santa Claus real? No, but for the love of God, don’t mention that to the Christian children. Why do gentiles love giving each other gifts, but insist on attributing this gift-giving to somewhat frightening imaginary characters? Buddy, I don’t know! It’s their world, just run with it.

[3] Yup, they have computerized standardized testing for kindergartners now.

[4] And, yeah, it is, at least for him and me. Please see tikkun olam for details.

[5] This goes for non-public (i.e., “private”) schools of all stripes, too. Rule of thumb: If it says “school” on the front of the building, but they actually turn a profit, then it isn’t a “school” in the conventional sense; it’s a scam.

[6] I obviously didn’t get that just from looking at a picture; I’ve also volunteered in his classroom and met parents through school events and birthday parties.

[7] And, yes, his class includes folks who we already knew from our local Jewish Community Center. This was a relief to me – not because of my inborn bigotry, but because I was often the only Jew in class as a boy, and that was often kinda sucky.

[8] For example, why aren’t Sephardic Jews – who are generally indistinguishable from other Middle Easterners – considered “black people”? And if Moses lived in Pharaoh’s house as his son, then he must have been black, too. And if Moses was just a garden-variety Israelite, as the Torah teaches, then the rest of Egypt’s Jews must have been black. If we’re the children of Israel, why aren’t we black?

For example, when he visited the large cooperative workspace I share with several dozen other independent workers he asked, quite reasonably, “Why there aren’t there any black people here?” I was embarrassed – in a knee-jerk, racially sensitive way – to hear that question floating in the air, but more embarrassed by the answer I had to give: I don’t know why. More embarrassed because I’m one of the owners of that business. If anyone should be able to answer that question it’s me, and I was hardly flattered by the honest answer: Because I haven’t fixed that yet, buddy.

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  1. By Anne Laurance
    June 20, 2012 at 7:37 am | permalink

    I like this essay. It speaks to my experience trying to raise children the way this young boy is. I’m now a Grandmother and it’s not so bad, really. Mostly, members of our younger generation are seriously engaged in trying to bring a better world.

    I had the same question about “Santa” Clause so, when our Christmas came around, I never mentioned him at all. We just went for the traditional Christmas stories including “Amahl”. We still sing this each year in the dead of winter.

  2. By Suswhit
    June 20, 2012 at 11:38 am | permalink

    Nelson’s columns are brilliant reads. I am never disappointed. I am going to spend some time today trying to figure if my kids are on a path to change the world or just make money. Thank you for that.
    (Ugh. The whole Santa/consumerism thing…)

  3. June 20, 2012 at 3:25 pm | permalink

    I know some may scoff at my posting because of my job, but I too am a Bryant/Pattengill parent. Having graduated two of our sons from high school and my third now venturing into high schoool, all three of are “graduate” of Bryant/Pattengill! I was also the first PTO President of the joint B/P PTO. It is true that when B/P students enter Tappan you will frequently hear Tappan teachers able to recognize which students are B/P students because of their ease of transition and ability to associate with all students. Academically I know my boys thrived at the lower el/upper el model that allowed them to be taught by excellent teachers who excel at their jobs. And yes, the diversity is “real world” for students and the families. I fondly remember the International Nights at Bryant and the vast amount of languages spoken at both schools. And the economic diversity is to be highlighted as well! I am a fan of B/P for what it did for our family in preparing them for middle, high school and college! Thanks to Che’ and Roberta for their leadership in making it that much better!

  4. By Alan Benard
    June 21, 2012 at 1:39 am | permalink

    Another slice of life and another cogent analysis of that slice here in our town. Thanks for this. I’m an Ann Arbor Open parent and while it is less diverse, that school and AAPS are the reasons I have not abandoned Michigan.

    Next time, write about class.

  5. By Barbara Carr
    June 23, 2012 at 7:59 pm | permalink

    Thank you for this wonderful, positive essay. I am an eighty year old Ann Arbor resident whose children left the system long ago. Consequently, I don’t know much about what is “happening” today. I worry about public schools because it seems to me that they are under siege by pressures advocating charter schools and schools of choice that force one community to compete against another. Meanwhile public support and funding is constantly reduced. Historically the public schools educated ALL, creating a knowledgable citizenry, and integrating newcomers. That’s what we should be doing. We are on the wrong track today.
    So, it makes me very happy to read this essay and to know that there are good things happening in our schools and parents who appreciate their importance.

  6. By Dan Ezekiel
    June 29, 2012 at 10:33 am | permalink

    Thanks for another fine reflection. I graduated from Ann Arbor public schools, and so did both my kids, and I have taught middle school there for 25 years.

    I have some anecdotal evidence to support your thesis. When former students, now attending elite colleges, stop by to chat, they usually share two ideas:

    One is that they were completely prepared for college academically. Many have said their senior year at one of the high schools was more challenging than their freshman year at college. In the past, when Forsythe students attended Pioneer, many specifically mentioned the Humanities class as having made sure they were ready for college coursework.

    The other is that Ann Arbor schools’ diversity prepared them for college (and life) in what I would call a social sense. My former students laugh at the way their peers, often educated at elite prep schools, “freak out” when they meet students from different backgrounds than themselves; they are self-conscious, fearful, don’t know how to behave. My students laugh and say, “we learned about all that in elementary school”.

  7. By Bryan Johnson
    July 27, 2012 at 3:53 pm | permalink

    Excellent article. I also graduated from AAPS and have a rising second grader at Bryant. I LOVE Bryant school and the Bryant community. I’m happy that my daughter is has been in such diverse classes and interacted daily with classmates from Iran, Mongolia, China, Japan, and more. I recall my best friend in 1st grade was from India and I remember having similar interactions with my classmates as my daughter has today.

    I agree with Mr. Ezekiel (who was a teacher at Forsythe when I attended, hey Mr. E!). My time at AAPS helped me interact with people from different cultures in college and subsequently in my career. It’s great to get such a good education in a public school.