Ep. 109: School Choice in Pop Culture – Last Man Standing

April 10, 2019

In today’s episode of EdChoice Chats, our VP of External Relations Brian McGrath and CRM and Email Marketing Manager Abby Hayes take a look at Last Man Standing. They discuss school choice topics brought up in a a selection of episodes, including bilingual education, using a family member’s address to attend a non-district school, and more.

Abby Hayes: Welcome to another EdChoice Chat. This is part of our School Choice in Pop Culture series. Today, I’m here with Brian McGrath, our vice president of external relations, and I am Abby Hayes. I am our CRM and email marketing manager. We are going to be talking about Last Man Standing, which is honestly not something that I’ve been watching, but it’s pretty funny. It’s Tim Allen’s not-new show. I described it as new the other day when I was telling my husband about this, and he reminded me it’s not actually new.

Brian McGrath: Right.

Abby Hayes: But I haven’t seen anything with Tim Allen in it for a very long time, so it feels new. So, we’re chatting about a couple of things that happen in two different episodes of this show, which is kind of a family-based sitcom where Tim Allen is raising kids, and he’s got kids in high school, and he has a grandson who is … I don’t know, seven or eight, you think?

Brian McGrath: Yeah, something like that.

Abby Hayes: And they’re making some schooling choices, which is why it came up as part of our series. So …

Brian McGrath: And this was a new show to me, as well. I mean, I must say, I don’t watch a lot of what I would consider modern TV, I guess. But … So, I was like, “Oh, this sounds like a good show.” Someone had pointed me to it, and then you happened to bring this up. Yes, but it’s not a new show. Apparently, it’s … I don’t know, is it still even on? I guess it’s on its eighth season, or something like that.

Abby Hayes: I think it’s still running. Anyway, we watched it on Hulu, so that’s where it’s available, if you’re interested in watching it. So, we’re just going to start with this first clip where they’re talking about making choices about this child’s education and where he is currently.


Clip 1

Mike: Why are they teaching them Spanish in the first grade?
Vanessa: Well, honey, it’s a bilingual school. The teacher says everything in English and then says it again in Spanish.
Mike: So, you work twice as hard to learn half as much.
Vanessa: Or they are learning twice as much because they’re learning another language.
Mike: How do they even understand twice as much if there’s no time for math?
Vanessa: That’s just how they have to do it at Wilson Elementary.
Mike: Woodrow Wilson.
Speaker 5: Oh, Woodrow Wilson. He won the first world war. He was a great president.


Abby Hayes: I really like the maid in that scene.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, that’s funny. And I guess we should … For any of you who don’t know this show very well, so Tim Allen’s character, Mike, is sort of a right-of-center, conservative, suburban dad. Is that what you would characterize him as?

Abby Hayes: Yeah, I think that’s about right.

Brian McGrath: And his wife is a public school teacher, if I remember correctly.

Abby Hayes: Yeah, I feel like in these … I think in the earlier seasons, she’s not working, but then eventually, she goes back to teach at a pretty high-needs public school.

Brian McGrath: She goes back to … OK.

Abby Hayes: I think she teaches high school science.

Brian McGrath: OK.

Abby Hayes: Yeah. So, they’re talking here about the little kid. Boyd is his name. They’re talking about his experience in … I think he must be in first grade. He looks about the same age as my kid. And so he’s at this public school, and it’s a public school that does bilingual education, which … I actually looked up some statistics. Apparently, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Education, there were about 260 dual-language programs in 2000, and in 2011, there were an estimated 2,000. So, this is obviously a big form of education that’s growing, and I don’t know. I think it’s pretty cool.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, it’s interesting. I mean, my sister has had … Her three children have all gone to a bilingual school in … where she goes. And they really liked that. Part of that’s because her husband is Dutch, so I think he kind of liked the idea of them learning multiple languages, and she actually wasn’t a French major or anything like that, but studied French pretty seriously and enjoyed that. So, I think they had it kind of built into them. Interesting thing about this situation, is I think they’re saying it’s bilingual because the demographics of the school, so this is a little bit different scenario.

Abby Hayes: I think so.

Brian McGrath: But when I saw them, one of the things it did make me think of was … Sort of going back to my sister’s model of it is that she’s in an area that is probably mixed of incomes, let’s say. So, some parents who are choosing the schools for a variety of reasons, some who are choosing or are being forced into them or whatever it may be. But anyway, it struck me that Tim Allen’s character, Mike, seems to be thinking, “Well, why are we doing this fancy bilingual stuff? Why can’t they just learn the basic stuff that I learned when I was in school?” So, there is … And it strikes me, there is this sort of premise of choice is that there’s going to be all these different schools doing all these different things, and parents are all going to want that, and they’ll make these choices based on what’s good for their kid and all that stuff. And I think they’ll all … That’s all basically true.

I do think, however, there is a segment of the population out there—and it may be even a large one—that says, “Hey, I just want my school to do the things that need to be done, and I don’t want to be involved in it at all.” So just, “I’m paying my taxes, here. You take care of the kid during the day. Educate him so that he can have a good life, and whether you teach him x, y or z is not really my … You’re the expert,” kind of thing. So, I don’t know, one of the things that just struck me was that his sort of, “How do they have time to go over all of these other things if they’re doing all these fancy new bilingual things?” And there are some people who feel the same way about why do we have STEM schools? Why do we have…

Abby Hayes: Fine arts schools, on the other side of the spectrum.

Brian McGrath: Fine arts schools. Right.

Abby Hayes: Yeah.

Brian McGrath: So.

Abby Hayes: Yeah, well, and it also … I thought it was interesting, because I know parents who have had kids in bilingual schools, and they do tend to come along a little more slowly, so that’s something that is sort of interesting about different models of education, is then, this is a problem with standardized testing. Then, if you’ve got kids in all these different models of education, third graders don’t necessarily know all the same things about math, because they’re learning in two languages, so they tend to … They eventually catch up. The statistics and the studies show that, eventually, bilingual students catch up, and then exceed in language skills because two languages. But it takes them time, so there has to be sort of this acceptance of, “Well,” as a parent, you have to know that’s normal, but it is an interesting situation for different types of education.

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Abby Hayes: Yeah. So, the next clip … Just to clarify, too, that Boyd is their grandson, not their child, so now we’re … There’s some family tension between what the grandparents think is best for the kid versus what the parents think is best for the kid. So, in the next clip, they’re actually talking with Boyd’s parents about this school and why he’s there, and kind of how that aligns with their values, which may or may not prove to be different later in the episode.


Clip 2

Vanessa: Did you guys ever consider sending him to a charter school?
Kristin: No.
Ryan: If white, middle-class families pull their kids out of urban schools, those schools are just going to get worse.
Mike: How cute. You think you’re middle class.
Kristin: We are very happy with Wilson.
Mike: Really? Maybe I should teach Boyd how to fashion a shiv out of a lunch tray.
Kristin: Do not put those thoughts in his head.
Ryan: Come on, buddy. Let’s grab your stuff. Come on.
Kristin: I do not want you giving Boyd the idea that he is unsafe around other cultures. We want to raise him with an open heart.


Abby Hayes: So, this idea that if middle class parents pull their kids out of neighborhood schools, the schools will get worse. Thoughts?

Brian McGrath: It’s very common to hear that. I actually heard it from, again, the same sister of mine who has her kids in this bilingual school, and she was a public education teacher for a couple years, and I don’t know that it’s … I’ve not seen data on it, for example, but it’s a tough thing, because you don’t want to be bailing out on what you consider part of your community, and the tension is there without saying. But geez, ultimately, parents want what’s best for their kid, and it’s hard to tell somebody, “You’ve got to stay in there and be part of the fix,” the five-year plan that seems to come out every year from whatever schools that are struggling, and “You guys have to stay or otherwise, the whole thing goes down.” I don’t know, tough for me though, as a parent, to say, “Yeah, I’ll volunteer for that duty,” especially when there seems to be not accountability on the flip side, which is if you’re staying in this school, you expect it to get better, and if it doesn’t get better, then what happens?

Abby Hayes: Then what? Yeah.

Brian McGrath: This is the argument people often have about charter schools, because charter schools, at least they close if they’re not any good, typically. That happens a lot in our home city of Indianapolis. So, it’s tough. I don’t know that there’s a great answer to it. The old libertarian argument was, “Well, if it deserves to close, it deserves to close. Everybody leaves, then eventually, it’ll be small enough, people will all have to go.” So, a tough balance, there. I think an interesting part about this clip though, too, that speaks to me is the … So, Tim Allen’s character, Mike, is talking about safety.

Abby Hayes: Right.

Brian McGrath: And so this is a big issue for most parents, especially in inner-city schools, I believe. Actually, these days, in all schools.

Abby Hayes: In all of them, everywhere.

Brian McGrath: I live in a suburban area, and we’re all talking about school shootings and everything else, but the day-to-day safety concerns that parents or caregivers have for their children is real, and that seems to be his big concern in this particular clip. It’s not the bilingual education anymore, it’s the, “I got to teach him how to defend himself, because he’s in a dangerous spot.”

Abby Hayes: Well, and I wonder what evidence that’s based on, because a lot of times, those decisions are based on fear and not evidence. But yeah, I mean, school safety is a big thing. We have a report coming out about it soon about the different types of things that schools do to help keep their students safe, and how those align with the values of the parents. Yeah, and definitely, I hear this sort of tension. So, we actually live in an urban neighborhood that’s definitely a developing neighborhood, mixed-income, and our kid is in a magnet school here in Indy. So, it’s a public school, but it’s a public magnet, where she’s in a school that does not look like our neighborhood. It’s largely white and middle class. It’s a good fit for her for other reasons, but there has been a lot of tension with us of, “Well, there are really good things happening at our neighborhood school that is truly our neighborhood school, so do we go back there? Do we not go back there?”

The things that are happening are kind of new, so some of what’s … Some of our discussion has been, “Well, maybe not yet. Maybe we wait and see what happens there,” because it hasn’t been a high-performing school, and it has been really struggling, so maybe we see how these changes take root, and then in three more years, when our son is Kindergarten-age, we can revisit this discussion. But it is a … There’s just a lot of different values that play into the education that we choose for our kids, and I think sometimes, we tend to over-simplify it. Like, “Well, there will be one school that’s like this Utopian good fit,” and that’s not necessarily the case. So, we might find that, “Well, we had to give on these values to express these values in our choice,” but being able to do that is a privilege that not a lot of parents have, and I’m grateful for that, for sure.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, it’s true. And I think it also speaks to … Well, one, it should be noted that urban schools are not all dangerous, and they’re not all bad. They’re not all the same. I mean, that’s the other fallacy, is that all urban schools are this sort of blanket … Whatever may be. And that’s absolutely not the case. There are plenty of urban schooling environments, whether they be public schools, charter schools, private schools, that are perfectly …

Abby Hayes: They’re doing well. Sure.

Brian McGrath: … situated for lots of people and doing great, and people want to get there. But I think it’s a matter of trying to create the environment, as we always talk about, that you are able to find the school that works best for your kid.
Abby Hayes: Yeah. And also, writ large just on that note of people moving out, we have seen in the school choice data that, when school choice comes into a community and allows parents other options, whether they’re parents … I mean, often, they’re the low-income parents who wouldn’t have had another option to begin with … Then the public schools in that area actually … They definitely don’t decline because of those programs, and often they improve because it does mean that parents get a little bit more say in how the school works and what the system looks like. So broadly, but those issues can still be kind of emotional for individual families.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, absolutely.

Abby Hayes: So, in the next clip, we are actually kind of skipping over an idea that Mike has in this episode, where he says, “Well, this school is a terrible fit for Boyd, so why don’t we let him use our address?” Which obviously, their … Mike and his wife live in a nicer, more middle-class neighborhood than their daughter and son-in-law, who live in an apartment, presumably in more of a downtown area. So, “Why don’t we let them use our address?” And then Boyd can go to the neighborhood school here, which is a “better school,” quote unquote. And so he pitches that idea to his wife and his wife is like, “Yeah, that’s a great idea,” and also, it seems like we … Neither of us have watched all the episodes, but I think that Boyd lived with them for the first year, five years of their life.

Brian McGrath: He did. For the first couple years, yeah. Right.

Abby Hayes: And so they’ve only recently moved out, so I think part of it is also he just wants his grandson back for a couple nights a week. So yeah, so now we’re going to watch the scene where he actually pitches that to Boyd’s mom.


Clip 3

Mike: You know, we pay taxes for a great elementary school right in our neighborhood. Why doesn’t he go there?
Vanessa: You really think Wilson’s that bad, Mike?
Mike: Go online. Check it out. The only thing Wilson tests high in: lead.
Vanessa: You could use our address—
Mike: Of course you could use our address.
Vanessa: … and go to Clark.
Mike: Yeah.
Vanessa: He does still have a bedroom here.
Mike: He could stay here a couple nights a week. That would be great. You would like that.
Vanessa: You know what, as long as we’re doing this because it’s in Boyd’s best interest, and we are not clingy grandparents trying to hang on.
Mike: You think I’m a clingy grandparent? … our casa, or at least the address, in case you want to send Boyd to the elementary school in our neighborhood.
Ryan: You mean lie to the school district?
Mike: Well, it’s not exactly the Lufthansa heist. People do this all the time. And besides, I think your mom might like to have Boyd a couple nights a week.
Kristin: Oh, it would make mom happy, huh?
Mike: She’d love it. She really—
Kristin: Dad, Ryan and I like Boyd going to Wilson because it’s multicultural.
Mike: It’s only multicultural now because Boyd is going there.
Kristin: This is not up for debate. Ryan and I are completely together on this.
Mike: We’re not going to debate. Listen. Listen. I just came—
Kristin: We want to be a part of the solution at Wilson, not a part of the problem, right, Ryan?
Ryan: Wait, we could do that? We could use your address?
Mike: Yeah.
Kristin: But we don’t want to because we’re happy with our school.
Ryan: Well, we kind of had to be happy because that was our only option, Kris.
Kristin: Should we have gone over the definition of “united front?’”
Ryan: Honey, face it. Wilson is overcrowded, and the faculty is overwhelmed. I mean, at my first PTA meeting, I was the only P.
Mike: So, you’re all alone with just T and A.
Ryan: Come on, let’s be real. He should be able to go to a school where he can have a desk every day and sixth graders don’t steal your lunch money.
Mike: Boyd was robbed?
Ryan: No, me. But these girls were really aggressive.
Kristin: Ryan, whatever happened to “it takes a village?”
Ryan: It does take a village. I just think that when it comes to our son, I’d prefer to be in your dad’s village.
Mike: And we have a great village, although you got to look pretty hard to find a good bum fight.
Kristin: Oh, so people in other villages aren’t as good as the people in your village?
Mike: They just don’t build as good of schools.
Kristin: See, this is why I moved Boyd out of your house, so that he wouldn’t have to grow up listening to toxic ideas like that one.
Mike: Well, it’s your call. I was just looking out for Boyd.
Kristin: No, no, no. You were just looking out for yourself, Dad. This isn’t about Clark and Wilson, this is about you wanting Boyd around your house more.
Mike: Tucked that kid in for five years. Maybe I’m having a tough time letting that go.


Abby Hayes: Where to begin with that one?

Brian McGrath: Yeah, lot’s of stuff there.

Abby Hayes: There is a lot of stuff there.

Brian McGrath: Interesting that Ryan sort of all of a sudden, then he realizes there’s another option, all of a sudden, “Ooh, wait a minute.” He’s not quite as gung-ho because choice does give you a different perspective on things. If you know you can only get one thing, then you’re going to usually think that’s the best thing ever, but if all of a sudden you get to or three choices …

Abby Hayes: Yeah, you’re really going to try to convince yourself.

Brian McGrath: “Ooh, well, maybe they’re not.”

Abby Hayes: Yeah.

Brian McGrath: So, I thought that was kind of fascinating.

Abby Hayes: Yeah, that was really interesting. The line that he says, “We didn’t have a choice,” like yeah, if you don’t have options.

Brian McGrath: Yeah. We were happy because we had to be.

Abby Hayes: Yeah, you’re stuck.

Brian McGrath: Another thing that jumped out at me there was when Mike and his daughter are arguing about, “Our village has better schools,” or whatnot. And her immediate pushback is sort of to accuse him of being toxic and accuse him of being whatever, and I think that is a very, all-too-common … For a fact, in our life generally on any issue, education, very touchy, of course. But there is this sort of … If you’re into something and someone’s not, if they have a different idea, it’s not … It can’t be because of altruistic ideas. It’s got to be because you hate this or you’re toxic or whatever. And I think that you see that a lot of places, and education debate’s just one of them.

Abby Hayes: Yeah, for sure. And she does, later in the episode, which we won’t watch anymore, but she does go back and apologize, and they do end up accepting the offer. And so, from what I have gleaned from the rest of this show, Boyd lives with his grandparents or stays over at their house a couple nights a week, goes over there after school, and then they use their address to send Boyd to this other school. Which can we talk about that?

Brian McGrath: Sure. That’s—

Abby Hayes: He says, “People do this all the time. It’s not like it’s Lufthansa heist.” And you’re like, “Actually, people go to jail for this.”

Brian McGrath: They do. They have gone to jail for it, which seems crazy.

Abby Hayes: It’s insane, isn’t it?

Brian McGrath: But it happens more often than you think, and kind of high-profile cases, too.

Abby Hayes: Yeah.

Brian McGrath: Which seems crazy. It just seems like putting in all the effort into forcing these families into the … a school they don’t want to be in. Why not do the other thing, which is letting them choose where they want to go. Because I also think there’s this notion that, “Oh, if you give people choice, they’re all going to leave these schools.” The reality is that is not true. I mean, we’ve seen voucher programs across the country start up, but it takes years to get people to one, know about them, and two, to choose them. I mean, we’ve got a very robust voucher system in Indiana, and it’s taken a long time to get it there, but it’s still a relatively small percentage of kids … I think … What are we up to—15, 16 percent choosing something other than their locally-zoned school.

Abby Hayes: Well, I think it might be higher than that, but a lot of it is …

Brian McGrath: It’s public—

Abby Hayes: A lot of it’s public district-to-district, people who live in my side of town driving out to the far east side so they’re outside the loop and outside of IPS.

Brian McGrath: Right. And actually, a lot of it happens in places that are more smaller town, rural Indiana, where if you live in Anderson, you want to go to Lapel schools and whatnot. And so same idea that you’re not going far, but you’re out of the system. So yeah, I think that people … Given a certain amount of motivation, people will do all sorts of things to get their kids what they want out of them. We’ve seen this in the recent college admissions scandal, which doesn’t surprise me at all. In fact, it’s a ridiculous notion that this hasn’t been going on for a long time and that people have been giving money and buying favors and access for years. I mean, this is not new. But the fact that the system is acting so strange about it, it’s … I don’t put it on any of these parents who did whatever it is they could do to get their kid into these schools. I blame the schools entirely for being part of the scam if there was such a thing.

Abby Hayes: I got to be honest. I’m not sure if I … I probably put a little blame on the parents. Because really, you’re jumping through all these hopes for USC.

Brian McGrath: Well, you can debate their value of that, their choice of school, although for a lot of these folks, I would imagine the choice of school has to do with the network they’re buying into.

Abby Hayes: Sure, that’s probably true.

Brian McGrath: I mean, there are millions … Not millions. But lots of great schools out there, lots of good ways to get educated, and going to USC may be one, and going to Harvard maybe one, going to Indiana University, whatever. But some of it’s prestige and those things, so I guess you could fault their motives, perhaps, a little bit. But if you’re a parent … And I see this. Believe me, I see it every day in things like youth sports.

Abby Hayes: Oh, sure.

Brian McGrath: Parents fixing the system so they can get all their kids on one team so they can dominate the fourth-grade basketball league or they can…

Abby Hayes: Very important life goals here.

Brian McGrath: …make sure they get the preferential treatment by the coach at this and that and the other. This stuff is rampant, because the human nature of most parents is to look after your kid and do whatever you can if you have the resources to ensure their success. I would argue maybe we do too much of that. We don’t let kids fail, really, enough.

Abby Hayes: I would agree with you, yes.

Brian McGrath: But … So, I think that’s what this really lends itself to is people are going to game the system. And I have friends who’ve done it for completely different reasons.

Abby Hayes: We did it when I was a kid. We were in a small county school, and after my parents got divorced, for awhile, neither of them lived in the county, and we used my grandparents’ address, and we spent a lot of time there, but I was not a dependent on their taxes, and that was before … We wouldn’t have to do that anymore. My sister lives out of district now, close to where we did live at the time, and my niece goes to the school where we grew up. Because of inter-district transfer, it’s not a big deal now. But back then, we were committing address fraud.

Brian McGrath: Right. And I would say, even though we have public school choice in this state, for example, and a lot of places, there’s still resistance to the notion from the school districts, because they’re looking after some of the bottom line. So, I have a friend who, for years, tried to get his daughter into another school district right across the line. They didn’t ask for anything, just let her show up and be a part of the school, and the district kept saying, “No, we don’t have room,” which was not true. But they would just stonewall and make it hard, and so eventually … Ironically, what happened was something similar to this show. The guy’s grandparents happened to move into that community, and so now I think the school actually finally said, “OK, now that we know you’re committed to the district, we’ll let you come,” but it was crazy the hoops she had to go through.

Abby Hayes: Now that somebody’s paying property taxes here.

Brian McGrath: I guess, yeah. I mean, it was-

Abby Hayes: We don’t really care who it is.

Brian McGrath: But the lengths people are asked to go to just to try to get what’s best for their kid.

Abby Hayes: Yeah. It’s crazy.

Brian McGrath: And wouldn’t it be better to try to open up the existing system a little bit so they could stay around?

Abby Hayes: For sure. And that’s totally what we see happening here, is Derrell Bradford just wrote a really hard-hitting piece, as Derrell tends to do, in The 74 about this college admission scandal and how the middle class of people that is generally the most vocally outraged about these … These people, we could never put $250,000 or more towards getting our kids into a state school or any school, but those are the same people who are often on the other side of our issue, who think that, “Well, school choice shouldn’t be a thing because we worked really hard to get into this neighborhood, and we …” And so he talks about the school choice by mortgage and how, you know, in some of the districts in states that have more expensive living conditions, you have to pay more than half a million dollars for a mortgage, and to get into a decent school district with highly-rated schools, and that’s a huge problem.

And that’s totally what we see happening here. They don’t have a choice because they’re in this downtown apartment because that’s what they can afford. That’s where they are. But Mike has, presumably, a much larger housing payment than they do in this nicer neighborhood, and so that gives him access to the schools, and it just creates this really difficult situation.

Brian McGrath: Yeah, it does.

Abby Hayes: All right. So, Boyd ends up going to this school for a season, whatever that is. In terms of actual grades, we don’t really know. So, he goes to this school for the next season, and then at the beginning of season five, in the fourth episode, it comes out that Boyd’s having some problems at school, so we’ll watch that clip. And just a little bit of background, I think in the season before that, from the research I was doing, Boyd got diagnosed with ADHD, so he’s kind of had some cumulative problems at school, and it seems to be coming to a head now. People are kind of freaking out about it.


Clip 4

Mike: Did you talk to his teacher like I told you to?
Ryan: His teacher is the problem. If she was doing her job, you wouldn’t be bored.
Vanessa: Everybody blames the teacher. It’s hard for us to keep kids interested when we have to teach the test and Lisa Morales shows up in a halter top.
Mike: Put Boyd in another class and maybe get Lisa Morales a nice sweater.
Vanessa: Oh, stop it.
Ryan: I can’t just put them in another class. There’s all sorts of rules against that, but something has got to change because he’s not learning anything anymore.
Mike: The public education system. Imagine that. A large government program that doesn’t work very well, despite the heroic efforts of our teachers.


Abby Hayes: One thing that I loved about this was watching mashing these episodes up because I think if you were watching it through the season, it’d be really easy to forget Mike was the one advocating for moving Boyd to this really great public school. Now he’s totally not shocked that the public school is not working for him. I just thought that was funny.

Brian McGrath: That’s the great irony of it all is that it doesn’t really matter. In some cases, schools … take the label off of any organization you go to, it can be good, bad, or otherwise, fit wise I mean. A quote unquote “good public school” can be just as a bad fit as a quote unquote “bad public school” or an average private school or whatever. It doesn’t really matter.

Abby Hayes: You’ll totally see that in all of our EdChoice style guide if we’re using the word “failing school,” it’s always in quotes because that’s somebody’s perception of the school, but that “failing school” quote unquote might be serving some kids really well.

Brian McGrath: It does. It happens all the time. I even remember a couple of years ago a neighbor of ours. We go to what we think is a fabulous public school with our kids. This guy was having a problem with because his daughter struggling in trying to learn how to read basically. He was really torn because I asked him at some point, hey would you ever consider pulling her out? He said, well I really has to do so and his parents had been public school teachers. He was very loyal to this notion. I said just because you remove her from that school doesn’t mean the school is bad or the teacher is necessarily bad. It just means it didn’t work out. Don’t you have some interest in finding a way to get your daughter to learn how to read. It’s not an indictment but I think that happens a lot. I think people, especially in what are considered high end districts, there’s a ton of pressure to be all in on the school and it’s great and not talk about anything that may be going wrong there. The reality is forever, high-end districts, private schools and what not have had some similar problems as just any given school because you got people involved.

I do think it’s a point about, it’s a funny joke by a conservative guy to say, you know, “What government program works?” I do think there’s truth to it even though it’s funny. It’s hard to manage large social organizations anyway. Public schooling is essentially a large social organization. You’ve got all these. We’ve got 50-some million kids in going to the public school system in this country. The expectation is that they all do well. Tough, tough to do. No matter who’s managing it.

Abby Hayes: If they all do well in the same model, we’re going to find this perfect, Utopian model of teaching our children and it’s going to work for all of them. As long as we put enough money into it though. That’s key. You got to make sure you’re spending enough money on the school.

Brian McGrath: Exactly.

Abby Hayes: Because that’s not a thing.

Brian McGrath: I love Ryan’s description of when Mike is saying, “just move him to a different class.” He’s like, “Well, that’s really hard to do. It’s hard to change teachers.” Mike’s wife is saying, “don’t blame the teachers. We have to teach you a test.” Ryan talks about all these rules and it’s like it’s almost set up to confound anything other than a robotic adherence to your kid comes in the system this way and we just move him down the line. Again, that’s probably oversimplification of the system. Because again, there are plenty of good teachers in schools and everything works. It doesn’t seem to be set up. In fact, I know it’s not set up to handle the individual because that’s harder to do. I remember a guy I did some work with years ago in New Hampshire used to say public schools in New Hampshire serve 85 percent of the kids really, really well. Let’s not worry about that. Let’s not call the problem for that, but let’s figure out how to handle these 10 to 15 that aren’t doing well. If that means letting them leave, then let’s let them leave.

Abby Hayes: Then let’s let them do something different.

Brian McGrath: That was a fascinating, you’re right. That they moved to this better school or better district, or different district and are running into the same problems because not because the school, but maybe it’s the kid.

Abby Hayes: It’s just not a good fit for him. It seems like he is maybe wandering attention. The whole butt in seat for eight hours a day thing is not working well for him, which is not all that uncommon.

Brian McGrath: That’s very common.

Abby Hayes: Especially for you have three boys.

Brian McGrath: I have one of those. We deal with that every day. Just last night we were up late doing some homework that he just not gotten around to doing. We had that discussion.

Abby Hayes: I also liked her comment about teaching to the test. I think that’s such a big thing. It’s something that we talk a lot about in the school choice movement about how testing isn’t necessarily bad as a parent. My daughter takes, her school does the NWEA map test. I love it. So, it comes back three times a year. I get to see she’s growing. Maybe this skill hasn’t grown as much so maybe we need to fill in the gap there. Generally it’s just reassuring to know she’s learning new things. It’s not formative really for her education or how her teachers … I don’t feel that way anyway. Her teacher isn’t having to shoe horn certain things into her lesson to make it work that way. Actually, on the note of standardized testing, I was talking with an educator friend last week about how … oh it was Haley, our intern.

She was talking about teaching for a standardized test. She’s about to graduate with a degree in education. She’s been doing her internship this year. She was talking about how she was having so much trouble with these kids because they were trying to answer test questions for reading comprehension that were about milking cows. These kids live in inner-city Indianapolis. They have never encountered a cow in their life. Just stuff like that with the way our system is set up to that factory model. Of course, they’re American kids. They would know about how to milk a cow or at least what we’re talking about. Haley is like, “Their comprehension isn’t good because they don’t have the language for this.”

Brian McGrath: It is funny. We did a series on accountability. They released a report just early this year, or late last.

Abby Hayes: I think it was late last year.

Brian McGrath: It was fascinating because we did a history over… Mike McShane, one of our really super smart research guys around here—he’s got some fancy title, too—he gave this history of accountability and really up until the late 70s, early 80s, there wasn’t really a standard form of accountability. We created this mechanism that says we want more. Actually, it was driven by the fact that people didn’t think schools were, I mean this was the nation at risk reaction. Hey, the schools are not doing a great job, we need to impart on them some new accountability. The intent was probably OK. There’s a lot of debate now about test versus other kinds of forms of accountability. Is it life outcomes we’re looking for, college reach or all those different things? And no one knows. I don’t think at least. It does seem like we took a pretty hard swing at this, let’s give everybody these standardized tests and that will tell us what we need to know. Then we found out, of course, that those tests are gamed. That some kids can’t take them. It seems like every time we get one, then they change it and we’re testing something different. The teachers complain about it.

Abby Hayes: At least in Indiana.

Brian McGrath: The students hate it. I personally have found it that, when we have standardized test that my kids are eight grade, sixth grade, and fourth grade.

Abby Hayes: You’ve been through several rounds of this.

Brian McGrath: I’ve been through several rounds of it just here in Indiana. The thing that has always bothered me is that they take about two weeks to prep for and take the test because it’s so important for the schools and the teachers.

Abby Hayes: That’s a lot of instructional time.

Brian McGrath: In a way, the kids like it because they don’t have to do any actual homework or anything during that time. In a way, they hate it because they don’t like to take tests. As a parent, I just wonder does this make sense that we would spend so much time on the tests?

Abby Hayes: Two whole weeks.

Brian McGrath: I think they’re changing that too. Now we’re getting rid of it. Once we ramped it up, we decided it wasn’t good enough, we’re getting rid of it.

Abby Hayes: I think we would say that really the key, there are these other things that could be important in maybe the way that they come together and having these conversations is important. Really the key is trusting parents. We know if our children are doing well and we are capable of having those conversations and saying, “I feel like maybe you need some help here,” or, “I feel like maybe this isn’t a good fit because you’re bored out of your mind in class and bouncing off the walls,” or whatever. I think that we would always come back to that as an organization. Ultimately choice gives parents the option to make different choices, which is a form of accountability in and of itself.

Brian McGrath: Absolutely.

Abby Hayes: The next clip is Mike is pitching the idea of a private school because clearly if the public school isn’t working, then your only other option in his imagination at this point is a private school. We’ll just see how that goes.


Clip 5

Ryan: Whatever problems he’s having in school, it’s not because he doesn’t want to learn. It’s just he needs more individual attention.
Mike: Exactly, which is why we’ll send him to private school. Good talk.
Ryan: Sorry, what?
Mike: Are we still on this?
Ryan: Private schools are elitist and they go against all of my principles.
Mike: For once, this isn’t about your principles. It’s about what’s best for the kid.
Ryan: We really aren’t a private school family.
Mike: Vanessa and I would be happy to help you pay for it. Well, not happy, but we would pay for it.
Ryan: Mike.
Mike: Listen. Private schools have more freedom, they have smaller class sizes. And as you so brilliantly pointed out, Boyd needs the individual attention.
Ryan: Fine. I suppose it wouldn’t hurt to look into some private schools.
Mike: Don’t have to bother. I already did all your research for you. Great talk.


Abby Hayes: Private schools are totally better than public schools, right? That’s how that works?

Brian McGrath: Oh, 100 percent of the time except for the 100 percent of the time that they’re not or whatever it may be. Some are certainly. Some aren’t. Some are right in the middle of the road. Some fit the group of people they’re serving very well. Some people don’t belong in them just because they won’t fit there. It’s like any other institution. There’s goods and bads with it. I think private school purists would say yes, they are always better.

Abby Hayes: I don’t think the research holds to that.

Brian McGrath: The research does not.

Abby Hayes: Very well.

Brian McGrath: There are plenty of private schools that struggle. We see this in school choice movement all the time because we actually now, I mean for a long-time private schools weren’t … their success rates and what not weren’t tracked at all because no one cared. Public money, the public didn’t really pay attention. Now we have a lot more data on how they do.

Abby Hayes: For some kids they do really great. For some kids, not so much.

Brian McGrath: Not so much. In some cases they’re not much different than the public school. Some of the teaching stuff isn’t much different. While I think he says here they have smaller classrooms and I’m not sure if that’s true or not. Universally it’s probably …

Abby Hayes: Probably true for some.

Brian McGrath: Probably true for some. Some of them people would argue they don’t have the resources that a public school might have.

Abby Hayes: Which is also sometimes true.

Brian McGrath: Which is also sometimes true. No, I don’t think our position has ever been private schools are inherently better. We always have a belief that parents should decide which is inherently better for their kid, whether that’s public, private, charter or home school or what not.

Abby Hayes: I think it’s funny the idea that private schools are elitist. That’s super common, and sure, there are some private schools that cost more than my mortgage. However, there are a lot. Especially you think about Catholic schools in inner cities that have been serving underserved populations for generations and doing an incredible job at it. And doing it for no money. They take way less money than the public schools get per student. They’re doing an excellent job in some cases serving these students. I think the idea that all private schools …. hard stop.

Brian McGrath: Everybody has this image of it being some traditional north eastern boarding school on a hill where the sun shining. I’ve been to plenty of private schools in urban areas that are, you know, you wouldn’t even know it was there until you go in. Then you realize there’s a lot of learning going on.

Abby Hayes: I mean sometimes they’re pretty relaxed and casual. Sometimes they are a little bit more structured and that’s good for the kids that are there. I always like to point out when these conversations come up that most of us here at EdChoice—I actually think all of us right now that have kids in school have our kids at public schools. I don’t think there is anybody that is at a private school right now. I could be wrong.

Brian McGrath: I can think of one. It’s the vast majority.

Abby Hayes: Anyway, we do public schools and our kids seem to be thriving. I think most of us came from public schools, too. We’re definitely not anti-public school by any stretch of the imagination.

Brian McGrath: We’re just for whatever the families think works best for those kids.

Abby Hayes: Whatever works best. For sure.

Brian McGrath: I think this again goes back the backlash people tend to feel if they choose something else. It’s not only are you abandoning your local school, but you’re going private. Oh my gosh. You must be rich. You must be privileged. You must be whatever. A lot of times those people are not. In fact, there have been a lot of private schools that you bring up the Catholic schools. They exist largely because the congregations and the parishes support those schools and the diocese do. There are plenty of people like me who happen to be Catholic who pay into the kiddie as it were, so that other people can go to school. That’s fine. I’m happy to do so.

Abby Hayes: The cool thing too about some of the private schools is one here in town that I love, the Oaks Academy. I think they’re up to three schools now. They’ve been really intentional about doing socioeconomic integration. They can do that because they’re a private school in a way that zoned public schools can’t because they just get whatever socioeconomic mix happens to live in their zone, which is usually pretty segregated. The Oaks has kids that come in all the way from Carmel, which is wealthier area here in Indy and then there are kids who live right in … and they always plant them in distressed urban neighborhoods. There are kids from the neighborhood and beautiful things happen because they’re able to do that.

Brian McGrath: Absolutely.

Abby Hayes: The idea of private school doesn’t stick around long because Ryan is not a fan for all the reasons. Then they start talking about home schooling. Ryan comes up with this idea that I’m going to stay home and I’m going to home school this kid and it’s going to be awesome. He gets a lot of pushback. A lot of people in the family who are like, I think there’s this general idea that Ryan is a loser. I actually don’t think, from, what I’ve seen, he’s actually really invested in his kid. Also, that homeschooling is weird. I don’t think we’re going to watch that clip, but Mike brings up the homeschooler that he knew as a kid who lived on his block and carried around a dead goldfish in a bowl with no water, which is really weird. Also, all kids are kind of weird about certain things. They all have their quirks. I’m not sure we can necessarily correlate that with homeschooling. Before we launch into the clip about homeschooling, I looked up today as of spring 2016, the USDOE guesses in some states homeschoolers aren’t necessarily tracked. We don’t really have solid statistics on how many kids are homeschooled. Almost 1,700,000 students in the US are home schooled now. We were talking earlier today while we were getting coffee. It’s a normal thing now.

Brian McGrath: It’s become much more normal.

Abby Hayes: Do you personally know any homeschoolers?

Brian McGrath: Yeah.

Abby Hayes: Me too.

Brian McGrath: There’s one family in our neighborhood. Again, we live in a neighborhood that goes to a what is considered a great public school. Again, it’s not because they don’t like the public school. They just decided. I think they have seven kids.

Abby Hayes: At that point …

Brian McGrath: They homeschool them all.

Abby Hayes: It seems to make sense at that point.

Brian McGrath: Then we have another friend who does the same thing, although they homeschool up until middle school I think. Or maybe it’s … it’s beyond elementary. Anyway, we know.

Abby Hayes: I know a lot of people. There are a lot of people that I know that do it again, they’re in good districts with highly rated schools. Those schools would probably be fine for their kids. But they want the flexibility. Especially if mom or dad travels for their job. They’re like, “We can pick up and go to wherever with you for three weeks and hang out down there and do school wherever.” A lot of families I think are starting to as work becomes more mobile, choosing it for those reasons. And a lot of parents are choosing it because they’re working from home. They have the capability to do flexible work. It’s not like you have to have one full time stay at home parent anymore. Maybe if you have seven kids. You might need somebody who just does the schooling and the kid raising thing with that volume of children.

Brian McGrath: They have also found ways, I think they even addressed this in the clip. It’s not like you’re in your house alone with your kid all day long and teaching them for eight hours. There are these co-ops that exist. There are different associations. It’s become quite a community. They work together to make it work for those who want to do it.
Abby Hayes: Let’s go ahead and launch that clip.


Clip 6

Kristin: Listen, Ryan is coming in. We had a long talk last night and I think that he might be coming around to your whole private school idea.
Mike: You know what? Your dad can be very convincing. Not all the time, because this place is not called Outdoor Mike’s.
Kristin: Hey, there he is.
Ryan: Hey.
Kristin: Hi.
Ryan: Hey, Mike, I wanted to thank you for your talk yesterday. You made some really good points.
Mike: I had a little help from something called reality.
Ryan: I was dropping Boyd off today at school and he asked me, “Why do I have to go back here?” I didn’t know what to tell him.
Mike: Choking on the words grandpa was right.
Ryan: He had so much fun learning yesterday. I realized he’s never going to get that in those big classes at Clark.
Kristin: Ryan, I told you last night that I think private school is a great idea.
Ryan: I know. I have an even better idea.
Mike: Oh boy.
Ryan: I’m going to take him out of Clark and I’m going to home school him.
Mike: Looks like reality and I have a little more work to do.
Let me make it even better. Ryan wants to homeschool Boyd.
Vanessa: Home school? My God.
Mike: That’s exactly what I said, but I didn’t use the Lord’s name in vain.
Vanessa: I hope you tried to talk him out of it. You obviously had time since you weren’t making any dinner.
Mike: Do you want some frozen stew?
Vanessa: What did you tell him?
Mike: At first I thought it was a bad idea. I did some research and I’m sure you know this, but home school has become a valid option. It’s not just for weirdos that carry around dead goldfish.
Vanessa: That’s scary. I know you’re talking about Tommy Claymon. But Senator Claymon aside, I am concerned about Boyd’s socialization.
Mike: You know they do get together with other home school kids. They go on field trips. It’s much like your wine club that pretends to read books.
Vanessa: You need trained teachers to help prepare kids for college.
Mike: I talked to my chancellor buddy at UC Boulder. They like home school kids. They’re independent, they’re critical thinkers.
Vanessa: As much as I’m enjoying this home schooling, I still think public schools have a lot to offer.
Mike: I get it. Public school hasn’t worked well for Boyd. What’s the future for this kid? He’s built like a chimney sweep and they just don’t use them anymore.
Vanessa: Look, I get it. Obviously, Boyd needs more individual attention.
Mike: You said it yourself. Your class size is too big. What do you got, 40 in your class?
Vanessa: Forty-one and that’s down from 44. Three are on maternity leave.
Mike: At least you know that you’ve got them excited about biology. Imagine what an amazing teacher you’d be if you just had one student.
Vanessa: I’d have that kid in college by 14.
Mike: Obviously Ryan isn’t you, but he’s smart. With the right preparation, I think he could do this.
Vanessa: Maybe. Maybe it could work.
Ryan: Oh, hey. I’m just going to grab the last of the boxes. No need to talk to me about anything.


Abby Hayes: Spoiler alert, ultimately she says, I’m going to stay home and home school Boyd. Then they decide that maybe that’s not the best idea. His dad ends up taking the leap and home schooling him.

Brian McGrath: I thought it was really interesting, and this is not an unusual. Her initial reaction is what I suppose a lot of the people’s initial reaction would be. Especially as a teacher because she doesn’t just doubt it. She’s disdainful of the whole idea. Home schooling, that’s awful. You need this, and that, and the other. Then when presented with a brief argument about the school is just not working for him, then she comes around in that idea. She does bring up another interesting point too about trained teachers and how can this kid possibly be educated by someone who’s not a trained teacher. There’s a lot of debate and discussion around that topic these days too. Can we fast track, certify people want to make a second career change and become a teacher? Where there’s this big teacher shortage allegedly. How do we fill that void?

I was at an event yesterday in Indianapolis where they were talking about—it was five education leaders in Indianapolis. The question to them was basically if someone came up and gave you $5 million, what would you do with it to make education better? Every one of them said basically put it into creating better teachers and school leaders. That may very well be true. It’s just interesting to me her initial reaction is such that one, it’s a crazy idea. And then two, you can’t possibly do it unless you have teachers who are trained in whatever manner that the current system is, which people will tell you … some people now will say that’s the system of trained teachers isn’t working very well.

Abby Hayes: Oh man. I have tons of teacher friends who are like, “College was the worst. It was not helpful in a lot of ways.”

Brian McGrath: Exactly. That’s another systemic problem that some people haggle for years is, how do we actually increase … I don’t want to say. I don’t know, the level of quality of teachers? There’s a lot of radical proposes about that too that will really stir things up. The other interesting thing about this clip is that Ryan doesn’t even want to engage in the conversation. He knows what’s coming. He wants to make this choice for his kid and rather than be excited about it, he doesn’t want to talk about it because he knows he’s going to be mocked by his mother in law.

Abby Hayes: They are kind of pushy in-laws.

Brian McGrath: They are. I think that faces a lot of folks when you’re trying to make choices. You have to consider how am I going to be judged by my choice? We do it to each other all the time. It just seems like that’s not something if we could spend a little less time with that.

Abby Hayes: On a whole host of issues.

Brian McGrath: Exactly. If she’s concerned, I get it. There’s a certain way they obviously express concern. His reaction of, “I don’t even want to have this conversation with you because I know what you’re going to say.” Fortunately, it turns out not to be the case.

Abby Hayes: He ends up being really surprised when they’re like, no actually we think this is a good idea. Eventually everybody comes around and I don’t think we know really how that turns out for Boyd. I was scanning for other episodes that had him in there. He’s a character that pops up intermittently in the series. I don’t know how it turns out.

Brian McGrath: I thought it was also interesting too that Ryan, he decides to make this big life switch. I’m not sure what his career is or what he’s doing.

Abby Hayes: I think he drives a beer truck.

Brian McGrath: He’s obviously in a position where he can do something different. He decides to pour himself in. There’s a scene in there where they talk about how much he’s giving up for his kid. He’s willing to make the final or an additional sacrifice. He makes it or he wants to make it. Then the first thing he’s confronted with, his first hey you’re making the wrong decision. Then two, I’m going to take that away from you anyway. His mother in law says I’ll do it instead. I’m sure at some level he’s thinking, no I really want this to work because this is me doing it. Immediately he faces the prospect of someone saying, “Well, you can make that choice, but then we’ll take over the instruction for you because you’re not capable.” I think a lot of parents probably feel that way when they’re involved. Some of these decisions are huge and you can’t do them lightly. You think you’re engaged and making the right decision for your kid. Then all of a sudden someone tells you that you’re not for whatever reason. That can be daunting as a parent.

Abby Hayes: For sure.

Brian McGrath: All this parenting stuff. They don’t include all these higher end things in the got to be a parent manual like that.

Abby Hayes: It’s true.

Brian McGrath: It’s all about diapers and things like that.

Abby Hayes: Even that gets a little judge-y and shaky. Cloth, disposal. It’s this whole debate. It starts from pregnancy honestly. Which, being a man in your parenting relationship, you probably didn’t experience that much. There’s a lot of, are you actually going to eat that? Are you sure you want to eat that? You might harm your baby. We definitely could work on just generally being more supportive of each other as parents. You do you. As long as your kid is happy and healthy.

I think that’s what we find with education. All homeschool education is based on a relationship. You don’t really need … I mean, sure, parents should have support and they should have a way to make sure yes, my kid can read and do basic arithmetic. Those are good things. A lot of times you can figure that out as you go along because you’re one-on-one with a kid. You’ve got all the time in the world to sit down and figure out what works for your kid. Whether you are an educated teacher, which a lot of my home school friends came from education backgrounds. Or you drive a beer truck.

Brian McGrath: I think there’s this notion too. Not all home schooling is going to succeed. It could turn out that Ryan is a terrible teacher and he has to go back work.

Abby Hayes: Just like all of the public schools.

Brian McGrath: That’s the point. These people who want to shout from the rooftops that you got to have accountability, this and they won’t work, and you’ve got to have this and that. Turn around and look at the system that you’re a part of and tell me that you expect or you take 100 percent success. You don’t. It doesn’t happen. What happens there? None of these systems are full proof. I often talk to people about there’s some way you got to try to mitigate failure. Failure is going to happen. Then what do you do with that? What supports can we give people who want to opt out? With education savings accounts becoming more prevalent, you’re going to see this. There’s a group in Colorado that is building this whole new, they call it ReSchool Colorado. They’re trying to build another version of essentially schooling that will include public, private, charter, what not. One of the big parts of it, it’s a long-term project for them. One of the big things they came up with early is that we’re going to have to have I think they call “navigators.” It’s basically just people who are going be there to help parents making choices, get them information, help through all the processes.

I assume part of it is going to be also here’s a way you can measure success because you do have to have some level are the kids learning. If we’re going to be critical of public schools that maybe aren’t doing a great job of teaching Johnny to write and read, then we ought to hold parents to the same standard if they take that on. These navigators I think will be part of that process.

Abby Hayes: That’s something we’ve talked about here in office too. Particularly three of us. Two of the other guys in office, they’re in their district school and they don’t have as many options as I do living in downtown Indie. We have charters and magnets and a private school option and it was a lot. It was a huge decision to make, and I work in the education movement and it felt overwhelming. For parents, and especially what even is Montessori? There’s a school in IPS magnet that’s called Paideia]. What even is that? Nobody knows what this is. Having somebody to walk with you through those choices and say your kid is an independent learner, a Montessori might be a good fit for them. Or your kid really needs somebody to be focused and teaching them things step by step. Montessori is probably not a great fit. That sounds like an excellent endeavor. Hopefully that’ll spread.

Brian McGrath: We’ll see how it turns out. A lot of this is it’s glacial. You’re trying to change a system that has been around for a long time. There’s a lot of invested people in it both good and bad. It’s not going to be quick either way. In the meantime, why don’t we give people the chance to control their own destiny and do the best they can and support them the best we can. Not judge them for it, not accuse them of abandoning their local schools. Not being elitist. Not discouraging people who want to get in the classroom. Let’s give them every opportunity to do so in a way that makes sense.

Abby Hayes: That’s why we do what we do.

Brian McGrath: That’s right.

Abby Hayes: You’ve been doing it for a little longer than I have, but we’re both happy to be here.

Brain McGrath: That’s right.

Abby Hayes: I think that is our episode of this round of EdChoice Chats. Be sure to subscribe on social media at @edchoice on Twitter. You can also follow us on Facebook and Instagram if you want some more inside photos of the fun stuff we do here at the office. You can subscribe on SoundCloud, iTunes and Stitcher. And sign up for email on our website at edchoice.org.